SitterNextDoor - Interview with the Founders
In 2016, Jenny Shen and Andrea Herscovich began work on SitterNextDoor, a platform to help parents find babysitters in their neighborhood and babysitters find work that suits their schedule. They have since expanded SitterNextDoor to provide pop-up childcare at events. Now, three years later, both women study Computer Science at the University of Ottawa. Despite their busy lives, they kindly agreed to provide an interview for Code Youth, offering valuable insight into entrepreneurship as well as tips on how to succeed in tech. This is what they had to say:
Question: Prior to the Technovation contest, did the two of you already have an interest in technology? If so, where did that interest stem from?
Answer: Growing up in Kanata, we were surrounded by technology companies, where our parents worked. As we got older, we began to see many changes to our surroundings as technology improved – and it was improving very quickly. We are part of the first generation of kids to grow up using technology. All the social networking companies and modern technology, like the iPhone, were part of our childhood. For us, it only felt natural to be drawn to technology since it has been part of our everyday lives. Technology is a helpful tool, it keeps us in contact with friends, and gives access to information at our fingertips.
We wanted to learn more, so we took computer science intro classes in high school, and even did some mini-enrichment programs at universities (like Go Eng Girl at uOttawa) to learn a bit more about coding and engineering.
Question: What inspired you to enter a project in the Technovation Ottawa contest in 2016?
Answer: I was very interested in entrepreneurship and I wanted to learn to code, and was always looking for opportunities to learn more. I really liked the idea of learning how to solve a problem in our community through technology.
Technovation was a great opportunity to meet like-minded people (Jenny and I had some classes together before Technovation), to build a project with a team, and to learn about all the aspects that go into creating a tech company.
Question: What inspired your SitterNextDoor Project?
Answer: In Technovation, we were asked to come up with a solution to a problem in our local community by creating a mobile app. We spent lots of time brainstorming, and then we decided to ask others about problems they were facing. Andrea’s mom said that she had lots of trouble finding a babysitter for her three kids when they were young, because she didn’t know who to ask in the neighbourhood.
That’s how we came up with SitterNextDoor – called ConnectSitter at the time. We wanted to make it easy for parents to find a reliable, trustworthy babysitter from their own neighbourhood. The idea is that with SitterNextDoor, you would be matched with a babysitter from down the street, someone you may have seen walking their dog.
We also wanted to make it easier for teens to find jobs that have flexible schedules and are fun! Lots of our friends had regular part-time jobs and complained about long hours, being scheduled during exam season, and having trouble getting to their job since they could not drive yet. We hoped that by giving them jobs in their own neighbourhood, they could have access to work by simply walking to the job.
Question: What were some of the challenges you faced while developing your app? How did you overcome these challenges?
Answer: One of the first problems we faced was with communication – whether that was within our groups or in front of others. We were placed in random teams – we barely knew each other at the beginning and all of us were very shy! Even engaging in discussions was difficult. Luckily, we had a great mentor who helped us all come out of our shells. She led our conversations and asked the questions that would spark discussion, and helped us gain confidence in our idea and in ourselves. Before we pitched, we were so nervous! She gave us a motto, “Si Se Puede!” which means “Yes we can!” and taught us the “Superman pose,” which would help give us confidence to pitch. She helped facilitate a great friendship and helped us gain confidence in our project that shaped our team today.
Our mentor also helped us by providing her own perspective. For example, we had our idea for ConnectSitter, and we had planned out the process. However, our mentor was the one to ask us the tough questions, such as “How are you going to make the app safe for users?” and other questions that we didn’t have the answer to at the time. With these questions, we were able to solidify our business plan so that we had an answer to any question someone could ask. We really believe this is part of what made us successful in the competition and after the competition moving forward.
Being on teams with people we barely knew, we also needed to figure out the responsibilities of each teammate. We decided to have a conversation and each explain what we enjoy doing, what we want to learn, and what we’re good at. We ended up being able to put everyone into a role that they were happy with. These roles involved building the app prototype and creating specific aspects of the business plan (marketing plan, competitive analysis, creating value propositions). We also all came together to discuss difficult topics and bounce ideas off each other. It was very valuable to work on a team where each member had different a different background, perspective, and set of experiences, but all with the same goal of creating SitterNextDoor.
Another challenge we faced was with time management. We had a deadline in the competition to have the business plan, app prototype, pitch video, and pitch ready. We had 12 weeks in the program. It sounds like a lot right? We thought so for sure. It went by faster than we thought, and we ended up pulling a few late nights to finish everything. From this experience, we definitely learned our lesson and were able to pull everything off in time!
Question: In your opinion, what are the 3 most important characteristics to have working in technology?
- Grit: This means you never give up on completing your goals. It’s a combination of passion, determination, and perseverance. It means that even when there are obstacles, you don’t give up and you try again.
- Diverse thinking: I believe there are many ways to solve a problem. Being able to think about the different ways to solve a problem and analyze which is the best for a particular situation is very valuable to maximize efficiency and effectiveness. Diverse thinking is also useful when on a team – you want your teammates to have different backgrounds and ways of thinking/approaching a problem, so that you can discuss how to solve problems that arise.
- Communication skills: When working on a team, it is very important to be able to communicate with your teammates, and to do so effectively. When working on a collaborative project, it is important for everyone to have a clear understanding of their role in the project and any updates on the progress. Good communication skills help you to both learn from and teach information to others, so that you understand and are understood.
Question: Since the initial launch of your app, what have you been working on?
Answer: We launched our first iteration of the online platform in May 2018 at the Glebe Garage Sale. This was only a month before we graduated high school! To spread the word about our service, we handed out flyers at the Great Glebe Garage Sale, and were featured on news media outlets like newspapers, TV, and radio news stations. We also got to pitch at a few events in Ottawa, and we even got to pitch in front of the Dragons from Dragons Den!
We continued to work on the business over the summer, after gaining a few customers and trying to gain feedback on their experience and making data-driven decisions (for example, we looked at how many customers were coming back for more babysitting jobs, how often, who the customers are, and then tried to make decisions about how to make this happen again).
We started university in September (both Jenny and I are in Computer Science), and continued working on the business. We work at the Entrepreneurship Hub at the University of Ottawa on our startup. We have been focused on trying to grow and get more customers. We also participated in a few pitch competitions to try and get some funding for SitterNextDoor since we are bootstrapping the business (this means that we are trying to grow the business with no formal investment). This summer, we are in Startup Garage, which is a program run by the University of Ottawa to help startups grow.
Recently, we pivoted our business (this means we started taking a new approach) to doing pop-up childcare at events! Many businesses host events but parents have trouble attending them because of childcare responsibilities. With SitterNextDoor, businesses can offer on-site childcare at their events so that more parents can attend and have opportunities to network and learn new things.
Businesses simply tell us how many children are expected, and we provide them with babysitters for their event, liability and insurance coverage, and bins full of toys and activities for kids to be entertained. We just started this idea recently and had our first customer! With the success of our pilot, we hope to help more tech companies in Ottawa bring more parents to their events.
Question: For anyone looking to get started in app development, or even technology in general, what would your advice be to them?
Answer: Get started as soon as possible! There is so much to learn, and skills take time to develop. There are many great resources for learning – books have been really useful for learning concepts. There are also lots of youtube videos that explain concepts well. Additionally, you can take online classes (like CodeAcademy).
My second piece of advice is not to give up! Learning to program requires new types of skills and patience. You must have the grit to persevere through problems and be resourceful in solving them.