Mon, 8 May 2023 at 1:12 pm BST
Best friends Joseph Black and Oliver Jacobs have always shown entrepreneurial spirit as a duo. As school friends they used to sell sweets and drinks to fellow pupils for a hefty profit over the term; as co-founders in their late twenties today they are running a six-figure business called UniTaskr, an app which has the largest network of student and graduate freelancers worldwide.
Initially founded in 2015, the app connects students with employers and has offered well over £10m worth of jobs to students across the UK. It currently has over 300,000 members and supports in excess of 30,000 households & businesses, from SME’s to large scale enterprises, including RedBull, Uber Eats, the NHS and Spotify, and a dozen global Unicorn businesses.
It was at university where the founders saw a gap in the market following the student financial crisis. “For us at the time, a number of our peers were graduating but lacked the experience of their sector of choice,” recalls Black, “or they left their uni as they couldn’t afford the cost of living. For us, that felt like a pivotal flaw in the education to employment gap. We wanted to make a difference.”
They conceived their initial product, Unidosh, which was billed as a student to student service who could buy and sell to each other. They soon worked out that students were hungry to earn money, receptive to tasks but didn’t want to spend. A “flaw in the concept” is how Black termed it. By now, there were 5,000 members on board and they took the decision to open up the buying side to members of the public, from households looking for dog walkers to businesses wanting website builders or photographers.
While fellow founder Jacobs heads up the product and design team, Black fronts sales and partnerships. “My hat is off to solo founders and I am incredibly fortunate I work with someone like Oliver,” admits Black. “There are highs and lows and someone to understand that on a personal level has been important. We have kept each other moving.
“Being a young entrepreneur when we started it was hard for us to be taken seriously. We ended up entering a lot of start-up competitions and building up recognition in the space. It has come over time by building PR, doing thought leadership pieces and going on podcasts.”
The pivotal step came in September 2019 after rebranding and relaunching as UniTaskr. “For years we had tried to find a way to get students on to our app,” says Black. The following month, they posted a task asking for 50 students to request a shout out on their social media. It helped too when Black’s younger sister, Kaylee, went to the founders extolling TikTok’s virtues and asked if she could create and post a tutorial video. Over 20,000 members joined that evening and Kaylee is now a UniTaskr employee leading the US team.
Some social media posts have since hit 40m views, while the founders pivoted from online remote work and 3,000 members to over quarter of a million signed up by the end of the pandemic — and consistently being one of the most popular downloads in App stores.
Black says: “There was this movement and brands became more susceptible towards a student, gig-based workforce given that they are so hungry to build this experience outside of the affordability factors. They have lower overheads and are able to work more affordably but they are hungry to learn. This is ultimately the future of our workforce and if we can work hard together they will graduate with a better leg up.”
UniTaskr launched in the US in March and the business has already hit 50,000 members, with over 1,000 members joining every day. “Adapting is key to any business and pivoting is the greatest lesson to what we have achieved so far,” admits Black. “Understanding when an idea isn’t working and taking the slightest sidestep can be the difference between impending failure and success.”
When UniTaskr was first launched, students didn’t have the best perception and credibility from brands’ perspective to outsource and hire. It has, says Black, been a challenge in its own right. “Marketplace is also one of the hardest businesses to build, with a good flow of buyer-seller demand. If you have too many students on the platform and not enough jobs they saturate and people will leave.”
Where UniTaskr believe they can take up the larger market share from their competitors is having “the students of today becoming the public of tomorrow”, one where graduates are now coming back to the platform to hire students.
“We’re close to breaking even but we are well on track to being profitable,” says Black. “It’s likely worth millions and we have had people coming in to invest or acquire. We are looking at a £10m valuation but it’s not liquid. I’m excited, though, and we have a big trajectory ahead.
“Students in the past have been led to work inflexible jobs that only impact their studies and stress levels, whereas now this allows them to become their own boss. And that’s our mission, to help make positive change.”
Behind the brand: co-founder lessons…
“There is a key difference to being a leader and a boss. In my early days when I lacked the experience it was easy to dictate and be bossy. Now we are a team and working together. That has been a key lesson. I’m not naive. I’ve got a long way to go myself but I treat others how I want to be treated myself.
On building apps…
“As co-founders we don’t have a tech background. Our first product lacked user experience. We tried to find a technical founder and took on the wrong person, leading to us building again. Now we have a fantastic tech team to build long-term. Every developer has a very different outlook on which technology stack to use.
“There is no right or wrong in getting to the end goal. If I had the insight now we could have done it differently as apps aren’t cheap to build. We were young and naive. Having a technical co-founder would have undoubtedly eased the pain.”