A new wave of companies service the on-demand economy, on demand

With the growth of “sharing economy” giants like Uber and Airbnb, entrepreneurs are finding opportunities serving on-demand workers

Someone opening a Keycafe key locker for an Airbnb rental

Airbnb guests can pick up and return keys though Vancouver’s Keycafe, which installs small lockers in neighbourhood stores and restaurants. (Grant Harder)

Before Clayton Brown could move into his apartment in Zurich, he had to visit the café downstairs. He wasn’t looking to sample the local espresso—Brown’s new roommate had left the house keys there.

Years later, Brown was living in Vancouver and renting out his place via Airbnb while travelling for work. Letting guests in proved to be a major headache. “I was trying to organize it through the cleaner, but [sometimes] she wouldn’t be able to make it out to let the guest in,” he says.

Brown thought back to his experience in Zurich and co-founded a company around the idea. Keycafe has installed lockers in over 200 eateries, convenience stores and other locations in seven North American and European cities, making it easier for people offering short-term rentals through Airbnb and other services to pick up and drop off keys. Users control access to their keys via an app and are notified when they’re retrieved and returned.

Keycafe is one of many startups providing services to participants in the so-called on-demand economy. Thanks to Airbnb, Uber, Postmates and TaskRabbit, everyone can now have a flexible side gig. In fact, so many people have taken to driving, hosting and delivering goods that new companies are launching to help this class of worker maximize earnings, handle administrative functions and finish jobs efficiently. Uber and Lyft drivers who don’t own vehicles, for example, can rent them through a company called HyreCar, based in San Francisco. If the on-demand economy grows and more people take on this sort of work, the potential market could be huge.

Would-be hoteliers using Airbnb, HomeAway and Wimdu have received the most attention. In addition to Keycafe, landlords can hire New York–based Proprly to dust, launder the linens and let guests into a rental. Everbooked, meanwhile, uses algorithms to price listings for maximum occupancy and revenue.

Drivers, couriers and odd-job-runners for companies like Uber, Postmates and TaskRabbit represent another big opportunity—especially because many of these people get work through multiple platforms. “The biggest challenge every day is to figure out when and where and which service to work for,” says Jianming Zhou, CEO and co-founder of Sherpa­Share. “It’s, ‘I have eight hours. How can I have a working portfolio to maximize my income?’”

Eventually, Zhou hopes San Francisco–based SherpaShare can answer that question by working with on-demand platforms to create a schedule for a user’s day—drive for Uber in the morning; finish odd jobs for Task­Rabbit in the afternoon—to meet an income goal. For now, its app tracks mileage and expenses, and produces a heat map of other SherpaShare users. (The company also started a social network for on-demand workers to ask questions, share news or simply rant.) Zhou says 15% of on-demand drivers in the U.S. are users. The majority are “power drivers” who spend most or all of their working hours “gigging.”

The on-demand worker also needs help with the financial implications of this form of employment, especially when it comes to taxation. Using personal property like homes and vehicles for business purposes complicates tax filings, says Argel Sabillo, co-founder of Levee. The Los Angeles startup marries an expense-tracking app with a team of tax professionals, helping users segregate expenses and maximize deductions. “One [user] I helped last year bought a Prius for business, to drive for Uber,” says Sabillo. “In the U.S., there’s a tax credit for that, so I was able to get him $5,000.” Levee focuses on the U.S., but Sabillo says the company has Canadian users and could eventually work with tax professionals abroad.

While the on-demand economy is expected to grow, it’s unlikely to eclipse traditional freelance work. A 2015 study from Intuit and Emergent Research forecast there will be 7.6 million on-demand providers in the U.S. in 2020, out of a total of 66 million freelance, contract or self-employed workers. “There will be a subset of users who will be very seriously working full time in the on-demand economy, but the majority will still treat it as a part-time gig,” predicts Zhou. Plus, there’s the potential for regulatory and political roadblocks, as both Uber and Airbnb have experienced.

Entrepreneurs might want to consider servicing the on-demand economy first, and then diversifying. “Whenever we go to a new city, [Airbnb provides] this grassroots demographic,” says Brown. While short-term rentals through Airbnb helped prompt him to start Keycafe, Brown is also helping dog walkers and cleaning staff access homes and offices.

Still, there’s money to be made in the on-demand economy—and you don’t need to let a stranger sleep under your roof to make it.