The F Word with Adrienne Kallweit, SeekingSitters

A Tulsa mother looking for childcare finds out that her child’s preschool teacher has a shady past. The discovery sparks a realization: despite routine background checks, parents don’t really know who they’re entrusting their children to. Today that mother, Adrienne Kallweit, now leads the national franchise SeekingSitters, a service dedicated to connecting parents with safe, fully-vetted caretakers. Listen as Adrienne discusses establishing her company- without any startup capital- and learning how to stand out in a sea of competitors.

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Adrienne:    Competition drives us.

Lauren:    This week on the F word.

Adrienne:    I think some people kind of get scared away by these 100 pound, 1,000 pound gorillas that, "how can I even start this business when there's already this huge competitor?"

Lauren:    Adrienne Kallweit, the founder of Seeking Sitters.

Adrienne:    It was definitely really hard to get funding to grow at the pace that we wanted to grow.

Lauren:    Welcome back to the F word. Every parent wants to know their kids are safe when they're not with them. Our guest today makes that possible. Adrienne Kallweit is the founder of Seeking Sitters. It's a service the runs extensive background checks on baby sitters, house and pet sitters. Seeking Sitters is now a national franchise with over 100 locations across the US. It's been featured on CNN, CBS, Entrepreneur Magazine and many more. But Adrienne and her family have gone through a lot of life to get to this point. Adrienne, thanks for coming in to share your story.

Adrienne:    Hey Lauren. Thanks so much.

Lauren:    A common theme we hear from entrepreneurs is, "Do what you know". And that's true for you. This concept of deep background checks, investigation, kind of is in your blood, right?

Adrienne:    Absolutely. My mom started a company called Hide and Seek in 1978. It was kind of the family business. And I never got involved in it when we were growing up. But after I graduated from college, I was looking for a more flexible opportunity and starting a family, working with the family business seemed like the right way. And I asked my mom, "Hey. Would you be interested in training me on "Momma's secret sauce" on investigations." She started investigating back in 1978, way before ... I mean, basically, you had-

Lauren:    When you couldn't google someone.

Adrienne:    Yellow pages. Yeah. No way. And we've gone through everything. We've gone through the birth of the internet, finding things online. To the flip side of it, there's so much information out there now, that it's almost too much. And it's hard to decipher what is true and what is not. So our services in investigations have become a necessity again, as it was back in the 80s. Finding people and in-depth investigations and in-depth background screenings. So that's really our background. I was operating my family's investigation business, starting a family and really saw that there was a need in the child care realm of safe, reliable baby sitters.

Lauren:    And you were a mom at the time when you started, right. 2004?

Adrienne:    2004. I had two little ones and one on the way. And I was looking for my own care for my own family. And did a screening on my son's preschool teacher. I know that the Oklahoma basic screenings don't dig deep enough. And so I wanted to go a little bit deeper, make sure she was safe for our home. She was a teacher in a local school. I thought it would be not that big of a deal, but I was shocked at what I had found. There were protective orders, things that weighed against her character. I would not let her in my home. And it's surprising. Even fast forward to this day, 2017, our service has grown to a national franchise. We're still screening the same way. And there's still those same scenarios, where sitters will apply and assume that we're not going to check it out. And we do. And so it does make a difference. We have had zero safety incidents since 2004.

Lauren:    Zero. Wow.

Adrienne:    Over a million baby sitting jobs. So it does make a difference. It is, like you said, part of our blood and our family investigations.

Lauren:    So, you find this out about your children's preschool teacher. And you think, okay. I can make a business out of this? How did it get from that-

Adrienne:    Not quite that fast. Right. Not quite that fast. We started screening our own sitters. Just so I could do my investigation business. And I had on-demand sitters. My friends got word of it. They wanted to borrow my sitters. And we got really used to that flexibility, of having our own care whenever we wanted it. And safe care. We were kind of doing our own little Seeking Sitters on our own. And we traveled to see family over a six month period to big towns like Austin, Texas. A family member in Denver, Colorado. Ran into the same trouble. And they didn't have any solutions there. There were no online referral services that you knew you could trust. And so, really my husband and I, we just said, "Let's do this." We've been doing it in Tulsa. Let's take it and make a business out of it. We had no idea ... Seeking Sitters really has a life of it's own. It really ... we have been in business long enough that, kind of at that 10, 12 year mark, we look back and say, "Seeking Sitters was meant to be. These families deserve this safe child care. And we're here just making it continue in that successful motion."

