Consumers today can get food and rides and tubes of toothpaste on demand at any hour of the day. They can order used cars, up for sale, to be brought to their doorstep for a test drive in mere hours. Startups—clamoring to cater to consumers’ desire for all things white-glove and personalized—have encouraged new users to outsource their laundry, their driving, their parking, their shopping, and more. But even the business leaders who are helping to revolutionize today’s consumer lifestyle disagree about whether this is a golden age that can last—or one built on greedy ignorance of unit economics that will inevitably collapse.
“I like to think that we’re living much more efficiently, we’re getting more done in our day,” Taskrabbit founder Leah Busque said on Wednesday at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen conference in San Francisco. Her company connects “taskers” with people who want something done, whether they need a handyman or someone to go buy dog food when they’d be late for dinner if they ran the errand themselves (Busque knows that last scenario well: that very desire led Busque to found the company).
Fellow panelist Katrina Lake, CEO and founder of Stitch Fix, a personal shopping service that sends users boxes of stylist-selected clothes as often as every two weeks, took a less optimistic tack. “I think it’s an amazing time to be a consumer. But there are an astonishingly high number of businesses today where they are losing money on every transaction, and that is not a business,” she said. “I do hope some of these [startups] can find a way to make the math work because it is terrifying, the amount of burn you’re seeing in some of these companies … I don’t know that’s the kind of example we want to set.”
There has been growing concern about the number of startups that are ignoring the question of how they’ll turn a profit, even as they burn through venture capital money in a quest to bring new users onto their platforms. Some academics have also posed more philosophical questions about whether it’s good for people’s happiness—or their wallets—to outsource what might seem like the drudgery of daily life. Anticipation and a sense of accomplishment from even something as simple as cutting one’s own grass can have positive effects, they say.
Other experts have said that outsourcing tasks can be great, so long as people are doing something productive with the time they save, rather than spending it making themselves miserable through, say, social comparison on Facebook. “Immediacy itself is not necessarily bad. It’s a question of what our motives are for doing it and how we spend that time we free up with these convenient services and devices,” says University of Virginia’s Jim Burroughs.
The final panelist alongside Busque and Lake is trying to provide the type of thing that people could use to fill those 20 minutes they saved by ordering an Uber instead of walking. Brit Morin, founder of Brit + Co, leads a media company that provides online classes and instruction, taking the types of crafts users might post on Pinterest and getting experts to explain what it takes to make them. “We’re pro-outsourcing the things you don’t want to do, but the whole goal is you should take an hour for yourself and do something creative,” Morin said. “Creativity, creative projects have the same effect on your brain as mediation, so it de-stresses you, it relaxes you.”
And she expressed hope that there will be some balance for consumers, at least in this age when startups for absolutely everything are still flush with funding: “Hopefully that means we have a long, lengthy business ahead of us, as the outsourcing economy continues to grow.”