While Ritu Narayan was working as a group product manager at eBay, she faced a challenge familiar to many working parents: "Both of my kids transitioned from home to car to school, and suddenly I had the pressure of being at three or more places at the same time," she says. "I no longer needed a dedicated nanny or assistant at home, but finding somebody part-time who was very trustworthy and reliable to pick up my kids, take them to activities, and stay with them at home while I’m still at work was challenging."
When she noticed many other parents had this same complaint, she decided to do something about it. The resulting product is Zum, an on-demand ride and care service for kids in the 5 to 15 age range that launches out of beta today. Through the Zum app, parents can summon a driver for their kid in the same way they’d summon an Uber vehicle, with the tap of a button. The app provides a photo of the assigned driver and their vehicle, along with their personal background. Parents can track the car's location and are notified when their child is picked up and dropped off. Payment and reviews all happen inside the app, as well.
Convenience and ease of use aside, Zum faced a real hurdle: Would parents trust a stranger to drive their kids around town? Child care preferences are incredibly personal, and many parents want to get to know potential babysitters before placing children in their care. "When parents give their kids to someone, it’s a big deal," says Narayan. "We knew the only way they would give it a try is if they were very sure."
Initially, parents wanted to interview the Zum drivers before working with them, but Narayan quickly realized this wasn’t a scalable option. She needed to find a stringent way to screen drivers, or "Zumers," that would put parents’ minds at ease. Zumers must be over the age of 21, have a minimum of three years’ driving experience, and a clean DMV record. They must pass a background check and have previous child care experience under their belt. They provide their own vehicle, which Zum regularly inspects for safety. Driving habits are monitored remotely, and the company insures both drivers and passengers for $1 million. Cars come equipped with booster seats for young children.
But there was still something off about the idea of putting your kids in a car with a new person each time they need a ride. "If you find a random person each time, that’s a lot of change for the family," Narayan says. The solution? Give each family a small, dedicated pool of up to six caregivers who rotate shifts. That way, the kids get to know the drivers, and the drivers get to know the family’s particular needs and schedules.
Since launching its pilot program in the Bay Area last July, Zum has added roughly 500 families to its list of customers. Of those, 90% use the service every week and 40% use it every day. Zum is in direct competition with a similar service in the Bay Area called Shuddle, but appeals to parents with kids between the ages of 5 and 8 who might still need a booster seat. Shuddle only provides rides for kids aged 8 and up. Zum also offers a child care component, so if kids need extra supervision before or after being dropped off, Zumers will stick around. "What we’re building is an on-demand trustworthy platform for family services," Narayan says.
What perhaps gives Zum an additional edge is its self-learning algorithm that pairs drivers with families based on their compatibility. "We look for whether they have a boy or a girl, and what kind of interest the kid has," Narayan says. "If the kid is going for basketball, someone who has a background in basketball and a love for basketball is great. If they talk about that specific activity with the kid, the bonding is deeper. So all of these things we take into the database as we onboard people, and it becomes easy for us to do the match." Parents can provide specific instructions directly in the app for the driver to see. And if they had a bad experience with a driver, they can request to never be paired with them again, although Narayan says that’s never happened.
Dara Wambach works in regulatory affairs for Global Blood Therapeutics and says her schedule makes it difficult to shuttle her 8-year-old daughter to weekly appointments, so she relies on Zum. "It’s so reassuring to know I don’t have to miss a meeting because school is out early," she says. "I tell the school who is coming and it’s always the same people. I’m delighted with that because my daughter knows them already."
Zum plays to both sides of the child care equation, ensuring child care providers get regular work, while parents only pay for the rides they use rather than hiring a dedicated driver with a guaranteed minimum rate or hours.
Rides are priced based on mileage and start at $16 for a single kid and $8 for carpool kids. A 10-mile ride for one child costs around $24, Narayan says. If you want on-site child care before or after the ride, that’s $6 every 15 minutes. Drivers can make up to $2,400 a month by driving five or six hours a day, Narayan says. Tipping isn’t required or encouraged, "to ensure the behavior of the child care provider is not dependent on the tip they’re getting from families." Zumers foot the bill for gas and car maintenance, but have the benefit of setting their own hours and saying no to rides if they aren’t available. One driver, Jennifer Wong, told me her pay comes to about $25 an hour.
Now that it’s open to the public, Zum plans to expand throughout the Bay Area before launching in 14 other cities, including Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.