Big Dig First Draft: The Nanny Diaries

by Grace Handy

What do wealthy and powerful Manhattanites do when they have a charity event, an awards ceremony, or a fancy-schmancy dinner to go to and need someone to watch the little ones?

They call, e-mail, or text message Vanessa Wauchope.

“It’s all about being accessible and having sitters ready around-the-clock,” says Wauchope. The petite 27-year-old founded Sensible Sitters, a “couture” Manhattan babysitting company, a mere five years ago, and since then it has become a million-dollar business enterprise with outposts in the Hamptons, Los Angeles, and Palm Beach.

Wauchope operates from a tiny office on a shared floor in the Chelsea area of Manhattan. She and her office manager, Danielle, who describes Sensible Sitters as “a kind of concierge service,” organize the entire New York network; answering requests from clients, reaching out to sitters, processing deposits, and keeping up relationships with their client base. The office, which is a room the size of small kitchen, includes two desks with laptops, walls dotted with Christmas cards and drawings from families, and laminated and framed news clippings from publications such as Gotham, Time Out New York, and New York Family.

Wauchope, born in affluent Fairfield County, Connecticut, had a strong work ethic instilled in her from a young age. Her parents, entrepreneurs themselves, launched a profitable cabinetry business, where Wauchope found her first babysitting clients in her parents’ client base. From there, she became a hot-commodity babysitter; landing after-school jobs, summer camp jobs, and live-in jobs at wealthy homes in Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

When Wauchope moved to Manhattan after college, she realized there weren’t any simple ways or networks for wealthier families to connect with college-aged babysitters. She also realized that many live-in nannies and babysitters for the rich and powerful were foreign, and their linguistic and cultural barriers caused some difficulty with communication, homework help, and efficient correspondence with clients. Wauchope saw an entrepreneurial opportunity and dove right in.

With an established client base and virtually no business experience whatsoever, Wauchope founded Sensible Sitters. Although the company has turned out extremely successful, Wauchope warns, “Don’t start a business without business experience.” Word spread a little too quickly about the new babysitting company in town, and Wauchope felt overwhelmed and understaffed. She alone was communicating with each sitter and each client, creating daily schedules and Excel sheets, and handwriting every single check. She decided a part-time staff was necessary, and has had employed staff ever since.

The general happiness and good relationships among the sitters, the clients, and the Sensible Sitters company itself is of utmost importance to Wauchope. “We pay as much attention to the individual families as we do to the sitters.” Wauchope and her colleagues work as diligently as possible to, as she calls it, “prioritize clients,” matching up families to sitters who have a suitable skill set. The clients, who pay a $150 yearly membership fee and an hourly rate ranging from $20 to $30 (of which Sensible Sitters gets a cut) are treated highly personally. Wauchope and her staff, for example, will send along a beach bag of hand-picked toys if a sitter is vacationing at the beach with a family, or will send a child’s favorite kind of candy to his or her home as a birthday gift. This personalized, concierge-like service is something Wauchope vows to never let compromise, no matter how big the company gets. “We are expanding in a calculated manner.”

Hopelessly energetic and a self-confessed coffee addict, Wauchope chalks up her business success to ambition and the inherent need to always go the extra mile. “We’ve succeeded by never saying no.” If a client calls frantically an hour before a dinner, Wauchope will set the family up with a sitter that lives nearby almost instantly. Over President’s Day weekend, a client called the office the day his family was leaving for Aspen, and asked if a sitter was available within the hour to depart with them. The paid trip, which included roundtrip private jet accommodations, went perfectly smoothly as a sitter was located who had worked with the family previously and had much travel experience.

Business-wise, Wauchope is involved in the day-to-day activities of the Sensible Sitters Manhattan office and its outposts. However, she says, “I am now more involved strategically and less tactically, meaning I’m more interested in building our brand.”

The brand is practically building itself. Wauchope does not use any mass-market commercial advertising, she relies rather on word-of-mouth from her solid client base and some promotion at private school auctions. This network of sorts, made up of about 1,000 families and several hundred sitters total, has turned into, technically, a medium-sized business.

Wauchope knows she has some tough competition in the Manhattan babysitting world, but confidently assures that companies such as Sitter City and Metropolitan Sitters “just keep me on my toes.”

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