The Butler Didn’t Do It: Hello Alfred and the On-Demand Economy’s Limits

Hello Alfred reveals the limits of the on-demand economy.

Illustration: Jeff Östberg for Bloomberg Businessweek

The U.S. Postal Service seems to have structured its hours so that no matter what job you have, it’s always closed by the time you’re off for the night. Banks and dry cleaners: same thing. My work-appropriate skirts and sweaters pile up until all I’m left with in the morning is a pair of ripped jeans and the thought, Is there such a thing as business extra-casual? Life would be so much easier if someone would just clean my house and run my errands. But paying a person to be at my beck and call isn’t something that fits easily into a working-woman’s budget. It’s a shame, because I have a lot of becks.

Then I heard about Hello Alfred. For a reasonable weekly fee, the service will send someone to tidy up your house, deliver groceries—and yes, go to the post office and dry cleaner on your behalf. Two Harvard Business School students, Marcela Sapone and Jessica Beck, came up with the idea in 2013 after they discovered that late-night studying and keeping a clean apartment didn’t mix. When I talk to them at their tidy Manhattan headquarters, Sapone explains that inspiration came from a pile of Beck’s dirty clothes.

“I wasn’t that messy!” Beck objects.

“You don’t remember the pile of laundry the size of your kitchen table?” Sapone asks, then pauses. “Actually, I’m not allowed to say that in interviews anymore, because her mom asked me to stop.”

Hello Alfred’s official origin story is that Sapone, 29, and Beck, 30, contacted dozens of professional women they admired and asked them how they juggled a personal life and a demanding career. “Every single one of them had a housekeeper,” says Sapone. And if you can’t afford that? Beck and Sapone started experimenting. They hired a cleaning woman off Craigslist and asked her to run errands for them. Soon, their friends wanted their errands run, too. “We thought, This is something people really need,” Sapone says. The company went through a number of iterations—a remote-concierge service, on-demand doormen—before they settled on the butler concept. They named it after Batman’s jack-of-all-trades and in 2014 relocated from Boston to New York to formally launch the company.

Illustration: Jeff Ostberg for Bloomberg Businessweek

Hello Alfred has raised $12.5 million from venture capital firms including Ron Conway’s SV Angel (Pinterest, Casper) and Sherpa Capital (Uber, Munchery). It operates in New York and Boston, with plans to expand to Chicago and San Francisco in the next few years—one small part of the larger on-demand economy that now helps us not only clean our apartments, but also get around or order a large pepperoni. (Try the Push for Pizza app, because a phone call is too much work.)

On its website, Hello Alfred advertises its butlers, or Alfreds, as spirited go-getters willing to do almost anything for a client as long as it’s legal. Each Alfred makes weekly visits to 8 to 10 homes for basic tidying tasks; anything beyond that must be requested in advance. There are two tiers of service: $32 per week gets you one visit, and $59 gets you two and a guarantee that your toiletries and other essentials will be restocked before you run out of them. “We keep any extra fees to a minimum and always let you know in advance,” the website promises.

It sounded a little too good to be true. “There’s an art to figuring out what another person wants,” says Ryan, a longtime personal assistant to a movie star whose name I promised not to reveal, lest the star learn he talked to the press. Ryan isn’t affiliated with Hello Alfred, but he’s a one-man version of it. He picks out the actor’s clothes before red carpet events and keeps the fridge stocked, though his boss only eats takeout. “It takes about a year to really know a person well and be able to anticipate their needs before they even think of them,” he says. “It’s not a process you can rush.”

Ryan’s cautionary tales didn’t dissuade me. I decide to sign up for Hello Alfred.

As part of the top-tier service, I’m asked for a brief rundown of my habits, so an Alfred can get a better sense of who I am. A few days later, a manager comes to my Brooklyn apartment to quiz me on my preferences: I prefer two-ply toilet paper; I buy organic meat but not organic vegetables; I’m pro-gluten and antikale; and my dog eats Newman’s Own dry food because, as I helpfully explain, “Paul Newman was hot.” (To avoid any special treatment, I don’t helpfully explain that I’m a journalist.)

