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(Not) Like Uber but for Babysitting

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This story appeared on the Vox news website on December 20th, 2015 and was printed out and stuck to at least five refrigerators in Stoneybrook, Connecticut.

(Not) Like Uber but for Babysitting

How did five women from Connecticut build a world killing app?

by Clarissa Smith-Browne

I meet the founders of the monumentally successful app, BSC, at the home of Kristy Thomas’ family in Stoneybrook, Connecticut. This is no Silicon Valley coworking space. There’s no exposed brick, no polished concrete, no succulents and no astroturf. Instead there is a comfortable kitchen housing an impressively large fridge (Thomas is one of seven children), chintzy duck-printed curtains on the window above the sink, and a set of kitchen stools ravaged around the legs by a now fully-grown dog in its puppy infancy. The house has been outfitted for the season with green and gold tinsel adorning many surfaces and a worse-for-wear wreath on the front door. The five women sit around the rustic kitchen table adjacent to the L-shaped bench and kitchen island. There are specks of paint, magic markers and nail polish to be found on its scratched surface.

What the BSC app provides is a service that’s been around for years, work that the five women in their late-twenties did in their own teen years. The initials stand for Baby-Sitters Club, a group which formed well before the idea of an app was a twinkle in anyone’s eye.

“We always held it at my house because I had my own phone line,” Claudia Kishi explains. Kishi is the graphic designer of the team and is dressed today in an outfit more at home in Brooklyn (where she now lives) than the Gap-centric wardrobe of middle-class Connecticut. Her long black hair is pulled up into an elaborate and messy bun with a purple scrunchy. Her pants are a pair of violently acid wash jeans and on her feet are a pair of what appear to be farmers boots. On top she wears a shimmery metallic crop top.

“How many clients did you have, back then?” I ask, putting the question to the group.

“I don’t know, maybe a few hundred all up? Enough to keep us busy,” Dawn Schafer replies. A political strategist in another life, Schafer now manages the team's communications and recruitment. She moved back from California to audition babysitters when their project took off.

“And how many do you have now?” I ask.

“More than that,” Dawn says with a grin. Conservative estimates put the uptake of the BSC app by parents of children under 13 in the US as 1 in 10 and rising.

I ask the women to tell me from the beginning, how their club went from a once weekly meeting of teenagers to an app that is transforming what it means to parent in this country.

It’s less of a “Avengers: assemble” moment than I had hoped, I learn. For one, Thomas chose the prosaic method of Facebook messenger to share the idea. This meant that Mary Anne Spier checked it first thing that morning (it was a crazed 3am kind of Facebook message), but three days later Schafer and Kishi had both seen the message but had failed to respond. Thomas had then to repost her pitch and then guilt Schafer and Kishi into responding through a series of emoji-laden texts.

“The really horrible ones,” Thomas clarifies, “the smiling poop and the crying sad face.”

“So when did you first get together to talk about the idea of resurrecting the BSC as an app?” I ask.

“You know what, I can actually play you our video chat,” Thomas offers, and I am quick to take her up on it. Kishi laughs that Thomas is a weirdo for recording it, which Thomas shakes off with a smile. [Editor's note: recording these kinds of conversations is a great idea and protects everyone later if things get messy, we commend you Thomas!].

They open the audio recording on Thomas’ battered PC laptop, and the conversation begins with Stacey McGill’s excited voice. McGill has previously worked in social media for Macey’s in New York (where she shared an apartment with Kishi) and now manages the marketing for BSC. She’s behind those amazing Twitter ads we’ve all been seeing this last month.

“Like Uber but for babysitting!” McGill exclaims over their Google hangout.

“Good lord, no,” Thomas replies.

“Surely it’s more like Tinder but for babysitting?” Kishi asks, humour in her voice.

“I suspect parents aren’t keen to equate a service for finding reliable help looking after their precious offspring with an app synonymous with casual sex,” Kristy says dryly.

“Is it really synonymous with casual sex anymore?” Mary Anne Spier muses. Now, Spier blushes at her recorded question. She’s certainly the quietest of the group, hair cut in a short 1920s-style bob and conservatively dressed in a grey sweater and single silver chain.

“Nope, everyone in my office is on it,” Dawn says.

“Guys, let’s get back on track here, I set up a Trello board for this meeting and we’re not even through the first dot point.”

“Far be it from us to go against the Trello board!” Stacey says.

The recording goes on, but they don’t get very far with their plans. It gives an insight into the relationships between these women, who all came together as young teenagers and kept in touch across the years, not letting college or relationships or distance get in the way. It makes me nostalgic for the friends of my youth, most of whom I haven’t seen in years.

As we all know, success such as the BSC has achieved needs real blood, sweat, and tears, not just chemistry. Thomas is the one of the group with technical know-how. In her first year of college she’d become interested in coding, changing her major from physical education to computer engineering halfway. Everyone thought the move was madness at the time. In school Thomas had been very involved with sport, and she still coaches a local softball team.

