At your service

Do you enjoy doing laundry as well as re-shelving said laundry? How about grocery shopping when you know that special dinner party you’re throwing will require at least four different store stops? Do you want to stress out the dog by kennelling her for a long weekend? If the answer to any of these is “Yes” then the soon-to-launch app Butler isn’t for you (and in the case of the dog, shame!). But if you’re a normal Hongkonger with more to do than there are hours in a day, a new-and-improved domestic helper may be on the horizon.

Hotel at Home

First, some hard numbers. Butler co-founders Angus Chan and Jonathan Lam point out that on average, we spend a total of 56 hours each month — or 28 days per year, two annual leaves — on those little errands that come with an average life: paying bills, grocery shopping, laundry, packing for trips, cleaning the bathroom and tidying up before guests arrive, changing cat litter, and much more. It may seem like only a few minutes each time, but like coins in a bowl at the front door, it adds up. Fast.

 Simply put, Butler (which right now is WhatsApp-driven) is a premium, bespoke, Internet-enabled home management platform that frees up all the time we put into those little things. As Chan argues, there’s been no improvement in household management in 30 years; nothing has changed since the wide adoption of domestic helpers, and there’s certainly been no improvement on time management. Butler, Chan claims, “Is an instant stress reliever. That’s what [we] aim to do. We want to make coming home the highlight of the day.” At present, core services include housekeeping, closet management, meal preparation, grocery shopping, pet sitting and peripheral services like party planning, financial reminders, and even luggage packing. Forthcoming services include repairs, grooming, car care, relocation packing, doula and more. 

Butler has been honing its services in a soft launch phase that started last summer, with the final app-based service coming in late-summer 2018. Like so many apps, Butler will be data-driven on the back end for enhanced personalisation, and algorithm-based analytics will make recommendations specific to each household in conjunction with user preferences and follow-up consultations. If a client’s preferred Shiraz is gone, Butler knows it and prompts for restock — as it does for shampoo, coffee, dog food, toilet tissue, light bulbs, soy sauce and anything else the home may need.
Big Data at its finest.

But people are still needed to execute Big Data’s plans, another area Butler thinks it excels. Every butler on staff receives specific in-house training, much of which comes from client feedback. Trainees can shadow more experienced butlers, and Butler’s butlers are compensated at a level that beats industry standards. For those of us who would prefer not to exploit helpers of any kind, Butler ensures its staff are well remunerated. They are, after all, the same skilled, customer service workers the Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons are after — and which there is a dearth of in Hong Kong. “I’ll admit [hiring] is one of our biggest challenges,” says Lam. “But we do have a system in place to incentivise our butlers … So far it’s working and hopefully our internal systems will mitigate any problems.” Problems are one thing, but Butler’s services need to reach hotel-level to really take off. Lam thinks it does. “We do more. We get behind the closet as well as organise it. We’re just trying to create something new.”

How New?

So, the obvious question is: What makes this different from having a domestic helper, or two or three as required? At the Gold tier, Butler charges $3,500 per month, representing unlimited monthly visits for up to four hours per visit, and advance booking is required. Minimum wage for a domestic helper is around $5,500, and they’re at your beck and call 24/7. How is this better? 

“There are many aspects to [having a helper]. From a client perspective, there is a certain amount of risk involved. What if you’re not close to her? What if she steals something in your home? What if she breaks something? What if she gets hurt in your home? What do you do? There are consequences,” explains Lam. Illegally hired helpers are an open secret, and skirting around the rules is common. “We do recognise that some people are willing to take that risk, and we’re fine with that. It’s a choice and we’re not trying to replace domestic helpers. We want to complement them. Every home is so different,” he reasons, adding, “Our selling point is that we can do more, and not take up your space.”

So far, clients have run the gamut from larger families who already have helpers (and intend to keep them) and want to make better use of their time too, to young professionals who may only have 200 square feet but work long, stressful hours to pay for them, and from the occasional HNWI who wants their existing domestic helpers trained to a higher standard to expatriate residents still unfamiliar with Hong Kong’s quirks. “For some, when they’re in Hong Kong they’re nonplussed about finding their own plumber for example, and others enjoy being introduced to new things, like pun choi, which we also do.”

“We see [this] as an opportunity,” finishes Lam. “Sure, houses are getting smaller but people work 15 hours a day. It’s Hong Kong. You still need cleaning and your laundry still needs to be done. Your choices are cheaper freelancers or Butler, which guarantees quality and follow up, but it demands a premium. And there’s a segment of the market that’s willing to pay that.”