Interview with Genevieve Thiers
Genevieve created her first company, Sittercity.com, because she recognized a need for an online space where working mothers could go to find reliable caregivers for their children. A similar concept helped her to develop her newest company, Contact Karma, an online company that strives to match the consumer with a vendor that meets their specific needs. The advice that Genevieve has for aspiring entrepreneurs is that it is important to remember "There are no problems, there are just sticky situations waiting for solutions."
Genevieve Thiers has founded several companies in the Chicago area. Her first company, Sittercity.com, is America's first company to take caregiving services online. Sittercity.com now has millions of users nationwide, and serves clients like the U.S. Department of Defense, Avon, Mastercard, Monster WW and many others. Her latest company, Contact Karma, is in beta and aims through the use of social recommendation engines to help consumers find the perfect vendor match.
Genevieve was recognized by President Bush at the White House as the Small Business Administration Young Entrepreneur Champion of the Year for 2006, her companies have won over 15 major awards, including the CEC Momentum Award, the WBDC Rising Start Award, the UPS Out of the Box Award, the INC 500 list, and more. Genevieve has been featured hundreds of times in the press for her work, by the TODAY show, Ellen, the View, the CBS Early Show, CNN, Live & Style, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Redbook, Parents, Parenting, Marie Clare, TIME, Better Homes and Gardens, Working Mother and more. She has lectured or spoken at the CEO Conference, Microsoft, Harvard business school, Kellogg, Columbia, Babson, Boston College, U Chicago and for many entrepreneurial groups around the country. She is a writer for Crain’s Chicago Business and on the board of the CEC.
An Interview with Genevieve Thiers
Founder, ContactKarma and SitterCity.com
Date: May 7, 2012
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders, the CEO of NCWIT, the National Center for Women in Information Technology. This is another in our series of interviews with women who have started tech companies and we've got a great serial entrepreneur to talk to you today. With me is Larry Nelson W3W3.com. Hi, Larry.
Larry Nelson: It's a pleasure to be here and I'm looking forward to this very, very much.
Lucy: Well, we've got with us today Genevieve Thiers who is a serial entrepreneur in many spaces. In preparing for this interview, I learned quite a bit about a couple of marketplaces. For example, the need for childcare services. It's an 18 billion dollar market and projected to grow 39 billion by 2015. Genevieve, who was the founder of Sitter City recognized the importance of this marketplace and perhaps she will tell us more about it in this interview when she really set out to tap into it. Long story short, Sitter City, very successful. She has moved on to start another company called Contact Karma, which is really a B to B, business to business matchmaker of sorts, which really uses a combination of deals and recommendations and trusted contacts to match business users with service providers. Genevieve has been recognized nationally. We are very happy to have you here today, Genevieve, to be talking to us. Welcome.
Genevieve Thiers: Well, thanks for having me.
Lucy: So why don't you tell us just a little bit about what's going on at Contact Karma and if you want to throw any other stories about Sitter City, we'd love to hear them, too.
Genevieve: Sure. Well, one of the great things going on right now is that Chicago is undergoing a tech renaissance really. It's very exciting. I don't know if you guys have been keeping tabs on Chicago's tech entrepreneur scene but we have a number of groups here who have been very staunch advocates of the space. Particularly the CEC. It's just been really exciting. They've recently launched this wonderful new co-working space in Chicago called 1871. It's something like 300, 400 companies all in one spot. All tech companies, all in that early disruptive phase. So as you can imagine I'm in heaven. I actually have a couple of things I'm co-founding right now, mostly with new, emergent women entrepreneurs. So, it's been a real unique thing to springboard into from my Sitter City experience.
Lucy: We've heard Chicago is quite the hotbed and we have had several interviews now with women tech entrepreneurs from Chicago. Genevieve, can you tell us a little bit about how you first got into technology. You are a serial entrepreneur. It sounds like that's continuing. How did you first get interested and what do you think are the particularly interesting technologies today?
