The eBay of Services

by Grace Handy

the opening page of Agent Anything's website

What I initially notice about Harry Schiff is his age. As we meet to chat one night at a Manhattan restaurant, all I can think at first is: this is the guy behind the students-do-your-errands company that’s advertised all over Manhattan? Yes, it is, and as Schiff knowledgeably talks about his company with a Mark Zuckerberg-esque kind of manner and speed (starting many sentences with “Look…” and ending many sentences with “…right?”), I can see how he’s accomplished so much in so little time.

Just last May, Schiff walked across the commencement stage at Princeton to accept his Bachelor’s degree in psychology. A few months later, he established a start-up company that’s been catching fire quickly all around Manhattan and the Tri-state area.

The start-up is called Agent Anything, Inc., or as Schiff describes it, “the eBay of services.” “I realized there were companies like eBay which dealt with an exchange of products with little interaction and risk, but there weren’t really any companies which dealt with the exchange of services,” Schiff says.

Here’s how Agent Anything works:

You head to the company’s website, www.agentanything.com. You click “Agent” or “Client”. If you’re an agent, you scroll through the various available missions, which range from picking up and delivering lunch to an office building, to assisting an elderly person with carrying groceries. Some missions already have set “Rewards”, or monetary payment for a successful mission. Other missions and their respective clients accept offers from agents. After choosing a mission, both you and the client receive a detailed confirmation e-mail with the date, time, place and any other relevant information regarding the mission. After you run the mission, you click “Mission Accomplished” on the Agent Anything website, and once the client certifies via e-mail that the mission has been successfully completed, the pre-determined reward is paid into your PayPal account through an e-mail money transfer.

There is only one piece of criteria to become an agent for Agent Anything. Agents don’t need a criminal justice degree or training, and don’t need to provide references or go through a background check. All they need is a verifiable college e-mail address within the Agent Anything college network of about 300 institutions. Limiting the agent pool to just college students was a simple choice for Schiff. “College students are busy, with balancing classes, jobs, internships, and homework. They need a way to make money in a short amount of time,” he says. The question does arise, however, as to how safe this e-mail address screening method really is; just because someone is enrolled at a university and has a verifiable college e-mail address doesn’t necessarily mean that individual is law-abiding and trustworthy.

Although the agent pool is limited to college students, the “client” demographic of Agent Anything has no restrictions. On the Agent Anything website, clients are described as  “just people who need to get something done.” Schiff told me, though, that a few groups of people are the most frequent Agent Anything clients. “We get a lot of executives, bankers, people who are crunched for time and can afford spending money to have someone do their odd-jobs.”

There are two kinds of Agent Anything missions: virtual and physical. Virtual missions can be completed in the privacy of your on home, or anywhere really, as long as you have access to a computer. A recent example of a virtual mission was, “Create an Online Genealogy Tree for My Family”, in which the client provided the agent with a detailed background and history of his family. Physical missions are generally more common. Many of these missions are office errands, moving jobs, and traveling, delivery jobs. A popular delivery job is lunch delivery, which the trendy website UrbanDaddy.com utilized in their online review of Agent Anything. According to the UrbanDaddy review, an agent named Jorge promptly delivered lunch from Shake Shack to the UrbanDaddy offices, and “burgers arrived hot, concretes arrived thick, and not a shred of line-cutting evidence was left behind.”

The missions, of which Schiff told me ten to twenty-five are posted on a given day, in general are relatively low in reward value. When I have checked the postings over the past couple of months, most of the missions have ranged from about $5 to $25. Some missions, though, have higher rewards, and Schiff says, “with a higher price, the easier the mission goes.”

