Since Ania Smith WG02 took the helm at Taskrabbit in 2020, the IKEA-owned online marketplace has experienced much change. For one, the company — which sources chores and other home tasks to freelancers called Taskers — permanently did away with corporate offices in 2022 in favor of a remote-first policy for employees worldwide. Influenced by other broad global trends, the company has benefited from the rapid growth of artificial intelligence in its efforts to improve its platform for both customers and Taskers.
And in the years since Smith’s start, Taskrabbit has expanded operations into new countries including Spain, Portugal, and Italy, and added a new team in Poland, Smith’s native country. Her early experiences in the U.S., which included working a paper route at a young age and other odd jobs, have shaped her thoughts on work, life, and more. Wharton Magazine spoke with Smith about those influences, the company’s latest developments, and its future.
Wharton Magazine: Taskrabbit emerged during the pandemic as a leader in workplace flexibility when the company announced it was closing its offices in favor of remote work. In the nearly two years since, what have been some of your greatest takeaways — and have you made any further adjustments to how employees work?
Ania Smith: We’ve learned a few things: One is that employees’ points of view have evolved. They were very different in the beginning of the pandemic, in the midst of it, and toward the end. They’re different today, and they keep evolving. So it’s really important not to be stagnant.
We also learned that employees truly appreciate flexibility, and this is especially important for employees with many commitments. Giving them the freedom to choose more when they want to work and be less focused on time in the office has been very positive. But over time, we’ve seen that always being remote is not a great thing. We adopted our remote-first policy in 2021 and have continued that since. We’ve also been seeking more opportunities to do on-sites and to meet cross-functionally.
We also have done things to make sure we work more asynchronously, because we didn’t want to just be on Zoom all the time. This means that we don’t have meetings to provide updates, because you can easily read those. Instead, our meetings are focused on discussion and decision-making. We’ve also implemented things such as “Focus Fridays” company-wide, to encourage employees to dedicate full workdays to time without interruption. And we keep trying new things.
WM: Taskrabbit just celebrated 15 years since its founding. Looking ahead, what are the biggest opportunities you see for the company in the years to come?
AS: We will continue to make sure that we provide the best experiences we can to our customers. That means innovating across our platform so that Taskers get all the jobs they want and need at the right price and customers are matched to the right Taskers. There’s also a lot of work we can do on partnerships. In addition to IKEA, we want to become the go-to service provider for other companies that need assembly or delivery services for customers.
Then, of course, we are continuing to think more about our mission, which is to transform lives, one task at a time. It’s really important to us to think about how we support both our employees and our task force. As an example, last year we launched a mentoring program aimed at female Taskers in Europe that has been super-successful in coaching them to succeed on our platform.
WM: Given the milestone year we just had for artificial intelligence, what developments in that area do you have your eye on, as a business that relies heavily on data and machine learning to curate your user and worker experiences?
AS: We have been using machine learning forever because it’s the core of how we match supply and demand. But thinking about generative AI, there are three places where we see the most benefit. The first is customer service. This is very common and probably what most companies are doing. The second area is productivity improvement: What comes to mind often is engineering or marketing, where a lot more content can be written — or at least started — with gen AI.
But where we’re really trying to leverage generative AI is in the match between Taskers and clients. That means being much smarter about how we leverage all the data and logic, to be more thoughtful and make sure we make the best match possible.
WM: Looking at your career broadly, your past few positions before Taskrabbit were at other platform businesses, such as Airbnb and Uber. What initially drew you to the sector, and what keeps you excited about it?
AS: After some time in consulting, I started at Expedia, a marketplace company in a more traditional sense — not in the gig economy. That’s where I got a feel for what it means to work in a marketplace. I then went into retail, and when the opportunity came up at Airbnb, I got very excited, mostly because I love the travel industry and wanted to get back to traveling. But fairly quickly, I recognized that what I love most is the marketplace aspect. It’s super-analytical, and although it’s been around for 10 to 20 years now, there are still a lot of new discoveries to be had in the space. It’s challenging to try to answer questions on both sides of the marketplace; anytime you make a change on one side, the other side is impacted, and that makes things more exciting.
WM: The story of your immigration to the U.S. from Poland and your years working out of necessity as a teenager is inspiring. Can you talk about how those early years influenced your professional outlook and thoughts on leadership?
AS: I think one of the biggest parts is having the curiosity to continue learning, because there was so much to learn when I got here, starting with the language and culture. Another is hard work and hustle: When you’re growing up and it’s hard to make ends meet, it becomes part of who you are. And then there is resilience: There have been some really tough moments I had to learn how to work through, and I came back stronger. I think resilience is one of the most important skills to cultivate, and it’s what I try to teach my kids as well.
WM: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that we should touch on?
AS: What’s fun is thinking about how our community practices a lot of the things we’ve talked about. I spend a lot of time with Taskers, and I often feel that if these platforms existed when my family moved here decades ago, it would have been easier to make ends meet. So these concepts of hustle, grit, curiosity, and resilience are the key attributes of many Taskers, and I can relate to that. I’m always excited to meet more Taskers, because I get inspired by their work every day.