by Ryan Haggerty
Like a lot of college students, Genevieve Thiers (GMu04) baby-sat her way through school. Unlike most college students, she didn’t view baby-sitting as a dead-end job. She saw it as an opportunity.
Thiers, a veteran of more than 3,576 baby-sitting gigs, founded Sittercity.com, the Internet’s first and largest web site to match baby sitters with parents, while still an undergraduate at Boston College. And despite her web site’s explosive growth — Sittercity now has 12 full-time employees and more than 150,000 baby sitters nationwide — Thiers didn’t give up on her lifelong goal of becoming an opera singer. In fact, after earning a master’s degree in opera performance at Northwestern in 2004, Thiers and a friend opened their own opera company in Chicago, producing and starring in modern American operas while recruiting other young singers looking for a first role with a professional opera.
Not that she’s had much time to dwell on it, but Thiers, 29, is finally facing the truth.
“I’m an entrepreneur, I guess, by spirit,” says Thiers, her strong, lyrical voice filling the bright yellow conference room at Sittercity’s headquarters in Chicago’s vibrant River North neighborhood. “I never really realized it or admitted it, but I always have been.”
Thiers, who baby-sat for more than 30 families while majoring in English and music at BC, was a senior when she saw a pregnant woman struggling up the 189 steps from the lower campus to the upper campus, posting fliers to attract baby sitters. Thiers sent the woman home and, while posting the rest of the fliers, realized that a web site that brought baby sitters and parents together — similar to the dating site Match.com — could have instant success.
Thiers borrowed $80 from her father in May 2000 to buy the domain name for Sittercity, then printed 20,000 fliers, posting them on 20 college campuses in the Boston area that summer while working full-time for IBM and singing for a small opera company in a church basement on weeknights. She used her IBM salary to hire two friends, one as a programmer and one as a designer, and then, armed with a business plan, explained her idea to potential investors.
“I gave them the pitch, and a lot of them said, ‘My wife handles that,’ or, ‘It’s a baby-sitting club,’” Thiers says. “They just didn’t get it. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I were talking to your wife right now, because your wife would invest in it.’”
The investors made a mistake that few have repeated — they said no to Thiers.
“Genevieve is someone who can’t handle it when you tell her she can’t do something,” says Dan Ratner, Sittercity’s vice president and a self-described serial investor who also happens to be Thiers’ fiancé. The two met, appropriately enough, through Match.com in 2001, and Ratner did his part to get Sittercity off the ground — he and Thiers spent their first few dates cutting and folding Sittercity brochures.
Instead of relying on investors, Thiers promoted the site through word-of-mouth marketing. “I wouldn’t leave anyone alone,” she says. “You just get possessed by these ideas when you know that they’re really good. I knew I had to launch the site.”
About 600 baby sitters had signed up by August 2001, along with the 30 or so families Thiers sat for while at BC. After a day and night of data entry, Thiers launched Sittercity on Sept. 1. The first new user registered on the site that afternoon, and within a week Thiers was receiving cakes and cookies in the mail, gifts of gratitude from relieved parents.
The site’s success stems from its security measures and its user-friendly format — and the attention it’s received from media outlets such as the New York Times and the Today Show. (The Wall Street Journal and ABC News recently featured Sittercity’s new corporate child care program.) Baby sitters and parents can search for each other by ZIP code, pay rate and availability, and parents can access résumés, background checks and reviews of potential baby sitters posted by other parents. Parents can follow the site’s instructions on how to interview potential baby sitters, and sitters can also request background checks on parents. Baby sitters register on the site at no cost; parents pay either a monthly or an annual fee.
As the number of cities served increased during summer 2002, Thiers moved the business to Chicago, where she could geographically center her operations and pursue a master’s degree in opera performance at Northwestern.
There was no separation between opera and business, however. “I remember a performance where I sang in Act 1, went out to do a conference call, sang in Act 2, went back to do another conference call, then ended the show in the final chorus,” she says. The School of Music’s practice rooms became satellite offices — when the sounds of practicing opera singers interrupted her conference calls, Thiers simply told her long-distance associates that Sittercity’s office was next to an opera company.
Despite the pressure of running her own business, Thiers still excelled at Northwestern.
“She has a clear, light voice and is a very animated stage presence,” says Sunny Joy Langton, an assistant professor of voice whose two daughters are both registered baby sitters on Sittercity. “Her continued presence in the Chicago singing scene is a testament to her ongoing progress, development and commitment to excellence.”
Since 2003 Sittercity has helped more than 1,000 Northwestern students find local jobs.
Her goals expanded again in late spring and early summer 2004, when Thiers graduated from Northwestern, moved Sittercity into a downtown office and hired the company’s first two full-time employees. With her business thriving, Thiers tried to put her opera degree to use but quickly realized that she was stuck in operatic limbo, the period of five to 10 years or more after graduation in which young opera singers are expected to wait for their first role.
Again, Thiers didn’t take no for an answer. Instead, she and Mary Lutz (GMu03), who had starred with Thiers in a student-run production of Dialogue of the Carmelites at Northwestern, started their own opera production company, OperaModa. Lutz and Thiers cast themselves and other young singers in modern American operas, sung entirely in English and performed at theaters across Chicago.
They also sent a message to the opera world at large.
“We’re tired of it,” Thiers says. “There’ve been a lot of singers launching opera companies because they’ve had it. They’ve decided to create their own opportunities.”
OperaModa is trying to prove that opera is still relevant. And in addition to producing short operas with modern themes and engaging story lines, the company came up with some clever marketing — such as OperaModa Uncovered, a 2007 calendar in which the singers “show off more than just their voices” — which has caught the attention of traditional opera-goers and newer fans.
“It’s very modest. Everything’s covered,” Thiers says with a laugh. “But at the same time, it’s quite sexy and definitely highlights our mission. We have a lot more young men coming to our operas now.”
OperaModa operates out of a corner office in Sittercity’s new 6,000-square-foot office suite, a loft with hardwood floors, baby blue and bright yellow walls, exposed air ducts, a view of the Loop and a noticeable lack of cubicles.
Thiers says she hopes to take Sittercity international within the next few years while continuing to produce and sing operas, and she says she isn’t surprised by her success.
“I did always believe Sittercity could get this big,” she says. “In fact, I believe it can get much, much, much bigger than this. You’ve got to truly believe it. If I only thought it would have been kind of nice in Boston, I wouldn’t have done it. I’m a highly, highly ambitious person.”
That much should be obvious.
Ryan Haggerty is a Medill School of Journalism senior from Buffalo.
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