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Tech-age butlers aren’t just for superheroes anymore

If you're too busy and you want to outsource your chores, there are apps galore these days. Now there’s Alfred, a new online service that aims to scale up the business of butlering by offering relatively low-cost help with shopping, cleaning and errands in certain neighborhoods. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight, an on-demand assistant for those with too much to do and too little time.

    Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman has the story. It's part of our ongoing reporting Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the "NewsHour."

  • EMMA STANTON, Hello Alfred Client:

    As a single person living on my own, the only reason I have so much stuff in my fridge is because somebody else has bothered to do the shopping for me.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    When Dr. Emma Stanton moved to Boston this spring, work left little time for prepping her new apartment.

  • EMMA STANTON:

    It was cleaned when I moved in, which was about nine days ago.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Or choosing a new coffee maker.

  • EMMA STANTON:

    I just asked for particular recommendations, and this was one of three they suggested.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Cleaning her clothes.

  • EMMA STANTON:

    This is my laundry. I just chuck it in here. The Alfred comes and picks it up.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And who exactly is Alfred? A new online service, the company's name, Hello Alfred, inspired by Batman's ultimate butler.

  • MICHAEL CAINE, Actor:

    A problem with the graphite, sir.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Who caters to needs you didn't even know you had.

  • MICHAEL CAINE:

    May I suggest you try to avoid landing on your head?

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Now, if you really want to outsource your chores these days, there are apps galore, among them Instacart for shopping, Homejoy for cleaning. But Stanton's Alfred does it all.

  • DR. EMMA STANTON:

    Hello Alfred were able to be here last week, when I had my Wi-Fi installed in my new apartment. Hello Alfred were able to be here when a storage company came to pick up a box that I needed to go to storage, and deal with some of the other hassles that happen when you move house.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Hello Alfred was conceived by Marcela Sapone and Jess Beck, who both pulled out of Harvard Business School last year to scale up the business of butlering.

  • WOMAN:

    And the winner of the 2014 Disrupt San Francisco Battlefield Competition is Alfred.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Sapone's case in point in pitching Alfred at a high-powered startup competition was harried, hypothetical Dan.

  • MARCELA SAPONE, CEO, Hello Alfred:

    The butler you never had, for the very first time, the luxury of personal service for the rest of us. For $99 a month, Dan can get his very own Alfred that visits once a week, every week, on set days to take care of his household chores.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Alfred was suddenly on the app map. And within months, Sapone and Beck had more than $12 million in funding, for an idea they'd come up with while working on Wall Street.

  • MARCELA SAPONE:

    We were working 90-hour workweeks. I mean, you barely saw the light of day. I wasn't doing a good job of taking care of myself.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So far, Alfred is taking care of clients who can easily afford an extra $25 a week only in New York and Boston. But Sapone already has a waiting list and plans to expand wherever there are dense clusters of customers.

  • MARCELA SAPONE:

    I'm giving people back time. 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:

    So, a good deal for clients, but what about the Alfreds? Eeva Lee moved to New York from Finland last summer. A psychologist, she now works part-time, 25 hours a week or more, as an Alfred, perambulating Greenwich Village with as much as 50 pounds in tow.

  • EEVA LEE, Alfred Client Manager:

    Sometimes, you have a lot to carry on you. You can take it as an exercise, and don't have to go to the gym later.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Especially given the flights of stairs.

  • EEVA LEE:

    Usual day, it's like anywhere from 20 to 40, depending on how many elevator buildings I have. I don't know if my iPhone has a jinx on it, but it claims to me that there's one day that I have done 80. But that sounds crazy, even in this job.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Would you not rather be practicing psychology than doing what you're doing?

  • EEVA LEE:

    Of course I would like to do what I have the education for. But I understand how important, wherever you work in the world, it is to know the culture and the people and the ways of working. And I'm getting that education all the time as I work. The other very nice thing is that I sleep like a baby.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Unlike other on-demand services, which rely on low-paid contract workers, CEO Sapone says Alfreds are employees who earn $18 to $30 an hour. But how do the economics work if clients only pay $25 week?

  • MARCELA SAPONE:

    You're essentially sharing the cost of a personal assistant. That Alfred is serving multiple people.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    How many clients do you need in an area before it's economically viable?

  • MARCELA SAPONE:

    Anywhere from four to seven.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Boston tech entrepreneur Nick Relas (ph) got off the Hello Alfred waiting list four months ago. A favorite feature for him, freshly pressed shirts from the dry cleaners down the street.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So you couldn't do this yourself?

  • NICK RELAS, Hello Alfred Client:

    That's what my mother asks me. It's not about proximity. It's about what time it closes every day. I don't leave work until at least 9:00 or 10:00, and I never have time to get here before it closes.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So, Relas' Alfred takes care of it.

  • NICK RELAS:

    You can see here, it closes at 7:00.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And before wrapping up for the day, she — real name Lauren — leaves him a handwritten summary of tasks completed.

  • NICK RELAS:

    She cleaned up the apartment a little today, took out the garbage, fluffed the bed. Here's what I love about Alfred. She noticed I was out of garbage bags.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Yes?

  • NICK RELAS:

    And she's going to pick some up for me.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But wait a second. Should we outsource everything?

    EVAN SELINGER, Rochester Institute of Technology: How is it that we have all become so pinched, that we feel we can't do very much for ourselves?

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Evan Selinger teaches philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is skeptical of outsourcing apps like Hello Alfred.

  • EVAN SELINGER:

    Instead of actually giving us our time back, they just open up more time for us to be imprisoned in other ways, often for us to work longer hours. What kind of character do we develop, the more that we outsource? How does outsourcing change our interactions with more and more people?

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But, on the other hand, Alfred could free up more time for professional interactions, as folks like Emma Stanton subcontract lesser tasks.

  • EMMA STANTON:

    "We noticed one of your shirts still had some small stains on it. We took it back to the dry cleaners. Thank you. Have a great weekend."

    So I probably would never even have noticed that my shirt had a stain on it. So, I kind of like the fact that they just picked that up and dealt with it.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And to CEO Marcela Sapone, it's just a division of labor that allows anyone in a dense neighborhood to buy a butler.

  • MARCELA SAPONE:

    There's no reason you or I can't be just as extraordinary as Batman.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting for the PBS NewsHour from Boston and New York.

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