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I Tried Out Magic, the New Text Message Concierge, and It Was Far From Magical

But they tried! Kind of!

Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

Yesterday, I wrote about Magic, a wacky new service that promises you can buy just about anything simply by texting it your desires.

It was created as a side project by a group of entrepreneurs currently in the startup mentorship program Y Combinator. They thought the current slate of same-day delivery services — Postmates, Instacart and WunWun, to name a few — still required too much work.

When the project leaked out onto some tech sites over the weekend, demand exploded and the entrepreneurs decided to shelve their other project, a blood pressure app, indefinitely to work on this new idea, according to one of the founders, Mike Chen, who I’m going to call Magic Mike.

When Magic first popped up in my Twitter feed on Sunday night, I signed up for the waitlist. There was an option to pay $50 to cut the line, but I declined.

Chen said a lot of people paid the fee even though Magic wasn’t exactly prepared for the onslaught. They created the price tag as a de facto “Don’t Come In” sign. But rich folk gotta get their magic! (It’s not clear why Magic even made this option available if they weren’t ready for more customers. I’m guessing a little thing called greed played a part.)

On Monday night, I checked back in, and I’d been accepted. I texted Magic’s number with my code at 9:31 pm. By 9:44 a response came in: “Hi, how can I help you!”

I told Magic I wanted a headset for a landline — an admittedly old-man journalist request. And I wanted it for Tuesday, the next day, thinking Magic would get some courier to pick it up from a local store in Manhattan. This is supposed to be magic, after all.

A few texts later, Magic said I could get it in two to three business days for $18. Not exactly magic, I thought. More like … I explained I’d love to get it the next day, instead. Again, I was told it would be two to three business days. But it then asked what time I needed it on Tuesday. I gave Magic a six-hour window smack in the middle of the day.

Jason Del Rey

Seventeen minutes later, with no response, I asked Magic if I could move on to another request. Sure, Magic told me, 12 minutes later. I requested delivery of the best chicken parm sandwich for Tuesday afternoon.

(For you novices out in the Valley, that’s a breaded, fried chicken cutlet — not grilled — topped with melted mozzarella and marinara — no avocado — on an Italian hero. You can take the Italian-American kid out of Staten Island, but not Staten Island out of the kid.)

I waited 28 minutes for a response. “I’ve identified the best chicken Parm sandwich but the restaurant is closed now!” Magic Mike or one of his magicians wrote at 10:59 pm. “I’m seeing what I can do about getting it delivered.”

I went to sleep, dreaming of oh so many fried chicken slabs doused with the perfect marinara. I planned to wake in the morning to a slew of cheery, exclamatory Magic messages. Instead, I found no new messages on my phone.

I wrote to Chen Tuesday morning detailing my experience and asking if it simply reflected growing pains. He wrote back immediately promising to check in on it. Within 10 minutes, Magic had texted me back, apologizing for the unfulfilled requests. (There’s a whole other discussion to be had about a company accessing my order requests/information without my permission, but that’s for another time.)

“Your experience should have been better and I’m here to personally fix this for you,” one of the Magic hats wrote.

My Magic butler told me the team wanted to give me a free chicken parm and also help me find that headset. It was a nice gesture. I kindly told Magic I couldn’t accept a free meal, but that I would be happy to pay for it. I was then told the chicken parm would be $43.41. Bam! Magic makes it clear it charges some unspecified premium for the “convenience” of the service but, even knowing that, the $43 price tag still seemed absurd for a sandwich.

I asked where the sandwich was coming from so I could check the price, and Magic told me Carmine’s, the Italian restaurant chain known for its family-size platters. I looked up their menu and could not find a chicken parm sandwich among the offerings. “This is a sandwich yes?” I wrote to Magic. “Not a platter?”

Jason Del Rey

“I’m sorry — that was for a platter,” my Magician wrote back. “I see you wrote parm sandwich.”

The order was fixed, and I was charged $12.95 for a chicken parm hero. About 30 minutes later, a food delivery arrived in our building’s messenger center.

It was indeed a chicken parm as promised, but I realized when I got up to our office that it was the $43 platter, not the sandwich. Basically, I was delivered a 9-by-13 inch aluminum tray wrapped in plastic and containing two large chicken cutlets. A hunk of bread was thrown in on the side.

chicken parm sandwich

Five minutes later, my phone rang again. It was another delivery. This time it was the chicken parm I first requested from Magic about 15 hours earlier. My Magic concierge told me the double delivery was intentional, despite me saying I couldn’t accept a platter, and that I was only charged for the sandwich.

There are a couple of conclusions to draw from my Magic experience, which Chen tells me was one of the few bad ones the service has seen. First, having an idea resonate with a core group of techies doesn’t mean you: a) necessarily have the expertise to deliver on the idea, b) have the staffing in place to deliver on the idea, or c) should take a $50 VIP pass from people when you aren’t prepared to deliver on that idea.

Secondly, there’s a reason why some of the other delivery startups in the space have been comparatively slow in their rollouts of their services. The logistics on this stuff are hard.

Chen admitted Magic let in too many users too soon.

“In short, we under-predicted how badly people wanted to use the service,” he said in an email. “If we let in a group of people, almost all of them start using it within a few minutes, which is not typical for wait lists with lower-demand services.

As of now, I can say that we are letting people in at the correct rate, and that the #1 top focus of the company is quality.”

Lastly, it certainly says something — I’m not sure what — about where the startup world is right now that a group of ambitious entrepreneurs would ditch a health-related app to run a glorified butler service. A former co-worker of mine put it this way on Twitter: “These apps rely on a) rich people overpaying b) a plentiful supply of underemployed serfs. It’s the Hunger Games economy.”

Not surprisingly, Chen’s view is a bit different.

“Certainly, we do have a service that people with a lot of money want to use and that’s a very good thing as a business,” he told me on Monday. “But people with money always had assistance and access to things like butlers to help them. What we’re actually doing is taking a luxury that was only previously available to the richest and making it available to more people.”

The topic of companies employing have-nots to service the haves is a bit more complicated. The dynamic is not unique to startups or this moment in time, with some of the world’s biggest companies historically taking advantage of cheap labor to maximize profits. Chen, for his part, said Magic is committed to being a good employer, even if he admits his response sounds like a cliché.

“It’s really important for us to have a really quality, well-paid, happy team,” he said. “I definitely don’t like the idea of a service for the rich that tries to squeeze people.”

The more immediate concern for Magic, if it’s committed to making this service work, is something more straightforward: Making sure the experience is more magic than joke.

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