Friday Entrepreneurs: Sarah Deutsch, Pinkleberry Services

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Today’s Friday Entrepreneur is Sarah Deutsch, who’s started a personal-assistant company called Pinkleberry Services. I love this: If you occasionally need someone to help with “shopping, errands, courier, house-sitting, package pick-up,” or even office functions, she can help. I always joke that I need a personal assistant, but with this service, you don’t have to hire someone fulltime.

As you read this, note a few things:

  • This requires almost no capital to start up. It’s entirely marketing-driven. Anyone could do it, but few can do it well.
  • The price is affordable. Maybe too affordable. After she fills up her current schedule, I’d expect the prices to go up quickly (as they should).
  • I’ve said it before: Time is not money–at least, not yours. So for most people on this site, using a service like this would be more of a want than a need. That’s cool, as long as you acknowledge it for what it is. I think the more compelling “need” argument is for small-business owners, who know that by spending a little, you can often make a great ROI.
  • Sarah doesn’t want to grow this into something huge. She’s perfectly content keeping it small and setting modest goals for herself. It’s a lifestyle company.

I plan to use Sarah’s services in the near future, so I’ll report back to you on how it goes. But for now, on to the interview…

What is Pinkleberry Services?
Pinkleberry is a personal assistant/errand service that I run in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s just me, charging an hourly rate to do pretty much anything that people need done and don’t have time to do themselves. I work for everyone from small business owners to stay-at-home moms, and I’ve done everything from helping a business move into their new offices, to standing in line at the post office for an hour, picking up packages for a working couple who are never home when the post office is open.

I’m also starting to offer virtual assistant services, doing writing, editing, research, and anything else that a client can send me via email/phone/web to work on. I haven’t really begun promoting that aspect of the business yet, but I’m already doing it for a few of my current clients, in addition to the actual physical work I’m doing for them.

So why use you? Why not just do it myself?
The idea behind Pinkleberry is that everyone works too hard. You have your regular 9-to-5 job, which wouldn’t be too much work on its own, but then you add to that all of the other work that comes with *living* – paying the bills, doing the grocery shopping, waiting at home for the cable repair man to come – and soon you’ve got no time left for the things you *want* to do. So many people have jobs doing something that they love, but they end up not enjoying their work because they’re too bogged down, trying to fit all of those other things in around the work they want to be doing.

So why not let someone else do some of those things? If you can pay $15 a week and have someone you trust do all of your grocery shopping and drop it off at your house, why not? A lot of people find that it’s worth spending a little bit of money to get those annoying, tedious tasks off of their plates, so they can focus on more important things.

The same goes for a lot of small business owners – you start your business, planning to spend your time doing something that you’re passionate about, and you discover that a huge chunk of your time has to be spent on the boring stuff, like buying office supplies and invoicing clients. If you don’t have the ability to hire an office manager yet, hiring Pinkleberry to do that work as needed can free up a lot of time for you to focus on the parts of the business you really care about.

Interesting. How’d you come up with the idea?
This is actually something that I’ve been doing for my friends (for free) for a long time. I’ve spent the last several years working in the theatre, as a stage manager, which meant I often had much more varied hours than most of my family and friends. If someone was working particularly long hours one week and didn’t have time to drop off their rent check, I’d do it while I was out running my own errands – it wasn’t much more work for me, and it was amazing how much stress I could take out of their lives by doing something so small.

When I decided I wanted to take a break from my full-time theatre work, it occurred to me that other people would probably be willing to pay for the kind of stress-relief I’d been giving my friends for years. I did a little research and found that there are actually several associations of personal assistants and personal concierges around the country, and most of them have excellent resources for people who are just starting their own services. The best resource I found, though, was Entrepreneur.com’s “How to Be a Personal Concierge” Guide – that’s the one that really helped me turn my idea into a cohesive plan.

Yeah, I’ve noticed the idea is getting more popular. Did you see the Esquire article where the reporter outsourced his life?
I hadn’t seen it before, but it certainly shows the huge number of ways a personal assistant can make your life easier – and that number grows even more when you’re talking about a person who actually lives in your area, and can come to your house or office if needed. We’re getting to a point where most of our lives can be taken care of online or over the phone, but there are still some things that can’t be done long distance (like feeding the dog, or waiting for the cable
man!)

The article brings up another good point about trust – when you hire a personal assistant, you really do end up trusting them with a huge amount of personal information. I’ve found that a lot of people are much more comfortable doing that with someone who they’ve met face to face, rather than someone they’ve only spoken to over the phone. To some extent that issue is helped by going to a reputable organization, but as an individual, it’s certainly helpful for me to be able to meet my clients in person and make a good impression that way.

