More pressure: Zeel joins Soothe to compete for Austin's on-demand massage market

April 6, 2016

The latest on-demand service to arrive in Austin is New York City-based Zeel, an app for booking offsite massage appointments in your home or office with as little planning as a few taps and an hour’s notice.

The company, which previously connected Austinites to a network of independent massage therapists in local spas and studios, announced the in-home service this week.

The Austin launch coincided with Zeel’s arrival in Phoenix, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Seattle.

But Zeel isn’t the only game in town. While the company is available in 23 cities and boasts a network of 5,100 licensed massage therapists, Zeel is locked in a dead heat with a Los Angeles-based competitor called Soothe, which launched a year after Zeel. Soothe has already raised more than $35 million and expanded to 22 markets, including Austin. Each service is also available in its coastal rival’s hometown.

The two companies have more in common than just aggressive growth. Like other on-demand services relying on independent labor, they increase margins by eliminating the administrative overhead of spas and building the therapist’s customary tip into the price for hassle-free, cashless payments, settled in advance of your last-minute appointment.

Both Zeel and Soothe pass some of the savings on to therapists, enticing masseuses to use their respective apps in exchange for a small cut of each fee.

Zeel's service is so in tune with the on demand mindset that it initially didn’t even allow scheduling more than one day in advance, according to a 2014 review. But the mobile app, available for Android as well as iOS, now allows users to book an appointment up to 30 days in advance.

Still, booking an appointment took less than two minutes on the first try (some say less than 30 seconds), including the one-time entry of a home address and payment information. Requesting future appointments could theoretically be as easy as hailing an Uber, which is precisely the point.

But unlike Uber drivers, not all therapists need an app to find fare.

Where countless startups have pitched themselves as “The Uber of X” with varying degrees of accuracy and success, Zeel has applied the model to an industry in a truly disruptive way, making it easy for consumers to book reasonably priced massages in their home or office, on demand, with a few taps.

But not everyone welcomes the disruption. There are skeptics among therapists with established practices and loyal customer bases.

As we’ve seen in the recent past, resistance from veterans isn't uncommon when tech startups disrupt large industries. (Just consider taxi associations in major cities protesting Uber.) But if the on demand economy has proven anything about market forces, it's that the customer is almost always right.

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