Lauren:    So you start in 2004. And in just two years, which is really quick, you decided to franchise. Why?

Adrienne:    Growth path for us. We didn't seek investment funding. We didn't have a whole bunch of money in our back pocket. And so that was the route that was the easiest way to go nationwide. And that was the goal from day one. The business plan was to be a nationwide service. So we could travel and use the service in Austin, Texas, in Denver, Colorado, which we now can. And so, that was the goal... how do we get there nationwide. That has been our stumbling block, as far as how we've gotten there. And we're always learning. We're growing and even re-inventing ourselves to this day. But yes, it definitely, the goal was to be nationwide.

Lauren:    I think a lot of entrepreneurs wonder, "Should I franchise? Should I not? What's that look like?" Can you speak any to that? Are you glad that you followed that path?

Adrienne:    It absolutely was a great way to grow our business. But I love servicing people and I love helping our clients. I love running a Seeking Sitters location. When you get into franchising, you step away from all of that. You become a franchise, or which is already a business in itself, that already exists. And it operates the same way. You're servicing a different client. You're running a franchise system. And that was absolutely the struggle for me. I know you had on Shannon Wilburn, who is a franchisor for Just Between Friends franchise. She and I actually went around the US on a speaking tour. And we were kind of the Yin and Yang of franchising. She absolutely was born and bred to be a franchisor. Loves every bit of it. And I kind of gave the flip side of it. As you know, really evaluate your business and make sure that that is the right path for you. I absolutely do not say that we shouldn't have. That is not what at all what I look at. There is ... we have some of the most amazing franchises, franchisees in our system. But I definitely wish I would have taken a more non-conventional approach to it. Instead of having been so cookie cutter, like every other franchise, I wish we would have done a little bit more hybrid model, because we are a tech company. When it comes down to it at the end of the day, we are a tech company. We're not brick and mortar. We absolutely operate online as an on-demand referral service. And franchising does slow that down. Because your first priority in franchising is tending to your franchisees. And so I think maybe a hybrid approach for us would have been nicer, which is kind of what we're growing into now. We have some amazing franchisees still. And we run the majority, over 80 corporate locations out of the Tulsa area.

Lauren:    Business is obviously messy. On this podcast, we love talking about when we've screwed up or when things get really hard. Can you think of a particular instance that stuck with you, that you're like, "Man. I cannot believe we got through that."?

Adrienne:    Well, as probably a lot of your other guests that you've had on this say, "Every trial just teaches you". I absolutely believe that. Nothing is by mistake. Everything that we've learned has led us to the next step. So, I don't see failure at all. Somebody else might see failure ... even somebody that comes in as a franchisee and they don't possibly succeed or they decide to move along and do something else. They might be hanging their head low. But I look at it completely different. You crossed the threshold. There are a lot of people that didn't even cross the threshold. And look at all that you've learned. And look at the skills you're going to take to your next venture. That's something I wish more people really took pride in. That they have learned so much. That entrepreneurship, it's like the next step of schooling. If you will learn, maybe I'm not cut out to be an entrepreneur. I want to be an awesome employee and be a major driver in a big business. So one thing I do see that I think a lot of business owners fall into the trap, is making all arrows point back to them. That they are the only one that, if you, if that little center person changes, everything kind of falls apart. And it's hard to get back on track. We just recently purchased back one of our franchised locations. And we just stepped in. And I went through this personally several, several years ago. But I was reminded of it again with their location, because all of their clients and all of this sphere around that franchise owner, they're kind of lost without that owner. And it is ... the business is absolutely struggling because of that. That does not mean that we won't grow and change that. Or we are there and doing all the things that we need to turn that around. But business owners need to be very careful about that. Because if you take yourself out of the equation, is your business still going to be strong? Be okay with everybody else getting the credit, so that you're not trapped by not being able to step away. How can you do that if you're the only face there. 

Lauren:    Help me understand. Your business is mainly data driven. It's this huge database of all these sitters and their background and everything like that. What role do your franchisees play? Why do you need them?

Adrienne:    That is a fantastic question. It is. You know, I was actually thinking about that today. They play a very crucial role. And going back to what I said in the beginning, in the way that we're growing now, in more of this hybrid way of ownership. They play such a crucial role in being on that local level and having additional, really powerful minds working together. So it isn't just myself, my husband and our corporate team trying to figure it out. We have these other brilliant minds that can really drive the whole picture to success. So when we look at our franchisees like part of the team, rather than just a franchisee, what are their profits, what are their numbers, how we drive them to success? That's how we're going to really explode in this next phase of Seeking Sitters.

