For The Exec On The Run, A Digital Valet

Root aims to be everything from travel agent to help desk

Manhattan, Aug. 13, 10:15 a.m. Bob Vanech is racing through Central Park in a cab after a meeting with a prospective partner for his company. Vanech ignores the trees and the midmorning joggers the cab is whizzing past. Instead, he is focused on his handheld Palm III, coordinating his schedule via cell phone with Root, a service he is testing that acts as a Digital Age concierge or secretary. "O.K., so reservations for 1:15 at Blue Water Grill," Vanech says. "Great."

In the next five minutes, the Root employee on the other end of the phone advises Vanech that he should show up at the restaurant at 1 p.m. because he can probably get seated earlier. Vanech then O.K.'s a memory purchase for his computer that Root researched over the Internet and decides on accommodations Root found for a weekend getaway. Then it's over and out, as Vanech heads to his next meeting in midtown.

Meet Root, a new service that could be the answer for frazzled executives trying to sort out the Information Age tangle. Drowning in E-mail? At a loss over the complexity of your personal computer or how to get the most bang out of the Internet? Inc., a New York startup, thinks it has the solution for on-the-go executives who don't have a personal assistant. "We're talking about people who have more money than time--the harried digital professional," says 28-year old Seth Goldstein, who co-founded in March.

At its most basic, Root is a secretary, consultant, and technical adviser all wrapped into one. It offers the personal touch to those whose work and home lives have become increasingly automated. "People want the efficiency they've learned to get from ATMs and computer screens, but on the other hand, it's reassuring to have the human element," says Baruch College Professor Leon Schiffman, who handled consumer focus groups for Root.

How will it work? As the service begins signing up members this fall, customers will be able to contact Root via the Web, phone, or E-mail. Root employees then use every technology at hand--the phone, computers, the Net--to book hotel reservations and make last-minute changes in meeting schedules. They recommend and purchase technology products. And they help customers figure out which software to use.

But that's only if Root passes muster. Helping make that decision is Bob Vanech, busy executive and human guinea pig since July 15. Like the star of The Truman Show, a recent movie about a man whose life is watched by a TV audience, Vanech's every move is being monitored by Root during a five-week trial. In return, Root's seven-person company is at his disposal. That means Root is doing almost anything Vanech wants--so long as it doesn't entail picking up things: no laundry deliveries, no putting out the garbage.

DIGITAL DELUGE. Why Vanech? He's the classic on-the-go professional--technology-savvy, yet overwhelmed. After eight years in MCI Communications Corp.'s sales organization, the 29-year-old executive founded Silicon Alley Telecom, a New York-based company that wires commercial buildings for the Internet and other data communications. Today, Vanech uses E-mail, the Web, and voice mail. He has 12 phone numbers, including his two offices, home, and his portable phone. During his 1 1/2 hour daily commute from Stamford, Conn., to New York, he works on his laptop. But he doesn't have time to spend learning new technologies, even if they could make him more productive.

As lucky member No.1, Vanech has tested Root's boundaries. He had Root hunt for an apartment in New York, find visa information for a German visitor, and book travel, hotel, and restaurant reservations. At the beginning of the trial, Root recommended Vanech buy the 3Com Corp. Palm III digital organizer he now carries everywhere. On some days, Vanech says, he has called the Root service 20 times in an hour. At other times, like the end of August when he was working on a business plan, he didn't use the service for days.

Vanech says the more he uses the service, the more comfortable he has become with it. At the beginning of August, he asked Root to buy him a PC. Root sent recommendations via E-mail. But Vanech worried the Root employees might not find the lowest price, so he went online to see if he could find something cheaper. He found a bargain basement PC--but without the shipping and handling Root already had figured in. In the end, he bought the PC Root had recommended. "I feel confident with them now, and the nominal difference I might be able to find on things isn't worth my time," Vanech says.

It's this kind of trust that Root is counting on. To give the velvet-glove treatment, the service keeps a digital record of how each task is handled. That info is put in a database so that when the next request comes up, employees are in the know.

It's no surprise that the idea for Root was hit upon by some go-go Web entrepreneurs who had done a lot of gadget- and data-juggling themselves. Goldstein and co-founder Dan Stoller are no novices to technology--nor to the feeling of being deluged by it. In September, 1995, Goldstein started SiteSpecific, a New York-based Web ad-placement service, and hired Stoller to work with him.

After the startup was sold to ad agency CKS Group last year, Goldstein cooked up Root, a name chosen because "root access" means you have complete control over a computer's system. Since founding, Goldstein, Stoller, and other investors have poured about $200,000 into the project. The goal now is to raise about $2 million in outside funding. "It's not a sure bet," he admits, "but I did it because I wanted to belong to a service like this."

A lot is still up in the air. At this early stage, pricing estimates for the service include a $250 to $750 initiation fee, a $200 to $400 monthly fee, and a service charge of about 5% to 10% per transaction. Goldstein compares those prices, which could amount to an average $10,000 to $15,000 a year for a heavy user, to the $40,000 an executive would pay a secretary annually. For, the key is figuring out how to be cost effective--automating common requests and getting relationships with merchants, like TicketMaster, to shave costs. "The idea is easy. The implementation will be a challenge," says Esther Dyson, chairman of New York-based EDventure Holdings Inc. Still, Dyson is a fan of Root.

Within a year, Goldstein expects Root to have 5,000 paying customers. What the service will look like in six months is hard to predict. Those who have seen the project, such as Dyson, are excited about it. That's the typical reaction, says Goldstein. "But they also always say, `Get back to me when you've figured this out."' So it's back to The Truman Show.

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