Genevieve: Well, frankly, how I got involved in technology is a pretty funny story. It was a complete and total accident. I was an English and Music major in college and trained primarily most of my life in opera since the age of 11. I'm primarily a performer which is very interesting. I fell into tech. I was sitting in my college dorm room my senior year of college in the year 2000. I remember I saw this nine months pregnant mother climbing up 200 steps, posting fliers for babysitters. It was too early for me to go to opera school, my voice wasn't quite ready. Your voice usually matures around the age of 30 and I was in my early 20's. I thought, "Oh gosh, here is something else I could do. I could create a solution to this problem. Why isn't someone taking all the caregivers in the city or the nation and put them all in one place where you can easily find them? But more importantly, just quickly screen them?" So that is what sittercity.com became. It's America's first and largest network to connect parents with caregivers nationwide. We have millions of caregivers in five different divisions: child care, pet care, senior care, home care and tutoring.
Lucy: It's been quite the success and everybody has been checked out, credentials and so on and so forth.
Genevieve: We believe that if you are a mom bringing a caregiver into your home, you should be the one to screen them. That's a common sense thing I think a lot of people miss but I am the oldest of seven kids so I was a baby sitter and nanny my whole life. It's really quick to check a caregiver. There is a four step process. You quickly check their references. You do a quick interview. There is usually a background check process, and parents might leave a review. It's a very simple process. It doesn't have to be complicated. Sitter City is quite neat because it allows the sitters to actually run the background check on themselves and it gets posted in their profile for you to see. It's all right there. There's no waiting. There's no 24 hour turnaround time. It's instant access to what you need.
Lucy: OK. Cool.
Larry: Yeah, very cool. What technologies do you think are cool today?
Genevieve: Oh gosh, what technologies do I think are not cool? Basically, anything that has to do with women in tech. Personally, I like technologies that solve women's problems, particularly problems for moms. Four months ago, I had identical twins, Ari and Leo Ratner, with my husband, Dan Ratner, and they are just adorable. It's amazing how much my own product has just saved my life. I hired this absolutely amazing baby nurse through Sitter City, and she is [laughs] the reason that I'm standing. I'd be on the floor without her. I like solutions that women entrepreneurs tackle to solve issues for other women or other moms.
Lucy: Let's sing an NCWIT song.
Larry: Boy, I'll say.
Lucy: Absolutely. Genevieve, tell us why you're an entrepreneur. You gave us a little bit of the history of the story about how you first started to think about Sitter City. Why, in general, are you an entrepreneur? What do you like about being an entrepreneur?
Genevieve: First of all, there's nothing not to like. It's a crazy roller coaster ride. You're constantly challenging yourself to the utmost. Yeah, it's got real down moments, but it's got some absolutely amazing highs. I think I became an entrepreneur by accident, but then later I began to realize, really, it's the perfect role for me. Did you know that the root of the word entrepreneur actually used to mean an opera impresario?
Lucy: Is that right? Is that...
Genevieve: It used to refer to an opera producer.
Lucy: My goodness.
Larry: Why would you know that?
Genevieve: I know that because I'm an opera singer. I just thought, initially, that I would create a company so that I'd have more money for singing, frankly. I didn't want to wait tables, that sort of thing. It turned out to be much, much bigger than that. I'm an accidental entrepreneur, really. I thought, hey, I'll just build this thing. It's just a solution to a problem, and it turned out to just be gigantic, because it was a solution to an enormous problem that women had all over the world. Yeah, it's been a fun ride.
Larry: That's fantastic. Now, along the way, who are some of the people who supported you, really helped you get on your way, and your role models or your mentors?
Genevieve: My main mentor has been my husband, Dan Ratner, who has created a number of companies before he even met me. It's a funny story, too, because I was actually online on match.com researching it, because Sitter City is very similar to the online dating service model. I needed to study the model, and that's where we met.
Genevieve: He's so cute. He's had several other companies before he even met me. Then he joined forces with me in 2005 to run Sitter City, which was awesome. He was helping from the beginning. I had a very small site in the beginning that I paid a couple of college friends to build. It started breaking right away, and Dan was right there to fix it every time, so he's been there from the very beginning, working alongside me. That's been wonderful. There's so many organizations in Chicago that are immensely helpful. Like I mentioned, the CEC is just incredible, and I can't wait to be in 1871. I'm actually going to be there with a desk, alongside founding entrepreneurs and other established ones, like myself. Also, the Women's Business Development Center here is great, the I2A Fund. Sitter City just stumbled across these really wonderful organizations as we've moved along. Particularly, what I'm proud of, too, is that we have some wonderful investors, all of whom are dead, I might mention. [laughs]
Genevieve: [inaudible 08:35] Capital, Latex Capital, New World, and Baird. You get venture partners, all very wonderful firms, and great, great guys. It's really good to have them on the board.