Do you do this alone?
For the moment, it’s just me. I only started the business three months ago, so I’m still building up a clientele and looking for enough work to support myself consistently. If I end up getting so much work that I can’t handle it all myself, I’ll certainly consider hiring a few employees to share the load, but it’s not something that I’m specifically looking to do.

This is an interesting business to feature because it doesn’t really scale. But you seem to be ok with that?
Yeah, I started this business because I was looking for a way to support myself by doing something that I enjoyed, but that was flexible enough to allow me to continue taking theatre jobs when I wanted to, and that gave me time to work on other projects that I’ve been putting off for a long time. It’s not my dream to build a huge service with lots of employees and hundreds of clients – my dream is really to be happy with what I’m doing, and to make enough money to eat and pay the rent, while I work on things that I’m really passionate about. In some ways, starting Pinkleberry has done for me the same thing that I’m trying to do for my clients – given me time to enjoy my work.

What are the most common things people use your services for?
When I started out, I thought my work was going to be primarily small jobs around my neighborhood; as it turns out, I’m getting a lot more work from small businesses and organizations. A lot of them need an office assistant, but not on a regular enough basis to hire someone part-time, so I’ve done everything from going to IKEA for office furniture to taking notes during company meetings to picking up party platters at the grocery store and dropping them off at events at a local high school. There really isn’t a “common thing” that people need me to do – being adaptable and willing to take on just about anything is one of the most important things I do.

How do you market yourself?
I decided I was going to start slowly, and take the marketing one step at a time, since I really had no idea how much work I was going to get – I didn’t think I’d get a huge rush of people immediately, but I didn’t want to do a big marketing push and then be so overwhelmed with work that I had to turn people away.

My marketing plan basically has three big steps: word-of-mouth, then marketing to my neighborhood, and then to a wider area (which includes marketing the Virtual Assistant angle to the world at large). Here’s how I broke it down:

1. Word-of-mouth: Trust really is a big part of getting people to hire you in this business, so I thought the best way to go about getting a good reputation and building people’s trust was to market to people I knew first. I created my website – http://www.pinkleberry.com – and then sent an email to everyone I knew, telling them what I was doing and why I had started the business, and asking them to pass my name along to anyone they knew who might be interested in my services. I have a great network of friends and co- workers, and word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool – all of the business that I’ve gotten to date has actually come through friends, and friends of friends.

2. Marketing to the neighborhood: Once I had gotten a few clients through friends, I started working on getting the word out to the community around me. I live in a great little city, and I wanted this to be seen as a small, neighborhood business – I’m always happier supporting the local businesses in Alameda than going to a big chain store, and I wanted to make sure Pinkleberry came across as a small, friendly company too. I designed some postcards and business cards and got them printed – there are a lot of great online print houses that aren’t too expensive. Overnightprints.com did my postcards, and I actually printed the business cards myself, which saved me some money. Then I made the rounds to all the local shops and other businesses, and asked if I could leave a few cards, both for their customers to pick up, and in case they ever needed my services themselves. Most businesses are happy to support other small businesses, and many of them said they’d tell their friends about Pinkleberry too – more word of mouth!

3. Marketing to the world at large: I haven’t really started this push yet, which is probably why you haven’t heard of me before now. I’m going to add a bit more detail to my website about what a Virtual Assistant is, and what services I can provide, and then I’m going to work on spreading the word – getting as many people as possible to link to my website, and just generally getting people talking about it. I’ve just started to discover the enormity of the blogging world, and I’m beginning to find people and sites who are interested in what I’m doing. Chris Brogan has been a great friend and resource in doing that – as soon as I told him about Pinkleberry, he was full of ideas and suggestions, and he told everyone he could think of about what I was doing. I’m looking to find more people to spread the word that way – really, it’s just word of mouth on a much larger scale…

What are some interesting things you’ve learned in doing this?
Well, the absolute most useful thing I’ve learned is that telling people about what you’re doing will get you *everywhere*. In addition to the greatness that is word-of-mouth marketing, you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about your business. If you’re excited about what you’re doing, people won’t see it as shameless self- promotion – they’ll see you as someone who’s passionate about your work, and that’ll get *them* excited about it, and then they’ll tell their friends.

