Editor’s Note: For every nine-year-old kid that dreams of meeting Batman, there’s an overworked adult that would do anything for the assistance of Batman’s butler. Yes, a new service allows you and me to have our very own Alfred (as long as you live in Boston or New York).
Marcela Sapone and Jess Beck conceived of Alfred, after working 90-hour work weeks on Wall Street. “You barely saw the light of day,” Sapone said. “I was not doing a good job taking care of myself.” When was she supposed to clean the house, pick up the dry cleaning, take out the trash, and buy the groceries? Enter Alfred, the perfect solution. For $99 a month, Alfred could buy what she needed most: time.
Business and economics correspondent Paul Solman sat down to chat with CEO Sapone about how she came up with the idea for the company, Hello Alfred, and how she hopes it will liberate people in busy careers. Tonight, tune into the NewsHour to watch our Making Sen$e segment about the company. The text of Sapone’s extended conversation with Paul below has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Paul Solman: When did this idea of your own personal butler occur to you? And in what form?
Marcela Sapone: When I was working in New York, I was working in finance and trying to push my own career. I was completely busy, and I didn’t have any help. When I went to business school, I met my co-founder Jess who had a similar experience. We were both working in New York, working 90 hour work weeks, and we didn’t even have time to go to the dry cleaning and pick up our clothes. The idea was basically just to have someone in your life who could help take care of all of the things that you didn’t have time to take care of yourself. We were fed up so we just built it for ourselves. And the thing that happened is, we became really focused on fundamentally changing how people like us lived. Something like this needs to exist.
Paul Solman: So you think of this as missionary?
Marcela Sapone: It’s a strong word, but I mean, we’re not making toothpaste, we’re not making pants. We’re actually saying, there are humans out there in the world trying to do things with the most precious asset we have, and that’s time. We are connecting people and saying, let’s help each other, right? Let’s go do things that we’re passionate about, and use our time the best way possible. We’re helping each other to get things done.
Paul Solman: So that’s the germ of the idea? How did it evolve?
Marcela Sapone: If your secret weapon in life is people helping you, and the key word is people. And there’s a lot of amazing services out there and a lot of people who are redefining value chains. But there’s no one who’s coming and putting them all together into a single place, with a relationship, with a human that you trust, who would do things as well, if not better than you would yourself.
It was really when we began focusing on a human who could glue everything together, and who you could trust to do things for you, that the idea began to congeal together. Then the background behind making it happen was to take all the tech of all these different services and aggregate them. We made a platform so we could route hundreds of requests at the same time, and take all of the cognitive load off of the people who we are going to employ.
Paul Solman: Your service would have been impossible without the TaskRabbits, the Ubers, the grocery delivery services and so forth.
Marcela Sapone: Right. For two reasons. One, the TaskRabbits of the world defined the ability to create a platform where people could connect to help each other. And they made us comfortable with that concept. I think businesses like Uber and Airbnb have also shown that sentiment of essentially helping one another. It’s strangers helping you, and you’re also having people who are in your most private space, right?
So the sentiment, the overall cultural sentiment towards sharing things and being in each other’s private spaces, has changed. And without that, there is no way that Alfred could exist. So that’s number one. Number two is the ability to connect all these services, book things online, and as a result, do things in a very efficient way. So, if this was the 1900s, we’d have hundreds of calls to get this done, but this is just happening automatically.
Paul Solman: Once you had this idea, and it evolved into something specific, what did you do?
Marcela Sapone: We looked for a name. We looked for a name for the thing that we were building, because it felt like a new category. It felt like a luxury that was not accessible before. And so, you know, this isn’t frivolous, but if you look at the name we chose, we chose Alfred for a reason. And that’s because it connotates and symbolizes that act of service and taking care of people.
A milkman run that gets all of your chores done. And visits every week, puts your dry cleaning in the closet, puts your groceries in the fridge, and take your packages away. Just completely automatically.
And then we constructed the concept of, hey, every person out there can have their own Alfred, and that these people are actually really qualified, intuitive, smart, truly wonderful people. People who want to be connected to their community and help you. We would train them and, and essentially create a really standardized milkman run. A milkman run that gets all of your chores done. And visits every week, puts your dry cleaning in the closet, puts your groceries in the fridge, and take your packages away. Just completely automatically. From that you build a lot of trust, and the things you can do from there are much greater.
