Why UrbanSitter Raised $15M to Simplify Booking Babysitters

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UrbanSitterMobile booking apps have created a demand for instant gratification — in a matter of seconds, you can schedule a taxi pick-up, make restaurant reservations, or buy plane tickets. Automation eliminates the tediousness of commerce, but does that translate to something that requires much more personal interaction?

Such is the challenge for UrbanSitter, a babysitter booking app that connects parents with prospective caretakers through social media, and so far, so good — it’s used by over 100,000 parents and sitters across the country. With Facebook Connect, UrbanSitter shows parents which sitters are hired and recommended by others in their community, and allows real-time updates and interaction when the sitters are on the job.

Street Fight recently caught up with UrbanSitter founder and CEO Lynn Perkins to talk about the challenges in building trust, and how her company thrives in the “flexible work economy” facilitated by mobile apps.

Would you categorize UrbanSitter as a tech company or a personal care company?
We’re a tech company, because it’s all about the way our platform works in terms of making the bookings. It comes down to the data that we show you about the sitters.

It’s been said that adult women are the most underserved target market in tech. Do you think that’s accurate, and was it something you were conscious of in the development of UrbanSitter?
Yeah. I know that, as a busy working mom, it’s about convenience — I’m always looking for apps or services or anything that makes my life easier and faster. There was a huge opportunity in taking how moms find childcare and making it easier to do so.

I remember when I was a babysitter, it was always hard when a parent would email me at the last minute and I’d have to say I wasn’t free. With the app, the sitters can post their availability. That’s important to me now as a parent. I just want to see who’s available.

Is that a powerful market to be in?
Definitely, especially since we’re covering a space where there’s usually turnover. If you have a 6-month-old and you’re about to leave him for the first time, you might want somebody to watch that child until he’s older. If we can get parents to trust care providers early on, they can become repeat customers.

When you associate online and real-world connections, trust is a huge element. What’s your take on concerns about the ability to trust online connections in the real world?
So we use Facebook Connect, and if I’m a sitter, the parent doesn’t actually see my Facebook page. We just pull your connections, and that’s it. Not your age, not where you live, not your education or relationship status. Let’s say I’ve booked Kelly and she turns out to be busy, so I’ll be able to see which of her friends are free. Parents prefer to take their sitter’s friends as second bookings; I know that would make me feel better about working with a stranger

Parents can fill out info on groups they belong to, schools they go to, and they can see that another parent from their school has used this sitter. Being in the same community of parents makes you feel better about it. And because we’re transaction-based and book sitters to directly to our site, we can show a lot of data about sitter behavior, like who’s booking repeat families. If a sitter has 30 reviews, and 15 of those reviewers came back, you’re going to trust that.

What’s the value in specifically using Facebook as a part of your business model?
It immediately adds a level of credibility. It’s one facet of how we build trust, the fastest way of doing so and potentially the strongest. You can look, recognize, see a picture, have a connection.

How do you see UrbanSitter growing? What do you see as the greatest value you provide?
We started web-first, mobile-second, and now our number one focus is all mobile. Most sitters are on their phones all the time. During the day, they’re maybe at class or a job, and they’re using their phones. We’ve found that response from sitters is much faster on the mobile platform. And when they’re on the job, mobile is a useful tool for them: they can give updated reports to parents, check things off the list, receive instructions.

We’ve really become a great tool to allow people to increase their finances. It’s two-fold: on the sitter side, say I move to L.A. from Kansas. I don’t know anyone. All of sudden, here’s a flexible way to make money that didn’t exist before. And we have all these moms that want flexible job schedules, either they’re working part-time or as consultants. We meet that need, we’re building this flexible work economy. It’s equally beneficial on both sides, and that was eye-opening for me — allowing people to maximize their free time.

Annie Melton is a reporter at Street Fight.