"It's not about the value of the task, it's about the value of me not having to do it, or even think about it anymore." That's how Ted Roden describes Fancy Hands, his new side project that provides virtual personal assistants in the cloud for a low monthly fee.
Need an appointment made for you? Research done on Fantasy Baseball players you might want to draft onto your team? Roden has hired more than 100 people based in the US and England who can perform almost any quick, legal task for you, within minutes, at any hour day or night. You can send them 15 emails with task requests per month for a $30 fee. An algorithm sorts the tasks and routes each one to the most appropriate person.
Roden says the people he's hired include retired lawyers, actors waiting with time to spare before going on camera and former employees of competitor ChaCha. He wrote a program to sift through piles of applications and plans on using the company's own service providers to select new hires in the future as well.
Roden himself has a day job in the R&D department of the New York Times. He's a creative dynamo whose energy spills out in side projects like the visually compelling social bookmarking service EnjoysThin.gs and an O'Reilly book about building real-time websites, due out this Summer. Previously, he was the 2nd full-time programmer at art-video portal Vimeo.
Roden says he built Fancy Hands because he wanted to build something big. He calls it that just because it was the filename for his first bit of code, a tradition across all his projects. He's bootstrapping it himself "and my wife says it's ok," he says.
Fancy Hands is easy for customers to use. I asked the service to find where in town I could buy a "sweater bag" to run sweaters through the washing machine and got a great response, complete with multiple options online and a personal recommendation, within an hour. I asked for links to reviews of iPad RSS reading applications and the first response I got was terrible. I emailed back complaining and the person on the other end sent me back something even worse. Then Roden noticed and reassigned the request to someone who filled it beautifully.
Roden says that for now he's doing the quality control himself and generally well after the tasks have been completed. He's got a complex series of tubes and pulleys rigged up to sort tasks, though. He calls it "the eHarmony of Getting Things Done."
At its core Fancy Hands is people, though. And the people are paid by the task. Roden has created a system that ranks tasks by complexity and rewards assistants with higher pay when they complete harder tasks. Once they reach a particular pay grade, all their tasks become better paying, thus incentivizing them to dive in to harder and harder work.
The people behind the scenes are often surprisingly enthusiastic. Roden says that compared to other, similar systems, Fancy Hands is more affordable, competitive on speed and often surprisingly superior in quality of results. At least at launch, the people he's hired seem relatively interested in the project and the work.
This afternoon I asked Fancy Hands to make me an appointment with "Bob's Heating System Repair" and gave it my own phone number to call, just to see how it went down. I answered my next inbound call with "hello, Bob's heating repair, this is Bob." And went through a few minutes of appointment conversation before telling the virtual assistant what I was really doing. I think he felt a little bit toyed with, but he was very professional before and after I disclosed my true identity.
He said he had interacted just a little bit with Ted and that he was very interested to see what kind of research he would be tasked with doing. He was very cautious about telling me anything specific about what the system was like on his end because "we're a brand new company, just starting." I thought it was charming that one of the 100 people hired to do tasks for a fee felt so closely associated with the business.
People familiar with this kind of "human powered micro-outsourcing" will no doubt be familiar with Amazon's Mechanical Turk. All kinds of businesses bid for Turk users to perform rapid little tasks that require just a touch of human intelligence. Spammers pay Turkers to leave spammy spam around the web, podcasters pay Turkers to transcribe tiny fragments of audio files, businesses like Citysearch and Yelp pay Turkers to confirm changes to local business listings submitted by users. It's a big business, a platform that other businesses are being built on top of.
These services can be taken too far, of course. Author Tim Ferriss famously paid a team of assistants to pretend to be him on dating websites. They vetted women for intelligence and appearance before scheduling a day full of short first dates all in a row. That's just dishonest, an interpersonal crime of convenience.
There's something both more and less human about what Fancy Hands is doing, though. Its algorithmic task sorting could become very complex but the people on both ends are more invested, too. Roden says his model of $30 for 15 tasks per month makes people stop and ponder whether a task is really one they want to expend part of their monthly subscription on. There's something intriguing about that.
For himself, Ted Roden has a simple rule for using the system he built. "If I think about anything twice, I just put it into Fancy Hands," he says. It will be interesting to see how often his customers think about Fancy Hands and whether enough of them will renew their subscriptions to make this a sustainable service. If nothing else, this mix of human and machine is thought provoking, and perhaps prescient, in the way it strategically blends the online and offline worlds.