In the 10 cities where UrbanSitter’s mobile and online service is available, parents of young children can accept spontaneous Friday night dinner invitations, no problem. That's because babysitters there respond to last-minute requests in 23 minutes, on average. In fast-paced New York City, they respond in 90 seconds.
The social network that links parents and childcare providers is CEO Lynn Perkins’s third startup. Before teaming up with three other entrepreneurial parents to launch UrbanSitter in 2011, the Stanford graduate founded Xuny.com, a platform that supported apparel sellers, and led business development efforts for Bridgepath.com, which matched job seekers and employers.
Perkins had always been a connector—referring friends and colleagues to jobs, services, and dates. After she became a mom to twins 6 years ago, she added childcare to that list. “When my friends were ready to use babysitters or nannies, they’d come to me and ask, ‘How do I find one?’” Perkins says. “I would constantly hear things like, ‘this sitter is a friend of your sitter, so I trust her’.”
She thought there must be an easier way to help people book reliable childcare, and saw an opportunity to leverage existing online social networks.
Today, the core of her 100,000-member user base is comprised of working moms, much like those friends she was personally helping out. With a 22-person staff, UrbanSitter enabled 40,000 childcare bookings last year. Parents try out the service for a one-time fee of $14.95 or subscribe monthly for $24.95 or annually for $99.95. Perkins calls New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, Denver, Seattle, and San Diego her biggest markets. And she has reeled in $22.75 million in funding, including $16 million just this February, to expand to 60 cities.
To be sure, UrbanSitter is not the only online platform for finding childcare; Care.com and SitterCity.com are among the competitors. But it is the only one integrating Facebook to bring a social-connections level of trust to interactions.
UrbanSitter taps members’ social graphs to help them find babysitters who already share a connection to someone they know—such as another parent or another sitter. It lets parents read a provider's profile, watch a video clip, and see other data including reviews from previous customers, the number of repeat-customers, special skills, and how quickly the sitter typically responds to a booking request.
When a new UrbanSitter member connects online to the parenting organizations, schools, or kids' sports clubs she has affiliations with, the site returns a sorted list of sitters, prioritizing those whom the member’s Facebook friends, social connections, or classmates’ families have used. Booking a babysitter on the site is much like making a restaurant reservation on OpenTable. And like using Uber to pay for taxi service, parents can pay babysitters through UrbanSitter.
Not only is the service making life easier for busy parents, but it’s creating new opportunities for childcare providers too.
A sitter or nanny’s profile will reveal if she is socially connected to other providers or families on the site. Being linked to someone whom a searching parent knows pushes a sitter’s position higher in search results. Qualifications such as a master’s degree in education, CPR certification, or good reviews from past customers will also help a sitter get booked more quickly. And the tool can ease the anxiety of going to a strange family’s home. If a sitter in Chicago can say, ‘I don’t know this family, but I have a friend in Denver who worked for them when they lived there,’ it’s less intimidating, Perkins says.
Sitters can also manage their businesses better by tracking their schedule on the site, setting fees based on the going rate in their region—Perkins says the national average is $10 per hour for one child, and in big cities sitters typically get $13-$15 per hour—or setting a premium rate for Saturday nights or holidays.
For those available for spur-of-the-moment calls, UrbanSitter creates small windfalls. “These sitters are of the age that they’re all on their mobile phones, and our booking engine keeps their availability up to date,” Perkins says. When a working mother’s full-time nanny calls in sick, or babysitter’s family cancels its plans at the last minute, Urban Sitter lets them both get the word out quickly to their trusted network and fill the vacancy. No need to take a day off work—for the sitter or the parent.
Perkins says the site is also providing unique opportunities to people who just want to supplement their incomes or who might not otherwise consider making themselves available for babysitting. One professional San Francisco woman who has no children of her own, but enjoys spending time with children, keeps a window open for babysitting on Sunday afternoons for parents who need a break. In New York City and Los Angeles, Perkins says actors dominate the provider profiles: “This pays better than waiting tables, and for people who don’t get much advance notice before their next audition, the site provides great flexibility,” she says.
In the markets where UrbanSitter has existed the longest, Perkins says families have started relying on the site for more than just booking babysitters: They use it to hire tutors, petsitters, housesitters, home organizers, and party planners, she says.
Based on her years of internet entrepreneurship, Perkins says a key to UrbanSitter’s success is that it makes life easier for people. “The pain point for families finding babysitters was around availability, and we eased that pain point,” she says. “I get excited about businesses that aren’t asking me to modify my behavior, but are making something I’m already doing a lot easier.”