The idea for a startup can come from anywhere. Many involve social networking, and most look for a way to strike it rich - but some, like Lauren Kay’s recently-launched SmartSitting, come from a more organic place.
Kay (pictured above, center, with Dara Epstein and Suzie Zeldin), a recent graduate of Brown University, has loved children for as long as she can remember, she said last week. She has been babysitting kids since she was very young, even, during her childhood, working with one girl for over four years. As a result, she realized the impact children had, and she wanted others to have that experience. She knew that many families in the New York and New Jersey area, where she grew up, were looking for bright helpers that could influence their children. So while she was at Brown, Kay launched SmartSitting, a website that could link families with capable, highly-intelligent babysitters like herself.
This wasn’t a hotshot startup that Ashton Kutcher found and decided to hand some of his leftover “Dude, Where’s My Car?” cash; when the service started in 2009, Kay’s extensive Rolodex of sitters available for work included just one friend from high school and another from Brown. To expand, she took to the great industrial highway - Craigslist - and found an untapped market of smart, employable young adults that were available to commit to a family looking for long-term help. In June of that year, Kay, then with limited web knowledge, launched the first version of SmartSitting’s website. Shortly thereafter, she met Dara Epstein, a New York University graduate six years her senior, who had more experience in the field and offered a more extensive list of contacts, and Suzie Zeldin, another more-experienced associate who had the business credentials to bring SmartSitting to the next level. Collectively, they were able to bring SmartSitting to its current caliber.
Kay, only 22-years-old, said parents are supportive and excited about young people running a childcare network, and she believes her customers can feel her team’s passion. Kay noted, “We aren’t already established from something else and doing this as a side project. This is our life, and we’re very passionate about it. That’s gotten positive reactions.” Having a young core group of sitters has proven advantageous as well. “We want sitters that can be the big brothers or sisters for these families,” she said. “Parents have felt that having mentors for their children is the perfect last piece of the puzzle. It takes a village to raise a child, especially in New York. Having that role model is the perfect fit. We’re looking for people that are old enough to be a role model, but young enough to relate to the issues of younger people.”
For families, the advantages are apparent, but being a SmartSitter - a term inspired by the esteem of the degrees held by many of the sitters - has high perks, too. Most sitters make significantly more money through SmartSitting than they would if they were just advertising their wares to families they knew on a personal level. Having a registry of committed parents is a huge plus, too, but gaining access to that registry - becoming a SmartSitter, that is - isn’t easy. The application process, which was very informal a few years ago, has become exhaustive. Kay said she gets between 20 and 50 applications for SmartSitters each week. About a third of these applicants receive a follow-up letter, at which point candidates have to fill out an extensive application online, create a résumé that takes a few hours to complete, and have an in-person interview. Sitters need to provide work experience, a biography, a picture, and references, and background checks are run. Despite the name, education level is only a small piece of the puzzle. “Where you went to school is part of what we look for, but not the biggest part. There are lots of different forms of intelligence. The most important thing is that you have street smarts and emotional intelligence,” Kay said. “You need to know how to handle conflicts and communicate with kids. The sitters are from good schools, but most of our applicants are, too. So we separate who we accept by other factors. There’s no ‘in’ with any school.”
As SmartSitting becomes more established in New York - currently its only location - the team is toying with ways to expand the business. Kay explained that she tried to make it work in New Jersey, but found that too many families needed a sitter with a car, and too many capable sitters didn’t have one to offer. With public transportation so much more accessible in New York, the entire operation can run more smoothly. She’s also thought about bringing SmartSitting to Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Boston, but they share some of New Jersey’s issues. Kay lauded New York as the one place where there’s a surplus of intelligent artists, writers, and performers that may have free time on their hands to work with a family. All of that being said, she’d like the business to grow but never lose its personal touch. “We’re not looking to grow that much more with families, since we always want to keep it relatively small and personal,” Kay said. “We’re looking to grow a little, but we don’t want to work with hundreds and hundreds of families. We want to be able to get to know the families that we’re serving.”
As Kay continued to speak, her love of children radiated. When asked to pick her favorite bar in New York City, she chose Fat Cat in the West Village, drawn to the different games featured there, like Scrabble and ping-pong, more than the drinks. She’s now working full-time with SmartSitting, but she still tutors on the side and would love to be able to sit for a family again. More fascinating, though, was seeing which parts of the business excited her the most. As she talked about different aspects of the company, her demeanor remained even. Instead, she was at her most animated when she described taking publicity photos of a SmartSitting family when their two little boys put their chef’s outfits on for the pictures. She wasn’t nearly as excited when talking about how the company could grow or if they could expand and start raking in funding. The chef’s hat was what did it. In a time when so many startups feel like glorified get-rich-quick schemes, seeing someone so invested in their true passion is refreshing.