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Unitaskr founders Joseph Black and Oliver Jacobs
Spare a thought for Britain’s students. For the past two years, their university experience has been, to a greater or lesser extent, blighted by Covid restrictions. And now – with some kind of normality returning – they are grappling with a spiraling cost of living that makes it harder than ever to eke out their maintenance loans and and parental allowances.
And that perhaps explains why Unitaskr, a company founded by Joseph Black and Oliver Jacobs, has succeeded in attracting significant numbers of students to what is essentially a task platform along the lines of Freelancer.com, People per Hour or Fivrr.
This is now a well trodden market. Customers – often small business – have tasks that need to be done and Unitaskr matches them with people who have the necessary skills. What separates Unitaskr from similar platforms is the fact that the suppliers are all students. As such, it not only provides undergraduates with a means to earn cash, it also aims to help them gain experience that can be listed on their resumes once they graduate. It might even impart the self-employment/entrepreneurship bug.
But is this an idea that can scale? Well, when I spoke to Black and Jacobs they were preparing plans to extend the Unitaskr model into the US, having also diversified into graduate recruitment and the provision of student “influencers” for brand marketing campaigns. I was keen to find out how they had set about mobilising and monetising a student labor force and why the concept might work in other geographies.
An Uncertain Start
Launched in 2015, the platform was originally known as Unidosh and Jacobs acknowledges, it got off to an uncertain and perhaps misconceived start. “We saw that a lot of our friends at university were struggling financially. And we also saw that a lot of them had talents,” he says.
The Unidosh app was created to enable students to do work for each other. “But we struggled to gain traction,” adds Jacobs. “The problem was that students didn’t really have the capacity to buy services.” In other words, there was supply – with many students keen to sell services – but little demand.
So the company pivoted and became Unitaskr. “We opened the buying side to everyone,” says Black. In practice, this meant that students could sell a whole array of services – ranging from dog walking and babysitting to social media management, blogging, or designing logos – to businesses and the general public.
Business picked up. Today the company has 200,000 users and around £12 million in work was booked last year.
But who is is buying and why? Looking back at my own students days I must confess I had very few skills other than writing lecture notes very quickly and submitting essays more or less on time. So does, Unitaskr help all students make some money or is it limited to those doing courses where in-demand skills such as design or coding are built in. Can it for instance, help English or History undergraduates to monetise their skills?
According to Black, the answer to that question is yes. “There is such a broad range of work on the platform that academic discipline is not a problem,” he says. For instance, an English graduate could take on blogging work. Equally, today’s students tend to be highly literate when it comes to social media. Thus, they can take on social media marketing roles.
That last factor has prompted Black and Jacobs to diversify into the influencer market. Essentially, students with a social media presence are given a chance to become “nano influencers,” taking part in campaigns for brands such as Audio Technica and Spotify. The idea here is that individual student social media accounts may only have a few thousand followers but those who do subscribe tend to be loyal, enthusiastic, and engaged. Unitaskr’s Shout service can aggregate individual students into small armies of influencers who can collectively get the brand message out to their followers.
The Buy Side
But what about the buyers? Black and Jacobs say most of those buying tasks – logo design, blogs, etc – are small businesses. So the question is, why do they trust students to take on jobs that might be important. There is a degree of altruism and paying forward going on. “Businesses know they are supporting the next generation,” says Black.
But as with more generalist patforms, sellers have to build reputations. They are reviewed and rated. Those with good ratings are more likely to get more work.
Will It Scale?
So how scaleable is this model. Well, last year, Unitaskr raised £1.25 million in seed funding and in addition to expanding their team and hiring developers, Jacobs and Black have their sites set on the U.S. market. “We are currently in the USA app store and we are planning a full U.S. launch says Black. Meanwhile, with a community of students on tap, the company is also moving into the graduate recruitment market, with the aim of bringing down the barriers between employers and candidates.
Whether, Unitaskr succeeds in gaining more traction in the U.K. while also expanding into the North American market remains to be seen. What is has achieved already is the creation of a student community that can be monetised and also deployed as part of influencer campaigns. The same community may well help the company position itself in a very competitive graduate recruitment market. Arguably, with students facing the same challenges the world over, there is scope for international expansion.