Thomas had graduated into a job at Google and becomes cagey describing her experience there. It’s clear she was initially successful and then became somewhat disillusioned, leaving after five years when the atmosphere got to be “too much.” She’s happy to describe the string of failed start ups she worked for post-Google, however. They all failed either due to a lack of good management or good product. In one case (which I will not name for it would be impolitic) the company folded and didn’t even let their employees know, they simply turned up to a vacant and locked office.

Thomas tells me that was the turning point, the day she had a realisation. Maybe the reason that all the startups she worked on failed was that she wasn’t the one making the decisions. It was a “ludicrously self-valuing assessment” Thomas admits, but one that’s paid off to the tune of millions of subscribers. Thomas realised that if she was making the decisions it would have to be her idea. And really, the most successful idea she’d ever had was the BSC.

It turns out that in December last year (and doesn’t time fly) there still wasn’t a really good app for childcare. People were understandably prickly at the idea of getting someone from the internet to mind their kid. But people in Stoneybrook trusted the BSC, they trusted Thomas and she knew she could make it work. Suddenly it was all she could think of. She understood what all the possessed founders she’d worked for in the past had been on about when they looked around at their company that made no money and demanded 14 hour workdays, and saw something awesome, something wonderful.

The BabyApp (as the girls affectionately nicknamed it) began life slowly through a series of bad quality video calls and shared Google docs. Thomas was back home at her mother’s and pretty convinced that if she could make something that looked vaguely like a real thing, her stepfather would float her some money for the next steps. The other thing Thomas was doing was babysitting again. Thomas was betting that if she could get the app working, the moms of the kids would be happy to use it to book her.

Thomas stops in her flow of narration to lock eyes with me and say, “Tell your readers that they shouldn’t feel bad for getting their hands dirty. I did not feel great about going back to the job of my teens but in the end it was the only way this would ever have been a success.”

“At the time taking bookings was a mess of spreadsheets and voicemails,” Thomas explains, voice filled with disgust. All five women groan at the mention of the dreaded voicemail. Millennials.

Next they play me an audio recording from February of this year.

“Does the logo have to have the letters in it?” Kishi asks.

Thomas explains that she had just been using a placeholder in her design so far, but they were approaching the point where they needed something concrete. And this was a job for Kishi.

“Yes,” McGill and Thomas shout.

“It’s a pre-existing brand,” McGill says. “It would be crazy to waste that loyalty.”

Just as Thomas says, “- people will recognise it.”

“Exactly what I said,” replies McGill.

“OK, I’ll put the initials in, calm down guys,” Kishi says. “What else is in the brief?”

“Just make it good,” Thomas says in a dismissive tone, clear even over the recording.

“Something that seems homemade,” Spier starts, “nothing too web 2.0 or whatever we’re up to.”

Schafer agrees. “We want it to look like it’s been around forever. Just, like, in a good way.”

“OK, that I can actually work with,” Kishi says.

In the kitchen in Stoneybrook, Kishi and Thomas look at each other and laugh. It’s clear in the recording that both had felt frustrated. They admit they sometimes clash, but also say they have lots of practice at taking a step back when things get heated. “It’s really all about communication, and giving people space to be themselves,” Thomas opines, and the four other women agree

I ask what they see now as milestones in the process and Schafer suggests the launch of the site, and for this they have a video which Thomas promptly queues up.

The site launched in March last year and they had to Skype Dawn in from California. The rest of them are there in the flesh, and I expect them to look somehow different on the screen, but of course they don’t; this was only a matter of months ago. Their success has simply been meteoritic.

In the video the women are gathered round waiting for the moment when Kristy types in the URL babysittersclub.com and the page loads.

“How is that address not taken?!” Kishi exclaims as everyone shushes her, even though there’s nothing to hear.

“So, yeah, it’s a website,” Thomas says with a lack of formality.

“It’s not just a website, it’s our website!” Dawn shouts from California.

Kishi and McGill high-five as Spier says, in an earnest, just audible tone, “It’s beautiful!”

 

“The booking mechanic doesn’t work yet so it’s pretty much useless because I’ll still have to match bookings by hand,” Kristy demurs.

“Shut up, it’s great,” Stacey says.

The next highlight comes from McGill who admits, “it’s not sexy,” as she offers up their decisions around the mechanics of the service. McGill explains that while they knew how to get the people that Thomas was already babysitting using the app, they then struck a brick wall when trying to convince others to sign up. It was March, and they didn’t really have a plan. Thomas plays the tape again.

“We need to work out how to grow,” Thomas says, crossly.

“How did we get more customers back when we were teenagers?” Schafer asks.

“Word of mouth?” Spier offers.

“Exactly, it was only when people heard about us from someone they trusted,” Thomas says.

“It’s a big thing, to trust your kid with someone,” says Kishi.

“We need, like, Yelp reviews,” Schafer says.

“Not just Yelp reviews but reviews from people you already know,” says Spier.