Lauren:    So, shifting topics. Seeking Sitters has a fair amount of competition. There's Care.com and Sitter City and a bunch of others. Tell me not only how you're better, but more so, how you communicate that you're better? I think for a lot of entrepreneurs, that's a big battle of getting people to really hear and believe that.

Adrienne:    Well, as an entrepreneur and anytime in talking to somebody else that might be struggling with competition, that is the worst way to look at. Welcome your competition. There's enough room for everybody. But as you mentioned those two competitors, specifically Care.com and Sitter City, those aren't A to A competitors. We actually seek sitters on those sites and filter through those sites and bring the cream of the crop to Seeking Sitters.

Lauren:    Really? That's cool.

Adrienne:    And then we do all the work for our families. So we're very different than what they do. We advertise on Care.com, just right next to Craig's list. So we basically are filtering through all of these venues to find the cream of the crop sitters for our select baby sitting team.

Lauren:    So you're actually sourcing other places to build your-

Adrienne:    Absolutely. And we keep actively working baby sitters. A lot of the repositories online, it is kind of a DIY, find your own sitter. And it's a style of a parent. Parents want to have their hands on everything that's absolutely a great avenue for them. They learn to trust our service. So we filter through ... and it goes back to when I started Seeking Sitters, when David and I started Seeking Sitters together. We were both working parents. And we didn't have the time to filter through. And so we needed that help. We needed to have this repository of safe sitters that we could reach out to on demand. Our families request hours before an event a lot of times. About 40% of our work each week comes in last minute. And so our families come to understand that and learn how our service works and that we do have safe, on demand sitters on call. So that helps a lot. Competition drives us. We're in a reinvention phase right now with Seeking Sitters. And we're absolutely looking at the competition of what technology is driving. What are our consumers used to. Competition sometimes is simply meeting the consumers needs, what they're used to and providing a better customer service experience. And we have a foundation that will always be here. Seeking Sitters safety and customer service. That customer service is where we thrive.

Lauren:    The core of who you are.

Adrienne:    Absolutely. The safety and customer service. And I also, I think it's important, when you're looking at competition to know your market. We don't service everyone. I don't need to service a huge market to be profitable. I don't. And so, I think some people get scared away by these 100 pound, 1,000 pound gorillas that, how can I even start this business, when there's already this huge competitor. Well, find your niche. And service your customer. You don't need a huge customer base to be profitable. If you're trying to tackle every single consumer, every single client, you're not going to really meet where your niche market is.

Lauren:    You said you're in a phase of reinvention right now. Talk more about that. What are the specifics of that?

Adrienne:    We absolutely, like you said, competition is driving it. Technology is driving it. Just what we have learned and being in business long enough is driving it. But it is time to really like I said in the beginning, take all that we've learned and make more of a hybrid in franchising and corporate growth and put a huge emphasis on technology. And that's really where we're shifting. We came into a market that didn't exist in 2004. And we were way pre-uber of the on-demand world. I always equate it to going to get insurance for the first time and they were like, "Who are you? I'm not going to insure this on-demand, I don't even know what that is, on-demand on a computer." And fast forward now, I'm literally this month, I've got three different insurance carriers fighting over our business now. So we've seen all of that birth. I remember asking our credit card processing company if they could help us invent some kind of way that our sitters could swipe a card at the baby sitting job. Well, here we are. We have all of that now. We've grown through all of that. And so, now that that technology is there at our fingertips, we are wrapping our service around it.

Lauren:    Do you think that's an area you're weak in right now and that's why you're working on it?

Adrienne:    I don't think we're ... well, yeah. I absolutely think we're weak in the fact that we need an upgrade in our technology. Absolutely. 

Lauren:    How'd you realize that?

Adrienne:    Because our web site looks like crud. We need an upgrade. I mainly think because you look at all the other technology that you can utilize and pull in and tie into what our service is, there's just so much out there now. There's just, it's just such a better place. And I think it really puts everybody on a more even playing ground too. Where there's a lot of technology, you can just tap into to utilize. And we get back to your service. Focusing on your service. It's not about who has the best widget right now. We all can get the best widget now. Who has the best service? And at the end of the day, that's who the consumer ... who did they connect with? Who do they have a connection with? I've learned a lot more about patience too. Because I would love to be launched, our new website is still under construction. We're working on it every day. I would love to have been launched about two months ago. So yes, we're getting some new things out there.

