Today was Ted Roden's last day at his job working in the R&D Department of the New York Times, as the company's Creative Technologist. Roden is leaving what many would consider a dream job to focus on Fancy Hands, the low-cost virtual assistant startup he launched nine months ago. Long a side-project man, Roden's previous work has included writing the O'Reilly book on making web apps real time. Fancy Hands is the first time he's made the jump out of a day job.

I've been subscribed to Fancy Hands for the past three months ($35/mo) and am finding it very, very useful. I like to push the limits on what I can ask the service to do and the people behind it regularly deliver fantastic results. Fancy Hands is probably going to get a whole lot fancier soon. In addition to gaining Roden's primary focus, Fancy Hands will soon start offering telephone services. They'll listen to your voice mail and email you any important information inside!

Here's how I described Fancy Hands when it launched last April: 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.

As I said, I like to push the limits on the kinds of things I've requested - but here are a few examples of requests that got surprisingly good responses:

  • Find me a list of Portland, Oregon pottery collectives, places I can rent a pottery wheel. Fancy Hands sent me a nice list with descriptions, adresses and contact info.
  • Find me a web interface for deduplicating a body of text, I asked. A Fancy Hands worker wrote me back and said they couldn't find one, but here's how you do it on the command line! Cool.
  • A few weeks ago I was hanging out a bar talking to a friend in the tincture business and a mysterious, much-respected herbalism class in rural Oregon came up in conversation. Where was said class, my wife asked? Neither our friend nor Google knew the specifics. A quick email to Fancy Hands had the answer in my inbox by the time we got home.
  • I asked Fancy Hands for a CSV file listing the name, location and URL of every daily newspaper in US. No problem at all.
  • I've asked for and received prompt and quality information in response for my requsts for: contact info for data scientists I could interview for a story, work histories for employees at two companies I was writing about, blog posts discussing technical considerations when implementing page pre-loading in the background of web or mobile apps.

Is it worth $35 to me to get 15 requests like this filled each month? You'd better believe it is! The hardest thing about Fancy Hands, though, is being able to think of 15 things to ask it to do each month. There are no roll-overs month to month, so you might not feel like it's worth it if you don't ask Fancy Hands for requests often. That's probably how the economics work out so well, too.

I think most people have much more mundane requests, like "call a plumber and schedule me an appointment for repairs." I've set some time aside (while walking my dogs) to think specifically about how I could use this resource most effectively. There's always some overhead to using and managing a service like this, and the work is generally not as good as you'd do yourself - but it's pretty great to have a Fancy Hand helping you out with things like this while you do something else!

So far, I've thought of Fancy Hands like Mechanical Turk, but for a smaller number of tasks that require more intelligence and good-faith engagement. That's exactly what I've found from the service and I think there are some places to use it alongside other applications in a work-flow. Really good faith engagement, in fact. Sometimes it feels like the people behind Mechanical Turk actively dislike you, but with Fancy Hands it's quite the opposite. There's certainly a mix of human and machine on the back end of the service itself.

Tonight Roden says he'll begin experimenting with telephone service, something he says will be priced for individual users but that he expects will be especially popular with Unlimited and Business users. That feature will allow for complex rules to be set up and the output will be text summaries of the important and actionable information in a voice mail. Roden says he's using the telephony API from Twilio to power the feature. That sounds interesting - and it's likely just the beginning.

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