Two months after announcing “the final chapter” of Zaarly, the Kansas City startup’s founder and 12-member team have joined a fast-growing international tech company — bringing the overseas brand to the U.S. via Zaarly’s existing footprint and expertise.
“There’s no other company in the world with more shared origin DNA to Zaarly,” Bo Fishback, founder and CEO, said of Zaarly’s $3.4 million acquisition by Australia-based Airtasker. “Now let’s see if we can export what they’ve built, and make it work here in the U.S.; really go from zero to No. 1 in local marketplaces.”
Airtasker — Australia’s leading online marketplace for local services where users can hire skilled “Taskers” or earn money for their own work — already is available in the United States, Fishback said, but needs a local team on the ground to scale in the high-risk, high-reward American market.
“The bet here is that we can use Zaarly’s presence in Kansas City and Dallas to navigate what launching in new U.S. markets looks like,” he said of the startup’s expertise within the home services space in the two metros. “Technically, AirTasker is already available everywhere in the U.S., but if you don’t really support it, feed it and fuel it, it’s just kind of there.”
Fishback becomes CEO of Airtasker USA and his team — a mix of Kansas City and remote workers as far flung as Detroit and Washington D.C. — joins from their existing locations.
The acquisition comes amid publicly-traded Airtasker’s $20.7 million institutional capital raise at $1 a share, to invest in international growth (which also includes expansion into the U.K. market).
“The crazy part is this company was not one I knew about,” Fishback said of Airtasker, explaining that his journey with the company began with a mysterious email after his public announcement in April that Zaarly was winding down operations.
Click here to read more about the decision to cease operations at Zaarly.
“I got a cold email from someone who I’d never met before. The subject was like ‘Australian company interested in acquiring Zaarly,’” he continued, laughing. “I looked up the guy and I was like, ‘Oh, this is actually a real dude.’ And so I wrote him back and I was like, ‘Hey dude, we’re probably good. It’s probably too late for that.’”
But the more Fishback researched Airtasker and its CEO, Tim Fung, the more he was intrigued.
“It was a temptation I could not resist,” Fishback said, describing how a quick follow-up conversation rapidly turned into a life-changing deal. “That was on a Thursday. By the following Monday or Tuesday, we signed an [letter of intent] to be acquired by them — after about five days of no sleep.”
Click here to learn more about Airtasker in the U.S.
Grinding to a halt — then a buyer
Shutting down Zaarly this spring amid a decade-long grind was a “gruesome” decision, Fishback described, detailing a 2020 that brought “weirdly” productive returns for the startup, but still didn’t see it achieving its vision.
“How long was it going to take for this to make sense?” Fishback said he asked himself. “It became clear that we could raise some more money — and that would lead to us raising some more money, which would lead to us raising some more money. We’re 10 years into this and have been trying to figure out, ‘Well, when really are you going to be able to scale this thing?’”
“The answer that kept coming up: hundreds of millions of dollars and another decade or so.”
Fishback and his team decided to pursue potential acquirers, hoping to attract complementary companies that had already managed to scale in parts of the business where Zaarly had fallen short.
“We thought, ‘Well, if we combine with them, we could get there way, way faster,” he said. “We could jump them ahead a few years. And we could skip ourselves over a long, long grind.’”
About 90 days later, Zaarly thought it had a buyer.
“We got within a week or two of acquisition and the entire executive team at the acquirer got replaced; a new team came in and was like, ‘We don’t really know what to do with this,’” Fishback explained. “We had pretty much gone all-in on this strategy at that point — and we only had about a month of cash in the bank and we were like, ‘Well, this is not an ideal situation.’”
“We had the option to go back and raise a little more money and keep flushing out the acquisition process, but we’d built a unique enough company that it would only make sense for a handful of acquirers. And we kind of already knew them all.”
Or so they thought.
Zaarly’s big announcement followed with Fishback committed to making things as right as possible for his team, users, business partners and investors. He hoped for acqui-hires or someone interested in buying the company’s assets, he said.
“We knew on the heels of that a bunch of folks would circle back around be like ‘Oh! We thought you were bluffing. Now we want to acquire you!’” Fishback said.
His strategy paid off.
Failure? Scratch that
Airtasker isn’t just a good fit for Zaarly, Fishback said. It is Zaarly — or at least the 2011 version when Fishback founded the startup as a broadly focused solution for people who needed a job completed.
“Airtasker didn’t raise a bunch of money — they were just doggedly focused on that one idea that ‘Hey, there are talented people all around you who could do anything you need done,’” he said, candidly admitting that Airtasker managed to succeed in Australia in ways he had trained himself to think were impossible.
“After about five years in, they really started to hit escape velocity. And now they’re a household name,” Fishback continued. “There are more Taskers in Australia than there are Uber drivers. They have 70 percent unprompted name recognition in the country.”
Their secret? Well, Fishback hasn’t quite cracked the code yet — but he’s trying.
“They run an infinitely open horizontal marketplace where you can look for folks to literally do anything,” he said, contrasting Airtasker tactics with those of the Kansas City startup. “We had become really specialized in home services at Zaarly, which are kind of the fat head of things that actually happen on Airtasker. But the magic is all in the long tail.”
“We spent the past five years telling anybody who wanted to do long tail tasks to go away,” Fishback lamented. “Meal prep person? Nope. Caterer? Nope. Party planner? Nope. They managed to keep the core — local services — and open up the whole marketplace for everybody.”
Calling Zaarly’s path to Airtasker a “mind-bending ride,” Fishback said the opportunity was exciting but bittersweet.
“The bad thing is that we could not make this work [for Zaarly] — and now I know it really was possible the whole time,” he said. “For whatever reason, this clicked in Australia.”
As the Zaarly team transitions to Airtasker, Fishback said he’s committed to uncovering what the company did right — and what he overlooked — to better expand Airtasker in Zaarly’s old stomping grounds and beyond.
“They need to scale, right? Newly public company, high expectations – a household name in one country trying to break into a market where no one has ever heard of them …,” he said. “It sounds fun, and I’m still on the hunt for that magic recipe with which they already made this work. I’ve got to scratch that itch, you know?”