Lynn Perkins loves setting people up—be it with the perfect restaurant for a business lunch, the right vacation for a friend’s honeymoon, even dates (she’s arranged three marriages and counting). But her matchmaking skills were put to the test in September 2010 when a friend called her in a panic.
“She told me that she’d made a reservation on OpenTable weeks ago and that her babysitter had just cancelled,” Perkins remembers. “She asked me if I knew anyone.”
To her friend’s delight, Perkins knew just the right person, and a stressful situation was quickly solved. What's more, the call had come at the perfect time for Perkins. Fresh off a successful career in tech and hospitality, Perkins, a mother of three, was taking some time off to figure out her next career move. Instead of working long hours in the office, she was now spending her days with other moms and on online “mom group” forums. These forums were incredibly revealing about what moms were looking for—mainly recommendations for trusted childcare.
This confluence of her friend’s panicked phone call and Perkins’s "aha" awareness that moms needed a way to find babysitters they could trust got her thinking: Why not create an OpenTable-like service for babysitting that matches parents with available sitters? And, even better, why not offer sitters who are already connected to a parent’s network of friends or colleagues?
The Babysitter's Club
Perkins was sure she had a winning idea, so she called up a few friends and, within months, was part of a team of four co-founders working on what would become UrbanSitter. The site went live in summer 2011 and has been growing in popularity ever since. Today the San Francisco-based startup is in 12 markets, employs 26 people and has upwards of 100,000 members.
OPEN Forum spoke with Perkins about how she convinced parents to trust her platform, how she competes with super-sized competitors and why it’s OK that UrbanSitter doesn’t offer unlimited vacation time.
So how exactly does UrbanSitter work?
We use Facebook as the login for our platform because it helps us create a connection network. So if you signed up as a parent, you would immediately get to see sitters that your friends have used. We ask you what groups you belong to and show you what sitters have been used within those groups, too.
Then, say you need a sitter from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday night. You enter in that information, hit “go” and up pops a list of sitters who are available during that time. There may be 500 sitters available, but our algorithm takes into account your social connections, so sitters that your friends or school or group have used go to the top of the list. In addition, sitters who respond quickly and have good reviews will be moved to the top of your list.
How do you deal with reviews of sitters? What kinds of liability issues do you face in running this type of business?
We read through every negative review. If someone writes that a sitter is unequipped to deal with children, we personally contact the parent and may take the sitter off the platform. That said, we’ve been really lucky because in order to log on to our platform, parents have to give us their credit card information and sitters are required to give us their checking account information. [Payment is done solely through the platform.] For that reason, we’ve found that we're really only attracting people who are serious about using the platform; it's weeded out "bad actors" in the system.
We also have very heavy company insurance, but it ultimately comes down to the relationship between parent and sitter. We’ve only had a couple cases where parents have reported something missing or a card being misused, but in those cases, we found it to be fraud and not the sitter’s fault. Our algorithm works to recommend only the best sitters.
Finding the right babysitter for your child is serious business. How do you get parents to trust your platform?
Actually, convincing parents to book a sitter on the Internet was one of our biggest challenges starting out. Sure, you can [buy] things online on eBay or order a ride on Uber, but someone to watch your child? As parents ourselves, we all understood the hesitation, so we partnered with local mom groups to run in-person events and do events at kid’s play areas. We would also do sitter speed dating, which working parents absolutely loved.
Our sitters became our marketing army. We would give them all business cards, and instead of phone numbers, parents would be directed to the person’s UrbanSitter account to book a date. We still do all that; it's a huge part of our business, and it's helped us gain tremendous brand recognition and trust in the marketplace.
You got your first round of funding right after you launched. How did you operate before that?
We bootstrapped. Luckily we were all in our mid-to-late 30s and we’d had great jobs previously. We’d all saved to do this. Plus we got funding quickly, so that was a huge relief.
Are you only in 12 cities, or can I book a sitter on UrbanSitter outside of those cities?
We're technically in 60 markets, but we spend our marketing dollars in 12 of them. We have a pretty tight playbook by which we launch a new area. We hire one employee in the city and have them become well connected and network with mom groups. That person then puts on parents' events continuously. We call those employees “local managers,” and they're incredibly valuable on the ground. They're contractors and work 15 to 20 hours per week—a perfect fit because many of them are mothers looking for flexible schedules.
How does UrbanSitter generate revenue? Do you take a cut of sitters’ fees?
No, we charge the parents. They can sign up for a subscription or an one-time fee. Sitters take home all the money they earn and they set their own rates. We see sitters new to an area start with less expensive rates and then raise their rates as they get jobs. It's interesting to see how parents react. Sometimes parents will only take the high-priced sitters while others will take ones new to the platform.
Do you provide background checks?
We work with a third-party background check provider. Sitters can [purchase a background check], and if they pass, they can put a badge on their site.
How do you compete with companies like Care.com?
Care.com and Sittercity are both bigger than we are, but we have the integrated social network piece, which is a huge differentiator. Parents want recommendations.
San Francisco’s hiring market is red hot right now. How do you compete for talent? Do you offer crazy perks?
Companies are actually moving to San Francisco from Silicon Valley right now, which is making the hiring market really tough for companies. No, we don’t offer the traditional startup perks like unlimited vacation time. Our employees get three weeks of vacation, a 401k and great healthcare. We find that our selling point is our executive team—we’ve all been at startups before and are really experienced. Younger employees like that because they can learn a lot from us. I didn’t anticipate it early on, but it's become a talent attractor for us.
What will the next few months and years look like for UrbanSitter?
We're really focused on two initiatives, starting with mobile. We launched our mobile product about 18 months ago and are seeing a ton of growth there. It's decreased our sitter’s response time—some of them respond in one minute, which is fantastic. We'll be working on making our services on mobile better.
Second, we want to set even deeper roots in the markets we're currently in. We're seeing huge brand recognition in San Francisco and growing recognition in New York and Los Angeles. I see us focusing on building out our current cities in the next 18 months. As for the next three to five years, I can tell you that we'll be in many more cities. It is super exciting!
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Photos: Getty Images, UrbanSitter