Lauren:    That's exciting. Have you every had really horrible feedback about one of your sitters? And if so, how do you handle a negative feedback?

Adrienne:    Well, we screen our sitters so much, that the really horrible is not happening. There not, we're not getting feedback, "They didn't know how to take care of a child." And "They left with their boyfriend in the middle of the job.". That does not happen. Because we're making sure that we get in the cream of the crop. But what I do love is when we have kind of a transition phase of our families. We'll have a member ... and this still happens to this day across the nation. This is just parents. Your new baby. You don't want to leave them with just anyone. So they call and they ask a question. They call the next day and they ask a question. And they might call a week later. And then they might decide to sign up a week later. And then they might try us out in about a month. And then finally once their foot is in the door, I mean, the table shifts. They know what to expect from us. They love the sitters. And then they will give us feedback. If there's a sitter that didn't meet our exact baby sitting style, then we will hear about it. And I love that shift, from this mom who barely could sign up to now she's telling us what she wants and how to do what, how to bring the best sitter to her. I love that. That's what we're there for. We are there to service our families. That's why we're in business. And so, we listen to our families. And if we are getting back feedback from a family, we won't refer that sitter out. We live in a age of technology and on your phone and these 18, 20, 24 year olds just constantly looking, not of our sitters. They're amazing. They come in. Ready to have fun. It is their job, but they love being with kids. And that's what we look for. So it's really the recipients of all of this are those kids, having so much fun with the sitters.

Lauren:    I'd love to talk for a bit about the fact that you started an are still running your business with your husband. What's that like?

Adrienne:    I love working with my husband. And we are kind of a weird, wacky couple that we get along better when we work together than when we don't. 

Lauren:    That's so unique.

Adrienne:    Yes. It is. We have a good balance. We've just always respected each other's skills. We learned that really early on that ... and I've tried to convey that to our franchisees, because a lot of them are husband and wife teams as well, that it's very unrealistic for David to expect me to react like he does or me to expect that he reacts like I do. Or even operates in business the same way we do. We both have skills and we both move at different paces. And we both have different assets and different weaknesses. And we have to respect that of each other. We've always done that. And we also have really leaned on each other for all steps. If we make a big decision, we don't do it without either totally on board or compromise.

Lauren:    How do you shut off the work side, come home at night and just be each other's spouses? Say, "Okay. We're going to put this aside. Just going to love each other. Love our family well, without talking business.".

Adrienne:    Well, we do that easily, because we have seven children. So there's no business talk at night.

Lauren:    No time.

Adrienne:    We definitely do take time to be alone and be away from work. We've worked together so long that it's just part of our thread. It's just part of our discussion, the conversational weave from our work days to our kids to how about Christmas presents? Are we done wrapping? It just, everything all over. We have a really good communication. And definitely there's been times in our life that communication is not great. And that's when things get hard. So we absolutely recheck and make sure that we communicate. And that's not any fluffy answer. It's for real. Communication is really has a lot to do with it.

Lauren:    So how are you intentional about that? How do you catch yourself before you get too deep down this hole of, we're not connected? We're not functioning well together.

Adrienne:    Yeah, either really take time to have a recheck. Or get to the core of what is really the issue. Sometimes that happens if something bad happened in the office and David or myself or one of us is stressed. That's really the core issue. But then it comes out in other things. And so we try to dial back and realize, what happened during the day. What happened? And because we do work together, that does make it nice. I understand if he went through something. And I understand what that scenario was. That is a nice thing of being able to work together. When you don't work together, you don't understand your spouse's work environment quite as much. And you don't know when those underlying things, what the root is. It really has nothing to do with the fact that the dishes are out. It really has to do with this massive thing that happened at the office. When you work together, you can break that down. It was kind of funny, about four years ago, we realized we were being poor about putting a regular babysitting night out. And we, three weeks ago, oh my gosh, we haven't even spent one night together. So we, as we tell our families to do, go put a regular baby sitting event on the calendar. And it makes you go out. And we started doing that. And it is invaluable. It is absolutely invaluable. If you're trying to cut something out of the budget, do not cut out the time with your spouse.

Lauren:    So Seeking Sitters isn't your only business venture. You recently started the same concept with contractors and freelancers, making sure other people coming into your home are safe to be around. How's that going?

