Summer Series: Liar For Hire: And Other Strange Service Companies
*Our Summer Series airs every Saturday at 1:30pm on CBC Radio One.*
While there are many strange products in the world, there are even stranger service companies. This week, we talk about a company that rents wedding guests, a company you can hire to actually cuddle you, and we'll explore a company that promises to cure your hangover in just a few hours. And if you need an alibi to go with that hangover, there's a company that markets lies, too.
Jim Stickley has a very unique skill.
He breaks into banks.
He's so good at it, he never gets caught.
But here's what's really strange about Jim Stickley's job:
Banks pay him to break into their offices to commit robbery.
Jim Stickley is a security specialist.
He's paid to quietly break into banks and major corporations, and steal all the information he can.
Then report back to the company how he did it, and how they can prevent something like that from happening in the future.
Stickley says breaking into banks is child's play.
He just walks in posing as an expert, like a pest control company, or a health inspector. Before posing as a fire safety official recently, he simply went to a local supply store and bought a firefighter outfit, a badge and a walkie-talkie with pre-recorded chatter on it.
Then he just walked right into the bank, said he was there to check the computer room for fire hazards, and was shown right in.
Stickley says people never ask to see if a badge is real. Ever.
Once he's inside a computer room, people assume he wants to be left alone. So they leave.
If they don't leave, Stickley tells them he has diarrhea and asks to be shown to the restroom. He stays in there for about 15 minutes. He knows people will be too embarrassed to wait. Then he leaves the washroom, and is free to wander around all alone.
When he's in computer rooms, he just inserts keyboard capture keys and grabs all the information.
Or he goes to the server room and installs devices that allow him to hack in later.
He gathers troves of information. As he told Fortune Magazine, he leaves with social security numbers, addresses, credit card information and account numbers.
It takes all of about 20 minutes. He doesn't even break a sweat.
Jim Stickley is in the service business.
The service he provides to banks… is theft.
In the world of marketing, service companies are an interesting marketing exercise.
Unlike a product, you can't hold a service in your hand. A product is a physical item, whereas a service is a task. It's all about people.
So marketing a service company is an exercise in making the invisible, visible. Where products have a consistency - service companies are all different. Because people are all different.
But more than anything, marketing service companies is endlessly interesting because the services they provide are often stranger than any product you could ever imagine…
I was having dinner at the famous Mr. Chow's restaurant in Beverly Hills one night.
Suddenly, the entire restaurant lit up in flashing lights. I had no idea what was going on – but the entire restaurant looked like it was having an Armageddon-sized electrical malfunction.
It was literally alarming - then I noticed all the flashing was coming from the direction of the entrance. When I looked, I realized what was happening.
Movie star Dennis Hopper had just entered the restaurant, and all the flashing was the paparazzi.
I had never seen anything like it. I had heard about it, saw moments of it on television entertainment shows, but had never experienced it in person.
It was absolutely startling.
Later, I was waiting for a cab outside the restaurant, and I saw about two-dozen paparazzi waiting across the street. Then out from the restaurant behind me came actor Tom Arnold.
The street completely lit up. The camera flashes were blinding.
Later, when I got back to my hotel, I wondered if that Tom Arnold moment had hit the Internet yet. I Googled Tom Arnold + Mr. Chow + the word "tonight" - and sure enough – already there on TMZ's website was a video of Tom Arnold coming out of Mr. Chow's, being ambushed by flashing cameras.
And if you looked really closely, in the background, you could see all the flashes reflecting off my bald head.
The paparazzi is both a gift and a pain to celebrities.
There is no doubt tabloid photographers are intrusive and invade actors' privacy, but at the same time, those photos keep actors in the spotlight.
Attention is the oxygen of celebrity.
And some of us are willing to pay for that oxygen.
One day, Ellen Yuen got out of a Rolls Royce on Rodeo Drive and was instantly swarmed by paparazzi.
As the flashes went off, a small crowd quickly gathered and began yelling out questions, like, "Ellen, when's your next movie coming out?" and "Can you sign an autograph?"
Tour busses stopped. Cars slowed down. Pedestrians whipped out their smartphones and started taking pictures.
Except, Ellen Yuen wasn't a celebrity. She was an ordinary person who had hired the paparazzi.
The company she had called was Crowds On Demand.
