Genies Are Standing By

My first job out of college, I worked as the assistant to the editor in chief of a glossy fashion magazine. She was not the Prada-wearing devilish kind: Elaina loved literature and animals. In her soft Scottish lilt she’d politely inquire about my weekend and my family and my roommate—and then send me out in a monsoon for her second grande 2 percent latte of the morning, on the company dime.

Some days, I was happy to drop whatever important work I was doing—I edited the horoscope page, which could be very intense—and fetch my boss her overpriced joe. But often I wondered if that second cup was truly necessary. The first had barely any time to take effect, and besides: I’d heard her brag to the many insomniac women around the office that she never suffered for a good night’s sleep. It was mostly on the bad-weather days, as I trudged my $120,000-college-educated self down the block to Starbucks, my hair a mop and mascara running down my face Betty Suarez–style, that I had to consider the possibility that Elaina sent me on the coffee run simply because she could.

The urge is human: to get other people to do for us what we could just as easily do on our own (or do without). And the harder we work, or the higher we climb, the more special assistance we feel we deserve. Laziness plays into it, as does being legitimately overscheduled. But outsourcing everyday tasks is often much more about entitlement, power, and self-importance than fulfilling an actual need. Our collective willingness to carry massive amounts of debt means that anyone can own the dream car, house, or handbag; the new measure of luxury is how much buck you can pass. I, for example, am too important to clean my own apartment, transcribe my own interviews, or pluck my own eyebrows. Just last month I spent $250 on a self-cleaning litter box system, which is as close as it gets to paying someone else to scoop my cat’s poop.

A decade ago, Boston residents Kathy Sherbrooke and Janet Kraus, Stanford Business School friends looking for a company to launch, asked scores of time-starved executives what they really needed. The answer was a resounding help: a closet organizer, a personal chef, a tailor who makes house calls. The pair raised $26 million—a feat for women entrepreneurs, who in the eyes of mostly male investors could get married and knocked up without warning—and started Circles, a do-it-all concierge service pitched to credit card firms and big employers to provide whatever, whenever, as a perk to customers (in the case of the former) or a benefit to workers (in the case of the latter).

Activated by a quick phone call or e-mail that routes to one of the company’s three call centers in Fort Point Channel, Chelmsford, and Burlington, Ontario, the Circles concierges can, in theory, reserve a table at an overbooked restaurant, track down a rare bottle of wine, charter a yacht out of Budapest, or get Keith Richards to show up at your Fourth of July barbecue. In reality, they’re usually asked to do the sorts of things that most people could very well do themselves, like book a rental car at LAX or schedule the dog at the vet. Client companies pay a fee per user, but individual callers are responsible for any extraneous costs involved in, say, securing Keith Richards, or ordering a pizza. Circles reps will name only four clients—Unilever, AstraZeneca, Baylor Health Care System, and Pepsi—though the company website lists 15, and Sherbrooke lets it slip that "a lot of our customers are credit card companies." Most notable, though Circles won’t officially confirm it, is American Express. While AmEx presents its fabled concierge service as an in-house operation, current and former Circles staffers say it is in fact farmed out to their firm, and accounts for a majority of their business.

Over the past few years Circles has grown steadily, and this year it expects revenues of $76 million, says the company’s chief financial officer, Hugh Merryweather. In October, Sherbrooke and Kraus sold out to French conglomerate Sodexo—its eye toward expanding into lifestyle services—at which time Kraus left to run Spire, an independent social networking site for VIPs, and Sherbrooke took over as Circles’ CEO. Having virtually invented the industry, Circles has thus far faced little competition on a national level, but recently a host of regional services have threatened to horn in on its territory, including Best Upon Request, servicing primarily the Midwest, and Atlanta-based 2 Places at 1 Time, which focuses on the South. Now backed by Sodexo, which generates yearly revenues of $18.8 billion and has plans to grow the company internationally, Circles is poised to become the world leader in the business of wish fulfillment. An office in London will open by the end of the year, and Merryweather hopes the company eventually has outposts in the 80 countries in which Sodexo operates. Today, Chelmsford; tomorrow, Dubai!