UrbanSitter: An Uber Convenient Babysitters’ Club

CEO Lynn Perkins took UrbanSitter, a service that connects parents and babysitters, from concept to company in about three weeks.

Three and a half years ago, she was taking time off from her previous job working for Joie de Vivre Hospitality—essentially buying hotels—and the mother of twins found herself constantly introducing friends to care providers. “They would always take recommendations from someone they knew,” she says.

At the time, a lot of businesses were leveraging the Facebook Connect platform to create their own apps using the social network’s data. Parents had always found sitters through other moms and dads they trusted, or through sitters they’d used in the past; Perkins thought Connect might make it easy to take that analog process online and make it as painless as possible. “I wanted to take these groups that already built trust and put them on the platform,” she says.

She started talking to all the sitters and nannies she knew, and thinking back to her own experiences as a babysitter in college; after moving to a new part of the state to attend Stanford University, it had taken her a couple of years to find families to babysit for. She started talking about the idea with a friend’s husband, an engineer who created websites for fledgling companies, and he offered to help. “It took six months from ‘let’s do this’ to we’re up and running in SF,” she says.

The hard part? “Convincing people it’s not crazy to find your babysitter on the Internet,” she says. People find strangers online to do things for them all the time. Uber users regularly get in strangers’ cars. TaskRabbit users let random people into their homes and offices for odd projects. Online daters have drinks with people they have no other connection with. But the idea of leaving kids with someone found on the Internet was a harder sell.

At San Francisco-based Urban Sitter, part of the solution was leveraging groups parents already trust. Parents are in all kinds of groups—for their neighborhoods, their kids schools’, swim teams, and the like, and they’re often willing to take advice from people in them—sometimes even strangers. When Perkins showed potential users that they could see which sitters those parents were using—alongside starred ratings—it made the concept less foreign. “In LA, you might see that you and a particular sitter both know parents from Club MomMe, AYSO, and Books and Cookies,” she says. “This often helps a parent feel comfortable in hiring a babysitter for the first time.”

Profiles also show how often a babysitter has had repeat customers, a better metric, Perkins says, than starred ratings. People have a tendency to either give one star or five; knowing how many times a given family has used a sitter is a better indicator of how happy they were with the experience. The sitters also post short videos of themselves to give parents a sense of who they are.

Using the app is easy. Parents can simply select the date and time they need their sitter, hit a button, and UrbanSitter’s algorithms pull up a list of people who have already indicated that they’re available that night. The app presents them in order of best match, starting with sitters parents have used before, then sitters their Facebook friends have used, then friends of sitters they have used, then sitters with a very good track record. “It’s kind of how it happens offline,” Perkins says. “You get a USF babysitter who is busy, and she’ll say, ‘Oh, my friend can do it.’”

Alternatively, parents can also post a job and see who responds. If they were going to a baseball game, for example, and it didn’t matter which night they went, they could see which nights their kids’ favorite sitter was free and book accordingly.

Perkins says the average response time nationally is 23 minutes. In San Francisco and New York, it’s 90 seconds.

Babysitters aren’t required to have background checks; they can choose to, and their profiles will reflect them, but often if a sitter has enough ratings and enough clients, it doesn’t really matter, Perkins says. Recommendations from other parents usually suffice.

UrbanSitter has also made the payment process pretty painless. Instead of scrounging for cash or having to hit the ATM, parents can choose to pay with a credit card through the app or the site, and babysitters have told Perkins they really prefer that to being paid in cash. For one, they say, they’re less likely to spend money when it goes directly into their bank accounts. For another, it takes away the awkward moment at the end of the evening when they have to wait for parents—or most often the dad—to count out cash. They’re also more likely to get a tip on top of their hourly rate when parents are using cards.

Babysitters set their own rates, and they vary quite a bit by market. San Francisco actually beats out New York as the most expensive city. The average hourly rate for a two-kid job in the Bay Area is $13 to $17 per hour.

UrbanSitter charges either monthly or annual fees for premium membership; parents and sitters both pay $9.95 a month, after one-time setup fees of $24.95 and $19.95 respectively. Or, parents can pay a yearly fee of $99.95, while sitters pay $69.95. Parents who don’t want to subscribe can also choose to pay a one-time fee of $14.95, if, for example, they’re travelling to New York and would rather find a local college kid who babysits for people they know than get someone through a hotel. “It feels better than using a hotel babysitter,” She says. “It takes out the strangeness of being in a new place.”

Today, the company focuses on markets in major cities—Boston, New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego—but has a presence in 60, including smaller, local vacation destinations like Napa, Lake Tahoe, or Cape Cod.

Though the idea to connect parents and sitters using Facebook might seem like an obvious one, UrbanSitter doesn’t have any direct competitors doing exactly the same thing, a fact that really surprises Perkins. Instead, their main competition comes from two extremes: Care.com, a website driven site that finds childcare but isn’t based on any sort of Facebook social connections, and old school, local babysitting agencies.

So far, the 21-employee company has raised $22.7 million, including a series B round of $15 million that closed in February, with DBL Investors as the lead investor. To date, they’ve signed up 80,000 parents and 30,000 babysitters across the country.

To Perkins, UrbanSitter is just another app that makes life so much easier, like UberX or OpenTable. “Even if I know I want to go to Kokari, I still use OpenTable, because if it’s not available, I can see what else is.” Perkins says. She thinks parents will want the same kind of convenience when it’s time to find a sitter so they can go out on their own dinner date.

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