In 2010, Ted Roden was a brand-new dad, an author on deadline, and a full-time employee at the New York Times. One day, trying to plan a simple night out with his wife but overwhelmed by the demands on his time, the then-30-year-old Roden realized something: “I would pay somebody,” he said to himself, “to do this for me.” It was at that moment that the idea for Fancy Hands–a personal-assistant service for everything from upgrading gym memberships to canceling cable TV packages to, yes, making restaurant reservations–was born.
Today, the New York-based company–which has fewer than 10 full-time employees–manages thousands of part-time “assistants” located all around the U.S. who perform wildly varied tasks for customers every minute of every day. “I started Fancy Hands because I needed it,” Roden notes, “and there wasn’t anything like it. I started small, with a customer base I could handle. And then it grew from there.”
Here, Roden shares tips on how to stay relevant to customers by being always available–via mobile app, desktop, text, phone, whatever–as well as how to run a business where the vast majority of workers never set foot in the office.
1. Gauge how much you can ask your customers to change their own behavior.
Any company that’s asking people to change their behavior in order to take advantage of your services is asking a lot of its customers. For Fancy Hands customers, delegating daily tasks to somebody else–which is a brand-new thing for most people–and then being forced to use only one single method of communication in order to find assistants for those tasks would probably be a headache and a hassle. For example, if we forced all of our customers to use our iPhone app, and only our iPhone app, when requesting a Fancy Hands assistant, I’m sure that we would not be seeing the volume of daily requests that we currently have.
Imagine if Seamless was available only on the phone. It wouldn’t make much sense, because when you’re home and ordering food you want to have options–to be able to order from your desktop or from an app or by calling on the phone. On the flip side of that, you have a company like Uber, where customers really only deal with them via smartphone. But that makes sense, because so much of their business revolves around people who are out and about and carrying their phones anyway.
2. Be where your customers are.
Because we’re asking our customers to change their behavior, we had better be where they are, whenever they need us. By that I mean that we have to allow our customers to contact us by whatever method makes the most sense for them. People can request a Fancy Hands assistant via iOS and Android apps, SMS text messages, emails from a desktop or a smartphone, or by leaving a voice mail on our phone number. If we’re not everywhere, we lose. If you could only use Netflix from their website, would you? Probably not. But because you can stream on smart TVs, Blu-ray players, Xbox 360s, smartphones, tablets, Apple TV, and all these other platforms and devices, they’re not asking you to change your behavior all that much. Like us, they are where their customers are. It’s worked for them the same way it works for us.
3. Instead of “managing,” consider “mentoring.”
One big thing we learned early on was that the business would not scale in a way where we could have one manager for every five or 10 or 20 assistants. It certainly would not have worked when we first started out, because we simply could not have afforded that sort of model. What did work was making sure there was a way to track how well certain assistants could perform particular tasks, or where they had particular areas of expertise. As they got better and we got more comfortable with them, they could then help other assistants come on board without having to dial up somebody at our offices in New York to get an okay. A traditional, hierarchical management scheme doesn’t work with this sort of freelance model, anyway. But a mentoring model–where someone can explain to a new assistant exactly how our system works, what’s the best way to find a reliable wine store on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, or whatever the issue might be–that works for us. Rather than hiring managers, our experts sort of bubble to the surface, and the system itself learns, “Okay, these people know about X, Y, and Z. Let them farm out those requests to other assistants.” This model scales well, it’s cheap, and it’s super effective. Ideally, the system runs itself.
4. Don’t force new structures on a system that’s thriving.
This past summer Zappos announced that they were doing away with a traditional management hierarchy altogether. That’s a bold move. And in a sense we’ve been operating like that–with our freelancers, not necessarily with employees in the office–since the very beginning. It’s built into the way that Fancy Hands functions, and it happened organically. I was essentially Mentor Number One, almost by default, and then I moved on and stopped doing the day-to-day mentoring as other people came on board and took over as we grew. But if we had started with a traditional, hierarchical management model and then, mid-stream, tried to switch it up and adopt a flatter, more fluid mentoring scheme, I don’t think it would have worked. If you have a model that has evolved naturally, and that is quantifiably working, think long and hard before trying to impose a new sort of structure on top of it.
Ted Roden is the founder of Fancy Hands
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