Lucy: Along the way, as you started Sitter City and also Contact Karma, you said there had been highs, and there had been lows. Tell us about one of the toughest things you've had to do in your career.
Genevieve: Mainly the toughest period I faced with Sitter City was that, in the beginning, I was launching it in the middle of the dot-com crash, and I was literally left out of rooms. I couldn't get the investors to understand it, because they'd never babysat, so I kept hearing, "My wife handles that." I kept thinking, "Gosh, get her in here." [laughs] "She'd understand." This is big. I just, at that point, kept going and built it myself because I was in the middle of the dot-com crash and not even really realizing. I just went ahead and built it myself because I realized that there was an incredible need. The moms I was talking loved it, it was just the investors I had the challenge with. It's funny, companies that built out of challenges, I find, Contact Karma, which is my latest company, is this really neat fusion of the Yelp business model, the review model, and a deal site. What we've done is, we've applied review the deals to the phase. If you're looking for a lawyer, or an accountant, or a bookkeeper, or any kind of vendor, you can go to the Contact Karma website, and you can put that in. We'll send you, within 24 hours, recommendations for our top three recommended vendors. It's not based on what we think, it's based on who else in the Chicago entrepreneurial field has used them and liked them. Then we'll give you a deal as well, so you're saving money, but you know you can trust the vendor. That company came out of an intense need to really just find vendors that weren't going to tank the business situation you're in. That came out of an intense need to basically make sure that vendors, that companies you're using when they're just getting started, don't essentially tank the company. Start-up costs for new companies are very high and we've been able to prove so far, you we can get those down to at least 70 percent of what they used to be, probably 60 percent, by the time we're done. That's exciting to me in addition to the fact that less start-ups will be having wipe-outs because they hired the wrong vendor, and blew a whole bunch of money and don't have any left to try again.
Lucy: That's a great point and I want to return a moment to the point about Sitter City being bootstrapped. I think it's, again, a good reminder that companies are started in all different ways, and bootstrap is a great alternative in some situations.
Larry: Yeah, in many situations.
Lucy: In many situations.
Larry: Yeah, you bet. Now, Genevieve, if you were, right now, sitting at a table, or a desk, and there was a young person who was looking into entrepreneurship, what advice would you give them?
Genevieve: I've got a number of things that I think are really important. The first, most important thing, that I would say to an entrepreneur just getting started is, "There are no problems. There are just sticky situations, waiting for resolutions."
Genevieve: Problems can't exist for you if you're an entrepreneur, insurmountable ones. You have to see them as opportunities to solve something. It's just interesting. I see a lot of entrepreneurs who think, "I have to solve this problem." They go out and they get all fired up, and then two days later, they give up because somebody poked some holes in it. You can't see holes. You just have to keep rolling right over them and stay focused on your vision, because there's very little out there that people will actually pay for. Once you find something that they will pay for, and you've got a narrow enough niche that you are extrapolating that from, you really can't lose. I have a couple other things I'm always saying. "Keep it simple and stupid. Don't make it complicated at all. Do something that you're familiar with." Those are more traditional pieces of advice, however.
Lucy: Keeping it simple is important. People over-complicate things all the time.
Genevieve: Oh my goodness, all you have to do is make sure that it's OK and out the door.
Genevieve: You don't need anything in a start-up to ever be perfect.
Lucy: Absolutely. Well, along the same lines as the previous question, what personal characteristics do you have that you think give you an advantage as an entrepreneur?
Genevieve: To be honest, you have to have blinders on. [laughs] You have to be that person who's willing to just go running into the field, charging with a flag above your head, with a battle cry. That's not usually the smartest person in the pack, I'll tell you that right now. [laughs] It's usually the dumbest, but, dumb but brave is a good thing. Not really thinking too much about stuff, just hurling yourself into it, is good. I think I had a particularly interesting situation, in that I've never taken a business class in my life. I came out in the middle of the worst dot-com crash, the worst recession really, since the latest one that we've had. I didn't even know we were in a recession. I didn't really know what a recession was. I was [inaudible 13:49] .