Then I’m assigned an Alfred. Her name is Lauren. I never meet her—she uses a set of spare keys to drop in while I’m at work—but the company tells me she graduated recently from Tufts University with a degree in economics and entrepreneurial leadership. That’s pretty typical for an Alfred: Beck claims that only about 5 percent of people who apply are accepted; most of the résumés come from college graduates in their 20s or 30s who want to supplement their income, because being an actor, artist, designer, or chef doesn’t pay the bills. (“We also have a lot of stay-at-home moms who need to get out of the house,” she adds.) The startup pays $18 to $30 an hour, offers health benefits, and, unlike most on-demand companies, hires people as full-time employees rather than contract workers. Beck and Sapone say that, on average, Alfreds work for the company for about eight months; currently, there are more than 100. That might seem like rapid turnover in another sector, but it isn’t in the “gig” economy or for a business this young.

The first time Lauren visits, she buys everything on my grocery list, drops off my dry cleaning, Swiffers my floors—and forgets to lock my apartment. Before her second visit, I submit a request for her to take more than 90 books to be resold at a local bookstore; Hello Alfred charges me an extra $65 because she used an Uber to deliver them. This is more than I made from selling the books—and not exactly what I’d call “minimum,” because it would have cost about $20 for a cab to the bookseller. Oh, and she leaves the door unlocked again.

And so it goes for several weeks. My grocery list is always fulfilled, and my dry cleaning gets picked up on time, but many of those extras that Hello Alfred promises are either poorly done or cause a hassle. On the day of one of Lauren’s visits, I forget my gym shoes at home—I’ve been trying to work out more, because I now ostensibly have all this free time—but when I ask if she can deliver them to me, I’m told by a manager, “Unfortunately, due to Lauren’s schedule, she won’t be able to bring your shoes today.” After some back-and-forth, Hello Alfred does get them to me, in a $33 Uber.

This, it turns out, is the secret to Hello Alfred—it outsources all those add-on tasks to a third party. It uses Instacart to buy my groceries, MyClean to clean my apartment, and Uber as a carrier because, Sapone says, it’s easy to track a ride’s progress. I’m not even sure who’s leaving my door unlocked; because I’m at the office, I don’t know if Lauren oversees the other workers or if they’re left in my apartment unsupervised.

Conversations with other Hello Alfred customers confirm that they all fit the same consumer demographic: young, single professionals who are early adopters of new technology. Within this community, Hello Alfred is met with near-universal praise: “It was a little bit rocky at first, but since then it’s been very good,” says Caroline McCarthy, 31, who works at a digital advertising firm and used Hello Alfred recently to assemble gym equipment and hang pictures (the work was subcontracted to TaskRabbit). Dave Craig, 35, uses Hello Alfred even though he lives in Colorado, where it doesn’t operate. Instead of getting home visits, he uses the app as a middleman to manage all the other on-demand services he subscribes to. “I use TaskRabbit, I get my groceries delivered—Alfred manages all that,” he says. “It’s amazing!”

Lauren remains my Alfred for a month, then quits to launch her own startup. Another Alfred named Meredith takes her place. Meredith is—surprise!—an aspiring actor. But she knows how to lock a door. Once, Meredith leaves me two bottles of wine when I only purchased one. (I don’t know where the second came from, but why ask questions?)

After two months, I feel like I’ve finally gotten a handle on how to work with Hello Alfred. My Instacart grocery bill is no higher than if I went to the store myself, and with the dry cleaning service, I haven’t worn jeans to work in weeks. But I’m also incurring $98 in Uber fees every month for a few hours of free time a week. So I cancel the service, give Meredith the free bottle of wine as a thank-you, and start running my own errands again.

Because, if I’m being honest, the real reason I never attend to all of these matters isn’t because I’m too busy. It’s because on Saturdays, when my dry cleaner is open, I’d rather sleep late and go to brunch.

(Corrects the expense incurred by Uber fees in the 18th paragraph.)