One Saturday afternoon last month, Brian Worobey found himself in a mild panic. The 53-year-old divorced father of two had his 6- and 9-year-olds with him for the weekend, and both were feeling miserable. His daughter, in particular, had a cold and a fever. And Worobey was out of medicine.
He tried to bundle up the kids for a run to the pharmacy, but they resisted.
So he took out his phone and typed out his plea.
“Is anyone around? Because I need this now,” he wrote at 3:55 p.m.
The children’s Tylenol was delivered by TaskRabbit, the errand company, at 4:28 p.m.
“It was easy. Click, click, boom,” Worobey said. “I needed the medicine, I couldn’t go get it, and they were there for me. It was great.”
A crop of savvy businesses, taking a page from the success of Uber and the shopping service Instacart, have begun targeting families with on-demand services to help ease the challenges of managing kids, with a few taps of a smartphone. Parents can now book a baby sitter, hail a ride for their child, or have someone fetch a gallon of milk in just a few hours — or less.
It’s like Mary Poppins, digitized.
In Boston, parents can arrange a sitter in seconds using Chime, a new app launched by SitterCity, the child-care job board. Or they can coordinate an evening out with Date Night, Care.com’s new sitter-finding service, which integrates with Fandango for movie tickets and OpenTable for restaurant reservations.
To give parents peace of mind about entrusting their children to a stranger, the companies promise extensive background checks and heavy vetting, lessons learned in part from past problems and ongoing questions about the safety of on-demand services.
The ride-hailing apps Shuddle and HopSkipDrive promise to do their own prescreening as they transport children on the West Coast. And in Massachusetts, the startup Zemcar has just launched a family-friendly ride service for parents overwhelmed with the pick-up and drop-off routine. Even established assistance services like TaskRabbit are getting in on the game, having recently launched a real-time booking component that allows parents like Worobey to get what they need in as little as 90 minutes.
Some of these companies are startups, while others are established players looking to reinvent themselves to better respond to the needs of families.
“The evolution is really apparent,” said Tanner Hackett, cofounder of Button, a New York startup that works with companies to build on-demand apps. The first generation of service companies, like Uber, originally launched with a fleet of private black cars, were “cool, sexy, and convenience-oriented,” but not necessarily for the mass market, he said. Dozens more followed, offering amenities like instant meal deliveries and parking, but have had less success finding a broad set of customers. So now businesses are pushing services they hope will appeal to larger demographics — like parents.
For many families, the apps are an extension of the need-it-now sensibility they have come to depend on in the marketplace.
“When we became parents, we immediately signed up for Amazon Prime and Instacart, which have been lifesavers,” said Drew Volpe, an engineer and venture capitalist who lives in downtown Boston with his wife and 20-month-old daughter.
Volpe had used SitterCity to find a nanny, so he was intrigued when he heard about the company’s testing of Chime in Boston last fall, offering same-day sitter bookings on nights and weekends. Parents plug in the time they need and receive the profiles of three available baby sitters nearby. They can read reviews and watch videos of the sitters, then reserve one in seconds.
“With our busy schedules, we’re rarely able to plan far enough ahead to book a sitter, so being able to find someone the day before or day of is huge,” Volpe said.
Chicago-based SitterCity has seen huge success with its digital bulletin board connecting parents and full-time child-care providers. But when a parent was in a pinch, the site often fell short.
In developing the same-day Chime service, the company recruited sitters like Manisha Bicchieri. The North End resident, 24, has a day job but squeezes in a few hours of sitting each week through the app. Since parents have to submit requests by 3:30 p.m for a day-of booking, it allows her the flexibility to know whether she’s working that night or can head out with friends. Chime charges Boston parents $16 per hour and takes a 10 percent surcharge in exchange for a promise of thorough background checks. Bicchieri makes $600 a month through the app.
Uber has spawned HopSkipDrive and Shuddle, two California startups that have raised millions in venture funding for their family-centric ride-hailing apps. It also inspired Bedford’s Bilal Wahid, who recently launched Zemcar, a company that pitches itself as your “family’s trusted driver” and offers rides to kids ages 8 and up.
“We consider this as a premium, safer alternative to Uber,” Wahid said, and he has been hiring nannies, teachers, and stay-at-home moms who might be ferrying kids, anyway. Parents can watch a live stream of their children’s trip from the dashboard camera, and if they like the driver, they can add him or her to a “circle of trust” that is shared with friends when they use the app. Rides generally cost about 10 percent more than Uber’s.
“It’s hard as a single mom, as I don’t have any close relatives around or in Boston,” said Jessie Cabel, who is raising two daughters in Bedford. Cabel started using the service when it was launched earlier this year and found it so useful that she also signed on as a driver.
Some may contend that these companies offer solutions to crises of our own making — parents are working more than they have at any point in history, and their propensity to overschedule children’s afterschool activities can easily be seen as problem of the privileged. But others argue these one-click wonders offer parents a valuable solution for the problem they’re constantly seeking to solve: How do I find more time?
“A lot of folks who use our service really value their time,” said Anand Iyer, cofounder of Trusted, an on-demand baby-sitting service in San Francisco. The parents using his app, he said, are the “Whole Foods demographic. Dual-income parents who value their time more than their money.”
Because trust is always an issue when children are involved, the most desirable companies will do the most legwork upfront to earn the confidence of parents, said Hackett, the on-demand consultant. With apps like this, there is zero room for error, as an errant background check could easily lead to a lawsuit, or worse.
Waltham-based Care.com is being sued in several states by parents who say the site’s background searches did not turn up nannies’ criminal behavior. The company declined to comment for this story. SitterCity has also faced scrutiny, including one case in Newton involving abuse. Andrew Conrad of Chime said the company makes screening a priority, but noted that “parents need to take a lot of the onus in the vetting process.”
It’s clear that success for these businesses is not just about how easy it is for a parent to book services, but also about how well a company puts a parent at ease.
“I think the businesses that get it realized they have to be responsive to this generation,” said Christine Koh, author of the Boston Mamas parenting blog. That means “offering ways for the community to crowdsource who’s legit and who’s not.”
“On-demand was cool, unique, and fun five years ago,” said Hackett, “but today it is forcing every industry to rethink how they engage with consumers. Because of these services, your time as a parent can be spent on things that are of more meaningful value.”
Like your kids.