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P2P marketplaces: Reach out and hire someone

New crowd commerce models lower prices, get more people working, and level resource use. But will they work in the long term and on a large scale?

I'm looking forward to moderating a panel discussion (although I usually detest panels) about "cloud labor " on Wednesday at CrowdConf. The panel title is a bit of a misnomer, since the most interesting new crowd commerce plays (like TaskRabbit, Gigwalk, and Zaarly) use the cloud only to coordinate labor. The actual labor itself may still be done in person.

For a 25 percent ticket price discount at CrowdConf, see the end of this story.

But I am fascinated by the potential these and other cloud commerce companies have, for three reasons: They can connect people who need things done with service providers who will do the jobs at low rates; They provide new customers for people with skills, or just plain availability; And they increase the efficiency of personal time and the goods we own.

TaskRabbit: For when you just can't bear to fold your own laundry. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

I include the resource leveling services in this category: Services like the home (Airbnb) and office (Loosecubes) businesses that help property owners and renters fill their empty spaces with potentially revenue-generating travelers, and the several person-to-person car rental services (Wheelz, RelayRides, etc.) that allow people to bypass even the new-model urban car rental services (ZipCar, CityCarShare) that the Internet and mobile devices have enabled. (Hertz and Avis needn't worry, however: there will likely always be a business for renting plain vanilla cars at airports.)

The social mesh of the Internet is what makes all these services work. All the entrepreneurs at these companies talk about the necessity for "transparency" to let participants know who they are dealing with. But there's transparency, which eBay and Craigslist provide to an extent, and then there's intimacy, which these new markets encourage. The pitches I hear for the newest person-to-person markets all talk about how you will know the person you're doing business with, and how you'll be more inclined to deal with this person honorably since there will be a social consequence if you do not.

Of these several new businesses, there seem to be two competing business models emerging. On the one hand, you have the highly-focused marketplaces, where all the development and marketing can go into winning over all the people looking for one thing in particular. On the other, there are new general-purpose crowd commerce platforms.

In the first category are popular sites like Airbnb for short-term housing and Getaround for car sharing. In the second are more ambitious startups like Zaarly, and another I'll be covering tomorrow, that aim to run at the base economy level for these new transactions. It's also interesting to see how some of the startups that were pitched (at least to me) as general are ending up as specialized services: It looks like Gigwalk is becoming a market for spot-checking the quality of other businesses, for example, and not as much of a platform for average consumers to post jobs for passersby to do. For that, there's TaskRabbit, which appears to be zeroing in on neighborly jobs: shopping, moving big stuff, and handyman-type tasks.

At any rate, it's a new economic model that these companies are all trying to figure out. And that's worth some attention.

If you will be in San Francisco and would like to see my panel discussion at 10:05 a.m. at the CrowdConf, you can get 25 percent off the event ticket by using the code CFSPKRD on the ticket purchase page. A video of the panel itself (and the rest of the conference) will be available after the show. My panelists will be Mike Morris, senior vice president, TopCoder; Leah Busque: founder and chief product officer, TaskRabbit; Lane Becker, founder and president, GetSatisfaction; and Ariel Seidman, CEO & founder, Gigwalk.

If you have topics for my panelists to discuss, drop me a note or leave them here.