Originally Published in Slate
The startup world is full of ironies and poetic justices. The bubbly race to wash your clothes. The club of billion-dollar “unicorns” that boasts more than 100 members. And the undeniably messy market for on-demand cleanings and home services.
In recent months, the home-services market has repeatedly proven one of the riskiest and most muddled in the burgeoning “gig” economy. The clearest evidence of this came in mid-July, when Uber-but-for-cleaning platform Homejoy announced it was shutting down. At the time, the company attributed its exit to problems with raising money and to a lawsuit over its employment practices;other reports since have traced the collapse to substantial losses, poor customer retention, costly expansion, and Homejoy’s inability to keep its best workers on the platform.
Similar problems have plagued Handy, another Uber-but-for of the home-services sector, and Homejoy’s main competitor before it went under. Like Homejoy, Handy poured money into scaling up its operation, spending tens of thousands of dollars a week—if not more—to onboard cleaners. Like Homejoy, Handy struggled to retain those cleaners, with 20 to 40 percent becoming inactive after two to three months. Like Homejoy, Handy is in litigation over its independent contractor-based business model. On top of that, Handy has faced tough criticism about its customer service—in particular, a signup system that automatically enrolled users in repeat bookings and made it extremely difficult to cancel them.
And yet the gig economy keeps chugging. Handy said Monday that it had raised $50 million in a Series C funding round led by Fidelity Management and several of its current investors. That brings the company’s total funding to $110 million, for an unofficial valuation of around $500 million.
In its press release, Handy points to its 1 million-plus bookings (a milestone it celebrated over the summer), and that 80 percent of them come from “loyal, repeat customers.” Presumably a good deal of the company’s valuation and new funding is tied up in this claim—repeat customers are much more likely to actually pay off than one-time users—though the fact starts to sound less compelling when you wonder how many of the 80 percent were repeatedly using Handy of their own volition, and not because they couldn’t cancel those automatic recurring bookings.
“Handy has demonstrated to consumers that it is the company to trust when it comes to finding professionals to take care of their homes,” Handy co-founder Umang Dua says in the release. “Professionals love the flexibility, high-paying jobs and high demand for their services, while consumers enjoy the convenience and high quality.” It’s nice PR boilerplate that becomes less convincing once you consider the cleaners who have filed lawsuits against Handy, the customers stuck with followup bookings they didn’t want, and the customer-experience employees at Handy’s headquarters who had their jobs outsourced and were fired en masse between late 2014 and early 2015. For more on most of that, see my Slate story from this summer.
On the other hand, it’s possible that Handy, in the spirit of its sector, has started cleaning up its act. In late August, a former Handy employee notified me that the company had finally reviewed its compensation and payroll practices and issued back-pay to some customer-experience employees for their rest periods. As part of that, back-wage recipients were asked to “stipulate and agree that my accepting this payment does not constitute, for any purpose whatsoever, either directly or indirectly, an admission of any violation of law or contract or any other legal obligation whatsoever by Handy,” according to a copy of one agreement provided to Slate. They also released Handy from “any and all individual and/or class claims under the New York Labor Law and, to the extent allowable, any other federal, state or local law, related to the payment of wages, benefits or other compensation related to my employment with Handy,” so you have to assume that’s something the company was nervous about.
Could such changes, plus the Homejoy exit, be enough to pave Handy’s way toward establishing a profitable, sustainable business?Or is the market for home-cleaning and other household services fundamentally too tough? Those are questions that as of yet don’t seem to have clear answers. For now, though, Handy doesn’t need to convince the world one way or another. It just needs metrics that are aspirational enough to attract a few investors—to keep the cash flowing in from one end to be burnt up on the other. Fifty million dollars might not feel like much compared to the $1 billion rounds that Uber raises with casual regularity. But for a company in a space as murky and fraught as Handy’s, it’s an equally big vote of confidence.