When asked to describe his new life, Michael Levy goes into rhapsodies. "You become lazy," he says. "It's just wonderful."
Up until this summer, the 42-year-old led a normal middle-class life in New York, working as a lawyer for the Department of Justice. Lately, though, he's had an entire staff at his disposal, who take care of his personal life around the clock.
Take, for example, a recent situation in Las Vegas, where Levy was holding his bachelor party. Sitting at the poker table with friends, he didn't feel like discussing the room arrangements personally with the hotel reception. "Please call and tell them to put an extra bed in room 21057," he instructed his assistant by e-mail via his Blackberry. Personal secretaries also arranged bridal shop appointments for Levy's fiancée before the wedding, and organized tuxedo rental for the guests.
Levy's personal staff is deft, friendly, and helpful -- and unbeatably cheap. The entire telephone service costs a mere $29 (€20) a month -- because the service is provided by a call center located in India and operated by the New York-based company Ask Sunday.
Globalization may still be a dirty word in the United States, where it is a synonym for downsized jobs and cheap production in the Far East. But lately middle-class Americans have also been discovering the advantages of globalization for their private lives. It turns out that the outsourcing much beloved by companies can work for personal households too. And, thanks to the Internet, the possibilities are practically limitless.
There are, for example, young adults who are too lazy to fight their own way to higher levels in the online role-playing game "World of Warcraft." They leave the job to professional players in China, who slay monsters in 12-hour shifts. It's estimated that there are already more than 100,000 such professional players in China, who win virtual skills and goods for their rich Western clients for just 30 cents an hour.
And while online butlers organize parents' lives, tutors in India help children with their homework over cheap Internet telephone connections. Chinese and Spanish lessons can even be called up from Hong Kong and South America. Students can study around the clock, with some companies even offering the service at a flat rate of $99 a month.
Krishnan Ganesh from India discovered this market niche in early 2005, when he traveled from Bangalore to the United States to look for new business opportunities. "The United States has the best universities in the world," he says with admiration -- it's just school education that doesn't make the grade.
Ganesh now has 600 tutors working for his company, TutorVista, most from their homes somewhere in India, with others in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore. "Now the masses can afford more education," he says. The venture capitalists of Sequoia Capital, which also financed the rise of Google and YouTube, gave Ganesh $15 million and are now hoping he will provide them with another mega success. "In two, three years we hope to have a million students," says Ganesh.
The world trade in education operates according to a simple business model. At one end is a TutorVista employee like Riju Goel, 24, in India. At 4:30 a.m. local time, she switches on the computer in her parents' home and starts tutoring American students, who have just come home from school and are sitting down to their homework. Four hours later, she hurries to a high school in Delhi, where she teaches a class of 14-year-olds. "I earn more money online," says Goel, a trained math teacher. Right now it comes to 12,000 rupees, about $300 a month.
On the other side of this globalized service are customers like Roger Hall, 32. A salesman for a cell phone company in Manhattan during the day, Hall is also studying human resource management -- and has to take math tests. He gets help from India for hours some evenings.
As if by magic, the teacher in Mumbai or Delhi draws algebra equations on Hall's computer screen, while Hall struggles with the solution over the Internet phone connection. "I could never afford real tutors in Manhattan," he says.
As in other sectors, the Indian offensive in tutoring causes concern; there is talk of exploitation and low quality. The Indian competition provides an entire month of around-the-clock support for the price of about two hours of tutoring by a New York teacher.
It's clearly a profitable business: alongside TutorVista, a number of other Indian companies are competing for students in the United States. The growth rate of this new sector is estimated at around 40 to 50 percent.
And education is only one of the many areas where new ground is being broken. IwantaPA.com, for example, offers virtual assistants for individuals and companies, under the slogan, "Why bother with mundane and boring tasks?"
Steve Ludmer, 28, has only been on the market with his company Ask Sunday since the summer, but already his employees in India get hundreds of assignments a day. Stressed American clients call wanting a helicopter to JFK airport -- others can no longer even manage to make a restaurant reservation without their Indian assistants.