The Agent Anything company name is quite broad and seemingly all-encompassing (the opening page on the website says, “Any errand, anytime, anywhere”) and suggests a game-like quality to the service. When I ask Schiff about the company’s unique name, he laughs and says, “It is a little like Carmen San Diego, but that’s what’s intriguing about it, right?” The broadness of the company does lead to some obvious questions; where does Agent Anything draw the line regarding missions? What happens if a questionable mission is posted? What about violence, or God forbid a Craigslist killer-esque situation? So far, there have been no close calls, and Schiff remains confident things will stay that way. “A college e-mail address is not easy to fake, and also in order to post a mission the client must provide verifiable credit card information and a verifiable address.” Another protective measure on the Agent Anything website is the opportunity for users to “flag” any mission as suspicious for review by the Agent Anything staff. In that case, even though Schiff and his business partner Oliver Green (more on him later) typically screen each mission anyway, they will take an even closer look at the mission details and contact the client with further questions if necessary. But nothing too serious has occurred since the company’s establishment. In fact, the only tough situations Schiff has encountered since creating the company involved disputes between client and agent over payment. “We’ve had two or three instances, small disputes over the reimbursement payment amount, which combined equaled about $60.”

Although now the Agent Anything brand relies heavily on word-of-mouth advertising, when Schiff began the company last October, actual advertising was of utmost importance. “We couldn’t build up slowly, we couldn’t act like a start-up, we needed to establish a good recipe for trust,” Schiff said. Schiff decided to have advertisements placed inside of Midtown subways, such as the line running near the Bank of America and HSBC buildings, where he knew many investors would be and likely see them. Before he knew it, an almost instant reputation for Agent Anything was established from ad recognition, and Schiff, as he expected, began receiving phone calls from intrigued investors.

Another advertising technique Schiff utilized was traveling to Tri-state area universities and handing out Agent Anything T-shirts and flyers, thus spreading out the company and quickly picking up some new agents. He also frequently spoke at resident meetings at new apartment buildings in Manhattan, describing the company and subsequently picking up new clients.

Schiff realizes with the Agent Anything agent demographic typically ranging between ages 18 and 22, social networking is of great value in order to keep an up-to-speed network running. “Agents can get notifications of new mission postings by following @directorgreen on Twitter, or by texting ‘follow @directorgreen to 40404,’” says Schiff. “We’re also working on an iPhone app, which will show all available missions, and focus on missions that are 500 yards from where you are at that moment.”

Although Schiff is from Montreal, Canada, he travels to New York frequently and says, “the Agent Anything headquarters is wherever we are,” given that the company can pretty much be run entirely virtually. The “we” Schiff used is referring to himself and his business partner in England, Oliver Green, who Schiff has only met in person once. How is it possible that Schiff has only met the “chief technical officer,” (who does “all the tech stuff”) of Agent Anything only once? “I needed someone to partner with and handle the technical side of the business. We met when I traveled to London last year, and talked over drinks. Now, we speak on the phone, e-mail, and even Skype to communicate and efficiently run the company.”  Their geographic separation hasn’t been an issue for Schiff and Green (yet), neither has the fact that the company runs in New York and the owners are only in and out of the city, and not permanently based there.

Because of the intriguing quality of the Agent Anything brand in general, word has spread quickly. Agent brand-marketing through word of mouth is quite common, and welcomed by Schiff. In fact, he and Green have recently thought up a program that would benefit both themselves as well as agents and market the Agent Anything brand outside of the New York area. Schiff e-mailed me an unofficial version of a packet for this “Agent Anything Agency Program”. Titled “A Proposal for the Aspiring Entrepreneur,” (intriguing in its own right, I’d want to keep reading if I was an agent), the proposal contains a program overview including two key phases of work: Phase 1: Research and Planning, which includes submitting a detailed plan for review by Schiff and Green, and Phase II: Execution, which involves the actual creation of a geographic market, with a couple different reward plans based overall productivity. The program overview says, “The Agency Program is about giving aspiring entrepreneurs the opportunity to make big decisions and act on them with real money, real responsibility and real consequences.  In short – it provides the missing pieces of a complete business education.” Schiff hopes the Agency program will help contribute to the overall geographic reach of Agent Anything, of which physical missions cover just the Tri-state area.

With a growing, innovative brand, hundreds of thousands of possible agents and endless clients in the New York area, it seems the 23-year-old Schiff and his months-old company are doing pretty well.

http://vimeo.com/23452432

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