E12: Genevieve Theirs, Founder of Sittercity.com – Interview

March 29, 2016


Genevieve Thiers created Sittercity.com (Chicago), which is a platform to find sitters, way back in 2001. She jumped into building a two sided platform that required recruiting sitters and parents. That’s not easy. Genevieve is also a world class opera singer. She just performed in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She doesn’t sing for us.

My favorite part of the interview is when she likens opera singers to entrepreneurs. It makes you think of what’s need to be an entrepreneur.

The interview does have kids talking in the background. It’s awesome. We did the interview on a Sunday. I like the idea of integrating family and business.
Dave Kruse: Hey everyone, welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs. Today, we are very lucky to have Genevieve Thiers with us.

Genevieve: Hi.

Dave Kruse: Thanks Genevieve for coming on.

Genevieve: No, no problem.

Dave Kruse: She is the Founder of SitterCity which is a platform that matches sitters with parents who need childcare and all of those parents see that, that’s for sure. So, she started it way back in 2001, and I asked Genevieve to come on the Flyover Labs, because she has a huge amount of experience building a platform over the last 15 years and dealing with all the issues way before the ___3:18___ and she is also investing in companies now, not to mention that her husband is a business partner, so we’ve got a lot of things to chat about, but let’s keep this down to about 20 minutes, so Genevieve, are you ready to start diving in.

Genevieve: Yeah sure.

Dave Kruse: Great. So maybe a brief overview of your background would be great, and I mean a lot of your career has probably been on SitterCity, but just a little bit of your background.

Genevieve: Yeah, you know what, I mean, I have a crazy background Dave. I sort of started as an opera singer and then the company sort of exploded and it was great, but now I’m sort of back to helping it a lot in funding women in fact with being an opera singer, so it’s been a funny story. The SitterCity came about when I was in college. I saw a 9 months’ pregnant mother climbing 200 steps posting flyers for a sitter and thought oh my gosh! why? and I realized that her only option at that point was a nanny agency that cost 2000 bucks and in my head it kept going; you known, the phrase, why can’t someone make a match.com for parents and caregivers. So, that’s essentially when I went out and built. The early days were pretty funny, I mean, like just totally every funny story you have ever heard about tech startup ever, it happened to us. We did manage to have a large team here in Chicago by `06. We were national by that point and yeah, I mean, the story just continues. Today, SitterCity has, you know, literally millions of users worldwide. We serve the US, UK, and Canada and, and we have a match made about, once a minute in terms of parents and caregivers, so it’s a really neat story.

Dave Kruse: Wow, and so how did you first start it back in college. It’s not easy starting a platform, so you need the sitters and you need the parents, so that’s …

Genevieve: Yeah, yeah, I mean, two-sided marketplaces which I didn’t know the phrase then but I was just doing it naturally, but two-sided marketplaces are incredibly hard, so what I would do is, I would literally, you know, I had 2 college friends who built this site with me. I kind of drew it on paper and then I grabbed like 20,000 flyers and began throwing them in bagpacks, went college by college and flyered and so, by the time I opened in Boston, it had about 600 sitters and about 100 moms, that I just literally found on the street or in the supermarket.

Dave Kruse: Yeah.

Genevieve: And it just blew up from there because, you know, you really did need to just have one place where you could go to find everybody, you know it was funny though, I was getting laughed out of the room with a lot of VC’s because, like they were guys. They didn’t really quite get it, you know, their wives had probably done the arranging and so, I heard a lot of “my wife handle that’s and it’s a babysitter’s club,” so, while I wasn’t getting funded back then, you know, I was getting customers left and right, so it’s a very interesting kind of growth pattern.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, and so, was this just an internal hustle that you had back then because you are young and put that together, to have 600 sitters by the time you launch is pretty impressive. Did you have a mentor or it was that just you going out…

