Need a Babysitter in a Pinch? There’s an App for That

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Finding a babysitter can often be a challenge for parents who lack a trusted friend or relative to fill the role. Things only get worse when one’s needed on short notice. But a quickly growing online service aims to make finding a sitter for the night as simple as booking a restaurant reservation through OpenTable.

UrbanSitter, an online babysitting network, matches parents with sitters who post profiles outlining their experience and daily availability. There are plenty of online babysitting sites out there, but UrbanSitter stands out for the way it leverages both social media and mobile technology. Users sign in with their Facebook accounts and are then able to search for sitters based on age, foreign language skills, education level or experience with children having certain disabilities.

UrbanSitter taps the parent’s Facebook network to find friends that have used listed sitters in the past and offers parent reviews of the potential hires. It’s a digital-age version of asking a neighbor or fellow PTA member who they get to watch their kids. “When you go to hire a babysitter, your number one concern is if that babysitter has been used by somebody you know or comes recommended from a friend,” says company CEO Lynn Perkins, a mother of two herself who already has experience with two earlier dot-com startups.

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The site serves both parents looking to find a regular sitter and those caught in a weekend bind that need to find a one-time sitter for the night. Currently UrbanSitter has about 39,000 registered parents and 16,000 sitters spread across 14 cities. The site’s growing quickly, Perkins says, and has received almost $8 million in venture funding since it launched in the summer of 2011. All bookings are handled via credit card, and UrbanSitter earns revenue by charging a fee for each transaction.

Though UrbanSitter began with a website, it’s the mobile app that has made the service highly efficient. Perkins says booking times were cut in half in San Francisco and New York after launching the app in 2012. Sarah Fairhurst, a mother of two from Lafayette, California, says she’s had sitters respond to booking requests in as little as three minutes via the app.

For many parents, UrbanSitter is their introduction the world of online babysitter bookings. “It was little bit weird at first,” admits Ellen Blix, a San Francisco mom who’s been using UrbanSitter since 2011. “The only other way we had found a sitter was through word of mouth and recommendation from a friend. But it’s worked out really well for us. As more people use it that we know…our options have really increased.”

Parents say the website’s Facebook integration helps them feel more secure in the sitters they book. “It’s like any other service; it’s just an introduction,” says Fairhurst, who’s booked about 15 sitters online. “It’s still your responsibility to interview them and have your comfort level.”

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In addition to directly hiring babysitters, parents can also set up times to interview potential sitters through the service. Sitters on the site can undergo optional background checks through a third-party company, HireRight. Perkins says about 20% of sitters undergo background checks.

UrbanSitter is planning to expand to include listings of full-time nannies in the coming months, and an Android app is in the works to go along with the iOS one. Perkins says technology has reached a point where almost any transaction can be handled efficiently through smartphones, whether it’s a restaurant reservation, a gym class registration, or a babysitting appointment.

Parents seem to agree. “We’ve been able to do total spontaneous nights off,” Blix says, “which with small kids is a big deal.”