According to most experts, the average American's leisure time has increased fairly steadily over the past hundred years, but it still often feels like there aren't enough hours in the day. And between the always-lurking threat of a pink slip and the ever-increasing number of electronic tools that blur the line between work and home, it's no wonder that many of us find ourselves constantly scurrying from place to place in a Red Bull-accented fog.
When the wealthy get overwhelmed with items on their to do lists, they often hire personal assistants -- people to whom they can delegate anything from picking up laundry to making hotel reservations. Unfortunately, that kind of help doesn't come cheap.
For some entrepreneurs, our desperate search for free time has led to a promising business opportunity. TaskRabbit and PA For a Day, two new companies, have a simple goal: to put personal assistants within reach of people who need them, but normally couldn't afford them.
Assistance by the Hour
Charell Star was a full-time event planner, which meant spending 150 days a year on the road. On the rare occasions that she wasn't traveling or preparing to travel, Star found herself scurrying to catch up with "lots of little, time-consuming tasks" that ate up her time. "I needed flexible, affordable help," she remembers, "but there wasn't any service that offered that."
Realizing that she couldn't be the only one in that bind, Star launched PA for a Day, a company that provides personal assistants on an as-needed basis. For $20 an hour, with a two-hour minimum, the site's customers can hire someone to do any of dozens of jobs, from walking pets to editing proposals. "Our PAs come from all over, and have backgrounds in various fields," Star points out. "Many of them are recent graduates who are currently unemployed or who don't want to work full time." Given its pool of educated workers, it's not surprising that the site is able to field qualified help to handle a wide variety of office tasks, the kind of jobs that are usually filled by higher-cost temp services.
Star's PAs are available from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, but she finds that customers most commonly schedule them for weekdays between noon and 5 p.m.: "Our customers are usually at work, and they often hire PAs to get things done before they get home," she says. Once customers discover how convenient having a PA is, they often return: "We get a lot of repeat business: 90% to 95% of our customers rebook," Star notes.
Recently, the company conducted an internal survey, in which 97% of customers gave it positive reviews. So far, it only operates in New York City, but Star plans to expand. "We're looking at Chicago, Atlanta, and other cities that have a public transportation infrastructure that is similar to New York's," she says.
TaskRabbit: Putting Odd Jobs Out for Bid
Leah Busque also came to the idea of starting a personal assistant business at a moment when she needed one herself. "My husband and I were getting ready to go to dinner, but needed to get dog food for our golden retriever," she remembers. "He said 'Wouldn't it be nice if there was a place where I could go online and connect with someone who could bring the food to my door?'" That night, the pair dreamed up the plan for TaskRabbit.
On the site, customers place requests for jobs that they need to have done. In return, workers -- whom the website calls TaskRabbits -- bid on the jobs. The customer can then choose a worker based on price, as well as on their bio and TaskRabbit reputation.
Busque emphasizes that TaskRabbit is careful about whom it hires: Would-be TaskRabbits undergo an online quiz, a video interview and a background check. But users can also rely on the TaskRabbit community, and the reputations that workers build on the site.
"Our workers have profiles, biographies, pictures of themselves, ratings and reviews on the site," she says. "This 'reputation engine' makes it easy to judge the TaskRabbits." On the other side of the coin, she notes, people can flag inappropriate job requests. "There is a lot of self-policing by the community," Busque says.
Busque started TaskRabbit in Boston, but has recently been working to expand her reach. The business now operates in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and several other major cities. This week, TaskRabbit launched its Seattle site, and the company plans to keep growing. "We have requests coming in for new cities," Busque explains. "People are asking when we're coming to their neighborhood and what they can do to get us there faster."
It's not surprising: An impressive 77% of users have stated that they would recommend the site and -- especially with unemployment remaining high -- it offers a very attractive option for the unemployed or underemployed. "Basically, we're making it possible for our Rabbits to become micro-entrepreneurs, to be their own bosses," Busque notes. "We currently have over 4,000 task rabbits, and most of that growth came in the last year. How many people can say that they created 4,000 jobs in a year?"
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at@bruce1971.