Genevieve: Yeah, I just went. I mean, like for me it’s just, you know, it’s very practical. I think women build in a very practical way and, you know, most of us, unfortunately women in tech, just hit a wall at series A. I mean, a guy who has never dealt with a beauty-based problem with spars or a fashion-based problem with clothes isn’t gonna fund those things and so, you know, because 6% of VC’s are women, it’s still actually an issue. Women are still running into what I ran into back then, but I just thought probably I just wanted to fix it. You know, it’s not like women entrepreneurs are any different. I think it’s just that we are less understood, so that’s actually where my current fund comes from. I have a fund called High Note Investments that basically; we have about let’s say six investments now in women in tech companies, because I understand them, so like one of my companies is called It’s By You, they have the cost of wedding flowers with a DIY model. I mean, that’s awesome, but if you hadn’t married or arranged a wedding, you might not see how valuable that is, so…

Dave Kruse: Interesting, and how are you helping those companies, just mentoring them and…

Genevieve: Well, it’s an investment. Yeah, I mean it’s basically an investment and then I follow it up with anything they need. If they need an introduction, I’ll make the introduction, it’s really pretty organic, I mean, I also don’t have a huge fund at all, it’s quite small, but it’s something, I mean, I feel like women who succeed, if they care about this, could really make an impact giving back. The only problem is and this is so sad, there are literally next to no women that are out there running companies or succeeding to be able to give back, and so there is a quarter of the women here in Chicago that are talking about this nonstop and we are trying to find a way to get a better and easier pathway for women and moms, you know, to be able to create companies so that there is more of us to succeed and give back.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, now that’s great, and do you think your opera training and experience, how is that influence your entrepreneurial career?

Genevieve: I think opera singers are amazing entrepreneurs. I mean, we have to sell ourselves from day one. When you walk out on the stage, you really have six seconds to capture everybody. It can be in your demeanor, it can be in your eyes, I mean, the first couple of notes are critically important. There is a charisma you have to find and learn to channel, and I just channel it again in the sales room. You know, like it’s, you know, it’s funny, whenever you’re opening your mouth to sing, you basically saying I have something that will help you grow; that’s what you’re saying to the audience and in a sales room when you are pulling people together around a cause, be it SitterCity’s cause of emancipating mom and making sure that, no mother in the world has trouble finding care ever again, or around a cause like, making sure that women in tech are able to run. It really does not matter what you are unifying people around, but I suppose I approach business like an activist. I unify around a cause and you’re sort of doing that in your singing. You’re like, hey, I’ve got this great Puccini Aria, everybody rally around this because this is just going to rock your world, you know, it’s very similar.

Dave Kruse: I like it and I never thought about that, but it makes a lot of sense.

Genevieve: It’s all about the entrance, you know.

Dave Kruse: And for everyone, I did find at least one clip of you singing, so we will probably…

Genevieve: Oh God!.

Dave Kruse: It’s awesome. I mean, you’re…

Genevieve: I’ve just finished.

Dave Kruse: You’re quite good.

Genevieve: Like, I was saying, Oh My! that’s outrageous, right, I just sang in The Merry Widow at Chicago Lyric alongside Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson, I mean, total crazy situation, I do have an agent and I’ve gone back to performance.

Dave Kruse: Wow!

Genevieve: You know, now that I’m on the SitterCity board and so I’m like literally, I got a cast in this amazing role at Lyric where I basically, my character is a big snob and she makes fun of Renee Fleming like every night, I just did 12 shows at The Merry Widow at Lyric on stage. It felt like a dream. I still don’t really feel like it happened, I mean, that’s what I really want and I got to do it.

Dave Kruse: Did you continue to sing opera while running SitterCity.

Genevieve: I have to. I’m obsessed with singing, I mean, it’s bizarre because it’s like that’s what I have always really wanted, but I just do love the tech world too and so I’m in this bizarre like, Opera singing CEO kind of world, but I love it, you know, I mean, I can’t let go off the singing, I mean, being on stage at Lyric was the most unbelievable, you know, the thing. I was so lucky to be able to have done that and I will never forget it. That might have been the coolest thing I’ll ever do in my life.

Dave Kruse: Well, who knows? Yeah, maybe it will get cooler.

Genevieve: Who knows, I’m 38, we’ll see.

