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 about 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.
The Sensible Sitters office is hectic, but always organized. The office phone often rings simultaneously with Wauchope and Danielle’s respective cell phones, and both women’s computer screens have multiple windows displayed at all times, including a master sitter schedule, a Freshbooks (online billing service) page, and Gmail account. Email is Wauchope’s choice method of communication with sitters; she sends out several email “blasts” a day to all of her sitters which display available jobs. The job descriptions note the children’s ages, the neighborhood where the apartment is located, and any other pertinent information (such as health issues) about the children and the family. Sitters are able to check off jobs they are available for and within minutes a confirmation email is sent to both the sitter and the client.
Born in affluent Fairfield County, Connecticut, Wauchope 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, began searching for reliable sitters at schools fairs (especially nursing and teaching schools, where she figured personal child care and instruction were already in the skill set of most students) and dove right in.
With 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.” She alone was communicating with each sitter and each client, creating daily schedules and Excel sheets, and handwriting every single check. With staff in all Sensible Sitters locations now, Wauchope is less stressed and it able to maintain a certain quality for all of her clients.
The 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 very 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 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. Over President’s Day weekend, a client called the office the day his family was leaving for Aspen, and asked for a sitter to accompany him and his family. The paid trip, which included roundtrip private jet accommodations, went perfectly smoothly as a sitter was located who had travel and skiing experience.
The sitters themselves don’t take their experiences for granted. One Sensible Sitters’ college sitter, an NYU sophomore, lived with a family in the Hamptons last summer for two weeks was paid $3000. She had her own bedroom in a waterfront mansion, accompanied the mother to spinning classes at a luxury gym, and took the kids hiking and swimming in beautiful spots. Although she admits moving in with the family at first felt a bit awkward, she assimilated into the family dynamic within a few days and felt as though “it was just acting like an older sister.”
Another sitter was able to see “the other side” when she sat for a family in a luxury building in TriBeCa (the family owned the entire building). The stunning six-story “apartment” included an elevator, which the family’s father used to transport the kids’ toys to their first-floor playroom. However, not all of her babysitting experiences went well. She babysat for a reality TV star once who hardly acknowledged her and asked her to take out the garbage on her way out.
Businesswise, 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.” One aspect of Wauchope’s strategic brand-building is the upcoming “Sitter Curriculum” that will be offered to all Sensible Sitters nannies. This will uphold the “quality control of sitters” that Wauchope deeply cares about, with classes ranging from Baby Basics 101 to infant/toddler workshops.
The brand is practically building itself. Wauchope does not use any mass-market commercial advertisements, but rather relies on word-of-mouth from her solid client base and some promotion at private school auctions. This created network, 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 competition in the Manhattan babysitting world, but confidently assures that these companies, including Sitter City and Metropolitan Sitters, “just keep me on my toes.”