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BACK TO THE FUTURE

Three predictions for the future of business from the CEOs of TaskRabbit, Stripe, and LinkedIn

By Simone Stolzoff

“The digital revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon,” wrote Louis Rossetto, the founder of an upstart magazine called Wired, in its inaugural issue in 1993. “If you’re looking for the soul of our new society in the wild metamorphosis, our advice is simple. Get Wired.”

Rossetto and his partner/co-founder Jane Metcalfe were definitely onto something in the early 1990s when they placed their chips in the corner of high tech. In the 25 years since, more than any other industry, tech has changed the global economy and the nature of work.

At a breakfast conversation at Wired’s headquarters, smack in the middle of SoMa, the San Francisco neighborhood where you can’t throw a stone without hitting a startup’s front door, Wired’s editor in chief, Nicholas Thompson, hosted a series of chats on the future of work. His guests: LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, Stripe CEO Patrick Collison, and TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot.

Rossetto, too, was on hand for the event. ”In the last 25 years, tech has gone from the cult to the culture,” he remarked. The CEOs who took the stage offered three bold predictions on what may be coming next.

1. It will be easier for upstart businesses to challenge incumbents

Stripe’s Collison was five years old when Wired made its debut. He was 13 when he took the SAT that would eventually pave the wave for his admittance to MIT. And he couldn’t legally drink in 2009 when he started working on what would later become the tech industry’s de facto payment-processing platform. Less than a decade after he and his brother dropped out of school to start working on Stripe, it is now valued at more than $20 billion dollars.

Stripe has made it easier to for tech founders to get their ideas off the ground by helping them incorporate payments and payment processing into their websites. Now, Collison has a vision for how Stripe will change the economy at large. “We want to make incumbency less of an advantage,” he told the standing-room-only crowd at the Wired office. The same Stripe product that the Ubers of the world use to process their payments is used by two entrepreneurs in Lagos building an app in their bedroom, he added.

“We’re not exercising the traditional enterprise playbook, which is ‘Unless you pay us millions of dollars a year, we won’t talk to you.’ To the extent that we can, we’re arming the upstarts.”

2. The workers of the gig economy will get older

TaskRabbit often gets lumped together with Uber and Lyft and other members of the gig economy, but there’s one big difference between the task-management startup and many of its competitors. Taskers, the term Brown-Philpot uses to refer to the 140,000 freelancers on her platform, set their own rates.

Wages at Uber and Lyft are down 53% over the last five years, whereas TaskRabbit wages have actually risen a bit in the last five years. Over the next five, Brown-Philot believes there may be a rise in older folks fulfilling tasks on the platform—and not just to earn an extra buck.

“TaskRabbit’s comparative advantage is the community we’ve built over the course of the last 10 years,” she said. ”We find that retirees come out of retirement and find a lot of meaning on TaskRabbit—not just because of the money that they earn, but also the connections, relationships, and bonds they make in their own communities.”

As more and more people 65 and older develop digital skills, the number of retirees who participate in the sharing economy is only set to increase.

3. The next 25 years will be defined by how we deal with technology’s unintended consequences

LinkedIn’s Weiner got into tech after reading a review of futurist Nicholas Negroponte’s book Being Digital. Weiner’s takeaway from the book was that everything that is an atom will be converted to a bit. That is to say, everything that can be digitized will be. In many ways, that has been the driving principle of the past 25 years of business.

Thompson asked Weiner his opinion on the big idea that will define the next 25 years. ”It’s far less about the technology these days, and far more about the implications of technology on society,” said Weiner. “We need to proactively ask ourselves about the potential unintended consequences of these technologies.”

LinkedIn has already caused some unintended consequences of its own. Weiner admitted that despite Linkedin’s vision to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce, it is very easy for the platform to reinforce the advantages for those who went to the right schools, worked at the right companies, and already have the right networks. Rather than democratize the future of work, LinkedIn could very well encourage further entrenchment of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

This, in essence, has always been the risk of technological advancement. Innovations in tech have certainly lowered the barrier for anyone to spread an idea across the world, but when a select few hold the keys to our digital cities, new kinds of barriers are created.