Founded in 2012, Crowds on Demand specializes in pop-up crowds and staged paparazzi moments.
For the experience Ellen Yuen just enjoyed on Rodeo drive, which included the Rolls Royce, a crowd of fans, VIP treatment at stores, champagne, paparazzi and souvenir photos, she paid $5,000.
Crowds On Demand markets itself as a company that "cultivates perception." In other words, it sells the illusion of success.
It has since expanded to include corporate events and PR stunts. But one of its biggest sources of income comes from politicians. For candidates with a lack of excitement, an enthusiastic crowd can generate buzz and media coverage. Besides paparazzi moments, the company can gather fake campaign crowds from 10 to 1,000 on short notice.
Donald Trump got into trouble in 2015 after hiring fake crowds to cheer at his Presidential campaign announcement rally. Which led to a lot of "You're Hired!" jokes on Twitter - and a shout-out on the Simpsons:
The appropriately named Anthony Weiner paid Crowds On Demand to cheer at his mayoral announcement rally in New York in 2013.
The company now has offices in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and, of course, Washington, D.C.
They'll work for anyone but hate groups.
Crowds On Demand was profitable after one month in business.
Last year, we did an episode on strange products.
This is a show on strange service companies.
Service companies have to be marketed in a different way from products.
As I mentioned earlier, the product of a service company is people.
That makes for an interesting marketing challenge. I always enjoyed marketing service companies, because you are advertising a kind of intangible product – a task - so it called for a different type of creativity.
How do you photograph what an investment firm does? How do you photograph the service your lawyer provides? When you're advertising a car, the main image will be the car. But when you're advertising a car detailing service, the main image can be much more creative.
You have to sell the experience a service company provides. The advertising has to be based on the result of the service.
It isn't a static product, it's a service rendered.
With that in mind, it's remarkable to discover what kinds of services are rendered.
In Korea, you can rent professional wedding guests.
Often, couples want to save face and make sure they have a full church for their weddings.
It all stems from an obsession with image cultural in Korea, and a pressure to impress. One psychology professor there says Koreans feel compelled to achieve an image of perfection. He calls it "face inflation" – where people construct a perfect image, then must live up to it.
As a result, there are hundreds of companies who rent out wedding guests.
About 70% of the clients are brides, who are self-conscious about having fewer guests than the groom. In Korea, number of guests is often a sign of a family's power.
Many times, the brides won't even tell the grooms they are hiring guests. And vice versa.
This is how it works: Companies advertise online. They show clients photos of rentable guests so they can choose accordingly. It's no surprise good-looking guests get hired the most. Everyone wants good-looking friends.
Hired guests arrive at the wedding about 40 minutes early, and are given information about the couple they then memorize - names, ages, careers, family relations, etc.
The fake guests are given envelopes of money to give to the happy couple as wedding gifts – which have been provided by the bride or groom.
When the wedding reception is over, fake guests get another envelope on the way out that contains their pay. The equivalent of about $25 per wedding.
But in Japan, you can make even more money.
There, rented guests make about $250 per wedding. They will even deliver an emotional speech for an additional $125. Or sing a song for an extra 65 bucks.
Listen to this: You can even rent fake parents, fake bosses, fake secretaries, and even fake mistresses. Not sure why you'd want a fake mistress at your wedding. But there you have it.
Competition for wedding guest jobs is fierce. For every five available positions, 100 people apply. And the most in-demand fake guests can attend up to three weddings a day.
It's good money. You just have to remember which wedding you're at.
There are a lot of joys being a parent.
Potty training isn't one of them.
But did you know you can hire someone to potty train your children?
NYC Potty Training is a professional service that promises to toilet-train your kid in one to two days.
Founded by Samantha Allen, she realized that Manhattan parents were under a lot of pressure for their kids to outperform other kids.
Apparently, parents are so competitive in New York City, that if your three-year old isn't potty trained, it raises a lot of eyebrows at the playground.
So Samantha & company will actually come to your home and train your child to go potty. Or they will come to your hotel. Or they will help you over the phone.
One testimonial stated the parents had tried for two years to toilet train their son – with no success. So they called in NYC Potting Training, and in only two days, their son was a toilet champ.
The service doesn't come cheap: One-day sessions are $925, and two-day sessions are $1,750 (prices have gone up since time of writing).
