Personal Assistants on Call, Just Not in the Next Office

Published: November 14, 2007

IN the latest twist on the information-age truism that technology is making the world even smaller, entrepreneurs in India are trying to build a new market for the offshore services they offer: helping small businesses cope with even the most mundane day-to-day tasks.

Thanks to Indian companies like Brickwork India and GetFriday, even sole proprietors can have personal assistants to conduct research, monitor the Web, make appointments and even give them a wake-up call and tell them to get some exercise — all for as little as $15 an hour.

A woman in New Jersey who works for a health care company used the new services to investigate trends in pharmaceutical marketing. An entrepreneur in Toronto used them to build his Web site. A Web designer in Louisiana has them search for images he can use. A builder in Tennessee uses them to get statistical reports on vacant lots before he buys them.

A man in Cambridge, Mass., even started a business, TajTunes, in which he gets the workers to telephone people in the United States with singing telegrams for $5 a call.

“Who hasn’t dreamt of having someone to do all that stuff?” said Kim Levy, the Morristown, N.J., woman who used Brickwork to scour the current literature and come up with a report on health care dynamics. Ms. Levy is the vice president for strategic planning at Micromass Communications, a 120-person company based in North Carolina that helps medical businesses with marketing. She has also used a New York-based service, Ask Sunday, for more personal tasks.

Like many others using the services, Ms. Levy was inspired by two books: Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World Is Flat” and Timothy Ferriss’s “The 4-Hour Workweek.” Mr. Ferriss preaches that people spend 80 percent of their time on the trivial 20 percent of tasks, and he urges readers to outsource anything that can be done for a cost less than the value of their own time.

Mr. Ferriss recommends Brickwork and GetFriday, and both services are reaping the benefit. Brickwork has a staff of 160 in Bangalore and uses as many as 150 others as consultants, according to its founder and chief executive, Vivek Kulkarni. Brickwork says that it has had 150 clients in the United States and many more in Europe, Australia and Hong Kong.

GetFriday, a division of TTK Services, has a staff of 140 serving about 1,000 clients, according to the company’s director, Sunder Prakasham. He said that a related division, YourManInIndia, serves 20,000 Indian expatriates who want to get things done in their homeland. GetFriday charges $15 an hour, plus $10 a month, though rates are lower for those who have monthly plans. For instance, a 40-hour-a-month plan costs $360. Brickwork charges $15 to $25 an hour.

There is a three-week wait for new clients of GetFriday, and the company is hiring 25 people a week to meet the demand, Mr. Sunder said.

However, the waiting time is but one of a number of imperfections in the still-developing market for outsourced labor. People in the United States who have used the services of companies like Brickwork and GetFriday say they have wrestled with miscommunication, poorly received instructions and work that has not met expectations.

“This stuff is very much in its infancy, both in terms of trust from the buyer side and in ink on deals,” said Frances Karamouzis, a vice president at the Gartner Group, where she is an analyst who specializes in outsourcing. The people in India “don’t always have the greatest client service skills or business acumen or accents,” she said. But those hurdles can be overcome. Failures result when the person doing the outsourcing has not set the right expectations or is not properly understood.

Jed Wood, an entrepreneur who was dissatisfied with some of GetFriday’s services, hoped his assistant would be able to book him a cheap trip to India, perhaps using local knowledge. Instead, the assistant sent him a list of fares from Travelocity, which Mr. Wood said he could have done himself. While Mr. Wood admits that he did not set clear expectations, he has moved on to a new idea: outsourcing his tasks to college students in the United States.

Mr. Wood — who has taken his own business, writing software and working for technology companies, to Mexico — pays $14 an hour to a graduate student in Utah who was making $8 an hour in a campus job. Mr. Wood has a Web site,, ready for his outsourcing venture, which he has not yet started. “There’s an untapped network of readily available, digitally savvy, on-the-way-to-being-well-educated labor force,” he said.

A Silicon Valley company, Rearden Commerce, has a technological solution that it calls a “virtual personal assistant.” Rearden’s software pulls data from a variety of sources, including travel, restaurant and shipping sites, and makes it available in one application that syncs with a calendar and can manage a busy business owner’s life.

Dan Ford, vice president for product marketing at Rearden, in Foster City, Calif., said that rather than send an e-mail to India asking an assistant to book a flight, hotel and restaurant, it would be easier to book through one site that already knows your calendar and your personal preferences.

The New York Times - November 14, 2007