After often being called in the early hours of the morning by her boss to locate information fast, Sarah McVittie realised she could make a living providing answers via text messaging.
The meaning of life and a FTSE 100 share price are just a couple of questions the founders of 82ASK can answer in a single text message.
This innovative business is the brainchild of 28- year-old entrepreneurs Sarah McVittie and Thomas Roberts.
Customers from anywhere in the world at any time can ask a question and it will be answered by a human pool of 100 — mainly PhD educated — researchers. Assuming they receive the correct answer, customers are charged £1.
Questions posed range from shopping and dining queries to sporting trivia questions and medical facts.
“Our job is to give the answers people need to make their lives easier,” explains McVittie. “We are saving people one of life’s most precious commodities — time.
“Although people can always surf the net to search for things, when you are on the move, it’s harder to get that information quickly.”
It is a clever concept for the cash rich, time poor generation as McVittie acknowledges. “In business being up-to-date can mean the difference between clinching a deal and losing it.”
There is no end to the bizarre requests thrown at 82ASK. Recently it helped a businessman on his way to a meeting in Stockholm. “When he arrived at the airport he discovered a major deal had been done involving his prospective clients. We were able to send the information while he was travelling, allowing him to arrive fully briefed,” says McVittie.
But the oddest question 82ASK has been asked was from someone who had to locate a lot of flies very quickly. “The query was from an advertising executive who had been let down by his usual fly supplier and needed some for a photo shoot,” says McVittie.
82ASK claims to answer 80 per cent of questions within five minutes and typically answers most in less than two minutes. It boasts an accuracy rate of 99.8 per cent.
The company always provides the sources for its answers and does not charge customers when it fails to provide an answer.
McVittie, an economics and Chinese graduate from Edinburgh University, set up 82ASK with Roberts two years ago. The idea was conceived while working as an analyst in the corporate finance department of investment bank UBS.
“Quite often I was asked to locate information by a demanding boss who needed questions answered,” McVittie explains.
“Sometimes they would call in the early hours of the morning and I thought I could make a living charging for this service.”
The two friends decided to take the plunge after being made redundant. They used the money to setup offices in Cambridge, commission research and look at commercial viability. Feedback was positive so they started a free online trial to customers, answering questions themselves.
Uptake of the service grew so fast that within weeks they had expanded, taken on a team of researchers and switched the service to the 82ASK five-digit number (82275), enabling customers to text, telephone or email their questions.
But while McVittie is delighted with the company’s success, she is all too aware of the competition snapping at its heels.
“Competition is no bad thing — it keeps us on our toes,” she says: “We think it’s cool that we have created a market — fortunately it is a big enough place for us all. We are a solid company that provides a high level of customer care so we are confident we can win the game.”
The future certainly looks bright for 82ASK — the company predicts a £3m turnover by 2006 and 500,000 users per month.
“The reason the service has taken off is because mobiles have become such a part of people’s every day life,” she says. “It’s about 82ASK tapping into lifestyle.”
82ASK has grown by word of mouth, which means there is a high concentration of customers in the southeast, near the Cambridge headquarters. Next on the agenda is a marketing campaign to drive uptake nationally. To finance this, McVittie and Roberts have recently brought in a business angel and swapped a minority equity stake in return for capital.
“We are currently looking at ways to make our service even more efficient. Presently 25 per cent of all the questions we receive have already been answered,” says McVittie. “We are looking at clever technology that will store and categorise this information so that we can provide a mix of human and automated responses in the future.”
McVittie is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and a competent motorbike rider, but she admits there is little time to enjoy her passions.
“Before heading off to university I spent a year in China teaching English,” she says. “While I was there I managed to learn some of the language, and really fell for the country. I also became obsessed by the Silk Road so when I graduated I organised a motorbike and sidecar run from London to Beijing, raising £20,000 for charity.”
If 82ASK continues to grow, her travels might be restricted to Britain for the next few years.