On a recent humid Manhattan morning, I followed Johan Lee as he ducked into the cool of Associated Cut Flower Co, a wholesaler in New York’s flower district, to collect the cream roses and white parrot tulips he had picked out for two of his clients. A subway ride later, we stopped in to Trudon, a SoHo boutique displaying $95 French candles under glass cloches, for an unhurried consultation on which scents would suit them best. (One is fond of Japanese incense, another has more floral preferences.)
And then, bouquets under one arm, Lee followed the map on his iPhone app to another station and a downtown train to Tribeca. At 88 Leonard Street, where his clients live, he scooped up groceries he had stored earlier, gave me a pair of blue covers for my shoes and we slipped into a stranger’s empty home.
Solicitous, discreet and with elegant tastes, Lee once hoped to be a butler for a wealthy family. These days, he is an “Alfred” — one of more than 250 personal assistants working for Hello Alfred, a well-funded start-up whose mission is to help people “come home happy”.
The company took its name from Batman’s butler but the home where Lee sets to work trimming the roses, plumping the cushions and organising the fridge does not exactly belong to a latter-day Bruce Wayne: it is a one-bedroom flat whose tenant is a 30-year-old who makes clothing for people with disabilities. His next client was a young producer for a digital ad agency.
Residents of 88 Leonard Street are offered the service for free – though rent for one-bedroom flats in the building can exceed $4,000 a month. They pay extra for tasks that go beyond a basic weekly 25-minute clean-up, such as collecting dry cleaning, getting shoes polished or sourcing presents for a child’s party. The average user spends an extra $150 a month, with those who have used the service for more than six months averaging $350.
The FT has been exploring the “millennial moment”, in which 22- to 37-year-olds have become the global economy’s most powerful consumers, and I decided to shadow Lee to try to understand more about how this generation (or its wealthier, urban segment, at least) is choosing to spend its time and money. My interest was piqued by Marcela Sapone, who founded Hello Alfred in 2014 with fellow Harvard Business School student Jessica Beck on the theory that time-poor young professionals particularly prized the few hours they spend at home, and resented them disappearing in routine chores.
City dwellers of all ages are not short of time-saving apps, from grocery-delivery services such as Instacart to odd jobs marketplaces like TaskRabbit and Handy, but Sapone has found a business in shortening people’s to-do lists. Her millennial clients, she told me, “are not lazy; they just value their time”.
The value is such that 88 Leonard Street tenants who use Hello Alfred are 60 per cent more likely to renew their leases, making it an attractive proposition for a building owner in a market like New York, where a surfeit of “luxury” towers has sparked an amenities war. 88 Leonard also has doormen, a swimming pool and a roof deck; other properties offer bowling alleys, golf simulators and meditation lounges to lure a generation favouring experiences over stuff.
“We were looking at how to differentiate the experience,” explains Michael Phillips, president of Jamestown, the building’s management company. “I think you’ll see this become the norm.” Hello Alfred raised $40m this year from investors who thought the same, financing an expansion to reach a possible 100,000 apartments in a dozen US cities by the end of the year.
Sapone says her clients treat their homes less as a place to accumulate possessions and more like a personalised hotel room, where the duvet cover is always crisp, the mini-bar is always stocked just as they like it, and samples from one of Hello Alfred’s partners periodically introduce them to a new toothpaste brand or local artisanal business.
They are also choosing a different relationship with the people who make their days run more smoothly. Long before anyone branded them “gig economies”, our service economies were full of freelance cleaners, handymen and home helps with little job security, no benefits and low professional status.
Lee and his colleagues are hired by Hello Alfred as full employees rather than contractors – a selling point for middle- and upper-class millennials who are growing more aware of their own precarious place in the workforce and want the people who get them through the week to be on a more even footing too.
What struck me most about my outing with Lee was how queasy everyone became when I suggested he was a contemporary twist on a butler or housekeeper. Sapone prefers to call Alfreds “home managers”, describing them as “advocates”, “sidekicks” and “curators” for their clients, helping them make better decisions. For some millennials, it seems life is enough of a struggle without having to worry about the class struggle too.
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s US business editor
This article has been amended since publication to reflect the fact that the shipping company Shyp has closed
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published