Social media can help you find someone to take care of your dry cleaning, your errands or your car. But what about the most important thing in your house: Your child?
A San Francisco startup called UrbanSitter is here to help, letting users troll their Facebook networks for baby-sitting recommendations.
The site, which in the two years since its launch has expanded beyond the Bay Area to 15 cities nationwide, is part of a growing wave of online child-care finders. Chicago-based Sittercity has been in the game for more than a decade, and Care.com of Massachusetts claims it's the largest such site, with more than 7 million members globally.
UrbanSitter founder Lynn Perkins got into the act after she became a mom a few years ago and found herself swapping frequent phone calls with friends looking for child care help. The tech veteran realized there was a crying need for what she called an OpenTable-like approach.
"More sites are leveraging social networks for trusted recommendations," she noted in an interview. By logging onto UrbanSitter through a Facebook account, users can see caregivers who've been hired by friends, neighbors or parents of their kids' classmates.
Lucy Imwalle of Los Gatos has used UrbanSitter to find care for her three boys, who range in age from 2 to 7. "Whenever we're in a bind and our regular sitters aren't available, I'll go online," she said. "We've never had a bad experience."
Imwalle, whose sister was a Stanford law school classmate of Perkins', said having to ask friends to "borrow" their sitters was increasingly uncomfortable.
"People get funny about sharing baby sitters, because they don't want them stolen," she said. But with UrbanSitter, "someone you know within two or three degrees of separation have actually used them."
And, she said, the site's ability to show users which sitters are available spares a lot of dead-end calls and emails to busy caregivers. Because most nannies access the service via mobile phone, they usually respond to queries within 20 minutes, Perkins said.
Once a nanny is located, UrbanSitter users pay with a credit card, with the site taking a $7.50 fee for each booking. Perkins said the company has racked up close to 100,000 parents and sitters, with traffic growing at a robust clip.
That network is dwarfed, for now, by those of Care.com and Sittercity, the latter of which boasts more than 4 million parents and caregivers nationwide.
Sara Jennings, who lives in Lake Tahoe's Incline Village and telecommutes to her job as a software product manager, said the $75 a year she forks out for her Sittercity membership quickly pays for itself in peace of mind. (The site, like Care.com, also offers less-expensive pricing options.)
With no family nearby, Jennings and her husband have often turned to Sittercity to find care for their 3-year-old, Emma. "It's so empowering to be able to interview multiple applicants," she said. "We got their backgrounds, and we could talk to people who'd hired them."
Tech investors are paying plenty of attention. "It's a global need without demographic or geographic limitations," said Sandy Miller of Institutional Venture Partners in Menlo Park. "In the U.S. alone, $240 billion is spent on care" each year.
UrbanSitter has landed a reported $6 million in venture funding from Menlo Ventures, Canaan Partners and First Round Capital. SitterCity two years ago announced a $23 million investment led by Baird Venture Partners and New World Ventures; the company also has inked a deal with the U.S. Department of Defense to help military families across the nation find in-home care.
Care.com, which operates in 16 countries, in August closed $50 million in funding from a gaggle of Silicon Valley venture firms, including Miller's. The company, founded in 2006, offers a bulletin board-type service that Perkins likens to Craigslist.
Borrowing a page from her bigger competitors, Perkins is making plans to add a subscription service and to expand her talent pool to nannies as well as short-time sitters.
Care.com and Sittercity also have branched out in recent years, adding senior care providers, house sitters and even pet-walkers to their menus. Representatives said child care remains the biggest market for both companies, which unlike UrbanSitter conducts criminal background checks of the providers in their networks.
While the larger companies tend increasingly to draw professional caregivers who, at least in the Bay Area, can command $25 or more an hour, Perkins said the average sitter on her site is a student or struggling actress looking to pick up extra cash.
"You'd think people would find a sitter and then go around us" to avoid the $7.50 fee, she acknowledged. "But our repeat rate is 80 to 90 percent." She chalks that up to the site's rapid-response nature and users' ability to vet sitters via people they trust.
"Nothing," she noted, "is more important than who looks after your kids."
Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.
Care.com -- Offers a network of millions of prescreened nannies and baby sitters; it's free to search, but a $35 monthly subscription gives you added search features and lets you post jobs.
Sittercity -- Similar in approach to Care.com, a yearly membership costs $75, though month-to-month plans are also available.
UrbanSitter -- Shows users baby sitters who've been hired by their Facebook friends, or friends-of-friends. Users pay the site, not the sitter, and the company takes a $7.50 fee per booking.