Across the world, Vanderbilt Business alumni find themselves on different frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this installment of COVID-19 Insights, Brent Turner (MBA’99) shares his thoughts on the state of the gig economy and what he’s learned as a business leader in these challenging times. Brent Turner is the Chief Operating Officer of Rover.com, which operates an online marketplace for people to buy and sell pet care services, including pet sitting, dog boarding, and dog walking.
What is “the gig economy,” and what was the genesis? How has this market segment been impacted by the current economic environment?
The gig economy generally refers to the set of transactions, typically for services, that happens between consumers and independent service providers or small business owners, facilitated through technology platforms and without the direct intervention of a human intermediary. The reason that the transactions are typically referred to as “gigs” is because these technology platforms provide unprecedented registration availability, access to demand, and schedule flexibility, enabling people with a broad diversity of backgrounds and weekly schedule characteristics to provide services on a part-time basis as supplemental income. To that extent, this is an entirely new “economy” with new and unique characteristics. For example, at a particular point in Rover’s history, customers in specific cities could literally have their dogs walked by (for example) an actor, a nurse, and an NFL football player all in the same week, and all who would take excellent care of the dogs. Because these services very frequently involve direct interactions between people, the impact of COVID on the “gig economy” has been meaningful.
Long term, do you envision the business model for companies operating in the gig economy shifting because of COVID-19? If so, what specifics would you highlight?
In the near term, I expect the COVID hangover will impact the complexion of demand for gig economy platforms. For example, I expect restaurant delivery will do quite well in the post-COVID world, as a chunk of the population will be uncomfortable with restaurant environments. More noticeable, lasting changes may come as the result of people figuring out that they are able and/or willing to do more things remotely and via technology, versus in-person, than they appreciated before being forced to do so through stay-at-home orders. Therefore, some players may, for example, accelerate delivery services as a part of their entire mix.
Because Rover is global and each country has its own quarantine orders, have there been challenges specific to these different policies? If so, what have you learned through this that can be applied to business operations post pandemic?
A couple things. First, one of the key challenges of the last couple months has been tracking the various stay-at-home orders, not just across countries, but also across American states and even counties, so that we can keep our community informed. The Rover team has worked cross-functionally to make that happen and has knocked that one out of the park. Second, Rover’s business is impacted both by lack of travel and by people working from home, so we have kept an eye on changing demand levels as various economies have started to reopen. One of the things we may be learning in Europe is that travel has not accelerated very much as specific countries have opened up; it feels like travel industry will actually begin to take off in earnest when agreements land across the EU that enable people to travel from country to country. That insight has been interesting and instructive.
Rover has a strong culture; how has this impacted business operations as you shifted to a work-from-home model, and what learnings can be applied to the broader market?
Overall, we are learning that, once we are forced to figure out ways of working together and staying connected without being in the same room, we are able to do that. Virtual coffees, group trivia nights, virtual scavenger hunts, and permissions to carve out sections of meetings for people just to catch up for a few minutes have all been delightful, unexpected gifts of this period. Further, our culture, which is really enshrined in and upheld by our company values, seems to translate quite well into the virtual environment. But there are limits here. The main aspect of our culture that we love — which is that we have curated a group of people who really do enjoy and receive energy from each other’s — has suffered from being away from each other, and to-date, there doesn’t seem to be an excellent remedy.