I just paid $37 to have a miniature cactus delivered to my office.

I have wanted a mini cactus for about a year, but never put the effort into finding one. When I learned of the “deliver-me-anything” SMS-based service, Magic, I decided now would be the time to try… or have someone else try.

According to founder Mike Chen, this is the point of Magic:

“The basic idea behind Magic is that people shouldn’t have to spend their time figuring out the details of getting the things they want,” Chen said. The service was founded upon a rather similar situation.

Chen, 30, was sitting around with a group of friends and wanted some food. He told the group that he wished he could send a text and have food appear at his doorstep, like magic.

So on Feb. 20, Chen created a simple website with a white background with black text that was originally written as an email to a small group of friends, outlining Magic’s objective.

An “overnight success”

“The response has been completely unexpected and amazing,” Chen said.”We have over 30,000 on the wait list. We used zero marketing, we did not advertise it at all. I just gave it to a few friends.”

In less than two weeks the service received so many requests that the team of six responders decided to create a wait list and VIP paywall because orders weren’t being filled.

I was number 38,718 on the list when I registered Wednesday morning until I was granted access for this story by Magic’s PR team.

Chen said to serve users while still slowing down incoming texts they introduced a VIP feature, that allows users to jump the waitlist for a fee. The first fee was $20. It then jumped to $50. Now it is at $100, and people are still paying.

In the past week the team has expanded to around 30 members in response to the high demand, he said, but the wait list continues to grow.

What seems to be attracting users, is the service’s simple structure paired with its unlimited options

In order to get what they want, users simply text requests to a short code telephone number. The Magic team then personally responds to each text with a price and proceeds to fill each request through whatever means possible in a timely fashion.

But what sets Magic apart from other delivery or assistance apps like GrubHub or Postmates is that there are no limits. Users can request anything they desire from Chinese food, to airplane tickets, or like this Wired writer, anything from cookies to a car. They don’t even have to download an app.

“Instead of having to deal with a website or app, you just text in what you wanted, kind of like you had a friend or assistant or family member you can go to and say ‘hey I need this’ and then it’s done,” Chen said.

“Where would you like the cactus delivered?”

Within an hour of requesting my cactus, a black car rolled up to the front door of my office. I received a call that my order was early. I ran outside into the frigid Chicago weather, sans coat in the midst of the excitement.

A man in a black midsized SUV chuckled as he handed my $37 cactus and a Home Depot receipt, which showed it originally cost a mere $4.35.

Maybe I should have thought this out more, I could have driven myself to Home Depot in 17 minutes. But I have my cactus now and its neon orange flower is brightening my day as I write this post.

How will Magic scale?

Not all users’ experiences were quite as “magical” as mine, though. Many never received their requests and others have been on the waitlist for days.

Having your weekend side-project go viral overnight can leave a founder with the burden of success.

“They launched it with a technology that everyone already has and they launched with no focus,” said Waverly Deutsch, a clinical professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Deutsch said that because most Americans today work long hours and are willing to “trade cash with flexibility,” delivery and assistance apps that allow the average person to save a minute are becoming more and more popular.

But she warned that these types of services require more than just one good idea.

“These guys are out in California and they think that dual-sided network businesses are a technology,” she said. “It has nothing to do with the technology and has everything to do with the logistics of managing the two sides of the system.”

What should these models look like?

Similar companies, like food delivery service GrubHub, which serves more than 5 million people across the U.S. and in London, go through a series of steps before adding a restaurant to its menu.

Deutsch said the company has to analyze if the restaurant has the capabilities of producing as much food as the app might demand or if it is willing to work with an outside party. She said the two parties then work on a business model to ensure a profit.

She thought it was clear that Magic is operating without this type of plan in place. Even Chen himself acknowledged that this startup was not as “calculated” as other projects he has worked on.

Deutsch said that the high level of demand will have to be sustainable under a thought-out strategy if Magic hopes to become more than just a fad.

“It really requires a business model where you can meet the need and meet it profitably to generate enough money to be a business,” Deutsch said. “An app is not a business.”

My thoughts

Though I love my cactus, I have to side with Ms. Deutsch here.

If Magic doesn’t have a plan in place to keep it alive, let alone deliver on its promise to the more than 40,000 people on the waitlist, what good is it to us?

I’m confident that if I had not asked for special access for this story I would not have received my request. A friend of mine recently requested the book Station Eleven and was told she was number 42, 221 on the waitlist.

I don’t think I will purchase a cactus with a $32 markup ever again. But at the same time, it’s cold outside and I forgot to pack a dinner.


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