Joanna McFarland was talking to a group of mums at a kids birthday party when everyone started complaining about how hard it is to find rides for their kids.
For working parents who can’t afford a nanny, there are trade-offs and sacrifices parents have to make to be able to take their kid to-and-from ballet practice, or to pick up their child on an early release day at school.
McFarland joked at the party that they should buy a neighbourhood van and make pick-ups easy. The rest of the crowd laughed it off, but McFarland and her co-founder Janelle McGlothlin realised they may be on to something.
“We soon became completely obsessed with the idea because there was really no solution,” said McFarland, who is now CEO of their company.
HopSkipDrive was launched in Los Angeles in March 2015 and has already completed thousands of rides. Today it’s announcing a $US2.9 million seed round of funding, led by Upfront Ventures.
The biggest problem facing the ‘Uber for kids’ startups is getting past the “stranger danger” of letting children ride in cars with strangers. The scary headlines around alleged Uber driver attacks might stop many parents from placing their children in the car with someone they have never met.
The three co-founders, which includes Carolyn Yashari Becher as the third, have designed HopSkipDrive around being comfortable letting their own children ride in the car. In between the three of them, they have eight children who at any time need to be shuttled from ballet to soccer to volleyball.
To protect their own children and other’s, the company claims they have the most rigorous background checks of any of the ride-sharing companies because they use fingerprints. Even its competitor, San Francisco-based Shuddle, doesn’t require that level of background check. Neither do Lyft, Uber, or Sidecar.
The company also interviews every driver and subjects them to a 15 part background test.
“We call our drivers ‘care drivers.’ Our drivers all have a minimum of 5 years child care experience. They are people used to working with kids,” McFarland said.
While parents are already using ride-hailing apps like Uber to fill this market, McFarland thinks HopSkipDrive will beat them as competition because of how they have designed it to be kid and parent-friendly.
Parents can request that their driver sign the children out at school or walk them all the way to the baseball field to make sure the child reaches their destination, McFarland said.
When parents book a ride the night before, the family sets up a code word that the driver has to tell the child. If it’s not a match with what the kid is expecting, they know not to go with that person. Each driver is also required to wear an orange t-shirt and have flags on their car.
Her company’s support team watches each ride, and the parents can also monitor it on their app.
And, unlike Uber, the drivers are allowed to drive with their own children in the car. McFarland sees this as a plus and a safety feature of its own: parents are likely to feel safer about the ride and the driver can be a working parent and not worry about their own childcare.
Still, HopSkipDrive faces an already crowded market when it comes to ride-sharing for kids. Its main competitor Shuddle has raised $US12.2 million in two funding rounds. There’s also KangaDo, which organizes rides or play dates.
Parents have also felt comfortable sending their children home or to practice in a regular Uber, no secret codewords needed. This is technically prohibited by Uber’s regulations since passengers should be older than 18, although Uber does have an “Uber Family” program that it’s tried that supplies car seats when the child is riding with their parents.