Nanny 911

When Lynn Perkins couldn’t find a reliable babysitter, she realized she had a business plan. How her web startup, UrbanSitter, connects parents to sitters with the click of a mouse.

Andrea Barret, cofounder & head of product (left), and Lynn Perkins cofounder & CEO, have made UrbanSitter the go-to babysitter service for some of the country's biggest cities.

In 2010, Lynn Perkins found herself very much in need of a reliable babysitter. At the time, she had two-year-old twin boys, which made going out with any regularity nearly impossible. She found that most of her friends could relate to the frustration of not being able to find trustworthy, available babysitters in their area. Then, while making reservations online for a restaurant, something clicked: what if finding a babysitter could be as easy as going online to book a reservation? The idea sparked Perkins’s very own business, UrbanSitter, an online service that enables parents to find sitters recommended by friends and then book them online in minutes.

UrbanSitter is to babysitting what OpenTable is to restaurant reservations—with a Facebook tie-in. UrbanSitter replicates the off-line experience of gathering sitter recommendations from friends and fellow parents. Specifically, when parents sign up at using Facebook Connect, they can view babysitters known through friends or mutual affiliations, such as schools or parents groups. Each sitter’s profile features their availability, ratings, and rates, which means parents can book a sitter that very moment or make future plans based on the sitter’s availability. For parents not comfortable with hiring a sitter based on a friend’s rating, interviews can also be booked through the UrbanSitter site.

“Once I thought of the concept, I got swept up with the idea of it,” Perkins says. “I talked to our cofounder, who is more technical, because I wanted to make sure that it was actually possible to build this sort of platform. I also spoke to friends to hear what they thought about it—if they thought it was an idea other parents would utilize—and it was.”

To test out her concept, Perkins started with a tight group of sitters and parents, 40 of each, in San Francisco in 2011. That number has now skyrocketed to over 4,000 in the Bay Area alone, and her service has branched out to a dozen cities across the country. Currently, Perkins has two major focuses: to expand the number of parents utilizing UrbanSitter in each city and to provide the site’s many sitters with repeat jobs.

When UrbanSitter expands to a new city, Perkins recruits on nearby university campuses. Many of the recruits are young and new to the city, and babysitting jobs enable them to immerse themselves in their new community while also making some much-needed money in the process. In order to ensure that parents in each new city utilize the service, Perkins reaches out to well-established parenting groups—and before long, business is booming.

When Perkins initially conceived of UrbanSitter, it was intended to be a service parents could use on the fly, like if their regular sitter cancelled at the last minute. Recently, however, Perkins realized that many of the parents utilizing the site are in search of part-time or full-time sitters. Perkins is now doing her best to facilitate those long-term needs.

The addition of a secure online-payment feature has made paying a sitter significantly easier, as parents don’t have to worry about having enough cash or remembering the rate they agreed upon. Sitters also like the convenience of receiving payment directly to their bank accounts.

Lynn Perkins’s two twin boys provided the inspiration for UrbanSitter. The young mother wanted a way to provide them high-quality babysitters without the hassle Perkins and her friends always experienced.

“It’s so much more convenient to pay online, and it’s definitely less awkward,” Perkins says. “Parents no longer have to come back from an evening out and dig through their wallets for cash while asking the sitter to remind them of their rate. It’s also a great thing for sitters, who are using this money to supplement their living expenses. Sitters have told us that if they walk away from a job with cash, they’re more apt to spend it on frivolous things. But if it’s wired directly into their checking accounts, they spend their money more wisely.”

Moving forward, UrbanSitter is going mobile. Perkins’s team is currently developing a mobile app that will enable busy parents to find sitters while out and about. It appears as if the app will prove to be even more beneficial to sitters—though young twenty-somethings aren’t tied to their laptops all day, they often have smartphones. By the end of 2012, sitters will be able to accept babysitting gigs while shuffling between classes or grabbing a bite during a study break.

Perkins is also considering expanding on her idea of using trusted personal networks to book services. “When you become a parent, you find yourself needing a lot of services at the drop of a hat—from tutoring to house cleaning,” Perkins says. “I’m hoping that, in the future, I’ll be able to leverage the idea of UrbanSitter into something bigger, using the same idea and platform to address the various needs of parents everywhere.”