This column is only two weeks old, but already I see a theme in your letters: managing the time crunch. Entrepreneurs
are struggling to keep work pressures from overwhelming their personal lives. I wrote about some solutions last week --
carving out a separate work area at home, enlisting family members to help you disconnect when you're "off-duty," and
setting limits with clients.
The problem is that it isn't just work that gnaws away at family time. Household chores and managing the social side of
business life take their toll, too. One way to snatch back a few hours is to hire a concierge service. Such services
aren't cheap -- they generally charge between $12 and $25 an hour or on a per-fee basis. (If you use the service for
business, you may be able to deduct some costs when you do your taxes.) Grocery shopping typically costs 20% of the bill,
a reminder call 75 cents. Some are drop-in services -- you call when you need them. Others charge a retainer, which can
run several thousand dollars a year and essentially buys you service on call. Most offer a range of service options. Until
you know the provider well, you can't be assured of the quality. But if you don't have an endless supply of selfless,
available friends, neighbors, and relatives, the idea is worth considering.
A brief introduction to the concept: A French word, "concierge" has multiple connotations -- all referring to those who
render a range of services. The term originally referred to the keeper of the keys to the palace, according to the
National Concierge Assn. Today, in most U.S. metropolitan areas and tourist destinations, you can hire a concierge service
to take on such unrewarding tasks as waiting around for the cable guy, buying obligatory gifts for distant relatives,
booking travel, or getting license plates.
They're very accommodating. I've heard of chain saws procured in under an hour and an elephant
delivered to a birthday party. Concierge services are fast becoming a popular work-life perk for professional staff at
such corporations as Microsoft, Arthur Andersen, and McKinsey. They still don't seem to have caught on with small-business
owners, though the names and mottos of the services sure seem to target small biz: Helping Hands in Washington; Uptown
Runaround in Houston; "Consider it done"; "Your busyness is our business"; "Giving back the gift of time."
R.J. Valentine, owner of the real estate developing and insurance concern MBA Group in Braintree, Mass., swears by one
local service, Concierge of Boston, owned by Gordon R. Jones, who left Kidder Peabody 12 years ago to start the company.
"He arranged a traditional New England clambake for me on 15 minutes' notice," Valentine says. "We entertain on a regular
basis. I couldn't run my business without him."
"What would take a one-person business three days, we can do in an hour," boasts Jones. "Small businesses tend to have
less support staff. We'll get Red Sox tickets, handle travel, plan functions, oversee events -- the duties an
administrative assistant might have to do." Jones gets a hefty $6,000 annual retainer but swears he can save small
companies more than that in time and discounts of up to 20% from local vendors with whom he does volume business.
Valentine says the service is a lot cheaper than hiring an assistant.
Most concierge services are local companies offering personal service. But quite a number are
Web-based, taking job orders and communicating with clients electronically. There are also national companies that take
job orders online and subcontract the assignments to local partners. Concierge at Large Inc., a San Diego-based company, offers both one-time services and contracts,
starting at $199 a month. Boston-based Circles, a national "virtual personal assistant" service geared to corporate
customers, handles requests via its Web site as well as a 24-hour call center.
Circles partners with local errand services but doesn't accept one-time jobs. You pay an annual membership fee
(starting at $20 per employee per year), which rises with the level of service. The options range from LifeConcierge, a
package for the rank-and-file that offers a range of errands and household services, to PremierConcierge, a service that
companies can offer clients, which will take practically every personal task you can imagine off your hands.
Unless you were born into money, it may feel a little weird to hire someone to do the tedious chores that seem the lot
of a normal adult life. Or you can look at it this way: Life is too short to stand in line at Motor Vehicles.
Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers,
magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now
works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y.