An app offering an in-house butler service is the latest business promising more free time. But is time really the problem? By Gillian Terzis.

On-demand service app Jarvis

Smartphone app Jarvis supplies a butler to complete household chores.
Smartphone app Jarvis supplies a butler to complete household chores.
Credit: Josie Liu

Matthew Vethecan has had four hours’ sleep. When I greet him at my house at nine in the morning, he is both affable and apologetic; any visible signs of exhaustion seem to be masked by the boundless reserves of energy people exhibit in their 20s. For the past few months he and his team have been working well into dawn on Jarvis, the personal butler service he co-founded that is controlled by a smartphone app.

Jarvis was spawned by commiserations shared between Vethecan and his similarly overworked uni friends. In a previous job, Vethecan worked as a management consultant. It was not uncommon for him to clock long hours, often finishing at one in the morning. His friend Dennis Jap endured a similar predicament at an investment bank. When asked about their plans for the weekend, their answers were predictable. “It was more or less the same: I’m going to be doing my groceries, then I’ve got to do my laundry, then I’ve got to tidy up my place because a whole lot of mess has accumulated,” Vethecan says. “What we wanted to do was outsource all of that.” This was not an impossible task, he and Jap surmised, but organising it all was deeply inefficient. It required co-ordinating and paying separate people for washing clothes, cleaning the house and going to the supermarket. What if these services could be bundled together? They sensed an opportunity.

Still in its salad days and fully self-funded, Jarvis is a risk for its members – but it’s a calculated one. The staff aren’t yet able to pay themselves a wage, but all still live at home with their parents with presumably minimal living costs. It’s a safety net that allows the company to go full throttle as it tries to expand its client base. Vethecan’s passion for Jarvis is infectious, and I found myself swept up in his boundless optimism. At times his demeanour recalled a high-school debater: polished, earnest and prone to vigorous hand gestures. Other times, such as when he delved into the market fragmentation of Australia’s $4 billion cleaning industry, he sounded like a CEO. (“The breakthrough that got us really excited was the potential for efficiencies.”) Once he and his team realised they could have one butler say, in Richmond, servicing a number of clients, completing tasks for many people at once rather than individually, they knew they had a product that could prove commercially viable.  

Jarvis has been operating for two months. So far it has 40 clients in Melbourne – a mix of young professionals, entrepreneurs and double-income families – and aims to launch in Sydney in the near future. It offers three tiers of service – “essential”, “standard” and “premium” – starting at $33 a week. The basic option includes a 30- to 40-minute tidy of the house, a fully stocked fridge, the delivery of laundry and dry cleaning. After users sign up for a package, they are encouraged to meet a butler (their “Jarvis”) and explain how they like things done. In a departure from the Uber model, each Jarvis is considered an employee rather than a contractor – he or she receives superannuation, leave and so on – and undergoes a police check and two rounds of interviews before they sign a contract. Vethecan says thus far many Jarvis butlers are stay-at-home mums who are looking to re-enter the workforce, or foreign professionals who are planning to use the job to support themselves while working towards getting their qualifications recognised in Australia.

“Everything happens without me thinking about anything,” Tammy L, an accountant, says in a testimonial for Jarvis. “I just enter all my chores, my credit card gets charged automatically, and things just get done.” The app economy’s singular achievement is how cleverly it disguises acts of labour within a glossy interface. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that someone, somewhere, is doing the work.

The butler–employer relationship is not dissimilar to other forms of stakeholder management. There are needs to be met, objectives to be fulfilled, anxieties to be assuaged. “The more you use the service,” the Jarvis website says, “the better it will get as your Jarvis learns to understand and anticipate your needs.” Jarvis bears many conceptual similarities to New York-based start-up Alfred, a neighbourhood butler service founded by two Harvard students sick of living in dirty apartments, which raised $US12.5 million in venture capital funding last year, although there are some key differences. While Alfred outsources its services through other on-demand providers (Instacart for grocery delivery, MyClean for cleaning), Jarvis provides all the services through its own staff, which Vethecan says keeps costs down and enables the quality of the service to be upheld.

He walks me through the Jarvis app on his phone. The interface is intuitive and user-friendly: getting someone to do your weekly shop is as simple as toggling a switch. Under the “grocery” section, users can upload a photo of their shopping list or request their butler retrieve the “best bottle of wine under $20”. They can select the tasks they’d like completed in their tidy-up – if they’d like beds made, surfaces wiped, the garbage taken out. They can also use the app for custom requests (walking the dog, sending a package, ordering salmon from the local fishmonger, and so on), which attract an additional charge.

In recent times there has been a slew of start-ups keen to capitalise on the burgeoning economy of instant gratification. Last year, on-demand cleaning service Whizz netted $2 million in funding from investors such as Simon Rothery (CEO of Goldman Sachs) and Tom Krulis (former CEO of Godfreys). Abroad there are start-ups such as Washio, which arranges the cleaning and delivering of laundry straight to your door; Handy, which dispatches handymen to help assemble your flat-pack furniture; and BloomThat, which is like Uber but for flower delivery. The industry’s boom was, for some, a source of amusement. Aziz Shamim, an engineer at GitHub, tweeted: “SF tech culture is focused on solving one problem: what is my mother no longer doing for me?”

While more start-ups appear to be catering to consumers’ whims, long-term prosperity is far from assured. An article in The Economist suggests on-demand start-ups “may find themselves stuck in a world of low margins, high promotional costs and labour churn as they struggle to attain the sort of market dominance that locks in their network advantages”, not to mention increased scrutiny from regulatory bodies.

Countless op-eds and anecdotes attest that time has become a luxury item, particularly for the affluent, but the statistics are a mixed bag. Most studies suggest leisure time has, on average, increased in advanced economies; others say inequality in leisure time has actually deepened across socioeconomic lines, with those on lower wages bearing much of the burden. Sometimes “busyness” presents as a syndrome of false convictions. Claiming you’re “too busy” is often an expression of status – being hugely productive is a common humblebrag. What’s more, it has become harder to parse the distinction between work and leisure. This is partly the result of technological change, but it also stems from a particular kind of anxiety that accompanies the accumulation of money. When people say their time is valuable, they often mean their hours are bankable – that their time can be better spent literally and figuratively. When I ask Vethecan to reflect on his idea of leisure, he begins by saying, “Time is an opportunity cost.” I wonder if quantifying our lives as business units has reshaped our expectations of how we spend our leisure time. Must it, too, be productive? 

That said, I can see how Jarvis and apps like it might appeal to working women. I harbour a childlike aversion to chores and do housework mostly out of necessity, sometimes out of resignation. The prospect of outsourcing my personal admin (“the pain”, as Vethecan calls it) is enticing, but displacing that workload onto another person triggers deep unease. One assumes Keynes’s vision of a leisure-soaked utopia did not include a sneer of butlers.

Liberation from chores only gets us so far. For all the talk of domestic drudgery, little has been said about routine drudgery that occurs in the corporate world, with its exacting demands and rituals of surveillance and performance. When people lament the loss of their free time, they’re also lamenting the gradual dissolution of a sense of self that existed outside the workplace. That’s a problem that is as material as it is psychological, and it’s unlikely to be solved by an app.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2016 as "Freedom of chores".

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Gillian Terzis is a San Francisco-based writer.

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