I was headed to Mammoth Mountain, about five hours north of L.A., for a quick dose of late-season skiing. I'd been up there plenty, but this time I hoped to ditch the après-ski fare for once and try having a civilized dinner somewhere in town. Yelp reviews were scarce, and I couldn't find a decent dining guide to the area online. So I tapped Fancy Hands, a new personal assistant service where subscribers pay $30 a month to email requests (or tasks) to a team of assistants located throughout the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
Within 21 minutes the first of three emails I would receive over the course of the next two days came flying back to my phone. A courteous person named Kristie had selected five potential restaurants for consideration, along with Web sites and contact information. The next morning, before I jumped on the chairlift, I selected the one I liked the best and I emailed Kristie back, asking her to make a reservation for four at 7 p.m. Even though the restaurant didn't open until 5 p.m., at 12:36 p.m., Kristie wrote back to let us know she had secured us a 6:45 reservation. I was on the slopes—and mostly out of cell range—the entire time.
Ted Roden started Fancy Hands thinking that others might be similarly relieved of such burdens, which, according to the Web site, can range from securing a car service with an infant car seat to reviewing fantasy league baseball picks. (Roden does outline what they will and will not do.) Although Roden is reluctant to give any figures about how many subscribers Fancy Hands has gathered since its launch last month, he has hired over 100 assistants so far and has more who he describes as "ready to work."
When a task comes in via a subscriber (you sign in using your Google account), an algorithm sorts and routes it to the assistant who is available and best suited to handle it. Roden, who recruits assistants with online job postings, pays those assistants according to task complexity—the harder the task, the more they'll get paid. But he says that most of those assistants are still working full-time at other jobs. "When I hired them all I sent them an email saying 'don't quit your day job,'" he says. "However, I absolutely expect some of them to start making a living doing this, sooner rather than later." (Roden, ironically, also has a day job—he works in the research and development group at the New York Times.)
Kyle Castleberry, a 25-year-old based in New York City, was brought on board a week after the launch of the site after seeing an ad online. Due to his love for traveling, Castleberry prides himself on staying marginally employed—selling goods on eBay, being an extra in films, walking dogs—but Fancy Hands, he says, goes along with his lifestyle. "It is my dream job to have the ability to work anytime, anywhere, from a spiffy phone or laptop," he says.
The number of tasks Castleberry completes in a day can range widely, as can the amount of time spent on each task. But he claims he doesn't automatically go clicking over to Google for answers. In some cases he uses the Internet for preliminary research looking up terms or definitions to find out what the client is asking. "Sometimes," he says, "my personal experience yields better information." He also says he has reached out to a personal contact as a "life line" for information if they specialize in an area. Roden says training for the assistants is minimal. "I give them a pretty big test before I hire them which gives me a pretty good idea about how good they'll do," he says, but that's pretty much it.
Right now, subscribers pay $30 a month for up to 15 tasks, a plan that was introduced to lure early adopters. But Roden doesn't think that price point will change too much, even as more people sign up. "I think we've more or less hit scale and can make that work for basic services," he says. "However, we're going to be rolling out higher service levels in the near future. I've been shocked that users are requesting 'more' not 'cheaper.'" For example, Roden is preparing to offer a new feature of "hourly workers," where clients can request X number of people working for Y hours on a task. "It's quite a bit more expensive," he says, "but this has actually been my #1 most requested feature."
Fancy Hands is far more classy than other ad-supported "ask a question" sites like ChaCha or Aardvark, which can receive and send crowdsourced requests via IM. When I tried a similar request for Mammoth restaurants at each of those services, I got zero answers. Fancy Hands' privacy factor also gives the impression that an eager-to-please person who seems to know what they're doing is fully dedicated to your every need. Plus, Kristie's Mammoth restaurant advice to me was right on, according to a local who I asked to review it for me.
It was a simple request, and I've been hard-pressed to come up with other tasks I would entrust to Fancy Hands outside of researching my articles (which they will do, says Roden, but not write them for you). Most of the time, my iPhone or a Google search seem to do the trick. But in my case, a reservation was made without a hitch, and hours before I would have even thought to call. I suppose I could have spent more time researching spots, or even stopped to ask a hotel clerk, then taken some time when I was on the mountain to make the reservation call. That's the equation you have to work out for yourself—what is your time worth?
For Fancy Hands' assistants, it's less of a debate, since completing tasks is almost kinda...fun.
"I usually learn something I didn't know before," says Castleberry. "They get helped and have more time on their hands to do as they wish, and I can get compensated for it." For instance, says Castleberry, before working for Fancy Hands, he did not know what a dropshipper was, or what entertaining nightlife options were to be found in Berlin, or what free online learning resources are available from reputed universities, or that many airlines keep 20% of their seats open on flights. "I could learn all that in a couple hours, while working, and helping others," he says. "The way I see it, everyone wins."
Photo by Justin Ouellette