Career Advice, Interviews, Jobs

TaskRabbit CPO John Vars: “To Be Successful in Product, You Must…”

Workers of days long past often stayed at the same company for decades, ascending up the corporate ladder and retiring with a gold watch. But the “gig economy” is the new normal – thanks in part to the 2008 recession and a new generation of workers seeking more flexible schedules – with more workers are acting as independent contractors at companies like Uber and Handy.

In fact, 40 percent of American workers will be independent contractors by 2020, according to a recent study. So how can today’s workers take advantage? Glassdoor spoke to John Vars, the Chief Product Officer of TaskRabbit. The company, founded in 2008, allows customers to hire “Taskers” to perform all kinds of duties from delivering flowers for a significant other to fixing a stopped toilet.

Here, Vars shares how workers can hone their skills to focus on the hottest niches in the gig economy – or become a product chief like him.

The three “languages” a product chief must speak:

“To be successful in a career in product, I think it’s great to have an engineering, design or business background. But you have to be fluent in all three languages,” says Vars, a former startup co-founder and Travelocity software engineer who has more than 15 years of experience in product development.

“Being [a CPO] is interesting because you really don’t have a ton of authority. You’re usually working with engineers who don’t report directly to you. So you need to get people bought into your vision, and be willing to share ownership. And you have to know how to have awkward conversations and healthy debate, because you have a lot of business stakeholders in totally different organizations who you need to work with.

But your most important stakeholder is always your customer. In product you have to really want to enjoy talking to consumers, figure out the problems they’re struggling with, and be solving that.”

The one question he asks all interviewees:

“‘What is your favorite app, and what would you change about it?’ I ask everyone I interview, whether it’s for accounting or customer service or anything, but I especially want to know when the job is in product, engineering or design.

I want to know that they understand this space and have an opinion. There are a lot of boring answers in terms of which apps they use, but the interesting part is what they would change. The worst answer is, ‘I can’t think of which apps I use the most.’ Because I want someone with a strong affinity toward an app. They can show me that they have a passion and that they have thoughts about how to make something better—about how to think like a consumer and a product person at the same time.”

[Related: 10 Interview Questions for Software Engineers]

Why is the gig economy is so hot?

“[TaskRabbit was founded] in 2008, during this Great Recession. That was a trigger event, a tangible point where things changed, but I think this is was a shift that was happening anyway. Millennials are at the forefront of this trend. They care about the quality of their lives, and they want flexibility, control and meaning in their work. If you look at our Taskers, 60% of them are millennials.

So the workforce changed — a lot of people dropped out of the full-time workforce and went to more flexible jobs. But on the consumer side, you also had the first iPhone [in 2007]. That began the shift to mobile, and eventually, you have people starting to think of the smartphone as a remote control for their world. They’re used to getting thing immediately, on demand, right away. TaskRabbit built a platform that expressly builds on both of these trends. We are mostly on-demand, aimed at people valuing flexibility and control [on both the customer and Tasker sides].

[Related: How To Balance Your Full-Time Job & Part-Time Side Gig]

Top tips for would-be gig-ers:

“For whichever gig-economy platform you choose to get involved in, you should understand how to thrive in that situation. Maybe an Uber driver keeps bottled water in the car. Or an Airbnb host makes sure to have flowers and a bottle of wine for guests when they arrive. What does the customer want?

For [TaskRabbit], if you’re going to be a Tasker you should be aware of our four key categories: cleaning, moving help, delivery, and handyman. That kind of [market] knowledge will help someone succeed. [For example,] I have a Tasker I use fairly often. She was a homemaker and a mom who left the workforce for a little while. As her kids get older, she had more time and wanted make some money to save for the kids’ college. So she decided to work in several different task categories that are big for us, and she worked hard at getting feedback from clients. Like some want her to use organic cleaning products, some don’t care. She learned very quickly what her customers wanted in order to do her job really well.

[Related: Search Open Jobs Now!]

Another person is one of our best handymen, who lives near our office in the Bay Area and has come in a few times. He’s one of about 10% of our Taskers who do this full-time, and he’s a top earner who makes more than $150,000. He has a sailboat and loves to sail, and he’s a middle-aged guy who kind of left a full-time job and found TaskRabbit. So now he can work when he wants and be on his sailboat as much as he wants, and I think it’s cool that he’s able to do that.

Overall, we’re really just focused on responding to consumer needs. People these days are very busy. They value their time a lot more in this scattered, crazy world, and they want help and support more and more often. TaskRabbit has tapped into that, and we’re growing a ton as a result.”

DISCOVER: Read What TaskRabbit Employees Say About Their Company!