Entrepreneurship 101: Q&A With the Founder of Sittercity

By Libby KaneLearnVest

When Genevieve Thiers was in her last year of college, she saw an obviously pregnant mother walk by her window, posting wanted fliers for babysitters around the hilly campus.

Thiers, horrified, hurried outside to take over the job and send the woman home. In the middle of posting, she wondered: Why isn’t there an easier way to find child care?

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So she founded Sittercity upon graduation, a website that matches parents in need of child care with experienced, vetted sitters. The site, which launched in 2001, has raised over $500,000 in funding and draws from a base of nearly two million caregivers and has since branched out to incorporate home care, pet care and senior care.

Thiers took a minute from chasing her 9-month-old twins to chat with us about entrepreneurship, working parenthood and how exactly to go about finding the right child care for your family.

How did you decide to start Sittercity?

I was set to graduate college in 2000 as a student of opera, but I wasn’t yet ready to go to school for my master’s. I did know that I wanted to do something big, and when I saw that mother posting fliers on campus, I realized that there was this weird white space between paying $2,000 to join a nanny agency and trying to find child care yourself, so I set out to fill it.

Where did you start?

I hired two college friends to build the site and posted 20,000 fliers around Boston, which brought me about 600 sitters and a working site. I was talking to parents from the very beginning–the parents I babysat for during college, parents I met in the supermarket.

I took an editing job where I was making about $40,000 a year, and diverted as much money as possible to funding the company. It took me over a year to get the site up, and I was operating on a shoestring budget: I remember I didn’t have the money for brochures, so I had to print hundreds of them on a borrowed color printer and then cut and fold them all by hand.

What was the hardest part of building your company?

People think starting a business is a great financial proposition, but it’s actually a massive gamble and insanely hard. I was doing it without the knowledge that I might have gotten from business school and I began to hit walls right away: I couldn’t get anyone to fund it.

I started talking to investors, but no one was interested–they were dismissive of the idea and really didn’t understand its use. I spoke to men almost exclusively and they really couldn’t identify–they would tell me, “It’s just a babysitter’s club.” But I knew it was a multi-billion dollar industry hidden in plain sight.

I spent two years getting my master’s in opera and Sittercity was bringing in $3 million a year in revenues, but the site went up in 2001 and we didn’t raise our first round of venture capital funding until 2008!

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs?

I usually gear my advice to women, and I say don’t try and make something perfect. Just make it good enough and get it out the door.

I think women especially tend to be perfectionists. But there’s a line between good and perfect that people don’t care about in business–you just have to get it out there. This is particularly important in the world of Web 2.0: With a brick and mortar business, you can really focus on perfecting the product to differentiate you from your competition, but the web works at the speed of light. There’s so little time to move and innovate that competitors come flying at you from all directions, and your imperfect copy or brochure or logo doesn’t matter that much–it’s the process that you’re testing.

As a working mom, do you believe that work-life balance exists? What does your balance look like?

I do think it’s possible. I have to admit, since my children were born I sometimes think that if I had the idea to start Sittercity today, I probably wouldn’t have the time to do it.

Two years ago I stepped back from running Sittercity to spend time working on new companies (like ContactKarma, which aggregates business-to-business recommendations) and sitting on boards, and I’m lucky to have a spectacular nanny. But I’ve been hearing a lot about the 10/10/10 analogy: Women have 10 years after school to build their careers, 10 years after that to raise their children, 10 years after that to get back to their careers.

Based on that principle, I advise women to get started right away. Start your business from your dorm room, right after graduation, as soon as you can. You have nothing to lose at that point–by the time you get to the point of your life where you want to have children, you’ll have the possible luxury of stepping back, and when they’re older, you have the opportunity to get back in business.

What tips would you give parents on finding and keeping a great sitter?

Once you’ve brought someone into your home (Sittercity actually has a four-step screening process for candidates) it’s really important to set up a good communication plan. A lot of parents don’t want to do it, because it feels like doing work at home, where you just want to relax. But you should be talking to your sitter for a few minutes at the end of every job to address any issues, because if you ignore problems, they’re bound to get worse. (For more tips, see our guide to picking the perfect babysitter.)

It”s also standard to give an end-of-the-year bonus (consult our tipping guide for ideas) and to pay slightly over market value–which varies around the country– to make sure that a sitter you love stays with your family. If she senses you’re trying to get a bargain with her, you might lose her.