The other big thing that I’ve learned (which many people told me, but you never really believe until you’re living it) is that starting a business is slow going at first. No matter how great you think your market is going to be, it still takes several months before you’re really getting steady work and making real money. I still don’t have a lot of clients, and I’m not working as much as I’d ultimately like to be, but almost every day I talk to someone who tells me they just told a friend about Pinkleberry, or they know someone who will probably be calling me in the near future with work. It just takes time for people to hear about you, and for them to need your services once they do – it can be a little discouraging at first, but if you keep plugging away and working at getting your name out there, slowly but surely, the work will start to build up.

So what happens next? Do you want to grow? If so, how will you? Or are you comfortable where you are?
I’d like to get to the point where I’m getting as much steady work as I can handle on my own, which I think will probably happen in the next few months, judging by the rate it’s been increasing so far. Beyond that, I’m not really interested in growing the company right now – as long as it’s supporting me and giving me time to enjoy the other aspects of my life, I’m happy.

Is there anything else we should know?
Just that you should never feel like you’re stuck in a job doing something that you don’t like – or even a job that you do like, but that’s not fitting into your lifestyle the way it used to, or the way you thought it would. There’s always a way to do what you love, and to make it work for your life – just take a long, hard look at what it is that you enjoy, and then figure out how to make it work for you. Maybe that’s starting your own business; maybe it’s just finding a different kind of company, or using your skills in a different way. I love working in the theatre, but the part of my job that I really loved was making other people’s lives easier. Starting Pinkleberry was a good way to keep doing that, but with the benefits of the flexible schedule that I wanted. Figuring out how to make your job work for you takes some hard work, and often long hours at first, but the results are infinitely rewarding.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m 26 years old, and I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. I went to Carnegie Mellon, where I got my bachelors in theatre production and management. I moved to the Bay Area shortly after I graduated, and worked as a stage manager in the Conservatory at ACT for 4 years.

After those four years, added to the 7 years I spent stage managing during and before college, I decided it was time for a break – I love working in the theatre, but doing it full-time was more stressful and time-consuming than I really wanted it to be. I’m still stage managing off and on – I start rehearsal for an amazing play called Forest War with the Shotgun Players in Berkeley this week – but now I have time to enjoy life more, instead of stressing about work all the time. I’m helping a few friends get their own businesses up and running (http://www.mediumreality.com for one – another great entrepreneur at work!), and just generally remembering what it’s like to relax.

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Now what? Check out Pinkleberry Services at http://www.pinkleberry.com. Read other Friday Entrepreneurs, sign up for my newsletter, and submit yourself as a Friday Entrepreneur.

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7 Comments

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  1. “Beyond that, I’m not really interested in growing the company right now – as long as it’s supporting me and giving me time to enjoy the other aspects of my life, I’m happy”

    I think that is the difference between men and women, men are always wanting growth, profits, power… and I shamely include myself here.

    Could women be the leaders of tomorrow?

  2. I went to the website. She forgot dog walking, ebaying, personal oganization and home/car winterizing.

  3. Daniel:

    Don’t you know that the Speaker of the House will be a woman in January?

    They are leaders right now.

  4. Don’t get too down on men for “always wanting growth, profits, power.” There are women who are as power mad as the worst of men (have you ever heard the story of Jezebel?) and there are men with the same contented spirit you commend in Sarah.

    When I chance to see a TV show it seems that there is a constant undertone of male emasculation. The sample size of shows that I encounter is very small, but if they truly represent our culture I can understand why so many people deride men. It certainly is popular.

    There is a price to be paid for everything, and sometimes the price isn’t paid in money. Some folks, men and women, count up the cost of being in the “elite” power circle and say “nah, I’m happy.”

    Incidentally, it has been said of democratic systems: “They get the leaders they deserve.”

  5. This lady is NOT charging enough for her services at all!!! She needs to charge FAR more than she is currently. Check out this firm in Calgary:

    http://www.timeismoney.ca/memberships.shtml

    Your time should be worth more than $25 per hour!!!

  6. I wish Sarah all the best. The question i have for sarah is…if someone hires you for 1 hour to drive around aimlessly…..do u still charge them just $25?

  7. Thanks for the interview, Ramit – it’s only been a couple of weeks, and I’ve already gotten several jobs from people who saw it! Thanks to everyone else for all the support and comments too – it’s great to have other people excited about my business!

    I checked out the link you posted, Eric – unfortunately, with the cost of living around here, most small business owners and other working folks couldn’t afford me if I charged more than $25/hour. If I wanted to market more to big business executives, I could probably charge more, but I’d rather work for the little guys…

    And yes, I’d charge $25 to drive around aimlessly for an hour – but I’d probably make them reimburse me for the mileage… ;)