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Life/Work – Issue 36

“What if you turned over your uncompleted wish list to someone else?”

They are the obligations that I keep putting off, that I keep watching accumulate like one more pile of papers on my desk. You know what I’m talking about — bringing my car in for service because it’s 6,000 miles past due for its 30,000-mile check. Or finding a dog groomer who won’t charge me an arm and a paw. Or getting a subscription to a trade magazine that isn’t on newsstands. Or buying a long-overdue wedding or birthday gift. Or finding tickets to a concert that has sold out by the time I get around to looking for them. Or deciding where to go for summer vacation — and actually planning the trip in advance, rather than waiting until the absolute last minute, which is what I inevitably do.

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Rich people know how to get those sorts of tasks done: They have household managers and house cleaners, chefs and drivers, personal shoppers and executive secretaries. But what about those of us who are trying to juggle everything ourselves — and who still end up devoting Saturdays to a list of errands that we never seem to make a dent in, never mind finding time to kick back and read a novel? What if you turned over your uncompleted wish list to someone else? What would your life be like if you delegated your unmet obligations to someone who made a cheery promise that those chores would be taken care of at little or no cost within 48 hours — sooner if you were really in a rush?

Well, I’m here to tell you that I did just that. Two recent graduates of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business are building a company around people like me — by selling their service to other companies, which then offer that service to their employees as a benefit. Janet Kraus, 34, and Kathy Sherbrooke, 32, who graduated from Stanford in 1994, call their business “Circles.” Like most of their fellow students, they were hungry to make a mark in the new economy. “We were interested in starting an e-company that related to our lives, that could have a major impact on people, and that represented a huge market opportunity,” says Sherbrooke.

Kraus and Sherbrooke began with a simple notion — that “time starvation” is the hottest trend around. “All of our friends and colleagues talked constantly about how busy and chaotic their lives were,” Sherbrooke explains. “When we started doing focus groups with professionals about what they needed in their lives, we kept hearing responses like, ‘It would be great if only I could hand over my To Do list to someone else.’ We realized that people needed a resource that they could trust to do all kinds of stuff for them.” Kraus and Sherbrooke’s research showed them that workers in the United States considered a work-life balance to be a major priority, and that concept became their market opportunity.

Circles isn’t alone in trying to give relief to the growing population of the overburdened. San Francisco-based LesConcierges Inc., for example, has offered high-end services for 13 years to employees at such companies as Charles Schwab, Netscape, and Texas Instruments. Dozens of Web-based companies offer similar services within specific niches. Peapod Inc., Streamline.com Inc., and Webvan Group Inc. all provide such services as food shopping and home delivery in a rapidly growing number of cities. Kozmo.com Inc. will deliver whatever you need, whenever you need it — from pizzas to videos, from toothpaste to books. Quixi Inc., which raised $27.5 million in VC financing, will function as a 24-hour personal assistant. Upload your address book into its system, call a single number from your cell-phone when you’re on the run, and your instant assistant will connect you to whomever you want — and provide suggestions for and directions to restaurants.

What sets Circles apart from its competitors is the breadth of its services. “We are really talking about life management,” explains Sherbrooke. “We’re trying to provide a full-service application for managing all of the personal tasks in your life, from leisure and luxury all the way down to drudgery and mundanity — settling a bill dispute, waiting for a repairman to show up, or finding a house cleaner.” What Circles personal assistants won’t provide, besides child care and elder care, are services that cross a certain line — sending a dead fish to an ex-wife, for example, or hiring a stripper for a bachelor party. “If we have any question about whether a request is legal or ethical, or whether it seems mean-spirited, we won’t do it,” says Sherbrooke.

Circles sells its service to companies for an annual cost of between $50 and $200 per employee. Offering such a benefit, Circles tells employers, is a way to attract and to retain employees — and a way to reduce the number of distractions in employees’ lives during the workday. Most companies provide the service to their employees at no cost. If an errand option is included, employees are typically responsible for paying a $10-per-hour copayment. Revenue at Circles has increased by 700% in the past year. The company recently closed on $15.2 million in financing, and it intends to increase its number of personal assistants from 50 to 175 this year. If all goes according to plan, Circles is targeting 2001 for an IPO.

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But just how useful is the service that the folks at Circles provide? They offered to let me test it for myself. Plainly, I was likely going to get VIP treatment, but I still figured that I’d learn something. At the very least, I would get some lingering To Do items off my plate — all in the name of research, of course.

