You may have imagined having your own personal genie who grants you your wishes when prompted. Unfortunately for the uninitiated, genies don’t exist – or perhaps they’re trapped in bottles at the bottom of the ocean, next to Google servers. What certainly does exist is technology. Society and technology is co-evolving in such a way that we can’t understand one without the other. In a tech-fuelled world, our personal genies are really just the people working behind on-demand service businesses. Take Magic, for instance, an American on-demand text-based service that brings you what you want when you want, or at least as soon as possible. Magic made headlines across the US tech media in February, and within 48 hours of its launch, the startup received over 17,000 text messages with requests.
Now, two Sydney-based university students Dylan Samra and Kelvin Nguyen are replicating what Magic (a Y-Combinator graduate) has done in US. Their startup ASAP launched mid-March, and has already received unusual demands like ‘deliver me a kangaroo’. The transaction process is simple: text your demand to 0414 179 858 and the ASAP team will reply with a quote and estimated delivery time. If the customer approves, the job gets done – as long as it’s safe and legal. In the first instance, the customer will be asked to provide their address and credit card details, but after that everything the customer requests is on autopilot. In terms of monetisation, ASAP charges a service fee on top of every request and this fee depends on the difficulty of the task at hand.
The co-founders decided to launch the service after realising that life would be easier if everything was a text message away, rather than having to download an app, wait in line, or call a number. Samra and Nguyen admitted that Magic’s success helped “spark the flame to bring affordable personal assistance via SMS to the masses of Australia”.
“They are changing the ways consumers and businesses go through their day-to-day lives and we want to do the same for the Australian market,” says Samra.
The problem with such a service is that it invites unrealistic or inappropriate demands. Samra admits that they’ve received quite a few requests asking them to do things like order illegal substances or purchase goods from shops outside trading hours or within a short timeframe.
“We kindly explain to the customer the reason why we cannot fulfil their order due to legal reasons, impossibility, etc. However, we do propose the next best thing we can offer to them,” says Samra.
“Most requests are very doable such as delivering food like McDonalds and Messina to businesses, sending gifts to relatives or loved ones, and grocery runs. We also specialise in lots of personal assistance work for small business owners who lead busy lives.”
The sentiment that we’re just too busy to do things ourselves may seem ridiculous. Machines are doing things for us these days, or at least, cutting down the time it takes to do things – take, for instance, a washing machine or a car. But the success of on-demand services like Airtasker and [food delivery startup], demonstrates there’s a need in the market. Perhaps, it’s a need for haste. We live in a culture of immediacy. The demand for instant results with minimal effort has seeped into every aspect of our lives – so much that we don’t have the patience to wait for a sandwich, a bottle of wine, or taxi.
Here’s how we handle things in the 21st century. Hungry? Microwave a McCain pizza pocket or get [food delivery startup] to bring you your lunch. Need a cab? Book one via goCatch or Uber. Need booze? Get Liquorun to deliver a six-pack to your door. Need entertainment? Hop onto Hulu for a TV show marathon.
What makes startups like Magic and ASAP powerful is that it accommodates a psychological need. It’s worth mentioning another Sydney-based startup operating in a similar fashion – that is, Sherpa. The startup essentially wants everyone to have their own personal courier who picks up and delivers virtually everything in a two-hour timeframe. In ancient times, foot messengers ran miles to deliver messages. And then there were homing pigeons and horseback riders. Today, not only is a short drive inconvenient, we’re also impatient about delivery timeframes – especially when compared to the instant nature of information exchange. This was the basis for creating Sherpa, according to founders Mathieu Cornillon and Bastien Vetault.
Obviously, ASAP is different because of the scope of demands it’s willing to handle. Samra only sees Airtasker as its closest competitor, though he stresses there are a number of differences between both startups.
“We are an on-demand texting service that gets you what you want, when you want. AirTasker is a marketplace of taskers posting tasks and waiting for responses for people to take and complete them. At ASAP, it is our initiative to complete any requests on demand as soon as possible (pun intended),” says Samra.
Another business that’s about to pop up is Operator, which may indeed pose a real threat to Magic and international replicas like ASAP. Why? Well the man behind is the co-founder of Uber himself, Garret Camp. If Magic and ASAP can be considered ‘the Uber of everything’, then it would only make sense for an Uber co-founder to either extend the Uber principle by adding ‘deliver anything and everything’ it to the company’s existing suite of products, or launch a new business that would make others redundant.
According to TechCrunch, Operator is being driven by angel investor Robin Chan, who holds the role of CEO. Chan has previously invested in Twitter and Xiaomi, and has advised startups like Flipboard.
“As CEO of Operator, Chan has an enormous opportunity to create a logistics layer between customers and the retailers and services they buy from. What Uber did creating a tech-powered logistics layer for transportation, Operator could do for lots of other businesses,” wrote TechCrunch journalist, Josh Constine.
TechCrunch also reported that former One Kings Lane Director Of Product Design Jonathan Lieberman and Facebook mobile engineering manager Philip Phung are part of the Operator team.
At the moment, it is unclear how Operator will operate, though TechCrunch speculates that it might be “slicker than the more spartan SMS interface used by Magic”.
At this stage, it’s believed that Operator’s app will act as an inbox of requests; and similar to the SMS or IM interface, all communications will exist as message threads. Customers simply type and send their requests via the app. Once the customer accepts the quote provided by Operator, they will receive a receipt in the message thread, and in similar fashion to Uber, payments will be made through the app.
“The whole process feels personal, as you’ll see a profile photo of whichever Operator you’re working with. If you’re trying to buy something from a popular store, a source says Operator sometimes offers in-app product catalogues that you can choose things from, and can remember what you like. Big retailers may even have dedicated Operators that can handle requests for those stores’ items,” Constine wrote on TechCrunch.
With a strong team behind it, Operator may be hard to compete with. Constine made an interesting point when he wrote that there could be “lucrative partnership opportunities” ahead for Operator, given Camp’s relationship with the globally successful – albeit, controversial – Uber.
“[I]magine if Operator became the front-end where you put in requests, and on the back-end, Uber routed idle drivers to perform the deliveries. Uber is on a quest to both grow its driver supply and ride request demand. Operator could possibly jack in a bunch more demand for Uber drivers, even if it’s not to carry people,” Constine wrote on TechCrunch.
It’s uncertain when Operator will launch, but when it does, it will be a big deal. It’s likely that the service will kick off in the States before it goes global, so startups like ASAP still have time to master the logistics and achieve local dominance. Samra did however mention that they are interested in international expansion, but will remain focused on providing immaculate service to the Australian market in the mean time.
So far, ASAP has been bootstrapped, with the founders funding the startup from their own hip pocket. But Samra and Nguyen are very open to the prospect of raising external capital down the track. This will allow the startup to not only accelerate, but also better manage its growth by creating a smart logistics system.
“Our biggest challenge was initially handling the rapid growth all at once but we have set processes and software in place to keep everything moving in harmony,” says Samra.
“[T]he amount of positive feedback [caused] us to have an influx of repeat customers, [which is] why we are growing so fast with minimal marketing efforts. We have been blowing up via word-of-mouth and social media.”
The founders have certainly jumped onto an idea that’s still in its infancy in the US, meaning that they have a good shot in the local market before Magic and Operator make their entry.