Mike Chen is talking quickly even though he’s tired. Unimaginably tired. It’s unclear whether he has been able to sleep at all in the last 72 hours. (“Very, very little,” he says.) The whole situation is like some bizarre dream, except he can’t be dreaming, because he hasn’t slept.
“It’s all kind of been a blur,” Chen says. “This was really one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen.”
For most of this year, Chen was working with a small team on an app called Bettir to help people track and improve their blood pressure. It was a promising service — a valuable one, even. It had backing from Y Combinator.
Then, three days ago, Chen decided to take a brief break and work with his teammates on a “side project” he hoped would make the life of a busy entrepreneur like himself just a little bit easier. Why not offer a very rudimentary on-demand service that lets you quickly request whatever you need — however random it might sound — via text message. Pizza delivery? Easy. A new bicycle? Why not. A new pet? If it’s legal.
“This is something that I’ve always wanted to create to make my life easier,” Chen says. “I always wished I could text what I wanted.”
He called it Magic. Because wouldn’t it be magic if it actually worked out? Chen took about 20 minutes to design (using that word very liberally) an all-white landing page that makes Berkshire Hathway’s website look cutting edge. (See hideous image below.) Then he sent it to “around five to 10 friends.” That’s where he thought it would end.
“The plan always was to rebuild the site if our friends liked it and then launch it, but of course in this case we never got the chance to do that, since the site went immediately viral,” he says.
The first person to text the number asked for a wrench. The guy didn’t know which wrench to get, just that he needed a wrench for his bike. So the Magic team — which then consisted of just two or three members of Bettir’s team — called up a bike shop to find out the appropriate wrench, texted the guy back with a name and price estimate, and arranged for a local delivery service to send it. All in a matter of minutes.
The person who requested that wrench apparently really liked it, because the word spread fast. Someone posted a link to Magic on Product Hunt, the same community that helped discover services like Yo (an app for saying “Yo”) and Ethan (an app for messaging a guy named Ethan). It took off and was later posted to Hacker News, another popular tech community.
The number of text messages to the service skyrocketed. It topped 10,000 incoming messages on Sunday and was closing in on 18,000 Monday morning. Magic’s team of magicians on call — yes, they’re going with “magician” — grew from two or three at launch to 18 on Sunday, including all five cofounders of the now-neglected Bettir startup.
“We brought in friends, family, family of friends, past employees,” he says. “Every hour you bring in more tables, more chairs.”
The range of messages proved that the desire for convenience knows no bounds. The magicians successfully fielded text requests to deliver sushi and flowers to a couple on a boat; to fully stock a last-minute BBQ with food and alcohol; and to help dismiss someone’s parking ticket.
“Somebody requested a tiger,” Chen says, letting that sentence linger for a moment. “That was interesting. We did a lot of research about the legality of having a tiger or not. We’re still working with him on that.”
In each case, Magic’s team evaluates the need, makes the appropriate phone calls, texts an estimate for the costs including a slight markup (one that will certainly increase over time) for the effort if it can be completed and then charges the customer’s credit card using Stripe, a mobile payment service.
So here we are, 72 hours later, and no end is in sight. The ridiculous, impulsive side project has cannibalized his original startup’s staff and office space. They’re building what sounds more and more like a call center for dealing with people who are either lazy or busy — or both. In many way, it’s the logical extreme of the on-demand economy.
“The joking title I’ve been giving it in my head is Uber for X,” Chen says, referring to the running joke in the tech industry of startups profiting off the Uber on-demand model. “I always wanted something where I could just type in anything I wanted and get it.”
It’s been three days and his big, sleepless eyes can’t help but see in the viral success and origins of his project some striking similarities to a few of tech’s biggest recent success stories.
“Twitter came out of another company that was doing something completely different. Same with Instagram,” he says. “This kind of thing happens.”
Maybe. Mostly we just hope he steps away from the screens and closes his eyes. Maybe we all should.
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