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“The ability to see who parents are connected to fosters trust and familiarity and helps sitters decide which jobs to accept.”

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Lynn Perkins is the Co-founder of UrbanSitter. Prior to founding UrbanSitter, she worked for Joie de Vivre Hospitality, developing and renovating boutique hotels throughout California. Lynn honed her previous start up experience at Xuny.com and Bridgepath.

An online service for parents and sitters to connect through people they know, UrbanSitter makes booking a trusted babysitter as easy as booking dinner reservations. The site enables parents to search, book and review sitters within minutes.

MO: How long did it take from your ‘aha’ moment to getting the site up and running?

Lynn: It took about six months from high level business idea to the first babysitter booking on the site. We spent a few weeks developing workflows and wireframes for the site, dealing with basic business formation logistics, and soliciting as much parent and sitter input as possible. While the site was being developed we recruited our first group of parents and sitters so that we had a small group of users ready to go when we launched.

MO: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when setting up UrbanSitter? How long did it take to put together a network of trusted babysitters to get the site started?

Lynn: The biggest decision we had to make was whether or not to required users to login with Facebook Connect. While we knew we’d get some pushback by requiring users to sign in with Facebook Connect, the value of the instant connections it provides was an important part of enabling us to bring trust and efficiency to the process of finding and booking a sitter. We’ve made it very clear to our users that we will never share the user’s information or post to their wall without their permission. As a result, we’ve received very little resistance to signing up through Facebook Connect and positive feedback about the friend connections that it brings to the site.

It took six weeks to put together a strong network of sitters in San Francisco, our test market. Sitters were eager to join the site and share their ideas and input when we approached them. The sitters appreciate that we don’t take a commission from their earnings. What’s more, UrbanSitter helps sitters promote themselves and connect with families in their areas. Many of the sitters are college students or recent graduates so they are looking for babysitting opportunities in cities where they may not have established connections.

The sitter network has grown quickly, which is a win-win for both the sitter and parent members alike.Sitters who have other sitter friends on our site are more likely to get bookings because parents can see how the sitters are connected. If my favorite sitter is busy, I can see which of her friends are available and will book one. So sitters are helping each other get jobs through our site. For example, one of our sitters has over 30 friends who are also registered sitters on our site.

MO: How does UrbanSitter work?

Lynn: When a parent signs up for UrbanSitter they login using Facebook Connect. On the sign up page parents are encouraged to enter the name of their child’s school and to check local affiliations such as the parent group they belong to, their child’s music class or sports league. After signing up, the parent is ready to book. Parents can search by date and time, the same way you would for a restaurant reservation. All of the sitters who have availability at the requested time will show up in the search results, which are sorted based on the level of connection to the parent. First the parent sees any sitters they have already used or reviewed. Next the parent sees any sitters who are connected to them through a friend or an affiliation. Babysitters that the parent’s friends have used show up in this category. The parent will also see sitters that members of their moms’ group or preschool have used. The parent can then send a sitter a booking request. Badges on the site show how quickly the sitter responds, so if a parent needs a response ASAP they can select a sitter who responds in less than 1 hour. Both the parent and sitter receive reminders the day before the job occurs and parents can contribute written reviews, ratings and Facebook “Likes” to sitter profiles afterward.

UrbanSitter babysitters post their credentials, as well as availability, hourly rates and location preferences. The ability to see who parents are connected to fosters trust and familiarity and helps sitters decide which jobs to accept. To protect privacy, contact information is exchanged only after the booking is confirmed. Unlike other childcare agencies, which require a percentage of wages, sitters keep all the money they earn. Most importantly, positive reviews from parents and job referrals from friends on the site, help sitters get more jobs from parents they trust.

MO: You’ve managed to secure an impressive $1.75 million in seed funding. What advice would you give first time entrepreneurs who are trying to raise funding? At what point does it make sense to start talking to investors?

Lynn: We started talking to investors after our site had been in beta for a few weeks. We waited until we could demonstrate that the basic site functionality was working, friends were telling each other about the site, and that we were creating a more efficient way to book a sitter. The timing worked well for us. We were able to talk about our vision for the company, while also discussing our initial success and early lessons learned.

Ideal fundraising timing really varies by companies based on their product and cash needs. Regardless of the timing though, before you raise money, I think it makes sense to know your customer, clearly understand what you are trying to solve or conquer, be able to explain what you hope to accomplish in the short term and long term, and demonstrate why you and your team are the right people to build the business. I think it is important to have a good, tight presentation that you are comfortable presenting to groups of investors, but it is equally important to get the main points of your business across in a casual one on one talk over coffee.

MO: What is the site’s current membership count? What promotional or marketing strategies are being used to spread the word?

Lynn: UrbanSitter now has thousands of members. We’ve just launched in new cities such as New York, Chicago, Seattle and Denver. We are excited about the membership growth we are already seeing in these new markets. Parents tend to find out about UrbanSitter through online recommendations for friends, word of mouth, referrals on online mom community sites, and online advertising. Sitters tell their friends about UrbanSitter, so it is quite viral. We also do reach out to sitters through college recruiting events and university organizations.

MO: What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for UrbanSitter?

Lynn: I’m really most excited to see how engagement on the site continues to expand. As the number of bookings and users on the site grows we are seeing the connections across, and between, sitters and parents expanding quickly. These connections are translating into interviews, bookings, and repeat use. As we roll out new markets, add payment functionality and release a mobile component, I’m also looking forward to seeing our existing users become more engaged and new users joining our parent/sitter community.

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