Genevieve Thiers, CEO of Sittercity.com, an Inc. 500 company, has a new mission. 'What I really want to do is show people that women's problems are big business when you figure out a way to solve them,' she says. She's done exactly that with her own Chicago-based company, which is a web-based service that matches babysitters with parents nationwide. And now, she's started her own small business incubator within Sittercity's offices, hoping to help other women business owners achieve similar success.
Thiers, who is featured in my book, Upstarts!, stated her company in 2001 when she was an IBM employee in Boston; she was rebuffed continually by investors who dismissed her company as a 'babysitters club.' Seven years later, she had proved the naysayers wrong by landing $7.5 million in venture capital in the middle of a recession. Her business is growing, she says, because 'in the recession, a lot of moms are going back to work and they need care-giving.' Sittercity saw a 128 percent increase in job postings in the last quarter of 2009 over first quarter postings. But while business is booming now, Thiers struggled on her own for many years. 'My first three and half years, I was alone and lonely,' she recalls. 'Every week, I went to the Post Office and that was my entertainment.' It wasn't until she moved her company to Chicago in 2002 that she finally started getting the help she needed from the city's Women's Business Development Center. Still, she says, she lacked proper office space and longed for more consistent contact with other business owners.
So with more than $5 million in revenue (her VCs won't allow her to reveal specific numbers), Thiers decided last November that it was time to 'play it forward.' After trying unsuccessfully to sublease spare office space at Sittercity's offices, on the 22nd floor of Chicago's Merchandise Mart, Thiers came up with an alternative way to fill the empty space: she started her own incubator for women-owned companies. 'We spent about 20 hours setting up private cubicles, putting in desks, a conference room and a library,' she says. 'We're now incubating three companies and we have room for another four.' Her criteria: companies must be run by women and serve a predominantly female client base. The space is free and available from 7am to 7pm weekdays. Current tenants include Cotton Seed Clothing, a children's clothing company, Chit Chat Brands, which makes baking kits, and It's Hip Hop Baby, a producer of DVDs for children. Both Thiers and her COO/husband Dan Ratner are informal advisors and mentors to the entrepreneurs.
'We're all targeting moms with young children, so we all bounce ideas off one another,' says Candi Carter, the CEO of It's Hip Hop Baby. Carter, who still has a full time job as a television producer, met Thiers at a Boston College alumni event and was the incubator's first tenant. 'My interns used to work from home, but now they work here and they're getting advice from Sittercity's web optimization and marketing staff,' she says. Another incubator tenant, Corliss Hale of Chit Chat Brands, is arranging for her financial advisor to make a presentation to the group. 'What happens is, you end up having several extra eyes looking out for your business,' says Carter. 'It's been a jewel.'
For her part, Thiers isn't lonely any more either. She's part of a loosely organized peer group of Chicago women entrepreneurs, each with companies of over or close to $1 million in revenue. They share best practices and have also introduced one another to investors. 'I think that many women entrepreneurs reach a certain milestone with their companies and the standard networking events don't work anymore since it's a lot of people that want to seek your advice, but not a lot that can give you advice,' says Theirs. 'This is why I began doing both the peer group and the incubator. It's the best way for me to both gather advice from women in a similar situation, and also help women trying to break a million with their own companies. Who's going to pull us up other than us?'
So what about you? If you're doing something innovation to help other entrepreneurs, tell us about it.