Last night, at a Time Inc. party held in honor of 10 New York City Startups to Watch, it was hard not to wonder what it takes to come up with an idea that's good enough to get not a glance, but a place on an entrepreneurial watch list.
To find out, Portfolio.com met a couple of entrepreneurs at a party held at a swank New York hotel penthouse in their honor. Neither were sure what exactly led to the accolade, but each had something in common: a good idea that flitted from one person to the next and eventually landed on enough influential people to become a hit (and extra points, it seems, if that person writes for the New York Times.)
Among those honored was Ted Roden, the chief executive officer of Fancy Hands, which lets users buy the services of a personal assistant to handle virtual tasks everyone hates doing, like getting on the phone with the cable company, calling the car-rental place to have a bill adjusted, placing a flower order for mom, or finding a good vegan restaurant in, say, Denver. Now two years old, the company was featured last summer in the New York Times business section (which also mentioned some similar services) and on Slate.
Roden started the business because he hates getting on the phone and sitting on hold and wasting time that could be spent doing something more valuable. A bundle of 10 tasks per month, for example, costs $25. There are some unusual requests, which Roden couldn’t get into because of privacy issues. One caveat: “We can’t break the law,” he says.
However, here was one example that he was able to share that was a bit outside their usual realm: “There was one guy who didn’t realize that we don’t actually go places for people who was at a breakfast event in a ballroom having a good time and he wanted to do something nice for the other people in the room,” Roden recalls. Instead of saying “no can do,” a Fancy Hands personal assistant called the hotel, and the gentleman and the attendees were hand-delivered trays of orange juice.
We’re not sure who picked up the tab, but we're pretty sure that one Fancy Hands client was the hero of the room—and probably told friends about it too.
Fancy Hands, which has picked up $1 million in seed funding, now has partnerships with companies such as 1-800-FLOWERS, thousands of personal assistants, and clients all over the United States.
“We’re not a real startup,” Roden said. “We’re a business.”
Another honoree at the event was SideTour, cofounded by Vipin Goyal, who is also chief executive officer.
SideTour, which is so far just available in New York City with plans to expand, connects people looking for unique experiences with specialists who can provide them. For example, a Manhattan chef might teach a pasta-making class or host a dinner at her house, while a seasoned bartender might give a tequila tour. Or maybe a graffiti artist in Queens who will show would-be artists the craft and a band member who will let a music fan sit in on a rehearsal.
Goyal came up with the idea while he and his wife, both “in transition” between jobs amid the recession, took the opportunity to travel on two around-the-world tickets. While spending time in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, they stayed with friends and friends of friends, but found that it was the unplanned that was the most fun.
“The best experiences we had were all those serendipitous experiences,” he says, like meeting someone at an adjoining restaurant table and being invited to their home. “When we’re traveling, we’re eager and we want to see things. At home, you can put your blinders on and go to the same five bars and restaurants all the time.”
The host sets the price for the event, and the company takes a 20 percent cut.
It also got noted in the Times after a reporter there stumbled upon it via a friend, loved the concept, and decided to write about it.
The company, which participated in last summer’s TechStars, raised a $1.5 million seed round afterward. Goyal’s advice to fellow entrepreneurs looking to turn heads? Choose great cofounders—he loves spending time with his—and get the idea out there quickly, then tweak as needed.
He and his cofounders developed their plan over three weeks of TechStars, then spent two weeks building the site and launched last August.
“Sometimes it’s scary to put something out there, but we just went ahead and did it,” Goyal said. “And everything we learned came from just jumping in and learning while doing.”