Your next assistant may be an app

Virtual assistants are a hot new tech business model. Nina Strochlic reports.

You’ve never met her, but she’ll be your new assistant. For the hour. Or the day. Or however long you need. She (or he) will pick up your clothes, build your furniture, or check in on you after surgery. She’ll even help you prank your coworkers, encourage you to write that book you’ve been meaning to start and give you a morning wake-up call. Welcome to the age of assistance for the 99 percent who don’t have a full-time salaried employee to do their bidding, but also don’t have the minutes to spare for the holiday shopping, or dry cleaning pick-up. Enter the virtual assistant. Working remotely from a smartphone app or a website, these new assistant-providing companies will do everything a traditional in-the-flesh assistant does, from fetch coffee to schedule meetings, and more—like clean your bathroom, dole out wardrobe advice, and walk your pets. As virtual hired-hand services multiply, you don’t have to be Don Draper or Anna Wintour to dole out tasks to your very own personal assistant.

TaskRabbit is indisputably the pioneering force that ushered in the age of online assistance. Created on a cold Boston night four years ago by an IBM programmer in need of someone to pick up dog food, the company has grown to encompass nine cities, well over four thousand “Task Rabbits,” and an untold amount of users. The company estimates its users have saved $5.7 million by using the service. Each post offers a maximum price, and the lowest-bidding “Task Rabbit,” as they’re called, will complete it. Skim through the site or phone app and you’ll quickly see the requests range from average to the not-exactly-kosher-to-ask-of-a-traditional-assistant. “Help a group of friends pull off an epic prank on an old friend and very deserving victim,” one post asks. “Need someone with excellent ‘love’ letter writing skills,” another requests. “We see a lot of, ‘I just broke up with my boyfriend or girlfriend, can you go get my stuff from their house?’” says Jamie Viggiano, head of the company’s corporate marketing. But for $10-$20, why not?

“I never in my wildest dreams would have said 10 years ago that I’d need a personal assistant because it would have been cost prohibitive, but today I use TaskRabbit five times a week,” notes Viggiano. “Technology is allowing us to build these platforms where people are gaining access to relatively inexpensive solutions.” Johnny Brackett, the company’s communications manager, interjects, laughing. “I’ve posted two tasks since we’ve been on this call and I’m not kidding.


Earlier this year, a startup called Exec launched an iPhone app with a business model like TaskRabbit’s, but with a twist. For $25 an hour (plus any extra expenses), the company will dispense one of its trusted independent contractors to assist you in whatever capacity you need. Ryan Card, who joined the Exec team in May, says the scope of his tasks has ranged from assembling an entire office of Ikea furniture to dressing as lifeguards with a group of coworkers and staffing a rambunctious holiday party. Once he went to the liquor store to buy a bottle of alcohol for a guy who turned out to be at the bar next door. He also holds the company record for biggest Ikea haul: $8,700. Card boils down the company’s underlying purpose--renewing that most important of nonrenewable commodities: “You’re basically buying time.”

Zirtual, founded at the end of 2011, has a slightly different concept. It’s a subscription-based service with full-time, individually assigned assistants available at the receiving end of an email or phone call. “Our clients hire virtual assistants because they don’t need someone to be sitting in their office eight hours a day, every day, so for them it’s extremely beneficial,” says Joanna Cohen, who’s been with the company for a year (during which it has expanded ten-fold). “For the most part, the majority of things in-person assistants do is on the computer. They don’t need to be there in your office to do it.” At one point Cohen was juggling 15 clients with relative ease. The economic viability of one assistant serving more than a dozen clients could soon be revelatory to businesses across the board.

Virtual assistant programs aren’t just a new model for individuals and companies. They’re creating unique employment opportunities for those with skills to spare. When TaskRabbit launched in 2008, many warned against creating a new business in such tense economic times. But, says Viggiano, “It was actually the best time to start a business like TaskRabbit because you have so many highly qualified people out of work and looking for opportunities.” Some of these people today are full-time task masters, earning up to $5,000 a month.

“The flexibility aspect really helps a lot of college students, and, funnily enough, people trying to build a business or retired people,” said Ryan Card of Exec. “It kind of blankets the full spectrum of people these days.” Card was hired as its 78th contractor and now the company is well past number 300 (which is the same number of tasks he estimates he’s done so far as an Exec). Card calls it “the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had.” And he’s being paid exceptionally well for it. He has decided to postpone a career in car mechanics for a few years while he puts in time at Exec.

Could in-the-flesh personal assistants soon find their job outsourced to these economically viable options? TaskRabbit’s Viggiano isn’t quite sure. “I don’t know if we’ll ever eradicate the ‘rich man’s’ personal assistant, but I think you’ll see that this group of people who never thought they could have personal assistants in the past recognizing that there is a solution for on-demand, short-term help that they can tap into.” Anytime, anything. Meet your new personal assistant.