How would you like to get paid to hang out with someone? To go to dinner, take a class, go shopping, to a sporting event -- in essence, doing all the things you normally do with your friends, and also have someone else pick up the tab? If this sounds like some too-good-to-be-true Internet scam, it's not. Welcome to Rent-a-Friend.com.
No, really. Scott Rosenbaum's year-old site where anyone can offer their platonic services to members who pay a fee to access them, is going gangbusters, and no unfortunate situations have been reported yet. The site makes it clear to all who enter that this is not a dating site or an escort site, and all interaction is strictly on a friendly basis. Friends are free to accept or decline any offers that come their way.
A wide variety of clients
So what kind of a person has to pay for friendship? You'd be surprised. Rosenbaum says that among those who use the site are:
- People who travel to a new city and want to hire a local to show them around town.
- People who want to see a movie or go to a restaurant but don't want to go alone.
- People who want to learn unique talents and skills -- there are Rent-a-Friends who can teach you a new language, tutor you, share a new hobby, etc.
- People who want to meet someone from a different culture or religion.
- People who have an extra ticket to a sporting event or concert and don't want to go alone.
- People who want a workout partner for the gym to help motivate and spot during the workout.
- People who need personal advice and don't want their close friends to judge them or know the details of a situation.
- People who need errands run, dogs walked, plants watered, or myriad other chores they don't have time to do themselves.
"A lot of families are hiring friends to be with their adult children who are autistic or have Asperger's," Rosenbaum says. "The friends teach them how to socialize, how to converse, how to act in public, how to order in a restaurant, how to shop, that sort of thing. Some people hire friend to visit their elderly parents or take them out. Friends can specify on their profiles that they're available for these types of activities," he adds.
The price of friendship
So just how much does friendship cost? All prices are negotiable between friend and member, but the fees usually start at around $10 per hour and can go up as high as $50. Friends are free to charge whatever they like, and they get to keep 100 percent -- the site requires no fees from friends. If your activity is really appealing, however, the friend might not charge at all. "I usually pay $20 for the evening, and then cover the cost of the meal or the movie or whatever we're doing," says Christopher Barton, a Las Vegas computer professional who travels often and hates to eat in restaurants alone.
He's also been known to rent a friend in his hometown to hang with, because the nature of the city requires his real friends to have unusual work hours and it's hard for them to get together on weeknights, when Barton sometimes wants to go out. "Sometimes I just want to talk to someone," says Barton, "to get another perspective, or to talk shop without boring my friends." He can rent friends in the same line of work, if he feels like it.
Members pay $24.95 per month or $69.95 per year. For that they can not only look at all the friends' profiles from all around the world, but they also get contact information -- either a blind e-mail address, or a cell phone number, whichever the friend chooses to provide. All a member has to do is type in a ZIP code or country, and they'll be able to see profiles, pictures and interests of myriad people in that area.
That's what friends are for
If you're interested in being a Rent-a-Friend, it's completely free of charge. All you have to do is post your picture, state your interests and talents, and wait for a member to contact you. You don't even have to pay to post your profile. Of course there is no guarantee of how much you can work, but the more engaging your photo and the more activities you're willing to participate in, the better your chances of earning more. Rosenbaum doesn't keep track of what the friends make, but he says there are some who work every day, and he's heard of one married woman in Nevada who is making more than $1,000 per week.
"Oh sure," you think, (wink wink). "I wonder what she's doing for that?" How do they limit the hanky panky? Well, no website can control what people do when they actually meet, but Rosenbaum gives participants guidelines that are similar to those on dating websites: always meet in public, follow your instincts, carry a cell phone, have your own transportation or at least money to get home, don't go into people's homes alone with them, that sort of thing.
Nick Garkusha is a new friend on the site who isn't worried at all. He signed up to be a Rent-a-Friend to help ease his move from Connecticut, where he's lived all his life, to Los Angeles. "I'm 25, and you only live once, right?" he says. "I want to meet every type of person there is." He has listed that he charges $20 per hour, but his rate is negotiable. "If someone really needs someone to talk to, I'm not going to be greedy," he says.
Benefits with friends
So would Rosenbaum use his own service? He doesn't have time. He's married and has two children, and he personally vets each member and runs the site. He hasn't been on a vacation since Rent-a-Friend launched. With about 290,000 friends and 26,000 paying members, he doesn't have a lot of spare time to socialize. Do the math on that, by the way, and you can see that he could well be making more than $1 million a year.
Rosenbaum says he got the idea from an article he read about a similar service in Japan, where renting a substitute family member to attend a public event is more acceptable and common than appearing as a broken or incomplete family. Even if Rent-a-Friend seems like a foreign concept to you, you have to admire Rosenbaum's savvy skills in adapting the idea to work in an American culture. Remember that the ubiquitous Facebook started as a way to connect friends too. But Rosenbaum figured out a way to monetize it from the beginning.