Personal-Services Company Started by Moms Aims to Serve Other Moms

By Donna Kato, San Jose Mercury News, Posted: 07/10/2009 03:30:00 PM PDT

One was an attorney, the other an engineer. With high-pressure careers, young children and busy households to manage, both were tired of running full speed on the Silicon Valley treadmill.

“We were leading hectic, corporate lives,” said Carmela Guizar-Sanchez, the engineer.

“I had a second job just managing the housekeeper, gardener, the girl who came in to do chores a few times a week,” said Selena Ontiveros, the attorney. Two years ago, the friends began fantasizing about a household helper who would oversee these seemingly simple yet time-consuming tasks of everyday living. “We decided if we needed help like this, there must be others just like us.”

In early 2008, they launched Simplify Home Solutions, a personal assistant/concierge/contractor/therapist service rolled into one. Both left their corporate jobs to concentrate on the new business, which they run out of their homes; Ontiveros recently returned to practicing law and leaves the daily operation of Simplify to her partner.

The lifestyle and home concierge, as they like to describe their business, was started with an investment of less than $10,000, one client and a roster of service providers the women had selected after road-testing them in their own homes and doing background checks.

“We looked at the market, did a little research and knew there wasn’t anything like this out there,” said Guizar-Sanchez.

Their target clients would be overworked, time-crunched, multi-tasking women like the ones they saw in the mirror each morning. They would do it all: grocery shopping, picking up dry cleaning, cooking, laundry, yardwork, chauffering kids, paying bills, organizing paperwork, waiting for repairmen or the cable guy.

Ontiveros and Guizar-Sanchez would be the conduits who found the right workers, made the calls, set up the appointments.

But with the Silicon Valley economy starting to show signs of deep distress soon after their company launched, the partners wondered whether people would be willing to pay for the service.

“The recession really didn’t play a role in developing the business. If anything people continue to be incredibly busy and have even less time to waste,” said Guizar-Sanchez. “But we did and do realize we are in a down economy.”

In less than 18 months, they’ve grown from one client to about 30, most of them finding Simplify through word of mouth or through various mothers’ groups.

The costs for their services vary — sometimes it’s by the job, sometimes hourly. In some instances, the provider — one that has been screened — pays them a fee. For the client, it’s not the cheapest nor the most expensive way to go.

Ontiveros said the cost is usually slightly more than the market average. For a professional organizer, for instance, the low-end cost would be about $50 an hour and the high-end, $120 per hour. Simplify charges $85 an hour.

“We never price ourselves out of an industry,” said Guizar-Sanchez.

Their most common request is for household organizing — daily chores such as laundry, picking up toys, tidying the house, grocery shopping.

“It’s amazing what a stress burden those things ares when you’ve got too much else going on,” said Guizar-Sanchez.

Gail Chapman, a Willow Glen mom to four children who works part-time, said she heard about Simplify but was reluctant to call for months, thinking she should be able to do it all on her own.

“Meanwhile, everything was getting further and further behind,” she said. Frustrated that her weekends were spent doing laundry instead of spending quality time with her family, Chapman caved and called Simplify in April.

“Carmela came over and asked if she could look around,” she said. “I was horrified and embarrassed, but she was totally non-judgmental and suggested little things, like getting help cleaning out drawers and organizing cupboards. Then she introduced me to Diane.”

Diane is the household assistant who helps Chapman a couple of times a week, four hours at time.

“Now my weekends are for me and my family, not the laundry or the grocery shopping,” Chapman said. “It’s like I bought time to be with my family; it gives me peace of mind.”

Like Chapman, many clients approach Simplify feeling guilty about not being able to do everything themselves.

“There’s an emotional aspect to asking for household help,” said Ontiveros, “It’s the fear of losing control of your home and feeling guilty that you can’t do it all.”

The founders think their professional backgrounds and understanding of family issues help put many of their clients at ease.

“We both had strong, complementary skill sets,” Guizar-Sanchez said. “A lot of my strength was in management and Selena brought her legal background and analytical thinking.”

They hope to grow their business beyond Silicon Valley, perhaps partner with corporate HR departments to provide services to employees and eventually sell franchises to other cities.