Is there something on your to-do list that you just don’t have the time to tackle today? Maybe it’s comparing airfares for an upcoming trip, or calling your cable provider to discuss dropping that premium channel you never watch, or upgrading a gym membership. At the right price, wouldn’t you pay someone to handle those small yet time-consuming tasks?
For Ted Roden, 35, that question is hardly theoretical. In fact, it’s the foundation of the New York-based company, Fancy Hands, that Roden founded in 2010. Today, five years later, hundreds of part-time “assistants” located all around the U.S. are tackling wildly varied tasks for Fancy Hands’ customers–tasks that can be completed with an Internet connection or a phone line and that range from finding environmentally friendly apartment cleaning services to setting up multi-party conference calls to helping out with wedding plans.
Oddly enough, in this age of texting, emailing and various other digital messaging platforms, “by far our most common service,” Roden says, “is making phone calls for people. Calling a restaurant, for example, to change a reservation that was really hard to get in the first place–that’s the sort of thing that most of us would like to hand off to someone else, but until now couldn’t find anyone willing to do it.”
Roden recently spoke about the benefits–for his customers, his company, and his freelance employees–of taking on life’s most tiresome of tasks.
How did you land on the idea for Fancy Hands?
Six years ago I was working at the New York Times, my wife and I had just had a baby, and the day after our daughter was born I signed a book deal. So with a new baby, a book to write and a full-time job, anything outside of that was just not going to get done. Not long afterward, I wanted to take my wife out to dinner, but with everything else going on, setting it up was simply too much. And I remember thinking, “I would pay somebody to do this for me.” That was the light-bulb moment.
It doesn’t seem like an optimal time to start a business . . .
The important thing to do, with almost any project, is to start where you can, when you can. That approach works really well for me. I started Fancy Hands because I needed it, and there wasn’t anything like it. But I started small, with a customer base I could handle. And then grew from there.
You know, one of the things I’ve noticed is that so much of the talk about an optimal time to start a company comes packaged with a lot of other advice– you have to start a company at a certain time, have a cofounder, be in the Valley, be young, not have kids, not be married, give away your product for free. I didn’t do any of that stuff, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the only way to build a business. People have been building businesses at different stages in their lives for literally thousands of years. So I’m not really convinced by today’s conventional wisdom.
Let’s talk about one aspect of starting a business that any young company has to deal with: cash flow. How did you manage that in the beginning?
From the very first, every single customer paid–we didn’t give away anything for free–and it was a subscription model so I knew how much money I’d make next week, next month, even if nobody else signed up for the service. We grew slowly, but we did grow. Not like an explosive startup–it wasn’t growing exponentially every month or anything like that–but it was steady. I was still working at the Times at that point and after about a year I looked at our bank account and realized that I had several months’ salary from Fancy Hands–and we were still growing–so I decided to make the jump to Fancy Hands full-time. Even today, we haven’t done any serious advertising, so almost all of our cash goes into paying our assistants and the eight people who actually work full-time at the company.
How does your subscription model work?
People can sign up for anywhere from five tasks a month for about $30–which is definitely our most popular plan–to an unlimited number of task requests for several hundred dollars a month. Those people who can afford the unlimited plan absolutely love it. The assistants are paid by us per task, and that fee varies based on what the task is and how much work it entails. That’s something that we determine on our end.
Have there been any surprising outcomes or unforeseen consequences of starting a brand new business?
Well, there are a lot of people out there who work from home or are entrepreneurs–running multiple consulting projects at the same time, for example–and those people use us day in and day out, several times a day, for research, tracking packages, all sorts of tasks. So having those people among our customer base was not too surprising. But it’s on the assistants’ side of things–which is something I never thought about early on–that we might be having an even bigger impact. We have stay-at home-moms, and people who live in remote areas where there might not be much steady work, and they can definitely perform these online or phone tasks from wherever they live. And then there are people with full-time jobs who work with us part-time, on their own time, to make extra money. The positive impact we’ve had on those lives is something I’m definitely proud of.
Ted Roden is the Founder of Fancy Hands
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