Lynn Perkins is like many of us. She’s a working mom with three boys. On her way to Austin to speak at South by Southwest this week, she realized that her husband unexpectedly wouldn’t be back home with her 8-year-old twins before she had to leave for the airport to catch her flight from San Francisco. That left their 3-year-old potentially unattended.
She could have started to look through her phone’s contact list and frantically begin texting or calling sitters she used in the past, hoping that one would bite on this last minute job. Instead, she went to the UrbanSitter app, posted a job and within minutes she found a sitter in her neighborhood that had nine reviews from parents, three repeat jobs and had been used by a Facebook friend of her. She booked that sitter and the sitter was at her house in 45 minutes.
It’s one of the ways the CEO of UrbanSitter knows that the app works for real parents. She’s a real parent and she uses it and none of the sitters know she’s who she is unless they Googled her.
We sat down with Perkins when she was in town to do a SXSW panel on paying contract employees and to be part of a panel of female entrepreneurship. UrbanSitter is now in 20 cities. It came to Austin last summer and along with Portland, Ore., Austin is the fastest growing city for the company. It’s also one of the more pricey cities when it comes to sitter rates, with one child on average costing $13.50 an hour. It’s not as pricey as San Francisco, where Perkins pays an average of $17 for one kid, $23.50 for all three.
UrbanSitter has about 2,000 users in Austin and about that many sitters signed up here. Most are recent college graduates. All are 18 and older and have been vetted with initial background checks. Sitters also can opt to have additional background checks done that is a court-house level check. Their sitter profile would indicate if they’ve had that done. UrbanSitters also looks at social media threads to check for offensive commentary about kids and inappropriate behavior. Sitters also have to make a get-to-know-you video, which helps weed out people who aren’t serious, Perkins says.
All the parent users also have been vetted to make sure they are real people, and the address is vetted to make sure there are no registered sex offenders living there.
On the site, parents can see more information about the sitter in their profile, such as what type of skills they bring to the table, as well as the star rating past users gave them, reviews and how many repeat jobs they have had. UrbanSitter also has a one-strike policy. If a sitter doesn’t show up for a job, she gets one time for that to happen. The next time it happens, she is taken off the site.
Sitters who have been camp counselors, have art or music skills or are athletes, have special education training, have tutoring backgrounds or speak a different language are in high demand. So are male sitters, which make up only about 4 percent of UrbanSitter’s sitters.
Parents also can see who that they know or affiliate with that have used the sitter. UrbanSitter notes if previous users of that sitter have kids in the same schools, or are part of the same moms groups or youth sports affiliates, or whom you might know from social media.
When parents post a job, they fill out a form that indicates what the job will entail. Will the kids be asleep? Does the sitter need to make dinner or will it be provided? Does the sitter need to drive anyone some place?
It uses an algorithm to put the best matches at the top, including sitters you’ve used before, which sitters have the best reviews, and which sitters are neaby. It only pulls sitters who have indicated they are available at the time the parent has indicated. If a sitter continually doesn’t book jobs when she’s says she’s available, the algorithm will move her down on the list.
Parents also can sort by price and by geography. Divorced parents also can share information, so they are aware of who the other parents use.
Once the sitter is booked, parents pay and tip using the app. It avoids that moment at the end of the night when parents dig through their wallets looking for cash. Parents love it because they can use a credit card and don’t have to negotiate. Sitters love it, Perkins says, because parents actually tend to tip more and the money goes into the bank account of their choice, which makes sitters less likely to spend immediately instead of if they were paid in cash.
Sitters also can adjust their rates as their reviews go up, but lock in their rates for existing families if they want. Parents also can can adjust the rate they are willing to pay based on what the sitter will be expected to do on that job.
“It takes away the awkwardness,” Perkins says.
Once the job is through, parents can write a review. Sitters don’t review the parents, but they are asked questions like “Did you feel safe?” and “Would you go again?” Sitters can add a note for future reference or they can flag the parents if there is something that they think a future sitter should know about that family.
If parents weren’t happy with the job, they can block the sitter from appearing in their feed. If they loved the sitter, they can add her to their favorites.
UrbanSitter is mostly for the one-time job, though people do book repeat jobs and it is starting a nanny platform as well. Some people have used sitters for things like family vacations, as well. Most sitters, though, only work about 10 hours a month.
Find more about UrbanSitter at urbansitter.com.