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On Demand Businesses 101

How UrbanSitter helps find reliable Babysitters Online – Startup Stories #16

Every single day after the birth of the child, parents stay back home with the baby and have certain questions popping in their heads.
“Where do i find a babysitter?”
“I might just cancel the appointment with the dentist.”
And finally when they find a babysitter, they have doubts while making decision and might just pass the opportunity.
To address many such issues faced by the parents, UrbanSitter was founded by four busy parents. It is an On-Demand online resource where parents go to find andurbansitter_founder book babysitters by date and time recommended by parents in their social circles (mother’s group, child’s school, sports team, etc.).
Here’s what Lynn Perkins, Founder of UrbanSitter had to share from her journey so far.

Q1.Tell us a little about UrbanSitter and your personal motivation for starting this business.

When my twin sons were two and a half years old, I quit my full-time job and decided to take a few months off before jumping into something new.  It was the first time I had the opportunity to connect with other moms in my area.  As I met up with mom friends, new and old, I found that there were some common concerns that they all shared.  One of their biggest concerns was finding trusted childcare.  Some were nervous to go back to work for fear of finding a good nanny. Others talked about their personal lives and marriages suffering because they couldn’t find trustworthy help that would allow them to go on a date night, to the dentist or a solo workout at the gym.

I realized that first and foremost, parents want a recommendation from a friend or connection—like a mom from their mother’s group or their child’s class at school.  Second—but equally critical, the solution needed to be easy to use without the hassle of back-and-forth around scheduling or payments. Armed with these two insights and a palpable need, I crafted my vision of the ideal technology-driven childcare finding service, which became UrbanSitter.

Finally, and probably most importantly, I started this business because I’m passionate about connecting people.  It’s core to who I am.  Whether it’s connecting people with jobs, dates, restaurant recommendations or babysitters, I genuinely love connecting people. In this chapter of my life, connecting people with childcare providers felt like the perfect fit.  

Q2.Can you give us a rundown of how UrbanSitter works?

UrbanSitter harnesses the power of social recommendations in a space where a friend’s recommendation is critical.  And, because time is a prized possession to most parents, UrbanSitter enables parents to efficiently book a sitter online or via mobile in minutes.

Here’s how it works: UrbanSitter leverages members’ social graphs (Facebook and LinkedIn) to surface babysitters to whom they have a real-world connection through people they trust, and then offers profile info with valuable marketplace data about each sitter’s performance (reviews from parents who’ve booked her/him, number of repeat families, how quickly they respond to booking requests, special skills, etc…). UrbanSitter also facilitates the booking in real-time (ala OpenTable) and the payment. 

Q3.Who are your key stakeholders and how are you offering them value?

We have two types of key stakeholders: parents and sitters.  We are offering parents the valuable service of finding and booking trusted childcare providers, who have availability that matches the family’s need.  For sitters, we offer access to great families, so they can maximize their available babysitting time, and we remove the awkwardness of payment at the end of the babysitting job.

Q4.What is UrbanSitter’s biggest achievement to date? How did you go about accomplishing this?

One of the things I’m most proud of is how quickly our sitters respond to job requests.  In major cities, most sitters respond in 15 minutes or less.  It hasn’t always been this quick.  Initially, sitters were taking hours to respond, then we launched an iOS app and response times improved dramatically.  Now we have both Android and iOS apps so that all sitters can respond quickly.

Q5.What has been your biggest set back? How did you deal with it?

Our biggest set back has been in getting parents comfortable with the idea of finding a childcare provider online.  Once a parent experiences our website and immediately sees sitter recommendations from friends and parents they trust, they overcome the discomfort. They realize how amazingly efficient it is to have multiple friends’ recommendations at their fingertips instead of having to reach out to each person individually.  They are also more likely to connect with a sitter for a job or interview because a friend has hired her/him.  We strive to build social connections early in the user experience, so that parents see sitters they are connected to the very first time they try the product.

Q6.Could you shed some light on the technology and tools used to build UrbanSitter?

