“I want to introduce you to your Alfred Client Manager, Giovanni. He is an ambitious, focused, and creative young man from Queens, New York with a Bachelors in Finance.”
There’s no handshake. By “introduction,” this email message from Alfred Club means “link to a LinkedIn profile.” I never actually meet Giovanni, though he has a key to my apartment, has handled my laundry, and has stocked my refrigerator with groceries–all while I was at work.
Giovanni has been pitched to me, by Alfred Club’s PR firm, as “a butler that doesn’t have to live in your home.” His job is to coordinate my errands.
Of course, there are already plenty of on-demand startups who are vying to do any number of errands on my behalf. Washio will pick up my laundry. Homejoy and Handy will clean my apartment. Instacart will do my grocery shopping. And TaskRabbit will allow me to post any random errand I dream up on its job board.
Alfred and Giovanni use some of these services, too. But for $25 per week, they will coordinate them on your behalf, with keys to your home and your credit card number in hand, so you don’t need to be home when all of this happens. They will put your groceries away and hang your dry cleaning in your closet. They’ll hire a dog walker, send your girlfriend flowers, and hire a plumber to fix your toilet. They will remember what kind of bread you like and where you like to do your shopping. And they do this all on one day a week, as a recurring order, so you don’t have to think about it.
A cushy on-demand startup service for coordinating all of your cushy on-demand startup services? Right, I know. Alfred Club took a lot of flak after winning TechCrunch Disrupt for being “so frivolous and asinine that it makes its lackluster predecessors look like Hewlett-Packard and Fairchild Semiconductor by comparison” and yet another layer in “startups siphoning off startups.” Especially since TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington is an investor (TechCrunch says he was not involved in the judging).
At first glance, a lot of me wants to hate this idea: If I’m only paying $25 a week for this service, how much is Giovanni getting paid? Am I really so lazy that I can’t even lift my thumbs to my own iPhone to ask SOMEONE ELSE to clean my home or do my laundry? Am I contributing to unfair labor practices–like those for which workers recently sued Handy–or at the least, to the next startup bubble, by encouraging this startup nesting doll of a service?
But Alfred has one argument that is hard to deflect: Returning to my home after work to find all of my errands completed, without any effort on my behalf, sounds amazing. Despite my qualms, when they offer me a pre-launch trial, I’m in.
There is not an Alfred App for customers yet (the first app the company made was for workers). Instead, I coordinate a key pickup and place my order via email.
I start small. There’s a bag of clothes sitting by my door that I’ve been meaning to take to the Goodwill for weeks. Could Alfred handle that?
“Sure, that’s absolutely possible!” Lilla Cosgrove, Alfred Club’s NYC GM writes me in response.
Okay, and how much does cleaning cost?
It’s mostly Handy doing the cleaning, which costs $54 for two hours. “We can certainly arrange that as well if you would like.”
All right, I agree, and I guess since I’m trying this out, I should probably put together a grocery list and leave some laundry, too.
“Great, thanks Sarah.”
Alfred Club sends another employee named Alex to the office on Wednesday to pick up my keys. It’s an oddly personal exchange, handing a stranger unfettered access to your home, because you can’t help imagining them walking around wondering who the hell would live this way. Over years of reporting on tech, I have handed startups my email address, personal information, and credit card numbers while trialing their products, but never anything that, if abused, would involve a stranger waltzing into my apartment at will.
As I pass Alex two keys hooked together with a safety pin, I wonder if I should warn him that the neighbors have a habit of making the hallway outside of my apartment smell like pot.
At home that evening, I prepare for Giovanni like I would a visit from my mother.
Because the kind of person who has a butler, I imagine, should probably be a certain kind of person. Yes, I always make my bed. OF COURSE I always do the dishes. The cat’s litter box is always clean. And I absolutely do not have a habit of leaving all the shoes I own in an unorganized pile by door.
That’s just not classy.
I only have about two days’ worth of laundry saved up, but I put it in a garbage bag and tape a sign that says “laundry” on top, because I’m afraid someone will mistake it for garbage and throw it away. Or, worse, mistake it for my Goodwill donation and insult the nonprofit’s workers with sweaty gym clothes.
At some point, I remember that Giovanni will also be putting my groceries away in my fridge and throw away a browning avocado and some half-eaten Thai leftovers.
I’m sure that some people, people who chose to develop marketable skills instead of becoming writers, are accustomed to letting people like nannies, chefs, and cleaning professionals into their homes when they aren’t around. Some of them probably even have actual butlers (though, having never witnessed this, I can’t confirm it). But the idea makes me a little paranoid. I hide my journal, as though it were interesting.
On my way home from work on Thursday evening, I imagine the transformation my apartment has undergone in my absence. Will Alfred leave a note? While he’s putting my groceries away, will he actually open my cabinets to figure out where I store my tea? Will my floors look different when they’re clean(er)?
When I unlock the door, the scent of cleaning supplies overpowers the pot stench of the hallway. Gone are the garbage bags filled with clothes for Goodwill and laundry, and on my counter sits a plastic bag of avocados, a box of tea, and a carton of Almond milk (the cheese and salad are in the fridge). I am so over the weirdness of handing a stranger my keys. It feels like I’ve been visited by my errand fairy godmother.
Giovanni left me a postcard signed by several members of the Alfred Club team, including its CEO, Marcela Sapone. “We are very excited to give you back your time so that you can focus on what’s important to you, like staying on top of all things tech and having cookies for pre-lunch whenever possible.” Like any godmother worth her magic, they know me personally (or at least took the time to check out my Twitter feed).
It turns out that, just as I suspected, this is pretty amazing, as far as personal convenience is concerned.
But I still can’t stop feeling guilty about it.
When I talk with Sapone, though, I almost jump for joy when she tells me that Alfreds, unlike many of the workers in the on-demand economy (including those who are suing Handy), are full-time employees who start at $18 per hour and make as much as $25 per hour. The startup is able to pay well and still sell its service for $25, Sapone says, because it will roll out the service neighborhood by neighborhood, allowing for one Alfred to standardize a route that serves multiple customers on a designated day each week.
Though the company does patronize some startup services like Instacart and Postmates on your behalf, these startups aren’t necessarily crucial to its operations in the way that some snarky blog posts about Alfred’s launch made them out to be. Alfred Club called my grocery order into Whole Foods, where Giovanni picked it up. The startup has run tests with local dry cleaners in addition to laundry startups, and though Handy handled my cleaning, some clients already have cleaning services when they using Alfred, and Alfred continues to hire for them. “We try everybody,” Sapone says. “Our goal is to simply find the best and maintain that quality.”
My feeling that using Alfred signifies I’m the laziest human being on Earth is something Sapone has obviously thought about, too. “We were not allowing anything to help us because it becomes a part of our identities,” she says of herself and her cofounder, Jessica Beck. “You feel like, I should be able to do all of these things.”
She switches to pep-talk mode: “It’s the idea of, look, you’re managing your life and your household, and you can’t do everything yourself. You have to choose what you spend your time on, and it’s okay to get that help every once in a while.”
I’m still on the fence about whether to continue. But Giovanni, maybe I’ll see you (not literally, though) next week.