If you need someone to help with a small move, cleaning services or assembling boxed furniture, you can browse any number of sites for help.
But what if you’re looking to employ someone to house sit your plants, come over and prepare an authentic German meal, teach you how to make pine needle baskets or create personalized clothing patterns? What if you’re simply in need of a snake expert to chat about all things Serpentes, or searching for first-person advice on male-to-female gender transitions?
A startup called MyPeopleNow might just have your people.
“We want to focus on long-tail services,” said co-founder and CEO Melissa Strawn. “We want to create services where people are digging down deep and saying, ‘What do I love doing?’”
In January, Strawn launched MyPeopleNow with her husband and software engineer Jord Sonneveld. The business is based in Kirkland, Wash., east of Seattle. They recently hired a third team member, graphic designer Gavin Dugas. Strawn’s background is in sales. Sonneveld is on the technical staff for eBay, and has been an engineer for Moz, Google and ClearNova.
“Our goal is to build a marketplace for people who don’t fit into the traditional employment model so that they can monetize their unique skills and experiences in order to earn a living,” Strawn said. “The other goal is to ‘de-stress’ people by finding them the help they need, now.”
The site has 250 people offering more than 300 different services, and more than 400 users. Many of the services are in the Puget Sound area and California, but there are offerings from across the country. Some are virtual and available anywhere.
MyPeopleNow gives vendors the option of being paid for their services, or the site’s users can trade services through the use of points. The company takes a 20 percent cut of the transactions, but also awards points worth 10 percent of the price of a service to the provider, and 10 percent to the buyer. That creates an incentive for participants to stick with the site.
In addition to more unusual services, MyPeopleNow includes conventional offerings that one would find on TaskRabbit, Thumbtack and elsewhere — jobs including cleaning, babysitting, IT services and deliveries. Strawn says that one of their strengths is the wide range of services, which means consumers aren’t juggling a bunch of apps for meeting different needs.
If a customer is unsatisfied with a service, they can report that to the site and they’ll work to resolve it, potentially discounting the price. Future plans for MyPeopleNow include linking to social media sites to help users see who their friends are hiring, which can be a powerful endorsement of a provider.
The biggest challenge is differentiating MyPeopleNow from similar sites as it tries to build a collection of providers with unique skills. One of the most unusual items comes from Strawn’s own mother, who offers video tutorials on growing your own vegan leather. Strawn is planning to feature profiles of vendors in coming months to highlight people and their passions.
Through the site, Strawn has hired a math tutor for three of her sons, age 8, 12 and 16. For her twin toddlers, also boys, she found a woman to come over and do art with her and the kids. And when her family had dined on one-too-many instant-ramen dinners, Strawn employed a cook to visit her home and prepare a chicken pot pie dinner. She loves the services as well as the interactions with the vendors.
“This is the kind of service,” she said, “where you leave the table feeling like we impacted each other’s life.”
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: MyPeopleNow is an online marketplace for buying, selling and exchanging unique services.
Inspiration hit us when: I was a low-income single mother in the Bay Area trying to finish college and I struggled to get everything done by the end of the day. I thought, “If only I could exchange the things I am good at doing in order to get the things I need help with, my problem could be solved.” When I couldn’t find a marketplace like that, I dreamed up my own.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Bootstrap because I have loads of experience making ends meet with extremely limited resources. I enjoy the thrill of pulling the impossible off and even hosted people on Airbnb for a while to pay for business expenses. We are going to raise our first angel round this fall so that we can reach critical mass more quickly. The angel groups in the Seattle area have been a phenomenal resource over this last year — they genuinely care about educating entrepreneurs.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: We are designing the site to be on-demand and to provide long-tail services including video chat as a service. What this means is being able to chat on demand with a French chef the next time you are stuck baking your own croissants or having someone come over immediately to help you clean up in time for your mother-in-law’s unexpected arrival. We also allow people to exchange services indirectly with one another by issuing points with every transaction. Those points can then be exchanged for other services.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: Hiring a contract engineer to work with us. She brought a level of professionalism to the process and was able to bang out necessary features very quickly so that we could focus on the bigger picture.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Waiting so long to get started! Eight years is far too long to sit on a dream. Now that I have read things like “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries and attended Techstars’ Startup Weekend, I realize that the best thing to do is to start — even if that means operating on pencil and paper. When things get busy enough to require the technology, then you can justify the cost and even better, you already have customers.
Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? Angel investor and advisor Sarah Imbach. She gave us the best advice so far: to focus on the long-tail. There are a million sites and apps out there where you can book a cleaner or dog walker, but we provide so much more value when we are providing access to services that simply aren’t available anywhere else, all in one place.
Our favorite team-building activity is: Honestly, working. We are married so we get to do fun things together all the time. When we finally get to work together and accomplish our milestones, it is quite the adrenaline rush. We get all crazy and silly and start yelling with excitement.
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Signs that someone takes things seriously and does what they say they are going to do. Also, we need to know that someone sees our vision. We don’t want to just make lots of money, we want to make an impact. Someone who cares about that above all else is in line with our core values as a company.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Get started. Now. Find your first customer and go through with what you are trying to build, even if it feels fake and contrived. You will learn something new each time you go through another use case. Also, get plugged into the startup community near you. Meeting other people who are crazy enough to start a startup will help you get over your imposter syndrome.