Families pay fee to tap into database, request background checks

So why not your baby sitter or pet sitter?

I'll admit, when I saw a news release about Sitter City, which claims to be America's first and largest parent-baby sitter matching site, I giggled.

What ever happened to finding the neighborhood teenager to watch your kids? Or asking friends and relatives for recommen-dations?

After all, I want to know the family of the teen watching my kids. Do we share the same values? Is there someone at home nearby if something were to happen and the baby sitter needed some backup?

But the more I thought about it, not everyone has an ample supply of neighborhood baby sitters or recommendations from friends and relatives to tap into.

So it seems a little ingenious to have a service to match parents and baby sitters. Maybe even a good business model -- sitters register for free for work, and parents pay a fee to search the database.

Genevieve Thiers thinks so.

The founder and chief executive officer of Chicago-based Sitter City came up with the idea while she was contemplating what to do with her life after graduating from Boston College.

Thiers was looking out her dorm room window one day when she saw a woman who was nine months pregnant waddling up a steep hill. Thiers ran downstairs to help the woman, who was posting fliers looking for a baby sitter. Thiers, who had been a baby sitter in college, offered to post the fliers around for the woman.

As Thiers was posting one of the signs next to an elevator, the idea hit her. Why not launch a Web site to match sitters looking for jobs with parents who need help?

Though Thiers thought the idea was great, it wasn't easy to convince venture capitalists to provide seed money -- especially older men.

"We were the first. No one thought it was going to work. I got laughed out of the room with most" venture capitalists, she said. "I had to launch it by foot."

She posted 20,000 fliers around Boston and had two college friends start her Web site.

In September 2001, she had 600 sitters registered and 30 parents. "It was magic," she said.

She now has half a million users, including companies that have paid to sign up their employees as an employee perk to find child care. Thiers later moved the corporate offices to Chicago.

Sitter City is not the only site out there. Put "baby sitter" in a search engine, and you'll get others. Sitter City is also branching out to match pet sitters and pet owners on its site starting in June.

Here's how Sitter City works:

Sitters must be 17 or older -- so that knocks out most of the neighborhood teens. Thiers said the company is debating starting a junior site, but there are too many liability issues with younger sitters. The typical sitter on the site is 17 to 23, though there are older sitters. About 80 percent of the sitters are people looking for part-time work; the others are full-time nannies.

Sitters don't pay a fee to register.

Parents can pay either $39.99 for the first month and $9.99 for each month after, or $95 for a full year.

Not exactly cheap, but it is a service for parents who find it valuable.

Background checks can be run on sitters for a $10 fee. A sitter can pay that fee and post the background check on the sitter's profile, or the parent can pay $10 for each check requested.

The background checks, which include a nationwide check and driving violations, are a resource for parents, in addition to a feedback system on parents and sitters, said Thiers.

In our society, which is becoming more mobile, Thiers said a service like hers helps make life easier.

Her company's statistics show that 64 percent of the parents have moved in the preceding two years.

"When people are moving from city to city,... they end up in this new place with no family and no support network. They're dumped in a new area, and that's where Sitter City is incredibly helpful," she said.

Finding right fit

Carol Gregory of Strongsville has some relatives in town to help watch her kids sometimes, but she needed someone to come over to the house during the day when she occasionally works from home.

But the area college professor, who is the mother of a 1-year- old daughter and 3-year-old son, said she got nowhere when she posted fliers in grocery stores and on college campuses and called people through newspaper ads.

"Even just based on the phone conversation, I wasn't entirely comfortable it was a good fit for us. It wasn't enough detail for me to bring that person into my home to meet my children," Gregory said.

A neighbor then told her about Sitter City. She has used three sitters through the service and has been very happy with them all. Gregory said that as her sitters' situations changed -- one got pregnant, and another moved away -- she was able to go back to the site to find other suitable ones.

The Gregorys now have Ashley Schindler, 22, of Copley Township watching the kids one day a week. For Schindler, an early childhood education major at the University of Akron, the site was a good way to connect her to parents who needed sitters.

She baby-sits for several families -- some are just an occasional weekend job.

Gregory said she's still comfortable with a combination of using an older sitter from Sitter City and the neighborhood teen. She just likes having the choice.