“So, testimonials?” Schafer asks.

“Yes, we need those. But we need it, like, built into the functionality of the site. You should only see a sitter profile if someone you’re connected to has used and recommends them,” Kishi says, excitement obvious in her voice.

“We can link to Facebook, to map connections,” Thomas says, voice triumphant..

In the present day Thomas says to me, “That was it, that was the moment.”

What comes next, I’m told, is Schafer and Spier (who I learn are stepsisters) pulling a lot of bi-coastal overnighters until they have a business plan. Spier is the writer of the group and had been working for a boutique childrenswear line in Stoneybrook before coming over full time to work on the app. McGill (who would sometimes join them) tells me to imagine it like a makeover montage but instead of a pretty girl at the end there’s a glorified Powerpoint presentation and a lot of numbers.

“Imagine it like a montage but know really it was blood sweat and tears, and googling “business plan” and Google Docs crashing at one point and losing ten pages of notes,” Schafer says.

But as we talk I realise it was also Spier leaving Schafer encouraging comments in the morning before she woke up, “This bit is great!” and “You are good at this!”, and Schaeffer spitting green smoothie all over her laptop when she realised a particularly funny typo. “The laptop was fine, no MacBooks were harmed in the making of this business plan,” Schafer says.

In April, Thomas’ stepfather invested. It was at that point, looking at the meager spreadsheet of current sitters’ names, that Schafer rang Thomas. Over the sounds of the champagne Thomas’ mom and step-dad were popping, Schafer shouted, “We’re going to need more sitters!” Schafer quit her job and moved back to Stoneybrook.

Thomas says when it was first suggested she'd been incredulous that Schafer would give up the job she loved in the state she loved to come home and work on something that didn’t make any money yet.

“I just knew it would work, I believed in us,” Schafer says, “She’s a cynic, but I was right.”

In June, Thomas woke up to the kind of call most people will never get. It was an investor who wanted to meet for a coffee, he said. Such people are know in the start-up world as “angel investors” because of the way they magically grant money to start-ups they consider a good bet, and are also known as Venture Capitalists. The app was launched with the recommendations functionality (thanks to Thomas’ hard work) but their user base was still tiny. Up until that point they’d all been focussed on the next hurdle, the next bug to be fixed, the next sitter who spent all her babysitting shift on Snapchat. That phone call changed everything but not in the way you might think.

“It was a shitshow,” McGill says.

“It was... bad,” Thomas concedes.

“I mean, it didn’t start out well because I was late, but it went downhill from there.”

They won’t be drawn on the name of the investor, but they tell me he was in New York and Thomas and McGill had gone to the meeting. The gist of the VC's criticism was that they had too many founders, the club in the name sounded childish, and they paid their sitters too much.

“Venture Capitalists, it turns out, do not care about your feelings,” McGill says with a rueful smile.

They ignored him though, and if anything, his comments galvanised them in the other direction. They stop short of mentioning gender but the subject hangs in the room as we talk about the makeup of other start ups, as it does and must in any conversation about who makes it in Silicon Valley.

Schafer speaks up on the subject of pay. “It’s important to me, as someone who has worked as an advocate for workers’ rights, that we respect the labor of our sitters.”

The others nod.

“Even for babysitters?” I ask. It’s hardly migrants workers exploited in a factory.

“Yes,” Schafer says, her voice firm. “Most of our sitters are young women and we never want to take advantage of them. We have very strict processes around who sits for us but we also have very strong protections for those that do. They are the stars of the show.”

The other four women voice their agreement, and it’s clear that this is what’s set them apart in some ways from the “sharing economy” ecosystem. When the women talk about Uber there is obviously some distaste in the room, although all five admit to using it. While Vox scored the first sit-down interview at the Thomas residence (go team!) we're far from the first to interview the founders of the app. Every other interview I've read for the BSC has made a point of mentioning they aren't planning to leave Stoneybrook. Uber and their Silicon Valley brethren are increasingly under pressure to show a more compassionate, responsible side of themselves. Recent court cases have seen the ride-sharing service on the hook for workers benefits. And only recently Airbnb saw themselves in hot water after ill considered advertisements that appeared to show a disinterest in paying tax. Only time will tell if the BSC are just mounting some attacking spin, but at this stage their money's where there mouth is.

Thomas, possibly perceiving my rose-tinted view of their team, heads off this line of thought.

“We fight a lot,” she says. “It’s not all mutual consensus building and friendship bracelets. Also, we want to be successful and we can be ruthless about that.”

 

The women are home for the holidays and none of them will be going back to work for other bosses in the new year. It obviously feels good, they are in high spirits and when we speed through the rest of the story (yes, they did get more funding from elsewhere), know I have to ask them what's next.

I already know what the answer isn't - Silicon Valley.

When I ask, it's Kishi who leans forward to answer, “We’re going to do the same thing we do every day...” she starts, waiting for the four others to join her, “try to take over the world!” They laugh.