Paul Solman: So you had to have people willing to allow you into their private space, you had to have lots of services that are easy to locate, and you had to have the image of Michael Caine?
Marcela Sapone: I mean, honestly, that man taught us a lot of things, right? He’s a normal person, and yet, he’s a superhero. And through sufficient technology and organization, he was able to do something pretty extraordinary. And there’s no reason you or I can’t be just as extraordinary as Batman.
Paul Solman: I guess the question is, were you leveraging a character—an actor, in fact?
Marcela Sapone: Right. I mean, there’s a certain regalness and nobility and trust, right?
Paul Solman: Oh he’s very reassuring, Michael Caine as Alfred in the Batman movies.
Marcela Sapone: Right. And, you know, there are also stereotypes, right? That only women take care of us, and we wanted to break that.
Paul Solman: Oh, is that right? Was that very much part of your thinking?
Marcela Sapone: Very, very, very. We did that for a reason.
Paul Solman: So now you have the idea, and now you have the name. Why Hello Alfred?
Marcela Sapone: We wanted it to be a conversation. This is a relationship with someone you trust.
Paul Solman: Got it. So now you have the concept and the name. What did you do to make it work?
Marcela Sapone: We looked at models where we could group chores together so they happened at the same time, on the same day, for you and your neighbors. So you’re essentially sharing the cost of a personal assistant. And then we looked at all the different services out there in the world, and said, which of you vendors—whether it be dry cleaning or groceries or home cleaning—are really truly doing a good job? Who we can rely on, and showcase to be the service providers? We would act as an advocate for the customer to book, coordinate, manage, let these guys in the house, and then if things ever go wrong, take care of it.
Paul Solman: How did you choose the vendors? On what basis?
Marcela Sapone: We used them. We looked for the ones that had the highest ratings, whether it was online or offline, and then we simply sent them dry cleaning. Or we booked a cleaning and watched. And it’s the cream of the crop. It’s really evident. We’re looking for local businesses who really care about what they’re doing. And those people who really shine are the type of people we want to have relationships and partnerships with.
Paul Solman: So you’re in a sense not only patronizing these people, but you’re promoting them?
Marcela Sapone: That’s right. We’re giving them a concentration of clients that are reliable and who, basically, are asking for service every week. Because this is all about a routine. And that makes these on-demand and local providers actually have a healthier business. Why? We’re guaranteeing volume in a geographically dense way. That’s locked in, and they have operational transparencies. They know that next Monday, you and I are going to send the dry cleaning.
Life is actually becoming unmanageable. And the hours that we’re working are going up, and the amount of complexity in our lives is only going up.
Paul Solman: And that’s definitely advantageous to them, since they can then plan whatever they need to invest in, for example.
Marcela Sapone: Right. And we’re doing all of the work in the middle to the day, which is exactly when no one is asking for an on-demand cleaning.
Paul Solman: So this is sort of an off-peak load.
Marcela Sapone: Exactly.
Paul Solman: Okay. So now you’ve got the idea, you’ve got the name, you’ve got the vendors, don’t you need money at some point in order to sustain yourselves, at the very least?
Marcela Sapone: First you need customers. We started in Boston, and we essentially put flyers underneath the door and just watched as people signed up. We ran this business ourselves, bootstrapped, for six months with no money.
Paul Solman: Was this money you’d made while you were working in finance?
Marcela Sapone: No. I mean, this was our own money, but it didn’t take a lot of money to start this business. It was about organization, right? So we hired two Alfreds, and they became basically owners in the businesses. They were bought into what we were doing. And then we just ran the business and charged money. The model worked and we made money so we were able to grow.
Paul Solman: So you were actually self-sustaining?
Marcela Sapone: Yeah!
Paul Solman: In the beginning?
Marcela Sapone: It was. And it was, to be honest, a business that was small and could’ve run just like that and made good money. But that wasn’t the point. The point again was to fundamentally change how people lived.
Paul Solman: So that you could liberate single women who wouldn’t have any other support?
Marcela Sapone: Not just women. I mean, young people in their careers are just so busy. Right? Life is actually becoming unmanageable. And the hours that we’re working are going up, and the amount of complexity in our lives is only going up. And there’s cognitive load. So even if you have all of these on-demand services, you still have to actually ask for them, right?
Paul Solman: Oh yeah.
Marcela Sapone: So what could be more convenient than not having to ask?