Recession sparks boom in personal-assistant business

Imagine if you could hire someone to do all those pesky chores that you always hate to do -- pick up the dry cleaning, make the kids' lunches, finally set up your online bill payments.

The good news for those of us who aren't Brad or Angelina is that the recession -- the one that has basically eliminated the middle class -- has created an ever-more eager pool of personal assistants, many of whom were recently laid off from a corporation near you and who have already swallowed a big old chunk of humble pie. What better use of an ex-middle manager's skills than to allow them to manage the project you call your life?

How serious a growth business is this glorified errand girl stuff? Well, the industry's trade group, the International Concierge and Errand Association, just changed its name to the International Concierge and Lifestyle Management Association. Sounds serious -- or at least more expensive -- to me.

Katharine Giovanni, who owns Triangle Concierge in North Carolina and is on the board of the newly-renamed ICLMA, says the nascent concierge services industry has been given a hefty boost from the recession. While the group has just 300 members in 130 countries, the overall industry is much larger -- in the thousands, she says. A bulk of the industry's growth has occurred as laid off workers try their hand at starting their own business, says Giovanni. Starting a personal assistant business offers a low barrier to entry, as well as low overhead costs. All you need is a home office, phone, voicemail and insurance. Of course, having a web site is nice, but word of mouth and recommendations on LinkedIn often prove more effective.

Plus, there are many possible revenue streams. One woman who started a personal-assistant business in the South targets recently-divorced men who were used to having their wives manage the home. Then there is the Beverly Hills, Ca.-based personal assistant who works with the height of discretion taking care of those who need post-plastic surgery care. She runs to the drugstore, fixes meals, and in general lets the newly face-lifted rest out of the public eye.

"Everyone is trying to jam 36 hours into a 24-hour day, " says Giovanni. "If you outsource some of the more mundane but time-consuming tasks, you have more time to do what you want -- whatever that is -- spending time with the family or just working more."

Rates vary by region but the general range is $25 to $55 an hour, with Los Angeles and New York commanding the higher range of fees.

Stephen Bender, a West Hollywood publicist, swears by Lambent Services, who he has had build him a database, book travel and organize his closets while waiting for his cable guy to show up. His relationship with Jessica, his personal assistant, began when he saw a segment on the Today Show about how tricky it is to receive rebates these days. Bender had a few big rebates of his own to redeem and hired Jessica to take care of it. Within four hours, she had managed to get him rebates on his Blackberry ($100) and a Staples printer ($30). She also returned empty ink cartridges ($15), got an airline to refund a baggage fee overcharge ($60), got a GoDaddy credit for something he didn't need and would never use, returned some things to the store before the return policy expired, and convince Time Warner cable to give him three days credit for the period when his wireless access didn't work. On top of that, she also set up mobile banking for him and created uniform user names and passwords for his many online sites.

Christie Gaderson is an Austin-based personal assistant who has done everything from buying cat food to sending out a family's holiday cards. She has price-shopped for furniture, made reservations for private jet rentals and moved a family out of one house and into another.

Gaderson, who has a degree in accounting and a strong desire to never be an accountant, earns $40 an hour and works steadily for multiple clients. She says her key to success is being able to prioritize, manage multiple tasks and put out fires. She also maintains a strong sense of confidentiality and doesn't pester her clients with 20 phone calls a day.

Despite the Hollywood image that personal assistants exist to be abused verbally -- Ari Gold are you listening? -- most report that their clients treat them respectfully and appreciate the job they do.

Although Zele Avradopoulos, a Boston-based personal assistant, recalls a client who did make some odd demands. "I once had to go to the airport and pick up his backpack that he forgot on board the plane," Avradopoulos said. It beat the time he had to order a special cheese and wrap it in cheese cloth, or when he was asked to repair a shrunken wool sweater.

Of course, not everyone can bring themselves to hire an assistant to help them handle their personal lives. Best-selling author Hope Edelman has one for her professional life -- a young woman who helped arrange her three-month book tour promoting The Possibility of Everything. But as for her personal life, it's still in the fantasy stage. She is clear about what she would have an assistant do though: Wait in line for her at the supermarket. "I actually like going to the supermarket," says Edelman, "I like to walk up and down the aisles picking out food. But I just get so bored and impatient with the standing in line to pay part."

Gee, I wonder if they'd go to the dentist for me.
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