Bubble wants to tap users’ social graphs for an on-demand babysitting app

Who would you trust more with your kids: a person sent by a babysitting agency or the sitter who watched your friends’ kids last weekend?

Bubble, an on-demand babysitting app (iOS and Android) launching in London today, reckons most people would plump for the second option. So it’s built an app for booking a babysitter that’s powered by recommendations pulled from its users’ social graphs — such as their Facebook friends and phone contacts.

“Users have the option of integrating their Facebook account with the app and allowing it access to their phone contacts. There is also a feature in the app which allows them to stamp their profiles with the schools and nurseries their kids go to. They also have unique referral codes which they can use to refer friends  (parents or sitters) to the app,” says co-founder Ari Last, explaining how Bubble is intending to tap into users’ social graphs to power trusted recommendations.

“We’ve built (and continue to iterate on) a social graph in the back-end that maps all of this data together to show for example a parent, how they might know a sitter via mutual friends. It could be that they have a mutual friend on Facebook, or it could be that the sitter was used by another parent whose kids go to the same school as our parent user.

“We show the user the entire chain of connection between them and the sitter and we then allow the user to message each of those connections for a ‘vouch’ if they want.”

So, in short, here’s (yet) another startup gunning to replace an old school agency model with a messaging platform plus user rating system. (We’re seeing something very similar quickly spinning up in the blue collar recruitment space, for example.)

Does Bubble do any vetting of sitters itself? Last says it runs an automated ID check on all users at sign up (both parents and sitters), adding that no one can use the app until their identity has been verified. After that, the vetting is crowdsourced — via users’ social graph contacts, users’ intuition when they message other users to do their own due diligence and, ultimately, the two-way rating process generated as a by-product of usage of the platform.

“On every sitter profile, the parent can read more about them and what certifications they have. The app is providing the parent with the info on the relevant sitter and they choose what’s best for them based on their own individual needs,” says Last, who previously chalked up time in roles such as biz dev and commercial partnerships for online marketplaces including Betfair and MarketInvoice.

“I saw from my time in fintech that there’s so much innovation happening in how platforms can smartly validate its user base instantly/automatically so we’re excited about leveraging some of these in the future — the social validation and identity checking is a good start,” he adds.

Users are not required to connect their Facebook profiles to use the app, but Last says it is “strongly” encouraged so they get the best experience by being as “well-connected in the app as possible”.

“As a parent, the more friends or sitters you have on the app the easier it will be for you to find a trusted sitter. And for a sitter, the more connections you have in the app, the more local families are going to want to book you. So it’s a win-win which we hope will encourage virality,” he adds.

At this point Bubble is seed funded to the tune of £175,000 by angel investors, including Mark Davies, ex of Betfair — so Last and co have clearly been tapping their own social graph to get this startup off the ground.

They have around 150 London-based babysitters signed up to the platform at launch. And some 300 users have signed up during an open beta running for the past 10 days.

Bubble is not taking a commission from sitters for using its (free) platform, but parents are charged a £3.50 fee for every sitting session booked via the app (though they are not charged any other fees for using the platform). All payment is handled in app, via Braintree.

In terms of competition, Bubble is aiming to disrupt traditional babysitting agencies, some of which Last notes are moving online and going mobile. He says the latter element is key to its strategy as the hope is to help time-strapped parents be more spontaneous about their social lives, rather than having to schedule a babysitter well in advance. (Last and his co-founder are both dads — touting their own experience of trying to pin down babysitting services as the inspiration for launching the app).

“The concept of a purely mobile, transactional, on-demand app in this space is new in the UK — particularly one using social data to build trust as we intend to,” he says, discussing the competitive landscape. “There is care.com and other smaller, similar type websites but that is more for longer term needs and it covers a lot of care verticals.

“You can book a sitter in advance on our app but we’re placing a lot of emphasis on creating an engaging on-demand experience – giving parents that ability to be spontaneous again.”

So what happens if something goes wrong? Who is liable? As with the vast majority of online marketplaces, the risks are in the hands of the users who have to judge whether they are comfortable with a particular transaction themselves.

“We’re a marketplace platform and it’s up to both the parents and sitters on bubble to choose who they interact with on the app,” says Last.

“It’s important for us to stress that our ambition here is not to be ‘safe enough’ but actually be the safest way for someone to find a sitter. Social validation — using the people who your friends vouch for and use themselves is a great way to layer transparency and security into the process of finding someone to look after your kids.”

He also points out that the transparency being two-way helps babysitters too.

“Speaking to them it was really interesting to hear how lots of them often show up to people’s houses not knowing much about the parent or what to expect. After all they’ve often got the job via a text message from someone they don’t know saying “you sat for my friend Sarah last week so can you sit for me tonight”. And most of them would take that job,” he notes.

“With bubble — the transparency is two-way. They get to view a parent’s profile and any mutual contacts before accepting a sit. Sitters are also rating parents at the end of the night (not just the parents rating the sitter) so they get to view that rating too. We’re encouraging the best behaviour all round.”

Encouraging best behavior is one thing, but guaranteeing safety is quite another. So it remains to be seen how parents trust instincts vis-a-vis their kids safety will play out in the crowd-rating arena.