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Move over Jeeves, Jagdish is here

Laura, an executive at a private equity firm that’s focused on real estate, needed to get her dress exchanged from Catherine Malandrino’s store in New York. Pressed for time — she was stuck in office but needed the dress for a trip to London the next morning — she e-mailed her personal assistant who promptly arranged for a messenger to collect her dress from the office, get it changed and delivered it back to her.

Nothing unusual about that — but for the fact that the assistant was in India.

So was Stephen Brown’s aide. The London-based Brown found he was often late for work because he overslept. The alarm clock didn’t help since he would just switch it off and go back to sleep. Now he gets a phone call every morning from Bangalore, waking him up and nagging him to make sure he’s had his bath and done his yoga exercises.

Laura is a client of the New York-based Sunday and Brown of the Bangalore-based GetFriday, two companies to which harried executives in the United States and Britain can outsource their drudgery to.

Welcome to the world of the virtual valet. Business process outsourcing or BPO, where companies hived off routine tasks to foreign shores, leaving them free to concentrate on their core business, is passé. Now individuals are outsourcing their mundane personal tasks to assistants sitting in India, among other places. It’s called personal services outsourcing.

Here’s how it works. For a monthly subscription, a person can send requests by phone or e-mail to get dinner reservations booked, medical appointments fixed, cinema tickets purchased, food delivered for a party, parking lots booked, vacations planned or broken windows repaired when the client is not in town. Sunday allows 30 requests a month for $29 and 50 requests for $49. GetFriday specifies the number of hours spent on tasks. It has a pay-as-you-go plan for those who don’t have too much work to give, charging $15 an hour and a $10 monthly administrative fee.

GetFriday clients get dedicated assistants, aided by a team with expertise in various tasks. Clients get photographs of their assistants and there are no assumed names or false accents. “Language issues are not that common,” says Avinash Samudrala, co-founder of Sunday, since many of the transactions are done on e-mail. Sunday has a pool of assistants, and the client’s assignment can go to any one of them.

Personal services outsourcing is a small segment of a larger person-to-person outsourcing trend which, according to the Gurgaon-based research firm Evalueserve, covers a range of services, from home and landscape design to tax preparation, website design and purely personal tasks. The sector generated business worth $250 million between April 2006 and March 2007 and is likely to touch $2 billion by 2015. Concierge and valet services, however, are a miniscule part of this segment, says Alok Agarwal of Evalueserve, with only $1 million worth of business.

Sunday is the newest kid on the block. The brainchild of two 20-something New Yorkers, Samudrala and Steve Ludmer, the firm kicked off operations in July this year. “I knew what it was like to work 16-17 hours a day and not being able to take care of all the personal stuff,” says Samudrala, who worked as an investment banker before tying up with Ludmer, a management consultant, to start Sunday. “We wanted to leave Sundays free for people to relax with their friends and family, instead of worrying about pending chores,” he says, explaining the name. He knew, from his trips to India, from where his family hails, that the Indian workforce could provide reliable services.

Sunday has personal assistants in India (Samudrala won’t identify the cities), the Philippines, New York and Toronto.

GetFriday, part of the Chennai-based TTK group, evolved from a concierge service for non-resident Indians, called Your Man India. Started in 2003, it involved running various errands such as getting certificates and helping greencard holders with financial transactions. The lucky break came in April 2005 when Esquire magazine’s editor-at-large, A.J. Jacobs, wanted to write a satirical piece on outsourcing life and asked an Indian friend to recommend a firm. He was referred to Your Man in India. “We started with one person serving one client,” says P. Sunder, chief operating officer, “but once we sensed the opportunity, we decided to do it big time.” Jacob’s article, published in the September 2005 issue of Esquire, saw enquiries trickling in steadily. GetFriday (a takeoff on Man Friday) now has 150 employees working out of an office on Bangalore’s Old Madras Road, servicing 1000 clients in the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Hong Kong and Switzerland.

Unlike Sunday, whose clients are busy individuals using their BlackBerrys to get information quickly while on the move, GetFriday also has small businesses as customers. A new entrepreneur, explains Sunder, may want someone to manage his appointments or handle inventories while he’s meeting clients. Taj Tunes, a website offering singing greetings, has an arrangement by which its customers indicate the date and time for a greeting and choose a tune and a GetFriday executive calls the person to be wished and sings the song.

Training assistants can be a huge challenge since they need to get information not just on cinema halls in New York, masons in Washington or takeaway food joints in London but on practically everything under the sun. Many of Sunday’s clients are consultants who travel around the world and they may require information on the country they are travelling to. Last week, a client stuck somewhere in central Africa e-mailed Sunday to call the American embassy and find out how he could get his passport renewed. Another client wanted information on what kind of driver’s licence he would need in Dubai. The information was sent across to him in half an hour.

It’s not always a cakewalk, though. “There is a mismatch of expectations at times,” admits Sunder. What GetFriday does, then, is to tell clients that the first 15 days will be tough on both sides, but after that they’ll get the best output. The companies are gung ho about their businesses, but Evalueserve’s Agarwal urges caution. “This segment could grow to $20 million revenue by 2010 or it could simply dwindle away or it may just grow very, very slowly,” he says.

That probably doesn’t matter to the American software engineer who contacted GetFriday after he lost his job due to outsourcing. He asked it to help him fine-tune his résumé and do job searches. He landed a job soon after. “A victim of outsourcing became its beneficiary,” laughs Sunder.

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