Marcela SaponeCEO & cofounder of Hello Alfred BSBA´08, UNI´08
Marcela Sapone (BSBA´08, UNI´08) is CEO of a tech-fueled butler service that employs over 100. She’s 30.
IN THE BEGINNING, there was “stickman”—a rough idea for an affordable, on-demand butler service sketched out on a piece of scrap paper. It was spring break and Marcela Sapone (BSBA’08, UNI’08) was brainstorming about possible business ventures. “I was working with a bunch of friends,” she says, “and we explored a different idea each day—five days, five ideas.” Stickman was the winner, and he has a name: Alfred.
There are more than 100 Alfreds actually, and they all work for Sapone, who is the CEO and cofounder of Hello Alfred, a tech-driven butler business. After winning TechCrunch Disrupt 2014, a competition where start-ups compete on stage in front of potential investors, Hello Alfred raised $12.5 million in venture capital. The start-up operates in Boston and New York City, with plans to expand to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.
Inspired by Batman’s trusty tux-clad ally, Hello Alfred is designed to handle a slew of day-to-day necessities, from grocery shopping and dry cleaning to tailoring and pharmacy runs. You get your personal Alfred to help keep your Batcave in top form, freeing you to discover your own superpowers—or at least to live your life with more focus, efficiency, and purpose. “Time shouldn’t be a luxury,” says Sapone, who designed Hello Alfred to be affordable, at about $30 to $60 per week, depending on the number of visits.
The world is crowded with services offering to simplify your life in countless ways—there are apps for cabs and groceries, even dog walkers. You might be free of the chores, but coordinating all the services that manage them can be a time-consuming undertaking in itself: How many apps can you be bothered to juggle? That’s where Alfred comes in. Design your wish list, pass on your credit card number and your house keys, and leave the rest to Alfred, a real person who does real chores, leaves real notes, and also manages those multiple independent services—dry cleaning, grocery deliveries—that you’d otherwise have to coordinate yourself. A companion smartphone app allows customers to start and manage their butler service—it even has a big “A” button they can hit for last-minute requests. The drop-by butler assigned to each client gives this business its edge, according to Sapone, a recent Forbes “30 Under 30” winner. “Our clients love the personal touch,” she says. “They come home happy and feeling like they’ve been taken care of.”
Hello Alfred also stands out for its commitment to hiring full-time employees, who make from $18 to $25 per hour, plus benefits. “We take our time with the hiring process,” says Sapone, noting that rigorous screening means only 6 percent of Alfred applicants make the cut. The extra cost associated with W-2 employees—roughly 20 to 30 percent higher than using independent contractors, according to CNBC—is worth it, says Sapone, who needs to attract and retain exceptional employees, people clients are comfortable having in their homes.
Sapone is taking the long view of her entrepreneurial gamble, focusing on building a strong team that will be able to weather the challenges of a start-up. “It’s not a marathon,” she says. “It’s actually a series of marathons—you finish the first 26 miles and there’s another one waiting for you.” To survive, you need a committed team.
It was at BU that Sapone first learned the power of forging strong relationships. One favorite class, Organizational Behavior, focused on the fundamentals of marketing and business models. “We had to work in teams,” she says, “teams we didn’t choose. And we all got the same grade. It really forced you to find a way to motivate everyone, to help the whole team become successful and invested in outcomes. As in life, you have to figure out how to work with people from all different backgrounds.”
BU, with its international worldview, was a good fit for Sapone, who moved with her family to Europe when she was 10 and lived in both Copenhagen and Paris. In Boston, she lived in a brownstone with others in the University Professors Program, a precursor to the current honors program, which allowed her to design her own interdisciplinary major. “My first entrepreneurial venture was my college degree,” says Sapone. “I was able to pursue whatever was interesting to me—and then define my own direction.” She took photojournalism. She explored engineering and computer information systems. And she tried business classes, too. She liked Questrom so much that she devised a double major, graduating with a self-designed degree in politics, ethics, and economics, as well as a business degree. “I was on course overload the whole time,” she says.
Sapone, who went on to attend Harvard Business School—until she dropped out to start Hello Alfred—built what she calls her business tool kit at BU. “I draw every day on the things I learned there,” she says. “BU teaches you to be scrappy, to be a problem solver, to figure it out.” In two years, Hello Alfred has grown from operating in one zip code to 81, from employing 30 people to more than 100. But Sapone knows she faces daunting odds. “The probability that we fail is higher than the probability that we succeed,” she says. “My job is to try to change that probability every day.”
Her plan? “We’re here to build something we believe should exist in the world—it’s not just about making money,” she says, stressing the need to stay focused on core values and not lose sight of any big vision. “You might know where you’re heading, but when you’re out there in the real world, you’re getting punched and trying to defy gravity over and over again.” Plus, you’re working exhausting hours. One of Sapone’s recent strategies has been to practice saying “no” more often: to meetings, to interviews, to people who want to get coffee. “To anything that’s not mission-critical.” And, yes, she could use an extra pair of hands—a personal butler, perhaps?–