Debadutta Upadhyaya had plans that weekend. She was at home in Mumbai between work trips—headed out to Manila that Monday—and wanted to spend time with her eight-year-old son. Instead, she spent the two-day span waiting for her plumber to arrive after several delays and frustrated phone calls.
It was the last straw. A year later, Upadhyaya co-founded an app and website called Timesaverz. It connects people to the services they need to run their households, hoping to skirt the uncertainty and time lag that come with India’s informal economy, which still employs at least 4.2 million domestic workers.
“I started this company because it was a need for the working mom,” she said about Timesaverz, which currently has more than 5,000 users in Mumbai and Bengaluru.
The average middle-and upper-class Indian home runs with a steady stream of helping hands—a maid for jadoo-poncha (brooming and sweeping), a cook to make roti and daal, and maybe a driver. But talk to either side of the transaction and you’re sure to hear plenty of complaints. The cook uses too much oil, the driver shows up two hours late. And the families who hire them? The workers say they expect long hours and think about ten times before raising wages.
That’s where mobile apps like Timesaverz, Taskbob and Hands—all launched in the past year—are hoping to help both the service providers and consumers. The apps provide a list of services linked to local providers, allowing customers to schedule the service with a few swipes. The rates are disclosed beforehand, and customers can choose to pay through the system or directly to the company.
But to make their technology work, the founders have to account for an age-old industry where word-of-mouth and personal recommendations have often trumped convenience.
“What usually comes to mind is ‘these people are cheats, they won’t give me good service’,” said Aseem Khare, CEO and founder of Taskbob. “But we do extensive screening. We take extra care in bringing people to the trust factor.”
Khare said building the trust factor has been crucial for Taskbob, which is now available in several Mumbai neighbourhoods. Taskbob’s workers wear uniforms and communicate through his company so that customers know they are part of the brand.
Most apps have built-in rating systems, which allow both customers and service workers to give feedback on a job. This two-way system is one reason the companies say the apps help give service workers better wages and a voice in the work they do.
“The beauty of this app is that they can choose what they want,” said Vivek Chaudhary, founder of the Hands app, which currently has 800 users. “We want to make it so they can list their services in less than ten minutes. We want it to be an open marketplace.”
Chaudhary, formerly a manager at Deloitte in the US, recruited a team of coders and developers across Mumbai and took them to Goa to build the colourful app. It currently serves Powai, the neighbourhood in Mumbai where he now lives. To get the app up to speed, Chaudhary has been involved in every step—even if it requires, as it has, that he drive a technician to a customer’s door to make sure Hands delivered on time.
One of Hands’ 200 vendors, Ramchander Kamojiya, said mobile technology and the internet are the future of his small laundry service, Bon Bon, located on a tree-lined street in Powai. Standing at the counter of his small shop, the hiss of a hot iron behind him, he said Chaudhary approached him to use the app a few months ago, and he was open to trying something new since a recent internet ad on Just Dial had proved lucrative for Bon Bon.
So far, Kamojiya said, he has only got a few customers through Hands—not nearly as many as he has through word of mouth, visibility in the neighbourhood, and the internet ad. But, regardless of where the customers come from, he said the basic need for good business is the same.
“The most important thing is getting customers who are permanent,” he said.
For that, technology and rating systems can take a backseat.
Shomshukkla, a 50-year-old filmmaker who owns three apartments in Mumbai, said she uses Timesaverz for electricians or other household needs that come up but not for daily needs, like cleaning and cooking, for which she has a regular staff of seven people. And she never uses the app—preferring to pick up the phone and call the company directly.
“Busy people like me, looking for convenience, they’re absolutely going to use it,” she said. “But mostly I think it may take a little time to use a service like this. My son is 26, if he starts staying alone, he will use it.”