Living in Singapore a few years ago, Drew Currah had a tough time finding tradespeople to fix his air conditioning and help him with an electrical problem. His challenge finding contractors, coupled with his job working for a firm that invests in U.S. Silicon Valley tech companies, helped him come up with a business idea.
He moved to Edmonton and, along with some friends, developed Trade Pros — a mobile phone app that allows people to post their repair and renovation jobs and contractors to bid on them.
'It's terribly cliche now, but "the Uber of X'"is happening all over the place.' - Bill Wilson, MindSea
"This was a few years ago when Uber and AirBnb were becoming quite popular for disrupting their industries," said Currah.
At the beginning of this year, the app had 600 contractors signed up, 1,500 people with accounts, and 600 jobs posted, worth about $2.5 million dollars.
The projects can be small — like appliance installation or painting — but can also include much larger jobs, such as basement renovations or installing new flooring in a few dozen apartments.
Trade Pros, which is expanding into Calgary in the coming months, is just one of the many new mobile apps popping up across the country that's changing the way people buy products and services. The apps could create structural change, not only in their individual industries, but to Canada's economy and workforce.
Wide range of apps
The range of services on offer from these startups is remarkable. Users can rent someone's parking space in Toronto with Rover Parking, book a cleaner for a home in Calgary using Ask for Task, or arrange for a haircut in their Halifax office using Cribcut.
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'In many instances it is increasing the rise of precarious workers who just don't have any job security.' - Leslie Shade, University of Toronto
There's even Klothed, a men's clothing app that allows users to upload a photo, choose their body type and browse clothing in a personalized way to see how a shirt could look on them, instead of on a catalogue model.
Klothed was built for a client by MindSea, a Halifax-based mobile app developer that builds programs for startups and other businesses.
"It takes that shopping experience and turns it on its head and makes it more social," said Bill Wilson, CEO and founder of MindSea. He has seen first-hand the rapid rise of startups that generate all of their business on mobile apps.
"These concepts have extended further to services and products. For example, we've always been able to look in the Yellow Pages for a plumber, but now there are sites that are dedicated to helping find a plumber you can trust."
The Uber of ______
Many of the startups are part of the so-called sharing economy or gig economy, like Uber, AirBnB and others.
"It's terribly cliche now, but 'the Uber of X' is happening all over the place," says Wilson. "You can imagine how this can get into various different fields, whether it is retail or medical or any of the services like professional trades — any of those types of things can really benefit from a network like this."
In addition, many of the new mobile apps in Canada focus on offering on-demand services to suit a customer's schedule.
That's the motivation behind MowSnowPros, a mobile app that connects home owners with people who provide grass cutting and snow shoveling in Calgary. A customer posts the description and price for a job, and contractors in the area respond to the request. During a recent snowstorm in the city, about 100 people used the app to get help clearing snow.
"Seeing the rise in Uber-type models and that sharing economy, I thought it would be a good application to give people that avenue to make their own dollar and their own landscaping business as well," said founder Aidan Klingbeil.
People usually offer between $15 and $40, depending on the size of their walkways and driveways, although Klingbeil says the higher-paying gigs usually receive quicker service during a heavy snow.
Court challenges and broken laws
While most of these mobile apps operate legally, some have caused problems for provincial and municipal governments because of the regulatory issues they present.
If someone decides to rent out their room on AirBnB, should they have to pay a tourism tax imposed on hotels? If you drive a car for Uber, do you need the same licence and insurance as a taxi driver? If you rent out four parking spots on Rover, are you essentially running a commercial parking lot?
Some of these services have been called illegal, while others have deliberately ignored city bylaws. Former Ontario MPP Tim Hudak had proposed legislation to embrace the sharing economy and legalize firms like Uber, instead of trying to fight them.
Critics have raised concerns about how services like Uber create more part-time or freelance workers, instead of full-time employees with benefits. There is uncertainty about who will the cover the cost of health care, employment insurance, Old Age Security and other social services since many of these programs are traditionally paid for by employers and employees.
"If they are not considered employees, they don't have health benefits, they don't have a pension plan, they have no stability, said Leslie Shade, a University of Toronto professor who researches mobile technology. "In many instances it is increasing the rise of precarious workers who just don't have any job security."
Around the world there are several court challenges involving Uber that focus on whether drivers are contractors or employees.
For every mobile app like Uber that finds success there is increased work for freelance drivers and less business for taxi companies. The same applies for other industries where a mobile app can disrupt the sector and lead to fewer people working for traditional landscaping companies and hair salons, for example, and more independent contractors bidding on jobs.
The changing ways people buy products and services will no doubt shape the future of the workforce.