“Have a date tomorrow. Any ideas of what to do?”
Sam Fox-Hartin–a comedian, former SAT tutor, and George Washington University philosophy major–has 24 tabs open on his computer, and this query within a customer service management system is one of them. He’s a Hero. Or rather, as of a recent promotion, a Super Hero. Despite the job title (oh, startups…), his job is pretty much to be the digital quarterback on a team dedicated to fielding all of your virtual errands—for free.
GoButler, the company he works for, doesn’t sell anything or provide any service, other than connecting its clients with other services. Its employees will schedule house cleaners, make dinner reservations, or do anything else (within the law) that one can accomplish with a phone and a browser. All you have to do is text.
“Awesome. Let me get something together for you,” Fox-Hartin responds. “I’ll be back in 10.”
“I’ll get this one,” says Pierluigi Ferrari, another Hero who works on the same table. He’s already pulling Zagat up on one of his two monitors to look up restaurants.
“Whatever you do, please don’t say, ‘Walk the highline,’” shouts a woman sitting across the table.
Fox-Hartin continues to toggle between tabs. “Jonathan, is everything going okay with the hair appointment?” he asks another Hero sitting at the next table. He kicks a flower delivery request to Ferrari, who has proposed to his previous customer that he take his date to an Italian restaurant followed by a walk in Washington Park and tickets to a nearby comedy club.
GoButler launched this March in Germany, where its cofounder and CEO, Navid Hadzaad, was born. It began hiring a New York team in April. Together the two offices cover six countries, and the company says it’s already handled a million requests from 100,000 customers. About 30 Heroes in New York are expected to handle up to five tasks at a time each. At least one of them is working at every hour of the day.
“Are sunflowers cliché?” Ferrari asks Fox-Hartin, pulling up a website to order flowers for his latest request.
The most common requests, the ones Heroes train for, are booking airline tickets, ordering food, and flower delivery. But there are some less conventional requests as well.
Like the one Fox-Hartin fulfills after he shuts off the music that has been playing throughout the office. The Heroes look up from their desks, and Fox-Hartin picks up an iPhone. He reads the phone number in one of his many tabs, and after nobody answers, he speaks to the voicemail. “Hi Dana, this is Sam from GoButler,” he says in a voice that makes him sound like a DJ at a bar mitzvah. “This is from your best friend.”
This is an almost daily interruption, and the team knows the drill. Everybody sings “Happy Birthday.” Fox-Hartin hangs up. The music and the tapping on keyboards starts up again.
Startups have tackled personal concierge in the past. For five tasks a month, a company called Fancy Hands charges a $30 subscription fee. Alfred, a startup that sends a personal butler to your home, coordinates your errands for $15 per week.
But it is not immediately obvious how this room full of employees who spend their days planning your dates and singing your happy birthdays without charging you a cent is really feasible. If you ask for something that requires a purchase (which GoButler hopes you will), you hand over your credit card information, but GoButler does not add a transaction fee.
And these are not the relatively cheap freelancers who log into a platform from anywhere, which is how text-based question and answer service ChaCha, favorite party trick of 2007, managed its workers (it no longer supports SMS-based questions). These are full-time employees with set schedules, salaries, and benefits. Most of them have college degrees, and all of them have real marketable skills. “There’s a lot of subjective calls that you have to make,” says Hadzaad. “There are a lot of things that are not straightforward.”
So who is paying for this?
At least for the moment, you can add this free, formerly incomprehensible luxury to the list of ways Silicon Valley venture capital is subsidizing your life. GoButler just announced $8 million of series A funding. A very similar company that launched in February in San Francisco, called Magic, has also reportedly raised enough money to give the business a fair shot.
Here’s the hope: As Heroes text back and forth with you, they’ll learn things about you. They might notice that you have a dog or that you bought flowers for your mom on June 22nd. As they build a better picture of who you are, they can serve you targeted advertising campaigns. Maybe one day, you’ll get a text message from GoButler asking if you’d like to try a new restaurant in your neighborhood. Because they know which neighborhood you live in and what kind of food you usually order. Or maybe they’ll ask you whether, considering you always send your laundry out, you’d like to try a new on-demand laundry service. “We probably have more data than Facebook does,” Hadzaad says. “I know that you are ordering flowers at 7 a.m. That you want to have a pizza right now. We have that data.”
Like most free services in our digital age, in other words, you’ll be trading privacy for convenience. Hadzaad’s bet is that it’s a trade you’ll be willing to make, and he argues the offers GoButler sends will be useful, not a nuisance.
“This is not convenient,” he says, opening the home screen of his phone and scrolling through the pages of apps. “Having a category for travel. Or a category for food. That’s not convenient. That’s not a great UI.” The whole premise of the on-demand trend is that it could not be easier to get anything, now, where you are. Services like GoButler and Magic, with teams of people like Fox-Hartin and Ferrari, have managed to find one. The question is whether we’re really that lazy, and the answer is almost certainly yes.
“I’m not a fan of sunflowers,” Ferrari’s flower customer writes back.
Ferrari takes a sip of his Vanilla Coke, locates the fromyouflowers.com tab on his browser, and starts scrolling through more bouquets.