Look at the logo of Ask Geoffrey and the first thing that comes to mind is that having your own robot butler would be awesome, if a little unrealistic. But the Berlin-based personal assistant service is at least already able to make your life a bit easier.
The idea is simple. You can email Geoffrey – actually a team of ‘doers’ – and ask him to accomplish any task for you, as long as it’s something that can be done at a desk. It is initially being aimed at the expat community for things like booking doctor appointments, but founder Parham Mirshahpanah believes there is a huge market for performing those annoying small tasks most people hate.
Parham is in many ways a reflection of how the startup scene in Berlin has grown in recent years. Brought up in San Francisco, he moved to the German capital more than five years ago, and had latterly been working for Bayer, a major pharmaceutical corporate. It was only a few months ago that he decided to take the plunge into entrepreneurship.
And that leads to Geoffrey. Currently in closed beta – you can request access on the website – the tasks are free for the moment while the platform is being built up. Eventually, Parham will establish a business model integrating micro-payments per task as well as subscriptions for both individuals and companies.
Waiting for Confirmation
The user simply emails the central Ask Geoffrey address, and the task is then picked up by one of the group of of ‘doers’. They are all German speakers with excellent English who live in and know Berlin, to where the service is currently limited. You will receive an email to let you know your request has been received, and once your task has been assigned, the ‘doer’ might contact you for more details.
After that, it’s just a case of waiting for the confirmation that the task has been completed.
From personal experience, the service is incredibly useful when you don’t quite know what you are looking for – it found a notary in Mitte at short notice and arranged an appointment. It would also be a Godsend for those who don’t speak German, or at least don’t really know how the system works in Germany.
In fact, Parham told Silicon Allee that he is targeting three main types of user. Firstly there are the younger tech people who are really busy but can’t afford a secretary or personal assistant in the office. Ask Geoffrey represents an affordable way to outsource a lot of their workload.
Then there are professionals who are perhaps working in bigger companies who have secretaries at work but don’t have someone to do the same job in their personal lives.
Thirdly, and most intriguingly, are the people who aren’t very Internet savvy. “It takes them forever to do something online that would take you or I ten minutes to do,” said Parham.
A Wave of International Influence
He is focusing at first on the expat market because it is one he knows well and where he has a significant network already, and he hopes some of the culture can have an effect on the traditional German mindset: “We will focus on major cities that have a lot of [Anglo-Saxon] influence because it rubs off on a lot of people. Germany itself is prone to an attitude of ‘I don’t need to pay for it, I’ll do it myself’. Spain or Italy have a mentality like if someone else can do this I’ll pay them. So I want to jump on that wave of international influence.”
He began work on the platform last September hacking together existing software, making clever use of what was already in existence rather than starting himself from scratch. As a self-funded lone founder Parham is perhaps facing more challenges than other Berlin startups, but he is absolutely confident that Ask Geoffrey will succeed and plans to introduce a pricing model soon. Until then, beta users will enjoy free usage and will subsequently receive discounts for life.
So what kind of things have people been asking Geoffrey for help with?
“There are a lot of apartment listing questions, doctor and dentist appointments. I personally use it when I need to find interesting articles that I want to tweet about but don’t want to scroll through to look for them. A girl wanted to find her boyfriend’s birth certificate from New York because they’re getting married.”
Other examples on the Ask Geoffrey website include “Provide me a list of 5 team building activities in Berlin accommodating a group of 15 international people” and “What are the requirements for a Russian national to live and work in Berlin for a period of 6 months”.
It does seem there is a market for helping people out with small tasks. In terms of competition, Germany already has a similar platform in Standschicht while elsewhere there are the likes of Fancy Hands and Zirtual.
‘A Fun Thing that People Use’
But Parham argues that Ask Geoffrey will offer something more than what’s already out there. He said: “The other guys’ pricing is different – they price per hour; we do it per task on a subscription basis. And quite frankly I don’t think they are marketing their services very well. I want this to be a fun thing that people use; the other ones are just like hiring an online secretary.”
There is still a long way to go, but Parham is looking at eventually expanding into physical tasks – “it’s a marketplace so that would require a totally different infrastructure but it would be a cool place to get to” – as well as geographical growth. He added: “I’d like to develop this eastwards. It would be great for Russia or China. It works really great with places where you have a big disparity between the rich and the poor. You basically have the supply and demand where people can afford these kind of services and people can work for a rather low wage to deliver these kind of services and everyone is kind of happy about it.”
Before he can realise such heady plans, though, Geoffrey needs to surmount the kind of barriers familiar to all startups. Building up a user base and user retention are key, while Parham is also talking to angel investors about investment and a range of companies about partnerships, especially targeting the startup market. For example, an accelerator program could offer Ask Geoffrey to its member startups to allow them to focus better on their own products.
Let’s hope one of those products is an actual robot butler…