Would You Put Your Kid in a Stranger's Car?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because outsourcing motherhood doesn’t have to be controversial.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
“Don’t take candy from strangers” — most toddlers learn about stranger danger on their first day of preschool. Yet Ritu Narayan is building a business around an entirely different concept: Take the chocolate, get in that white van, behave.
Before you get your onesies in a bunch, the stranger at the wheel is thoroughly vetted and handpicked by Narayan. It’s all a part of her new ridesharing app called Zum, a sort of “Uber for unaccompanied kids”: Each family is assigned a small pool of drivers — all of them vetted — and pay at least $16 every time the driver takes the kid to piano lessons or preschool or soccer practice. Zum says it’s raised $1.5 million and sold 35,000 rides all over the San Francisco Bay Area.
Of course, “Uber for ______” is not enough to sway investors, let alone make a successful revenue model, and the competition to ferry kids around is pretty fierce. A pioneer in the field, Shuddle, sputtered last month, leaving Narayan and others in the space on a driver-hiring frenzy. Few working parents would doubt the value of being able to outsource their driving duties, but will Narayan succeed where others have failed? We caught up with her to talk working moms, traffic and trust. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
OZY: Come on, do kids really need an Uber?
Ritu Narayan: Zum came out of my own personal experience as a working mother. I have two kids who are 6 and 11 years old now. But years ago, I worked at Yahoo! and then eBay; at that time, my kids no longer needed a nanny. Yet getting someone reliable to pick my kids up from preschool was very difficult. I was seeing other people around me facing similar challenges and the impact it had on their careers. I thought, we have this global marketplace like eBay. So why can’t we use this marketplace for childcare too?
OZY: So, you want to combine the scale of eBay and the trust of LinkedIn for childcare — but is motherhood something you can outsource?
R.N.: Well, we want to provide parents peace of mind. That’s No. 1, so working parents shouldn’t feel guilty because they can spend more productive time with their children since these other areas are taken care of. We also really want to keep working mothers in their jobs. We’ve seen dropouts because of lack of resources or the difficulties of asking someone to pick up their kids as a favor.
We also want to support the development of kids and their extracurricular activities, since parents opt out of things like sports or music not because their children don’t want to do it, but because of their parents’ schedules. And for single parents, Zum often becomes the second parent in terms of sharing childcare too.
OZY: How would a driver deal with an unruly passenger — in this case, a toddler with a temper tantrum?
R.N.: When we first started, we thought about those kinds of things too: What if the kid vomits in the car? But we rarely see these things happening, after executing 35,000 drives to date. It’s actually interesting how much drivers feel committed to the kid — and the kids feel committed to their drivers too. You see, kids like familiarity. They don’t like change every day, and they appreciate when the same person shows up every time to take them to school.
OZY: Do the kids get to chose their own music or shoot the breeze with their driver, like with Uber or Lyft?
R.N.: They create such an interesting bond between them and the driver. Kids talk to them and tell them their routines. They can feel if you’re present or not, if you have their best interest in mind. For example, all of our drivers would know if Tuesday is the one day a week that their parents give them hot chocolate, so they might have a chocolate treat for them.
OZY: What are the biggest challenges to innovating within this space between technology and childcare?
R.N.: Three things: trust and safety, ease of use and personalization. This is one area that cannot grow rapidly like Uber or Lyft. We’re not in a hurry to expand. Because with parents, the bar for excellence is very high, and our solution has to be employed in a way that repeat customers can use it for an extended period of time. It’s an everyday solution. One day, I want Zum to be the default solution for parents when they get up in the morning. I use Zum four times a day for my kids.
OZY: How is Zum any different from Shuddle? And what’s wrong with the old-fashioned school bus?
R.N.: For one, we’re not just about having a higher level of trust and safety. Yes, we vet and hire drivers, who must have years of childcare experience and a clean, excellent driving record who’ve gone through multiple background checks with the FBI, the Department of Justice and Trustline. But for kids, when you design a solution, you need a different kind of personalization.
That’s baked into the company itself. Going from Point A to Point B is not enough for kids. We provide care around the rides. The driver can stay with the child before and after the ride and wait for them — and parents are excited about this complete, efficient solution. They don’t have to worry. We don’t consider ourselves as sales and marketing; we are more focused on execution, which includes our technology, our operations and the customer experience. Once you have these solutions at scale, you can’t lose that element of personalization.
OZY: What does modern parenting mean to you, as a mother of two youngsters?
R.N.: For me, modern parenting is about constantly going between a professional life and a personal life. There are no boundaries anymore. Twenty-four hours a day, that’s a reality. So, modern parenting is being able to spend more productive time with your kids and getting to that balance where you know you can give to others without feeling guilty. Parents always need to feel emotionally connected with their kids, even when they’re not with them.