Genevieve: It was funny. I was just an idiot savant. I [inaudible 13:56] and I just kept going off and building it, and it worked, but stress on the idiot part, because it was just something I thought I would do. It was a hobby. That's a good characteristic, the ability to just run with blinders on and not get knocked over by problems coming at you from every side. Also, in my case, I found that being a performer really helped. The more that you get in front of people and perform and evangelize, whether it be yourself, or a song you're singing, or a product, the better you get at it. It's kind of an art. You really do have a challenge when you create a new web tech company because I tend to create things that haven't been done before. Fusions that haven't been done. You have a real challenge getting people to actually do it. It's really hard. You've got to chase them down in supermarkets.
Genevieve: You've got to do crazy guerilla tactics just to get their attention. I like that. I get a kick out of that, maybe because of the opera training. You can't be afraid to be in front of people and get right in front of them and tell them about what you're doing and talk them into doing it.
Lucy: That's interesting. The person who has the flag, running out ahead, charge. I think sometimes we call that courage.
Genevieve: Well, yes.
Larry: It's been called other things, too.
Genevieve: Or stupidity.
Lucy: Yeah. I think it's really, really true. The thing you're talking about. You can't get the whole, you just have to keep going.
Larry: Yep, you betcha. Wow. Now with all of the things that you've been through, I think it's really interesting and neat that you're starting this other company and everything else. How do you bring balance into your personal and your professional lives?
Genevieve: One of the interesting things I'm finding, and this was not really deliberate, but it has definitely occurred and it's exciting, is that what I'm building is helping me save time in my life. If you talk to any new mom, the one thing she wants more than anything in the world is time. It's a pretty desperate commodity for most of us. Through Sitter City I found this amazing baby nurse and suddenly I have lots of time. So much time that I'm actually co-founding multiple companies now with new, emerging women tech entrepreneurs in Chicago. That's really exciting. Conjit Cuervo, which is one of the new companies I'm working on, also saves time. One of the things that we do is we have a top ten list of vendors for starting your business, for example. Across these top 10 vendors that we've found, in everything from website design to incorporation to logo creation to your opening document suite that you need for a new company, we've been able to bring the cost of creating a new company down to 70 percent of what it once was.
We're also able to save you time. Imagine how much time it takes the average entrepreneur pounding the phones, talking to people. It can take them days or weeks to find a vendor and suddenly they go to event and stumble across a friend and that friend knows somebody, but it's pure serendipity. I like imposing order on those processes so that I can save time.
Genevieve: More time means more time with my husband and my kids.
Larry: There you go.
Lucy: It's great that you can have businesses that integrate so nicely between your personal and your professional life.
Genevieve: Absolutely and the next two that I've got integrate as well. It's very exciting. There's a mentality I find, particularly among the women tech entrepreneurs that I work with, pure organization. That's really refreshed. It's the ability to not only run a company, but in some cases I've seen them running multiple departments, families, personal lives, artistic lives all alongside each other. It's neat. We're very good at organizing. We might as well try to put that into companies. It's a great skill.
Lucy: It reinforces something that we really believe at Nancy Witt, that women's creativity really does inform technology products and services.
Lucy: I think that it's important to see that instantiated in what's out there. It's very, very inspiring. Genevieve, what's next for you? You've achieved so much and it sounds like you've got more tricks up your sleeve.
Genevieve: To be honest, I'm just playing. I really came straight out of college into what became Sitter City. Sitter City, today, is just amazing. Not only do we have our subscription service, but we have a corporate program, which is absolutely wonderful in companies like Avon and Mastercard and Monsurowide and the whole U.S. Department of Defense, for example, use Sitter City's corporate programs to, basically, connect their employees with care. That's been incredible. The next phase is international expansion. All of that is just amazing. I never really had a lot of downtime to play around and figure out who I was. I have sung opera professionally, or semi-professionally, in Chicago here and there and kept that up. I'm in this interesting spot where I'm just having a lot of fun. The twins are wonderful.
Genevieve: That was just an amazing thing to meet them and go through that. Now I'm co-founding a couple of things that help promote new emerging women in tech and I'm auditioning and I'm singing in concerts. I'm just having a blast.
Lucy: [laughs] Sounds that way.
Genevieve: I love this time with my family and with myself.
Lucy: Well, that's just really awesome and very inspiring to talk to you.
Larry: It sure is.
Lucy: To know that you're there in Chicago, and elsewhere, and making such a big difference. Thank you so much, Genevieve. I want to remind listeners that they can find this interview at w3w3.com and also ncwit.org.
Lucy: Thank you, Larry.
Larry: Thank you, Genevieve.
Genevieve: Thank you.