Two months ago, before my wife and I had our first child, we enjoyed what seems now to have been all the free time in the world. The house was in order, and my e-mail was under control. We'd managed to plant a lovely garden, and our Netflix queue was full of long, dour, highbrow movies with subtitles. Things have changed. Now dishes pile up, we forget to take out the garbage, and I'm several weeks behind on e-mail. Weeds have overrun the garden. Our taste in movies, meanwhile, has gone down market—last week we tried to rewatch Airplane, but it proved a bit too complex, and we had to stretch it out over three nights.
True, we've lately managed to get into a pretty good routine with the baby, but the slightest disturbance sends everything into a panic. The other day our newish electric kettle broke, and I became paralyzed with indecision. I didn't have the box or the receipt—should I bother waiting on hold with customer service to see whether I could return it? Should I just suck it up and buy a new kettle? For a week, I deliberated the pros and cons.
We finally did get a new kettle, but it was through no help of my own. I outsourced the task to Fancy Hands, a Web site that will take on your most unpleasant tasks in return for a small fee. Within a couple of hours of submitting my request, Carolynn, a Fancy Hands assistant, got back to me with my options. She'd called up both the kettle manufacturer and my local Macy's and found out each company's return policies. Macy's, Carolynn told me, would take back the kettle even without a receipt or a box; all I had to do was go to the store and ask for Joe in the housewares department.
The next day, I walked in to Macy's, found Joe, and walked out with a new kettle. The entire process involved a couple of e-mails and five minutes in the store. I was dressed in jeans and an old polo shirt, but at that moment I felt like Anna Wintour. In Fancy Hands, I had a staff of eager assistants who took a stab at virtually anything I threw at them as soon as I snapped my fingers—and they were good at it, too! (I believe this is the definition of heaven in several religious traditions.)
Fancy Hands isn't alone in the virtual-assistant business. Many such services have popped up over the years—there's also TimeSVR, Ask Sunday, and TaskRabbit. They range widely in price and the kinds of services they offer; I tried Fancy Hands and TaskRabbit, which seemed to be the cheapest. Fancy Hands charges $35 per month to do 15 tasks, and $45 for an unlimited number of tasks. But Fancy Hands has a list of tasks it can't do for you—its assistants can't physically go anywhere and they can't pay for stuff (the company is beta-testing that option now). TaskRabbit, on the other hand, will go out and run errands and has the ability to pay for stuff. The downside: TaskRabbit is available only in Boston and the San Francisco area. (It will be expanding to other cities soon.) It can also be quite expensive. On TaskRabbit, you offer a maximum price you're willing to pay for each task, and TaskRabbit's assistants bid against one another to try to do it for less. In practice, the site's founder, Leah Busque, says this comes to about $15 to $20 per task.
I found this price justifiable for errands that involve a lot of physical labor or that would be difficult to accomplish during the workday. For instance, my wife and I recently bought some bulky furniture that we had to pick up at a local store. I went on TaskRabbit and offered $20 to anyone who was willing to stop by my house to pick up the receipt, go to the store to pick up the furniture, and bring it back to the house. A TaskRabbit assistant named Max won the task. Max's profile described him as a recent high-school graduate who was in the process of applying to art school; TaskRabbit also showed me that he'd done several errands for other people and had won good marks. (In addition to this eBay-like reputation-vetting system, TaskRabbit also runs each of its assistants—called "runners"—through an application process and criminal background check.) Over e-mail, Max and I arranged for a time for him to run my errand. He showed up at the appointed hour to pick up the receipt; within about 30 minutes, he was back with the furniture.
The $20 I paid Max was less than the furniture store would have charged me for delivery, but that price is still expensive enough for me to think twice about using the site regularly. TaskRabbit, in other words, feels like a luxury. Fancy Hands, at about $2 per task, feels more like a genuinely good deal. Over the last week, my Slate colleagues and I submitted several requests to Fancy Hands assistants, and they did a great job on nearly every one of them.
They were particularly good at tasks that involve long, tedious, possibly confrontational phone calls. Julia Turner, Slate's deputy editor, used the service to track down a company that had put up curtains in her house. Julia had called the installers several times to ask them to come back and fix something, but she hadn't heard back. Fancy Hands took to the job with gusto—an assistant made many calls during business hours, eventually wrangling someone on the phone and making an appointment. Julia was so impressed that she's considering subscribing to the service herself. In the same vein, June Thomas, Slate's foreign editor, got Fancy Hands to call up her gym and cancel her membership, which June says she'd been planning to do for many months. For a couple of dollars, she saved hundreds. (Ted Roden, Fancy Hands' founder, made an exception to allow multiple people at Slate to use a single service plan; ordinarily that's not allowed, but he said that he doesn't mind if a single plan is shared by a married couple or a few members of the same household.)
Fancy Hands also performed well on the research questions that my editor Josh Levin suggested. "Can you come up with a list of contemporary star athletes who were born or currently live in Raleigh, North Carolina?" I asked Fancy Hands. In a few hours I got back just such a list; sure, it was nothing we couldn't have found with some Googling, but if you hate combing through search results for a definitive answer—or if you're just plain lazy—Fancy Hands seems like a good option.
Still, there were a couple of minor hitches on some tasks, each involving credit cards. June's gym told Fancy Hands that it needed her credit card to process the cancellation. Julia, meanwhile, had asked the service to change a flight she'd booked using frequent flier miles; the airline told Fancy Hands that it would need a credit card to confirm the reservation. Both June's and Julia's assistants asked them for their credit card numbers to finish their transactions—that's a no-no under Fancy Hands' terms, and both June and Julia said they felt uncomfortable being asked for that info.
Roden sounded quite embarrassed when I told him about assistants asking for credit card numbers. "That shouldn't have happened," he told me. (Fancy Hands declines to handle credit card numbers because it doesn't want to be held responsible if someone goes on a spending spree.) To avoid such scenarios, the site is working on a reimbursement service that would allow it to handle transactions on your behalf. Fancy Hands would buy you an airline ticket, for instance, and then you'd reimburse the service for the booking.
The other big problem with virtual assistants is less fixable: They can't perform tasks that require intimate knowledge about you or your life. For example, Fancy Hands can't comb through my e-mail and respond appropriately to each sender; that would require access to my brain, and so far, at least, that isn't available over the Internet. Or see this task that Chad Lorenz, Slate's home page editor, wanted done: "Purchase suitable birthday cards for everyone I need to send birthday cards to for the year, organize them chronologically, and add a sticky note with the date of the person's birthday and their address."
When I ran Lorenz's idea by Roden, he said that Fancy Hands might be able to do something like that someday. The more tasks you assign to the service, the more it learns about your personality and interests. What's more, the site might well integrate with Facebook, Yelp, and Twitter to get a better picture of your friends.
Does it sound creepy to have virtual assistants trawling through your life to make personalized recommendations? It shouldn't. Real-life personal assistants do that kind of thing all the time. Why should Anna Wintour have all the fun?