The truth is that I went overboard — a bit like the way some people do at all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets. On the morning that I got my password, I signed onto the Circles Web site and entered nine separate requests in less than 90 minutes, which raised a few eyebrows at the Circles call center in Boston. But, within an hour, I’d received emails from three personal assistants, letting me know that each of them was hard at work on one or more of my requests. In each case, I was told that I could expect a response within 48 hours.

In fact, the answers began arriving later that afternoon. The first news was discouraging. My first personal assistant, Laura, had found tickets for a Bruce Springsteen concert, but they were going to cost me $450 each. I asked Laura if she could find better prices for one of the other nights that he was playing. Laura also found tickets for “True West,” the hottest play on Broadway, for the dates that I wanted — simply by calling Tele-charge. I felt slightly abashed. Finally, she reported that she could have my car picked up and serviced, and that, with the $10-per-hour copayment for errands, the cost would be $35. I told her to go ahead and do that.

On Tuesday afternoon, I heard from a second assistant, Jennifer, who had five gift ideas for my cousin’s newborn baby — all available on the Web — as well as four gift ideas for our niece’s wedding. The ideas were a bit predictable, but then, I hadn’t provided much specific information about the baby or the newlyweds. I handed over the lists to my wife, who thought the wedding-gift ideas were somewhat dull. But she did find a present for the baby at one of the suggested Web sites. Jennifer also found three reasonably priced pet groomers for my Portuguese water dogs, but the only convenient one declined to provide us with references. Sadly, Jennifer couldn’t get me a reservation at Rao’s, a unique New York restaurant in East Harlem that operates like a private club. Instead, she suggested three relatively touristy alternatives.

On Wednesday, I heard from Laura again. She had found a way for me to subscribe to the trade magazine I had in mind, and she had come up with five birthday-gift ideas for my soon-to-be 15-year-old daughter. Two of those ideas seemed promising — a day on the town in Manhattan, which included transportation by limousine, lunch, and access to a taping of the MTV show “Total Request Live”; or a week at a basketball camp run by players and coaches of the WNBA’s New York Liberty. Laura also came back with nine new choices for Springsteen tickets, with most of them in a slightly more palatable $200-per-ticket price range. She’d also found front-row seats for one Springsteen performance at $350 per ticket.

The final assistant to weigh in was Andrew, who had two suggestions for family bike trips in France this summer, both of which fit our schedule and our budget.

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I didn’t get every single item on my wish list, but, for $35, I got a lot of information — and the service certainly saved me several hours’ worth of work. I also suspect that the quality of service would have improved as the company got to know me better. Circles’s software allows it to learn more and more about customer preferences over time, and to use that information to make more customized and more proactive suggestions. Circles insists that it won’t make customer information available to anyone outside of the company, but it’s still a little unnerving to think that, merely by making the requests that I did, I’ve turned over a great deal of information about myself. However, when I thought more about it, I realized that I had thrown caution to the wind long before on that score. With all of the information that we now send and receive over the Internet, it’s hard to imagine how we retain much privacy about our spending habits or our lifestyle choices.

Convenience, however, has its drawbacks. While working for Netscape, Lynn Corsiglia, now a vice president of human resources at DoveBid.com Inc., had access to LesConcierges. “I was working long hours, and, at one point, I had them plan my eldest daughter’s birthday party,” Corsiglia explains. “When my daughter found out, she was furious with me. She thought that I should have done the planning myself. Those services can be helpful, but, if you’re not careful, using them can send a wrong message to people in your life.”

Of course, it’s equally possible to use services like Circles in order to free the time that you need to attend to important activities in your life. “Psychologically, it’s extremely significant just to have them there,” says Ellen Madonia, 35, who works for Webhire Inc., which offers Circles as an employee benefit. “If there’s something important that I can’t get done, I know there is someone who can handle it cheaply and efficiently for me. The real challenge is to remember that it’s available. I’m not used to having people do things for me.”

I know what she means. I arranged with Circles to have my car picked up and serviced on a Tuesday morning, when I was going to be away on a trip. On Monday evening, I packed quickly, blithely got into my car, and drove to the airport for my flight. The Circles driver arrived for my car punctually at 7:30 the next morning. My wife apologized on my behalf. Next week, as penance, I’m taking the car to be serviced myself.

Tony Schwartz (tschwartz@fastcompany.com) is a contributing editor to Fast Company. He is also the author of “What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America” (Bantam, 1996).

About the author

Tony Schwartz is President and CEO of The Energy Project, a company that helps individuals and organizations fuel energy, engagement, focus and productivity by harnessing the science of high performance. Tony’s most recent book, "Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live?" is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller.

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