Dave Kruse: That’s right. You have a few decades left. Were you nervous before those shows?

Genevieve: Yeah, oh yeah. I think we are all nervous, we just learn to hide it well, it’s all acting, but I mean here’s why I manage to succeed, I mean, my trick is that I’m a comedian, so I do really do comedy characters. I mean, I basically, if I’m doing a comedy character, I will succeed, you know, I will be fine because, once people see you, they are in on the joke and then it just feels like you are all in on the joke and that’s how I get over that, because it really can be like terrifying to go in front of people, you know like 3800 people, a night.

Dave Kruse: Wow, I mean, it is just like with the startups and you’re just willing to do it, like you have enough confidence, right, which is hard to get to start it and throw yourself out there which is quite impressive.

Genevieve: Well, you know, it’s funny because now going back to the acting world, like there are people who just do this. They take it for granted that they walk in front of 3800 people a night and, you know, entertain and it’s still funny, because I look at the actors and go like, Oh My God! Do you guys have any idea how good you’d be as an entrepreneur, like, I just feel into it by accident, but, like honestly I want to sit down and have a seminar for a lot of these guys because they are amazing.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, just by like the presence they give and the confidence they give off when they are on stage.

Genevieve: Yeah right, I mean, it’s really amazing.

Dave Kruse: Yeah, I’ve never thought about that, but it makes a ton of sense. So, going back to SitterCity, did you raise that first Series A, and I think SitterCity has raised over $43 million, how…

Genevieve: Yeah, roughly, I mean like we did a Series A and a Series B and some ___13:57___, so, yeah, I mean, we had a very interesting situation around when we were raising the A, which was, you know, we basically had Lehman go down, so our timing was a little bit nuts, because it was, you know, just as the world is kind of falling apart, but the good news was is that we had these really wonderful VC’s who stuck by us even though Lehman was going down; they didn’t quite gain, so that was wonderful and so, we funded the company, we just gone on with it and the world, ___14:32___, you know, stayed on its feet, thankfully and so that was a great opening into a Series A, I mean, you automatically trust your board when you’ve been through something like that with them and then, Martin actually, our new CEO who I worked with for 2 years was mostly the lead in raising the Series B, but I was definitely out there, I was very actively involved in it, so I mean it kind of goes in waves; all I would say to new entrepreneurs is just try to make sure you have a double-sided team in place where one person can focus internally on the company and the other can focus on fund raising, because it is exhausting to fund raise, it is more than a full-time job.

Dave Kruse: Oh yeah, that’s good advice. I’m curious about the trust issue, because when everybody sees something like, you know, oh how can I trust the sitters? How did you go over that initially and yeah, and still is that an issue or is that not much of an issue anymore since people are so comfortable with online, but initially it must have been a bear to get those first…

Genevieve: So, not really. I mean, so here’s trusting as I see it and it really never was a big deal, so the fact that a mom, you know, back in 2000 had to flyer college campuses alone on foot to find a caregiver was absurd and the fact that nanny agencies were sitting around saying, “Oh gosh with $2000 to match you with a nanny,” but oh they are so much safer because we’ve screened them, it all so absurd, I mean, who are these people? Why are they more qualified to screen someone coming into your home? So, for me again as an activist or sort of as a big emancipator, I was like, that’ stupid. So, what we did when we created SitterCity was we just put everything in the caregivers profile, so mom would look at the profile and the sitter would have posted the background check for her, so she could see if the sitter passed it or not done, you know, and then there was, you know, 5-star reviews she could look at from parents, you know, like could be even Amazon Child Review System and the references, you know, are posted right there in the account, like, you know, here are my two references mom and so it became a situation where we would like, mom, do you screen the caregiver coming into your home, we’ll make it easy for you and she got it from day one. It really wasn’t an issue. Now, though, we are launching a new product called Chime and it’s truly amazing. This is the last year, we are launching an on-demand care app. It’s basically sitters on demand and they work shifts, like, the same model as Uber, you know, you go in and you say I need someone on Wednesday from 6 to 10 and, you know, 3 sitters pop up and then you’re like, I like Ashlee, you know, so you click Ashlee and she shows up, payments backend, it’s beautiful. ___17:36 ___, the Chime sitters, those sitters we actually interview in-house, so we want to make things even easier for mom by doing some level of preliminary screening because she has asked just for this. So, basically, we do an hour long interview with her, we do an enhanced background check, ID verification, and we scrape over 300 social media sites, but to give you an idea, we are not charging her $2000 for that either. Chime is free, it’s free to use, so basically we get a cut at every job because now we are controlling payments, we are helping parents every step of the way to like break open the model, so it’s easy for them, but for us, if we are able to facilitate payments it would be easy to take a small cut and nobody cares because, considering the interactions are getting so much easier, so, in our mind we are just kind of, trust is a big, big thing for sure, but it’s one of those where we are putting her in the driver’s seat, no matter what to find and hire and screen and if she uses Chime, she is still in the driver’s site, you know, it’s just that we are helping her a little bit more with screening.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, that’s smart and yes, everybody, we are doing this on a Sunday, so we are both at home, so that’s the kids.

