Book an Uber, an Airbnb and a stranger to look after your child? Maria Slade looks into the potentially risky business of online parenting services.
Coverage of Balmoral mum Jane Haagh’s new childcare venture, Sitterzen, sent Facebook into a frenzy this week. Dubbed the ‘Uber of babysitting’, the aspect of her web-based service which most provoked the keyboard warriors was that she does not police vet her sitters. Instead Haagh’s model is designed to be an e-version of the old-fashioned word of mouth, with each sitter coming recommended by a local parent. “I thought, I wonder if we can replicate what does happen naturally in the community – you say to a friend, ‘hey, do you know someone I can use’,” Haagh says.
An innocent enough idea. “No way, nah ah. I never let no stranger babysit my children, trusted by others or not,” harrumphed one Facebook mum. “The makings of another Madeleine McCann case? Seriously. How do you think we all survived before Uber parenting?” said another. “Ewww that is a recipe for disaster. All smiles until a sexual predator joins that group and babysits his next victim.”
And so the comments went on.
The fact of the matter is the ‘Uberisation’ of babysitting is well and truly here. Services such as UrbanSitter in the US and Sitters in the UK have been around for several years, and it could be argued that New Zealand parents have been slow to adopt the concept. Various new local services are now springing up, and while all have slightly different setups the trend is undeniably towards the cash-free, last-minute, 24-hour model.
People have become used to hailing a ride or booking a room in this manner, so why not a babysitter, says Chris Robb, chief information officer at AMP who has been mentoring Georgia Meek of the startup The Babysitters Club. The era of Uber and Airbnb has indelibly altered customer expectations – transacting quickly and seamlessly online or on mobile is now a given, along with some sort of retained information or loyalty offering the next time the person interacts with the business.
“When you talk about expectations that are being driven from customers, that’s definitely driving the kind of Uberisation of solutions,” Robb says.
However, booking a room is not the same thing as hiring someone to care for your most precious asset, your children. With such a large element of trust at the heart of the transaction, is it possible to scale a babysitting business to the size of an Airbnb? We take a look at three different Kiwi services at various stages of development.
The Babysitters Club
While most 23-year-olds are ordering Ubers and heading out for a night on the tiles, Georgia Meek is working all hours to establish a business she believes she can take to the world. Tauranga-based Meek set up The Babysitters Club two years ago while in the last year of her teaching degree, and the service now has 270 sitters on its books across the Bay of Plenty, Auckland and Wellington. It’s in the middle of a new technology build, and once that’s completed early next year she aims to take the service nationwide, and then ultimately offshore. “It’s definitely something that I see as being a global business,” Meek says.
Meek interviews each sitter and they are all police-checked. She believes she will be able to maintain this personal touch as the business grows by creating a “customer happiness team” of babysitters who understand the business’ philosophy and values. At the moment parents place a request for childcare online, but the matching of the sitter to the job is done manually. The new website and app will change all that, and will also allow more automation of the process of onboarding new sitters, Meek says. Fees start at $22 per hour plus a $10 booking fee.
Providing quality childcare is her passion, and the technology simply allows the business to grow, she says. “These are children, right, so it needs to be a little bit more than just a tech platform in order for it to be something that’s going to be successful.” Having said that, with no IT background she had to put her back into researching the required technology. Not afraid to reach out when she needs to, she found AMP’s Chris Robb on LinkedIn and sent him a message. He agreed to help.
“Once I met her it was pretty impressive, I guess, her passion and energy and how far she’d got without a lot of help,” he says.
In truth the technology is not the challenge these days. “You don’t have to have an IT degree to effectively build a business using a modern platform. If you look at Uber or Airbnb, they actually have very small IT teams,” he says. The trend towards freelancing and the gig economy also plays well for babysitting services, with no need to employ sitters full-time. The harder part is coming up with a business model that’s going to be compelling and sustainable, and so far Meek has a good grasp of what The Babysitters Club experience means for both sitters and parents. “She seems to have a really good understanding of how that whole value chain fits together from start to finish,” Robb says.
Sitterzen founder Jane Haagh says she will consider having her babysitters police-checked if her clients want it, but so far that demand hasn’t been there. “We didn’t launch by doing that because quite a number of the sitters had already had that done,” she says. Also some are teenagers, and their parents weren’t entirely comfortable with the idea of having their children vetted by police, she says.
In theory, one of the requirements for parents joining Sitterzen is that they nominate a local sitter they trust, and it is these endorsements that are the core of her model. “It’s similar to when you ask a friend in the community – do you then police check their recommendation?” she asks. However, Haagh is finding many parents want to join Sitterzen precisely because they do not have such a person on tap. She is therefore relaxing the rule, particularly as sitters are now starting to approach her independently, although they still need to find a family to advocate for them. Before booking a sitter parents can contact the person who’s recommended them, and meet them in advance if they want.
Another difference between Haagh’s service and others is that carers set their own rate, giving parents the choice of how much they want to pay. Some of the younger sitters on the site are offering rates as low as $10.50 per hour. The sitters get the total fee, while the business charges parents a percentage of the fee on top of that. It’s early days and Haagh is still feeling her way. So far she has concentrated on her local community of Balmoral in central Auckland, but is beginning to expand out into nearby suburbs. “Long term I would love to be nationwide, absolutely,” she says.
“I’m keen to keep going with the trial as we are, slowly growing, listening to feedback, and thinking about the technology required to help scale it and how we can bake trust into the heart of it.”
Ursula Maidens is a relative veteran of the online childcare business, having set up Rockmybaby 10 years ago. One of the reasons it began was to cater for the increasing demand for a 24-hour service. “Gone were the days you just rely on an agency being open nine to five, and bad luck if it’s after hours,” Maidens says.
Rockmybaby provides a wide range of care, from in-home preschool education to nannies, after school care and in-hotel care as well as babysitting. It is now New Zealand and Australia-wide, and also has offices in Tel Aviv, London and Zurich. Its offshore businesses are franchises. “I’ve had many people try to replicate what we do, and they haven’t been able to quite succeed.”
There might be an unmet demand for online babysitters in New Zealand, but it depends where the line is drawn, Maidens says. “It’s very different buying clothes online to having someone turning up to look after your children. This Uber-style of booking a babysitter when they’re not trained is scary.”
Rockmybaby’s sitters are interviewed and police-checked, and often come from an education or healthcare background. It does not take anyone under the age of 18. Parents can place feedback on the site after booking a sitter. In Australia anyone working with children is screened at a federal and state level and must carry a Working with Children card. If New Zealand had a system like that perhaps the less formal services would work, Maidens says.
“For these new platforms popping up, how long are they going to last? It only takes a few bad things to happen and it wrecks your brand.”
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