NYC Potty Training is so busy, it's had to hire an additional team of potty trainers.
It's flush with business.
Would it surprise you to learn you can hire a company to snuggle you?
Well, you can.
The Snuggery was founded in New York in 2012. The founder, Jackie Samuel, began by offering hugs in the street for one dollar each, and discovered she was making $80 per hour.
So she figured there was a service waiting to be rendered. Jackie began by putting an advertisement for her snuggle services in the back of a local newspaper, and clients started calling immediately. Before she knew it, she had a business.
A 45-minute snuggle session costs around $60.
There are rules – no nudity allowed. It's strictly non-sexual. There is a list of appropriate apparel, and what you can and cannot touch. Not only does Jackie offer over 100 different cuddle positions, there is also a "double cuddle" option where you are cuddled by two people, and an "overnight cuddle" if so desired.
Both men and women buy the service, ranging in age from 21 to 84. She sees about 30-40 clients a week, and had to hire extra cuddlers.
Jackie Samuel maintains that people are deprived of affection in this day and age, and that there are incredible healing powers in human touch. Studies show that just a few minutes of cuddling can relieve stress and aggravation for up to five days. Being hugged helps lower blood pressure and boosts calming hormones.
It can also boost your immune system, and helps enable sleep.
Being touched simply makes us feel more connected.
Then there are Cuddle Parties.
You can attend cuddle parties in Vancouver and Toronto, for example. Cuddle Party is a non-profit organization, and about 15 people attend on each occasion.
Many of the folks are single, or have gone through divorces, and simply have no affection in their lives. One of the benefits of Cuddle Party experiences is the feeling of being cared for – without the pressure.
Like the Snuggery, there are rules, and your pajamas must stay on the whole time.
The website – cuddleparty.com - says it's a playful social event for adults, where you come to touch, be touched, and explore communication and affection. It involves shoulder rubs, spooning, group spooning and moments where the entire group will cuddle and touch one lucky person.
The clientele ranges from bike messengers to kick-boxers to CEOs.
Recent studies revealed that twice as many people self-identify as lonely, compared to just 10 years ago. That includes 60% of college students, and 35% of people over 40.
That's a lot of potential customers, and that's why the cuddling business is growing.
Say you're not in the mood for a canoodle.
Say you're more in the mood to break something.
There's a service for that.
Back in 2008, Donna Alexander was a mom with an idea.
She saw a lot of frustration at the aviation company she worked at in Dallas, so she opened an Anger Room in her garage.
For five dollars, people could come over and smash stuff.
Word-of-mouth got around quickly, and soon Donna found a line-up of strangers on her doorstep with baseball bats in hand.
That's when she figured she better find another location. It took her three years to find a landlord willing to rent her some space.
But in 2011, she opened a 3,000 square foot Anger Room in a strip mall.
Donna offers three packages:
A five-minute "I need a break" session.
A 15-minute "Lash Out" session.
And a 25-minute "Demolition" session.
The Anger Room offers various rooms to appeal to different people. There are mock kitchens, mock living rooms, and replicas of actual workplaces.
Customers are given protective gear to wear, and are provided weapons like baseball bats, golf clubs and crowbars.
Then use those weapons to smash computer screens, televisions, furniture, plates and mirrors.
Donna says that her customers experience a great sense of gratification, and relief from whatever frustration they are going through in their personal or business life.
She says they always come out smiling.
The Anger Room averages 250 customers per month and business is brisk. She advertises the slogan: "Nothing you expect, everything you deserve."
There's even Anger Room gift cards.
So far, Donna Alexander has had over 140 franchise inquiries.
Feeling like you have to vent a little in Toronto?
You might want to visit the Rage Room.
The owners there say it's the perfect service for a high-stress city like Toronto. You're given the usual assortment of weapons, with the addition of hockey sticks - of course.
A 30-minute session costs $20. Plates cost $2 each, wine glasses $3 and chairs $20.
Most popular item to smash: Office printers.
We'll let you draw your own conclusion there.
Friends can watch from behind plexiglass, and you can walk away with a video of your session.
The Rage Room even offers an "Anti-Valentine's Day Mixer" for single people who loathe the day. It's a chance to smash some romantic mugs and heart-laden vases, and maybe even meet some new people.
