New Englanders of a certain vintage remember Victor Kiam, the former Patriots owner who liked an electric shaver from Remington so much that he bought the company.
Aron Ain, chief executive of the business software company UKG, likes an entrepreneur so much, he jumped into an $8.5 million funding round this fall for a startup called Stuff — despite never having used the product.
Is that weird?
Not when you find out what Stuff, formerly known as Delegate, sells. For $50 a month, its mobile app gives you instant access to a network of personal assistants around the United States. They handle tasks such as sending flowers, finding a plumber, or booking the perfect rental home for a family ski vacation. You communicate with them via Stuff’s app — which feels similar to text messaging.
People like Ain, who runs a 12,000-person company, have their own personal assistants on payroll; his has been working alongside him for 25 years. “If she found out I was using Stuff, she’d come to my house and punch me in the nose,” he says.
So Stuff is a bit like Uber, Zipcar, or Turo — disruptive startups that give you access to a nice set of wheels at a much lower price than buying them outright. “It democratizes something that wasn’t really readily available,” Ain says.
Stuff CEO Ohad Elhelo likes to say that the company’s users get access to their own “chief of Stuff.” Other investors in the company’s latest funding round, announced last week, include Joshua Boger, the former CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and real estate developer Douglass Karp.
Elhelo is a former intelligence officer in the Israeli military who came to Boston to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Brandeis University. While he was there, he started a nonprofit called Our Generation Speaks, which provided business training and mentorship to Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs.
At the time, Elhelo says, “I was extremely overwhelmed.” So he signed up for a service from Zirtual, an Ohio company that assigned him a personal assistant. “I worked with her for three years, and saw how sticky their service was,” he says. “But I also saw the shortcomings. She was good at some things, but not everything. And the biggest pain point was that it wasn’t instant. She has 20 other customers competing for her time.”
Zirtual shut down in 2015 after running out of cash, was acquired, and has been restarted with a higher price tag: $450 a month.
Elhelo started building Stuff with Ori Cohen, an alumni of the Our Generation Speaks startup incubator, as a side project three years ago. He left his position as executive director of the nonprofit last September to focus on Stuff full-time. Initially, Elhelo and Cohen sent customers' to-do items to agents in India or the West Bank who would research options or solutions, and then return them to the Stuff team in Boston for a quality check.
The company attracted hundreds of paying customers, Elhelo says, and amassed a wait list of 6,000 more, but realized that that approach was too slow.
“It was always, ‘We’ll get back to you this evening, or tomorrow,’ ” he says. “It took away from the happiness. You wanted to delegate something to us and forget about it.”
Elhelo and Cohen decided to shut off the service and rebuild it, so they could deliver quicker responses.
Now, your request to find a guitar teacher for your daughter or the best beachfront hotel in Santa Monica is categorized and sent to an agent in the United States who is available to work on it right away. (Stuff focuses on personal tasks, as opposed to business-related ones.)
Some agents may specialize in finding great accommodations; others on recommending gifts, or helping you negotiate with the cable company to get lower pricing.
Agents are paid a minimum of $15 an hour, though Elhelo says there are ways to earn bonuses that add to that, based on customer ratings and how quickly an agent works. Because of the pandemic, there’s lots of interest in the freelance, home-based work that Stuff provides its agents, Elhelo says.
But also because of the pandemic, people may hesitate to try a service that costs $600 a year. (Before you can try out Stuff, you need to pay a $25 introductory fee for your first month.)
There are also a whole range of tasks that we used to do — like trying to land good seats at TD Garden get a table for six at O Ya, or book a trampoline birthday party for a child — that we do a whole lot less at the moment. That said, plenty of people feel time-pressed this fall, as school, work, and family obligations collide, and as we head toward the holiday season.
Stuff is seeing fewer requests "having to do with travel and restaurants and bars,” Elhelo acknowledges, but he adds that “making appointments has become very complicated ― it’s hard to know what’s open, and what’s not open.”
Boger, one of the company’s biggest investors, says Stuff “saves you time — it’s literally a time machine.” He believes that artificial intelligence will eventually help the service become more efficient, but still leverage human judgment and expertise when it needs to.
Stuff has 25 employees in the United States, Israel, and the West Bank, where it does much of its software development. It has raised just over $11 million in total, and Elhelo says the new funding will go toward product development, as opposed to a splashy marketing campaign.
“If the product is great, people are going to tell their friends,” he says. “If the product isn’t really special, they won’t — that’s our key thing.”
The good news for Stuff is that most of us don’t have personal assistants, and so we’re prospective customers.
The bad news: Because of that, it’s hard to put a price tag on the time we might save if we did. Stuff currently has hundreds of users, and hundreds of agents. To get into the millions, it will have to find the right formula for getting the flywheel of customer acquisition spinning.