This mother of three figured out a way to make better connections between parents and sitters—then translated her idea into a 60-city multimillion-dollar company.
Lynn Perkins is CEO and founder of UrbanSitter.com, San Francisco, CA. Her initial investment: 9 months no-pay work, then $1.75 million in funding. She’s the mom of Ben and Will, 5, and Jack, 1.
I was working in hotel development and acquisitions, but after the company I worked for was acquired and changed direction, I decided to leave. Meanwhile, I had a knack for setting people up—with jobs, with spouses—and found I was constantly referring friends to nannies: I had friends with infants with the daunting task of finding a nanny, and friends with school-aged kids who couldn’t justify keeping theirs. I started brokering nannies between them, and I got stuck on this idea that we’re grasping for connections with people we trust. I decided to give this idea a go for a year, and UrbanSitter was born in November 2010.
Andrea Barrett, who became my co-founder, recognized that if networking was the basic difference between us and other sitter services, we needed a way for people to come in through Facebook (and now LinkedIn). At first, this concept turned some people off. So I spent a few weeks talking to sitters and parents to validate the idea. A friend’s husband, Hadar Wissotzky, built the site for us so we could see what the homepage would look like, how people would enter and what they would do when they got there. Once that happened, I realized this was a full-time job.
The three of us worked for nine months with no salary, then launched in San Francisco. Sitters were eager to work with us, a lot of them students getting their master’s in education or nursing. They needed an easy way to connect with families and work when they weren’t in class. They told us, “I wish I could just tell parents when I’m available!” And that’s how it works: Sitters sign up with us and submit two-minute introduction videos that parents watch online, and the days and hours they’re free. We do an extensive background check. Parents pay a monthly fee or a one-time sitter introduction fee. You can see sitters your friends have used and read recommendations. That’s where the social networking piece of it really matters—you trust recommendations from moms you know.
After San Francisco, we quickly launched in Los Angeles, New York and San Diego. That’s when we took in our first round of funding, so we could invest in our team and our product, test a mobile app and—hello!—pay ourselves salaries. From there, it all grew organically, with users hearing about us through word of mouth. We now have more than 100,000 customers in 60 cities; 30,000 are sitters. We recently hired staffer No. 23.
And yes, I use my own service. My 5-year-old twins like to watch the sitters’ videos, which gets them involved in the process—they’re always excited when someone they’ve chosen comes to take care of them. My husband, Stephen, uses UrbanSitter, too. Men like to see who their partners have booked in the past, and using the site creates a formality between them and the sitters that they feel comfortable with. I was the primary babysitter booker before, but now it has equalized.
A lot of female entrepreneurs ask if I was intimidated to raise money mostly from male investors. The question always surprises me. Solving a real-world problem and having the numbers to back it up (child care in the United States is a $40 billion business!)—investors really understand that. I had to tell mine, after a second round of funding, that I was pregnant with my now 1-year-old. They were all excited. They were good with me taking a couple of months off because they know we’re in it for the long haul.
1. Give it time—and money. Assume that starting your new business will take twice as long to get going as you anticipate, and cost more.
2. Seek feedback. Run your idea by potential customers before you build or invest. Talk about businesses or products in the same space. You can learn a lot about what may and may not work.
3. Connect with the like-minded. Find another entrepreneur with a business at the same stage as yours to share ideas, questions, wins, struggles. Entrepreneurism can be isolating, so communicating with others who share a similar experience can help keep you going.
4. Celebrate victories. There is always more to build, sell and grow. While it’s important to keep your eye on your goals, you also have to acknowledge your accomplishments.
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