The Rage Room is now working on a mobile rage truck. Coming soon to a street near you.
Hangovers can really ruin a vacation.
But there is a service for that.
Hangover Heaven is a Las Vegas-based service company that will cure your hangover in just an hour or two.
It was founded by an anesthesiologist named Jason Burke, who had an epiphany in a recovery room one day. He realized the same meds used to help post-op patients suffering from nausea and headaches could also cure a hangover.
So he bought a 45-foot tour bus, tricked it out with comfortable couches and IV stands, painted Hangover Heaven on the side, and started trolling the Las Vegas Strip for customers.
The bus has Hangover Heaven signage on the sides, and on the back, it says:
Business was so good, Burke opened a storefront clinic just off the Las Vegas Strip.
He offers his service seven days a week, and prices range from $45 to $300, depending on the severity of your hangover. The service includes a mix of medications, 30 minutes of oxygen, vitamin B shots and saline IV drips.
Customers claim they can't believe how well it works.
As Jason Burke says, marketing his service is easy. He just promises partiers they will get an additional day of their vacation back. It's a seductive pitch.
He even offers corporate packages.
But the best part is this: Burke also has a hangover ambulance. Just in case you're not… ambulatory.
Say you have a hangover to end all hangovers, and you just can't make it to work.
What you need… is an alibi.
Paladin Deception offers just the service you need.
Founded by a former private detective, the Minnesota-based Paladin Deception markets itself as:
Not only will they create an alibi, they will back it up with phone calls and emails. They will make alibi phone calls on your behalf, and receive phone calls, pretending to be a job reference, or a past landlord, or whatever you need. Plus, they have the technical wizardry to make sure the right area code pops up on the screen.
Their clientele includes cheating spouses and people who need "doctors" to confirm sick days. But its biggest customers are job seekers who need fake references, especially if there are glaring gaps in their work history.
The company says while it doesn't judge, it won't break the law and draws the line at telling lies to law enforcement, fire protection or medical institutions. Aside from that, it's open for business.
Most of Paladin's staff is made up of freelance community theatre actors, recruited through Craigslist. They must be convincing, because they service over 300 clients per month.
Clearly, the "Liar for hire" business is booming.
Many of the companies we've talked about today offer big services. Like filling a church with guests, or ambushing you with paparazzi, or sending an ambulance when you've had 15 too many Appletini's.
But some service companies offer simple services and quietly make a fortune.
Take Doody Calls.
It's a company that will clean up after your dog. For just $15 a month, Doody Calls will schedule visits to your yard regularly and scoop the poop.
The potential market is huge. There are over 80 million dogs in North America, that leave behind 63 million pounds of waste every day, totalling 23 trillion pounds of doody per year.
As Doody Calls points out, its customers aren't lazy, they're just busy. And its service frees up their customer's time. They are paying for extra leisure time.
Business is so good, there are now 57 franchises in the U.S. in 23 states, and there are plans to open 250 more over the next decade.
Another pet scooping company expanding in Dallas/Fort Worth area is called Pet Butler. Founder Matt Boswell likes to refer to himself as the CEO.
That's "Chief Excrement Officer."
Here in Canada, companies are pooping up all across the country, like Poop Patrol in Toronto, Scoopy Doo in Winnipeg and the Poop Troop in Calgary.
And that's how service companies succeed. They find a need that isn't being met - and clean up.
A product is something that rolls off an assembly line.
But a service is rendered by people.
That's why marketing a service is such an interesting exercise. You can't really photograph a lie, or hold a hangover your hand.
Therefore, the task of marketing is to make the invisible, visible.
The best way to do that is to turn pain points into opportunities. To advertise a company as an expert in a difficult or delicate task, or market a business that takes care of life's unseemly tasks for us.
Not enough guests at your wedding? We can fix that.
Need a quick alibi. Look no further.
Too hungover to move? An ambulance is on the way.
It all comes down to one important aspect of marketing: A service company has to sell an experience.
Being cuddled is an experience.
Being chased by paparazzi is an experience.
Blowing off a little steam with a crowbar is an experience.
But what's even more interesting about service companies is the very services they offer.
Just when you think you've seen it all, a paparazzi takes a photo of a fake wedding guest who has a hangover and needs an alibi…
…when you're under the influence.