Three years ago, Ted Roden was sitting in a maternity ward with his wife and newborn baby when he came to a realization. Between his full-time job as a New York Times developer, the book he was writing, and his family, when would he ever again find time for the small yet necessary tasks of everyday life like booking a dinner reservation? Or paying his electric bill? Or scheduling a phone call with this reporter?
That’s when Roden came up with the idea for Fancy Hands, a team of personal assistants that helps you accomplish the kinds of basic tasks anybody can do, so you have more time to do the things only you can do. For example, Fancy Hands can’t write this article for me, but they can do all the things that might be keeping me from writing it, like calling the cable company or scheduling a dentist appointment.
"The idea came totally out of a need," says Roden, who was Fancy Hands’ only user for the first six months of its quiet launch back in April 2010. Spoken like a true developer, he adds, "Rather than make a simple phone call to take my wife out to dinner, I built an elaborate platform."
Transforming the idea from a personal pet project into a business only made sense, considering the outsized levels of productivity people strive for today. And the transition itself went fairly smoothly, as Roden had worked for a startup before (he was one of the first programmers at Vimeo, back when "you had to explain to people what Vimeo was"), and the way Fancy Hands makes money is pretty straightforward. "It’s a very complicated system underneath, but business-wise it’s very simple. People pay us, we do things." Participants pay a monthly fee depending on the plan—$25 will get you 5 requests a month, while $65 will get you up to 25 requests.
The bigger challenge was, and continues to be, convincing consumers that you don’t have to be a Hollywood mogul or a corporate fatcat to reap the benefits of a personal assistant. "Delegating is hard," Roden says. "Even if you give someone a real assistant sitting next to them, it’s going to be a while before they figure out anything to give them. We try to demonstrate to people how there’s so much you have to do in a given day, but only so much you have to do yourself."
While Roden is coy about the specific number of requests Fancy Hands handles daily, he says that during January and February of this year, his assistants logged over 40,000 minutes on the phone for his clients—that’s about a full month straight of talk-time. And phone jobs don’t even make up the majority of Fancy Hands’ work; most requests involve emailing, proofreading, and research.
One major thing Fancy Hands hasn’t had the infrastructure to support yet is the ability to pay for things on people’s behalf. But that’s all about to change in the coming days and months, Roden says. Another new feature Fancy Hands plans to launch this year is a pricing plan for companies who want to make Fancy Hands’ assistants available to its employees during business hours.
"This is going to be a make-or-break year for us without question. We’re either killing it this time next year or we probably don’t exist."
In the future, Roden hopes that completing "mind-numbing" tasks will become such an automated process that people will forget how they ever completed them in the past. He compares it to how digital immigrants of a certain age may forget how they ever bought airline tickets before the Internet came along. But until the day that technology can take care of all these annoying duties for us, Fancy Hands’ assistants are here to help.
[Image: Flickr user Matteo Mignani]