Companies using mobile technology to bring professionals directly to the consumer

Whitney Ortiz, a master technician for YourMechanic, works on a car in the customer's apartment parking lot in East Palo Alto, Calif.

Tech's “sharing economy” movement has spawned companies like Airbnb and Relay Rides, which let people save and make money via exchanges for things like spare bedrooms and car trips.

Now a new slew of startups is using the model in some parts of the country to match consumers with professional services for less.

YourMechanic, for instance, has a mobile network of certified auto mechanics who will come to users' home or office; Pathjoy promises “maid service for the masses,” booked online. Similar exchanges are popping up for chefs (Kitchit) and barbers (GoHaircut).

Backers say the new breed of mobile services isn't just more convenient and cheaper for users; it's also a way for craftspeople to find steady employment in an uneven economy.

“Most stylists are looking for part-time work to supplement their income,” said GoHaircut CEO Tom Maxim, who hit on the idea while at a New York startup that was trying to take on Skype. Locked into long hours at his desk, Maxim asked if his barber would make house calls; soon Maxim's co-workers were doing the same, and he moved to Silicon Valley to turn his idea into a company.

San Jose, Calif.-based GoHaircut, launched in October, contracts with half a dozen stylists who will drive to a customer's home or office, lay down a mat and start snipping.

“The convenience factor goes without saying,” said Sahil Jain, who recently began using GoHaircut for himself and his three employees at San Francisco advertising startup AdStage.

“And $30 per head for haircuts that typically can be upward of $100 just can't be beat.”

As with most of its peers in other come-to-you markets, GoHaircut lets customers pay directly on its website, so no money changes hands once the professional shows up.

Abhas “Art” Agrawal, CEO of Mountain View, Calif.-based YourMechanic, first began experimenting with online labor marketplaces five years ago, when he launched a site to help hospitals find temporary nurses. When that flopped amid the 2008 recession, Agrawal decided to open a car repair shop.

But while interviewing mechanics, he learned that many of them offered mobile repair through outlets like Craigslist — and realized he could combine two business models into one.

“The problem is, you don't know who these guys on Craigslist are,” he said. “You don't know how much it should cost. The whole experience felt broken.”

YourMechanic, which made its debut in September, has compiled a database of automobile part and labor prices. So if the owner of a 2000 Honda Civic needs brake pads, the app can calculate what the job would cost, taking into account how far the mechanic needs to drive, then ship the parts from a wholesaler.

Ashu Desai recently bought a used BMW and hired a YourMechanic grease monkey to replace his drive belts and brakes and flush his power steering and fuel injection systems.

“The service cost me $1,050, as opposed to nearly $3,000 at the BMW dealership,” said Desai, CEO of a Palo Alto, Calif., startup that teaches students to design iPhone games. He liked that the work was performed in his own driveway.

On-site services aren't new; during the dot-com bubble, many companies began offering workers mobile perks like personal training and dentist visits, the better to keep them corralled on campus. GoHaircut, for instance, has a local competitor called On-site Haircuts, which operates a salon inside an RV.

But the company, which was founded in 2003, sets up at specific locations on specific days. “They don't come to your office on demand,” Maxim notes.

The new wave of such services is built, in part, on the increasing ubiquity of mobile phones, which make it easy for customers to schedule services on the fly and for workers in the field to be notified of new clients.

Another difference, Kitchit co-founder Ian Ferguson said, is that sharing-economy sites have gotten consumers used to paying for services in new ways. “You don't need a personal assistant; you have TaskRabbit,” he said.

And you may not need a personal chef thanks to Kitchit, founded in San Francisco a year ago by three foodies from Stanford University. Its network of chefs ranges from Beard Award winner Traci des Jardins to up-and-comers hoping to make a name for themselves.

Katie Wolf used Kitchit to set up a private dinner for two friends who were getting married. Chef Danny Brooks “made this amazing meal,” Wolf said. “My friends have a small kitchen, and he worked wonders with it.”

Brooks said he's used the service for the past year, billing clients $125 per person for a “casual” meal or $165 a head for a “four-star” experience that includes more courses.

“I like that there's a third party that's responsible for disaster, so if my client doesn't fulfill their end of my contract, there's a phone call I can make as opposed to packing up my apron and walking out,” Brooks said. Customers likewise have recourse against tardy chefs, he added.

Kitchit works so well that Brooks wonders if it's sustainable. “The problem with all food businesses is small margins,” he said, noting that the startup tacks a 12.5 percent fee onto each customer contract.

Indeed, matching consumers to mobile professionals can have its pitfalls.

On-site carwash service Cherry, which garnered lots of buzz and millions of dollars from backers such as PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, abruptly shut down last month.

Although the reasons for the move remain unclear, one could imagine that a stubborn economy had much to do with Cherry's demise.

Agrawal, though, isn't deterred.

“Even in a down economy,” he said, “people need to get their cars fixed.”

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Please keep it clean, turn off CAPS LOCK and don't threaten anyone. Be truthful, nice and proactive. And share with us - we love to hear eyewitness accounts.

You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.