Amy Goldberg knew to expect the unexpected when she launched a personal concierge business. Still, she was shocked by the first call she received. "Excuse me," the man said, "will you go to the dentist for me?"
He wasn’t looking for a stand-in, although that wasn’t clear at first. The man needed somebody to pick up a set of dentures and deliver them. That Goldberg could do.
Goldberg, a Potomac resident, founded The Runaround in 1996. She originally thought of hers as an errand-running business, more or less. Ten years later, Goldberg has taken customers’ cars to inspections, arranged a baby shower and cleaned up afterwards, taken pets to the veterinarian, and delivered a bicycle to a client on his birthday.
The term "concierge" may conjure images of somebody working in a hotel, but The Runaround is one of a growing number of "personal concierge" businesses that will assume a broad, somewhat unspecified range of client responsibilities. Their tasks range from company to company and from day to day within each company, but their goal is the same — tackle tasks for clients who simply don’t have the time.
"One day I was at the Giant. I was tired and had worked all day," Goldberg said. "I thought, ‘I’m so tired, I would so pay someone to do this.’"
If she would pay somebody to do this, wouldn’t somebody else pay her to do it? "People don’t want to deal with the minutiae," she said.
AIDA MIDDEL AND Libby Kinkead founded Potomac Concierge last fall. Like Goldberg, both Middel and Kinkead figured from their own and their neighbors’ experience that the Potomac area had a need for a versatile, problem-solving kind of business.
For starters, Middel and Kinkead knew a high number of dual-income families with demanding careers. "There’s a huge need for it, because a lot of people are pretty rushed and stressed out," Kinkead said.
While based in Potomac, Goldberg works for clients in Frederick, Annapolis, Northern Virginia and the District. Potomac’s affluence isn’t as much of a business-climate factor as one might assume, she said.
"The upper-class people have people to do this," she said. "[Typical clients are] two working parents who have just made the decision that they would rather have quality time with each other or their families."
"I’m from the background that you take care of it yourself," Kinkead said. She came to feel differently, however, when she thought about the limited hours some service companies work. Why would an attorney who bills several hundred dollars an hour stay in the house between 8 a.m. and noon to wait for a cable repairman or a plumber?
That’s a fairly common request that Middel and Kinkead receive, as are light packing or organization assignments. Other clients’ needs are less predictable. Middel has arranged for sick children to be picked up from school while the parents were working. One client needed help with bills and routine home maintenance after the death of a parent. Another needed more than 20 years of photos put into albums. Others are working abroad for several years, and need periodic home maintenance or newspapers removed from the driveway.
It is really pretty fun and different," Middel said. "We’re really like problem solvers. … We’ll basically do anything you need us to."
BEFORE THE INTERNET took off, it was tougher to find these types of businesses. The climate is much more competitive than it was when The Runaround began, Goldberg said. In part this is because large established business, like the Peapod delivery service for Giant grocery stores, have gotten in on the act. She wonders if the market in the Washington area is nearing a point of saturation.
Mike Benesch, a counselor for the Service Core of Retired Executives who advises Middel and Kinkead, believes there’s room for more.
"They are the leading edge," Benesch said. "The personal concierge [industry] is growing … [and] it’s going to grow dramatically." The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects personal and home care aides will be one of the 10 fastest growing industries between 2004 and 2014.
Middel said her company tries to offer versatility, rather than a couple of pigeonholed types of services. She has a background in accounting, while Kinkead’s is in professional organization.
KINKEAD SAID customers can quickly grow accustomed to having personal concierge services. "You take care of so many things," she said. "People become very dependent on you."
Goldberg said that is especially true with elderly customers. "You become sort of their conduit to the outside world," Goldberg said.
Because the local concierge companies routinely receive requests to help with bills or enter a client’s home, their co-founders described client trust as essential, especially in an industry that isn’t as formally regulated as those of accounting or law practice.
"Because it’s such a personal service," said Goldberg, "the most important thing is to get someone you feel really comfortable with; somebody you can trust."
HELP FOR ENTREPRENEURS
As a first-time entrepreneur, Aida Middel once thought the concept was too good to be true. When she and fellow Potomac resident Libby Kinkead co-founded Potomac Concierge last fall, they received free counseling and business advice from Michael Benesch of the Service Core of Retired Executives.
"We would have spent thousands of dollars to get this advice," Middel said.
SCORE provides help to any aspiring entrepreneur who walks through their door, Benesch said, but the counselors will be forthright if they see a fundamentally flawed business proposal. "In many cases we try to talk people into keeping their day jobs," he said.
Many entrepreneurs aren’t aware of the resources available to them, Benesch said. Some try to finance their venture with home equity loans or personal loans, unaware of the more favorable terms a small business loan can provide.
When Benesch meets with prospective clients, he discusses the kind of capital they’ll need, the market climate, and work through a detailed agenda for the business. "A lot of people walk away at that point," he said.
Benesch would have told Middel and Kinkead if he didn’t think their venture held some promise.
"They want to do this, their hearts are into it, they’re exited about it," Benesch said. "If there’s ever a place where you can do this, it’s Montgomery County."