In a way Lynn Perkins founded UrbanSitter when she was still a teenager.
A dedicated babysitter all through high school, Perkins wanted to continue to work for families when she went off to Stanford. Of course, in the pre-social media era, this wasn’t a simple matter of posting a tweet or Facebook status. But when Perkins did finally connect with a few local parents, many of them knew other moms eager to hire college-age sitters, too. "They asked me ‘who are your friends?’" she recalls with a laugh, "I’ve always been a babysitting matchmaker, I guess."
Perkins shelved that service when graduation from college brought other career opportunities, including founding a fashion e-commerce startup and stints at the Gap and a boutique hotel group. Then Perkins became a parent herself. Now on the other side of the babysitting equation, not only did she have to find a nanny, but once she hired her, Perkins discovered that she was constantly introducing friends to sitters that she had used or friends of her nanny’s. Observing the power of these offline networks to get referrals, Perkins saw a business opportunity to revive her matchmaking role. "I thought there could be a solution online," she says. Hence her new baby, UrbanSitter, was born.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Had she attempted the launch pre-Facebook, UrbanSitter may have folded making nary a mark on the tech landscape. Instead, Perkins launched in beta in 2011 catering exclusively to the respite-hungry parents of San Francisco. So far Perkins says UrbanSitter’s completed "hundreds of thousands" of bookings for more than 35,000 sitters and some 75,000 parents nationwide. The service has taken hold in 12 major markets and is newly available in more than 50 additional cities. Though not profitable yet, UrbanSitter has attracted over $22 million in two funding rounds and generates revenue by charging parents either a monthly subscription rate (starting at $8.35 per month) or $14.95 to interview and hire one sitter.
"The social network piece really does work," Perkins says, but she credits the success and growth to trust. Finding a used sofa or even a date online doesn’t raise any flags—in spite of all the creepy stories and crimes perpetrated against unsuspecting individuals looking for love, or a good deal. For even those most laid-back parents, leaving their precious ones in the hands of strangers can be fraught with angst. That’s why Perkins built in a way to leverage existing social connections to give both parents and sitters a way to make connections with a measure of confidence. Background checks—paid for by prospective sitters—help in that regard, too.
Right now, UrbanSitter uses Facebook Connect and has parents provide information about their kids’ schools and their own parenting groups or affiliations, to make the most relevant matches. Connecting through LinkedIn is in the works, and should be available in late August. And if that match cancels at the last minute? Just like e-commerce recommendations of related products, parents can peruse a list of substitutes who are also connected to the sitter of choice. "Parents are really interested in hiring a sitter’s friend," Perkins says, just like they were when she was in high school. Except that today, thanks to the magic of mobile, you can book a replacement as quickly as you reserved a table at your favorite restaurant. Response time, Perkins asserts, "is under a minute."
What facilitates the process—and sets UrbanSitter apart from competitors like Care.com—are a few thoughtful additions to the platform. Parents can post recommendations if they were happy with their experience, adding to the sitter’s profile. And because the majority of sitters are in their itinerant early 20s, Perkins insisted that there be a way for them to move to another city and still maintain their standing. A big city may have plenty of families looking to hire, says Perkins, but without a network or relatives close by, the sitter would have to start from scratch. UrbanSitter’s profiles log repeat bookings and recommendations, so that no matter where the sitter goes, they can take their reputation with them.
The sitter’s profiles also include a video component which has helped in unexpected ways, says Perkins. "Our male sitters get a lot more jobs," she observes, because there is a way for the parent to "see" them and hear what they have to say about previous experience in child care. Musicians, she notes, also upload videos of themselves singing (nothing too heavy, of course). "I championed this for the site," Perkins says. Videos are usually taken in their dorm rooms or apartments, so you can see the person in their natural environment, instead of just as bullet points on a resume. "You can see they have the energy to handle twins [for example]," she explains, "It adds one more layer of information."
For sitters, there is a measure of comfort in knowing that the parents don’t even see their last names or addresses until the booking is completed. And for both, no worries about Facebook profiles. "They can’t see your page," she says, laughing.
Meanwhile, the very network that’s made UrbanSitter’s growth possible was ironically at first a barrier. Parents were skeptical at first, Perkins admits, about using Facebook to hire someone to care for their child. "Once they get on the platform and see the metrics," she says, "they see why this has more information [than a traditional hiring strategy]."
Starting web-only and adding mobile was another challenge for Perkins, who wanted to do things the opposite way. Content won out in the site’s first iteration, "because there was so much we wanted to be able to share." Building out both iOS and Android apps, Perkins says, was a no-brainer. Busy parents, after all, spend a lot of their time on their smartphones.
"It’s the way the business is headed, especially for repeat users."