How solving the pain of finding a babysitter became a profitable Australian startup

japatino / getty
  • An app called Sittr connects parents with qualified child minders.
  • All the sitters are screened, with one in 20 accepted.
  • Sittr is now talking to companies about offering the service as a perk to employees.

Husband and wife team James and Samantha McKinnon created a profitable startup by solving and age-old problem, and one they had with their own three children — how to get a reliable babysitter.

But the vision they had for Sittr, an app, founded in 2014 didn’t go to plan.

“We had the plan that we’ll launch something, get a bit of traction and then VCs will be jumping in and throwing money at us,” James told Business Insider.

“But it didn’t quite happen like that. So, we made a conscious decision to make this a cash flow positive business and that’s where we are at right now.”

Like many, they didn’t have a lot of family support and struggled to find the right care for their children.

“We felt that families deserve a better way to find child carers whether they are looking for a full time nanny, a casual babysitter or a night out while on holidays,” says James.

SittrJames and Samantha McKinnon

“So we started to build a product that we would be comfortable using ourselves. From then on we have received a high volume of positive feedback from families around Australia with additional interest from overseas based families holidaying in Australia.”

And the network is accelerating. At the end of this year Sittr will have about 2,000 carers on its books. It took a couple years to get to 300 carers and then a year to go from 300 to 1,500.

Sittr charges an hourly rate of $27. Of that, $23 goes to the carer.

At the moment, only 5% of those applying to be carers get through the screening process.

They have to do an identity check to make sure they are who they say they are.

Careers also need to have completed senior first aid qualifications and a background check for working with children.

“That was a manual check process that we automated,” says James. “They put in their details, we shoot it off to the various government websites where we can get an answer back to say, ‘Yes, this is valid; it hasn’t been revoked’.”

Star Ratings

And the app has a 5-star rating system.

“We monitor those and if we get negative reviews, we have a talk to the carer,” he says. “If it’s not working, then they can leave the platform.”

James, who has a twitter handle called VC Dundee, is also an investor in startups. One of the better known is Expert360.

“I see being a founder and being an investor are both different sides of the table,” he says.

“I felt that to be a good angel investor I needed to have walked in those (startup founder) shoes as well.”

He also comments on the investment ecosystem via a twitter account, VC Dundee.

“I just decided there were a lot of things going on, opinions on how things should be done, how much the government should be chipping in, all those kinds of things, and I thought we need an anonymous voice to just keep things in perspective a lot of the time,” he says.

“And that’s where VC Dundee came from and I managed to keep it secret for about two years and then it just became a bit too much.”

He’s sure many don’t realise how hard it is to bootstrap a startup.

Sittr

“It’s taken three years to get there (cash positive) and it’s definitely hard work and I have no doubt that many people jump into it without thinking that through because it becomes so easy to say, ‘Oh I can get someone to build an app for that with a couple thousand dollars I’m going to be a founder’.”

Along the way, he’s learned a lot.

“I love to connect with our customers and understand how they are using our product and how we can do better,” he says.

“It’s humbling when something goes wrong and someone is very upset on the other end and you need to not fight back and admit that you have done something better and fix it going forward.

“You’ve really got to be a jack-of-all-trades to be a founder, I think.”

Sittr is in the soft launch phase in New Zealand.

“We’ve have a lot of New Zealanders who come over on holidays and they book a sitter so they can go out for dinner or go out for the day,” he says.

Corporate perks

James and Samantha are also looking for corporate partners to provide Sittr as a service to their employees.

Access to child care is becoming a common perk in the US.

“You get some free childcare days or discounted childcare days that’s covered by your employer,” says James.

“We’re starting to see rumblings of that in Australia as well. We partnered a couple years ago with a company that does an employee benefits portal and we’re in there so the employees that use that can book through us and get a bit of a discount.

“We are looking to kind of take that further and look at how corporations can subside that as well so that we can provide a bigger discount and make finding last minute care for employees easier.

“There’s a lot of productivity lost when children are sick and cannot go to daycare. Having on-call emergency care for those companies and those employees is important.

“We’ve also found a lot of people do work from home, hiring a nanny one or two days a week so the children not sitting on the ground playing iPads while the parents are having a conference call.”

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