UrbanSitter Leverages Online Connections to Ensure Trust in Childcare

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Who can you trust to babysit your 5-year-old? For parents, finding someone reliable and trustworthy can be quite daunting — and the quest for a babysitter can prompt outreach to friends, neighbors and co-workers in search of a credible referral.

Urbansitter CEO Lynn Perkins has been grappling with these issues of trust and referral for the past five years as her company has grown from a small referral network to a national commerce vertical (taking in over $23 million in VC funding in the process). Her vision for the company leverages hyperlocal social networks and sharing as a fundamental element of her operational plan to connect babysitter search results with parents in need.

Street Fight recently caught up with Perkins to talk about the dynamics of connecting parents with sitters, and what her model could teach others connecting local service providers with consumers.

UrbanSitter has a strong focus on hyperlocal. Why is that?
The main reason we really focus on hyperlocal is that we know it increases a user’s trust of any sort of product or service — and obviously in the childcare space that’s even more important.

When we launched UrbanSitter we were social from the ground up. Initially you had to come into UrbanSitter through Facebook. Now you can also come in through LinkedIn and we really encourage parents once they are there to add these affiliations. Whether it’s your child’s school, local mom’s group, kid’s soccer league, even the JCC you belong to or your church — what we found in our user data was people who had an affiliation on our site were 2.5 times more likely to book. When you see people you know have used and reviewed the sitter, or people that are part of your neighborhood or your child’s school group, it really helps facilitate that trust. We always present these connections to you in the search results. As a marketing tool we can also use these connections as a front door to getting parents into our service.

One issue that seems pretty obviously important in this is safety — how well do you vet the service providers?
We have a pretty lengthy vetting process.

The sitters have to use Facebook to join. The first thing we look for is how many connections they have. If you have fewer than five friends we can assume it’s a fraudulent account. That’s our first red flag. The second thing we do is we use this new technology we are in a beta with to do an identity check looking at whether or not it thinks you’re a real person and looks at everything you may have posted.

In our case we also set parameters and give it keywords to search for like posting the word “bratty.” We also look for various social cues. If it comes back with a positive score you go to our next step, an identity check. The final piece is a standard background check component.

How does the algorithm work when it comes to reviews and connections?
Once you’re on the platform, depending on the sitters you’re connected with on the site, you’ll come up higher in the algorithm. If you get parent reviews or are connected to five sitters who have done really well on UrbanSitter, because of your social connections, you’ll come up higher in people’s search rankings than somebody we have no other information on.

So if you come to our site — even if you pass all that other stuff, but you don’t have friends who have done well on the platform, you won’t come up higher. We also look at different indicators based on what we know about you, things like a Red Cross certification or a baby CPR class. Once you get started, the more connected you are, the higher you will show up in our list. Once you start babysitting, because we are transaction based, if you respond quickly and the parent gives you a five-star review, you’re going to come up higher on our list. Then your performance starts to kick in for where you show up in our search results. So it’s a combination of your typical background check, your social connections and then your performance on the site as a sitter that determines where you end up in a parent’s search results.

How much liability do they take on in case something happens?
UrbanSitter shows parents as much information as possible about each sitter, including ratings, skills, experience, and number of repeat families. In particular, parent reviews — both positive and negative — allow users to find sitters most appropriate for them. We also urge parents to check references, interview sitters and follow their instincts. As a marketplace though, the relationship is ultimately between the parent and the sitter.

How does the sitter market differ from other local verticals, and what lessons can be drawn from it.?
The one thing that’s interesting on the sitter side — other markets struggle on the supply side — is it’s really, really viral. My lesson to other marketplaces and even other businesses is when you use social in your platform (whether it’s the schools that are the connection for the parents or the sororities that are the connections for the sitters), people feel good about sharing it. I’m less likely to share UrbanSitter with my random group of friends. I’m more willing to share with other parents that are at my school. Having these social connections, allowing people to share the business out to the neighborhood whether it’s next door or your local forum, I think what we learned is users are less likely to do one-to-one sharing but this one-to-many has really worked for us.

This idea of creating a platform that lets you share one-to-many not only is good for us as a business, but it also works on both our supply and demand side. We’ve found it’s actually been more successful to share from one-to-many. There’s something about these ideas of these groups and social connections and things that are valuable to my identity that make me more excited to share this business with other people in that group.

On the sitter side it’s always super-valuable. Imagine you just moved to Boston, you’re 20 years old and you’re looking for work: the idea of going to a stranger’s house is really daunting as a sitter.  But if a family wants to book me on UrbanSitter, the fact I can see that family had eight repeat sitters meaning they felt comfortable going back to that house and one of those sitters is someone I go to school with, and another is someone I’m friends with. … That trust piece makes both parties feel good about it.

Let’s talk about your business model and how it’s different from other local commerce companies, especially when managing a service that’s so personal to the people utilizing it (having someone come into your home and assume the responsibility and safety of your child).
Our business model is subscription based which I don’t think works for every marketplace. In our case it works well because with sitters you tend to have ongoing needs, but not at specific times. Some parents may use it three times in one month, one time the following month and four times the next month. It fits the sitter need parents have.

On the trust piece, because we are transaction based the other thing that happens is that similar to if you were to compare Yelp or OpenTable. I might go to Yelp and look at what restaurants people recommend, but with OpenTable they actually know I ate at that restaurant because I booked through the platform, which is similar to UrbanSitter. As a result we are able to get more reviews from parents than we would be if we were more of a listing service like Care or SitterCity.

That feedback we get from parents is really important and we take reviews very seriously. Anytime a parent ever gives the sitter a three-star review or under we follow up on that. We have a process for evaluating if the three star or under review is a trust and safety issue or if it’s a “hey, she didn’t do the dishes” kind of thing.

Liz Taurasi is a Street Fight contributor.