Genevieve: Yeah my kids are excited about swimming.

Dave Kruse: I like it. So we are pretty much out of time here… One last question about Chime. How will you, because I imagine it will take a little bit longer to release it nationwide, so you have to bring people in-house.

Genevieve: It’s very hard. Yeah, it’s another double-sided marketplace, so imagine, I mean like here in Chicago, we have about, I’d say, a very strong hold now on Chime sitters, we’re in four markets right now, it’s Chicago, Boston, DC, and New York, and we basically have to go, you know, literally city by city, but when I say city, now the suburbs, just the city, so right now we serve Chicago itself up to Evanston, but we can’t start Villa Park yet, we can’t start Highland Park yet, because we have to find interview and prep these sitters, then on-board them into our calendaring process and then, you know, like have Chime marketed to the moms, so it’s definitely a tighter launch than we have done before. SitterCity itself was kind of like “dropping water on a map,” because we were just basically, you know, we go into a market, gather a 1000 sitters and it would just grow, but this one we have to actually find and do the prescreen on, let’s say, 600 sitters in Chicago proper and have them waiting, so that when we market to mom, you know, we have to make sure whether mom actually puts in the date and time she needs somebody, then three sitters come up, so it’s just a tighter roll out, but it’s no less exciting. I’m personally loving every minute I work with this because it’s the easiest sale ever, like we talk to her about, like what we felt, she is like oh, oh, thank you, you know, I mean I get hugs, so I mean, that’s when we need more Mom’s building for Moms.

Dave Kruse: Yeah, exactly, I could see that myself and my friends using something like that, especially when they need that last second sitter and like boom…

Genevieve: And I don’t mean to neglect the dad’s. I know that actually, it’s nearly about 50/50 on booking moms and dads. This is great for dads too because the dad does not have to worry. On SitterCity genre, we had an issue where like he would go, you know, to a sitter and say hey! Can you sit on Friday, and she’ll go, oh gosh it’s a guy, can I trust this guy. I mean, like it’s not a mom reaching out, so like we’ve actually really legitimately talked to a bunch of dads who are like “thank you for Chime” because it removes that creep factor of them like, you know, just by being a guy, we are like, hey, can you come over on Saturday, I mean, it removes that because they can just do the booking and be like hi, here’s my kids, it’s all good, you know, I don’t know, it’s a great emancipator, I would say.

Dave Kruse: Oh it totally is, alright well, I think we are out of time, but Genevieve…

Genevieve: Thanks Dave, okay.

Dave Kruse: We definitely appreciate you coming on this show and good luck with Chime and the opera singing.

Genevieve: Yeah, please keep an eye on for it, it’s going to rock your socks. I’m sorry about my kids again, but you know what that is what most of us are dealing with, so it kind of adds to the interview, I think

Dave Kruse: It’s perfect.

Genevieve: Here you go. Alright, thanks Dave.

Dave Kruse: Thanks Genevieve, bye.

Genevieve: Bye bye.