Early versions of UrbanSitter were built in the spirit of MVP (minimum viable product). As such, we started by utilizing open-sourced tools such as Facebook Connect and Drupal CMS on top of a basic LAMP stack. As we’ve grown, our technology is becoming more sophisticated—we’re scaling with Google Cloud and using tools like Neo4j to help with graph search. One of the best investments we made early on was in our BI tool, Looker.  Every member of our organization has the information they need to make data-driven decisions.

Q7.What was technically the most challenging part of developing UrbanSitter?

Architecture and the use of our social graph were our biggest technical challenges.  The social component of our service is incredibly powerful, and it presents a unique set of challenges that we’ve had to adapt to while growing rapidly. We initially started with a traditional relational database and then moved into a custom in-memory solution. We have since grown into larger scale NoSQL open-source systems.

Q8.What are some of the hurdles and roadblocks you still face?

As a company, we continue to generate many exciting ideas for UrbanSitter.  However, when you have limited resources, an ongoing hurdle is not being able to do it all.  While this forces us to focus on our top priorities, it also means that some of our great ideas need to be deferred to a later product cycle before they make it into production.

Q9.What are some the current trends you see in the industry?

Personalization has been a recent theme in e-commerce, and I think we are starting to see it more in peer-to-peer marketplaces as well.  At UrbanSitter, this means showing parents the sitters who are most relevant for their family based on personal connections, location, date and time of the job, and the sitter’s recent performance.  I see other peer-to-peer services also utilizing personalization to suggest the best supply-side candidates for a particular job or service.

Q10. There are definitely a lot of companies similar to UrbanSitter floating around right now. What are you doing that differentiates you?

UrbanSitter offers its members several key differentiators, including: trust, efficiency, real-time booking, and online payment.

Unlike other childcare sites, UrbanSitter harnesses the power of social recommendations in a space where a friend’s recommendation is critical. To do so, UrbanSitter leverages Facebook Connect and LinkedIn, so parents can view sitters that their friends already know, trust and recommend. Similar to how people use OpenTable for dinner reservations, parents can search for sitter availability by date and time and then book jobs (or interviews) in real-time. What’s more, after the job is completed, parents can pay online and add reviews, ratings and Facebook “Likes” to sitter profiles.

UrbanSitter is also available as a mobile app for iOS and Android, which enables parents and sitters to connect and book jobs anywhere, anytime via their mobile devices. The app enables busy parent members to search for sitters by date and time, review profiles of available sitters and book babysitters on the go. Once a job is booked, parents and sitters can communicate efficiently with the messaging tool. What’s more is in major cities, the average response time for mobile booking requests is under 15 minutes.

Q11.Where do you see UrbanSitter in five years?

In five years I hope we are continuing to innovate around the way parents find, book, retain, and pay for services that are important to families. I imagine our service offering will have expanded, and I believe it will have a strong presence in the US and abroad.

Q12.If you had a chance to go back, what would you want to do differently?

If I were starting over today I would develop our mobile apps first, even before a website.

Q13. Any advice for startups trying to make it big or join the On-Demand space?

I have gained countless insights along the way. Here are a few of the most valuable lessons:

  • Get to know your customers. Some of our best product modifications and ideas have come from discussions with the parents and babysitters who use our site.  By getting out from behind your computer and talking to your existing or potential customers you discover what’s working, what needs improvement and fresh ideas.
  • Take some calculated risk to offer something new and different. Albert Einstein said that, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” We didn’t set out to develop just another childcare site. Rather, we wanted to focus on connecting parents to sitters through people they know. Our differentiator, above all else, is trust and we made a conscious decision to deliver that through Facebook Connect.
  • Surround yourself with great people. Building and running a startup has its ups and downs.  Working with talented people, who you like professionally and personally, will make the good times even better and the rough times easier to navigate.
  • Contingency. Things usually take longer and require more capital than you anticipate.  Make sure to plan your timeline and budget accordingly.  This is especially important during the early stages when you are still working on the product or business concept.

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