Adrienne:    Gig BigWig is doing great. So we have started many offshoot businesses from the growth of Seeking Sitters. And through those offshoot businesses, they grew into a business of its own. And I think about a year and a half ago, we started Gig BigWig, which is not, it's not a referral service. It's to help verify contractors in all of the contract world. And also bring the contractor space together. One thing that's hard in the Gig industry is these Gig workers are having trouble pooling all their resources together, applying for loans, getting insurance, having their finances in one place. Because they work for multiple different companies. And so that's really what Gig BigWig does. Is pull it all together. Provides them that verification card that they have been screened. They are who they say they are. And that they can have this one place to manage all of their work. 
    It was an amazing experience to go through the start-up of this new development of the tech company. It was in the forge for about three or four month, something like that. And then at 36 degrees, all the connections there, it just grew my awareness of where Seeking Sitters needed to go, which you said some of the people you've interviewed have not been members of 36, but huge plug. You should be, even if you're a seasoned business owner.

Lauren:    Thank you. Thank you.

Adrienne:    Yes. You should absolutely keep your mind growing. And it did. It really ... you asked earlier about what has helped drive that. And some of the things I've learned through the start-up of Gig Bigwig has absolutely helped what Seeking Sitters needs to do and how it needs to grow. And I can tell, enough people needed the service that it wasn't an option to just say, "Let's put that in the desk drawer." You can, you have that feeling, once you've had enough successful runs, you can see when it's time to call it quits. I think it's a great question. And don't be afraid to put that one in the drawer. If that one's not working out, because that just showed you how you're going to get to the next one. But it was definitely really hard to get funding to grow at the pace we wanted to grow. And about six months in or just going, doing this pitches and funding pitches and traveling all over, I said enough. I've got to get to work. And so we just stopped all of that. And we just started ... I had grown a business from the ground up before. And so that's what we're doing. And so we just started from square one. And we already have some technology in place to do all the screenings. And that just launched.

Lauren:    Congratulations.

Adrienne:    Yeah. And so it's moving along just fine. And we have our first new franchise system to sign up, in addition to Seeking Sitters, of course. And so, it's moving along just fine. But yeah, it have absolutely helped, spurned new ideas for Seeking Sitters.

Lauren:    It had to be disappointing to do all that travel and try to get funders and just not see it pan out.

Adrienne:    Well, I just ... I don't know. For me, I know how to grow a business from the ground up. So that is in my wheel house. Going and doing these song and dance shows to explain my business and try to raise capital, that is not in my wheel house. And so I shifted back to what I know. 

Lauren:    It's healthy to see when you're like, "Okay. This is just not happening. And, back to the drawing board."

Adrienne:    You're exactly right Lauren. When I was in the forge at 36 degrees, I saw that there were many times entrepreneurs would just kept dragging their feet, waiting for somebody to hand them a check. And I saw a lot of times, where I'm like, "Just move. You've got a great idea, just do it. You don't need money. I don't know why you even need money to do this. You're already moving." So, sometimes just, you don't need to just keep doing, you need to just move on with your business.

Lauren:    I think that leads really well into our last question that we ask every guest who comes in. It's what advice or encouragement would you give another entrepreneur who's pushing through a tough season right now.
Adrienne:    I would stop for a minute and look back at the successes that you've had. I see my kids a lot sometimes, they, "I'm always messing up with this, or I'm always getting in trouble." And my first thing is to sit down and say, "Hey. How does this look, versus a month ago? Or how does this look versus a year ago? You've grown so much." And so, I think entrepreneurs need to do that more often. We want to move so fast. Entrepreneur mindset is not patient. We want to move so fast. And so if you take a moment, write down what you've accomplished, look back at where you've grown. That is the best place to see yourself. And that will help you move forward.

Lauren:    Thanks so much for coming. We loved having you.
Adrienne:    Alright. Any time. Thanks for letting me come on.

Lauren:    Next week on the F word.

Josh:    I kind of was at this turning point, where it's like, do I keep doing this, or do I go get a real job?

Lauren:    Josh Juarez, the founder of Josh's Snow Shack, talks about the unexpected success of his first snow cone stand and why he took the risk to stick with the idea and make it grow.

Dustin:    The F word is brought to you by 36 degrees north. Tulsa's base camp for entrepreneurs. To learn more about our workspace, community and resources, visit 36in.co. The F word, season one is recorded at KOSU studio, hosted by Lauren King and produced by Julie Combs.