In our second episode, Elize Shirdel, CEO and Founder of HELM Life, shares how her team pivoted from in-person childcare to a completely virtual model during the pandemic.
Prior to COVID-19, HELM Life was working with employers to make childcare more accessible while parents are at work. However, the pandemic immediately put their in-person childcare model at risk, and Elize had to pivot quickly to offer virtual childcare services.
Watch the full episode here, or read the highlights below to learn how the HELM Life team spotted an opportunity, launched Online Activities for Kids and became leaders in the virtual childcare space in a matter of weeks.
Alysha: I'd love to kick it off and give the audience an overview of yourself and HELM Life.
Elize: I'm a Ph.D engineer and a Mom. We founded Date Night babysitting about 5 years ago to connect parents with in-home childcare. Since then, we've evolved to help companies support their employees with childcare, both on-site and at home, through our sister company HELM Life.
Alysha: Can you tell us about how you came up with the idea for Date Night?
Elize: I was finishing my Ph.D and wasn't sure what I was going to do with my life. At the time, I needed a babysitter, and found the process more difficult than I thought it would be. So I built an app and I put it out there waiting for the masses to come -- and of course, nobody came.
So I was putting up these posters around the neighbourhood, and someone from the Toronto Star called and asked if they could come to my office to interview me. At the time, there was no office, but we arranged the interview and in the end, that's how we were launched. The story went out, and there was a lot of interest, and we've grown from there.
Alysha: When I think of Date Night, I think of a marketplace. You have the babysitters/caregivers as well as the parents. How did you go about building both the supply and demand in the early days.
Elize: Well initially, I thought we were building a scheduler. I wasn't even thinking of building this out as a marketplace. But when I tried to get my friends to use it, and nobody really cared [about the scheduling feature] I started to realize that the problem was really about finding babysitters/caregivers.
When we started to get going, we were providing caregivers with a nice flow of work. Additionally, we designed Date Night to help protect babysitters. We always felt that babysitters had the right to privacy, and we didn't feel the need to put their pictures in the app because their experience was enough to decide who should be interviewed or not. We were among the first to really consider bias in our algorithm, I think that really helped spread the word.
Alysha: You mentioned that two years ago, you launched your sister company, HELM Life. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Elize: As we spent so much time in the childcare space, we realized there was a growing appetite for companies to support their employees with childcare. We used to talk about productivity and retaining senior women [in the workforce], and how important it was for them, and their families, to have support at home. There are roughly 14 days a year where school is closed, but parents still have to go to work. So what is the solution to that supposed to be? Society is sort of built on a model where "Mom takes care of that". That's not the case now, parenting is much more balanced, but it really doesn't make sense. So we started launching summer camps, on-site camps and in-person activities for kids.
Alysha: Many friends of mine have kids, and sometimes they take personal sick days when their kids are home from school. So I understand this problem. Is the idea that the employer would provide this service as an added benefit?
Elize: That's exactly it. HELM Life makes it easy, both financially and from a time-saving perspective to say "this is a paid day - bring your kids to work and we'll have activities for them on-site".
Alysha: This topic is more relevant now than ever. We're 3 months into the global pandemic, and everyone across the country is encouraged to work from home. Parents are working from home, and on top of that, schools are closed. So this whole conversation of providing support for kids while parents are working is very topical.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business? What have you been seeing?
Elize: We've been impacted quite significantly. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, and so I started to realize in February that this might be a problem for North America, our customers, and ourselves.
So what we did was we got together and quickly launched our Online Activities for Kids. We refer to it as virtual childcare. So we took our pool of 1,500 pre-interviewed, reference-checked caregivers, and we trained them as online hosts. So HELM Life Online Activities for Kids hosts kids in 40-minute sessions throughout the day with other kids.
Alysha: One thing I keep hearing over and over again is that due to schools being closed, and the enforced physical distancing, parents are worried the pandemic is going to affect their kids' social skills. I love that you're finding a way to solve for that virtually, within our constraints.
Elize: It's so great to see kids pick up new skills and activities. Even kids who start off as really shy at first have been coming out of their shells. It's really cool to see.
Alysha: We know that a lot of companies have made the decision to continue to work from home, even after the pandemic has lifted. A lot of offices have shut down, and a lot of people are redefining their corporate culture and remote work options. We're going to see more parents working from home for the long-term, which means this is definitely not a point-in-time solution. We're looking at the future of work from this point forward.
Elize: You're absolutely right. We're seeing more people working remotely, and even if kids were to go back to school, they'd be coming home earlier. So maybe we can give them an online activity to do, instead of shipping them off to afterschool care.
Alysha: With the virtual care services, is this something parents are paying for themselves? Or are you still working with employers to offer this as an added benefit?
Elize: We have both a consumer plan and a corporate plan. Many employers cover the cost of the membership for their employees, others cover a certain amount of sessions per month, depending on what the budget is. But we also have a lot of parents paying for it themselves.
Alysha: How did you rally the team to come together and launch something so quickly? How long did that process take?
Elize: We turned it around very quickly. The interesting thing is we had a pool of 1,500 talented caregivers on our platform. When we first launched and put the call out, we had a few caregivers sign up to become online hosts and help us figure out what the model would look like. As we went on, they became members of our leadership team, and then we scaled up very quickly developing content, building the technology, setting up the sales process and getting the word out.
Alysha: How have the past three months been for your team, and what were some of the most challenging decisions you had to make as CEO and Founder?
Elize: We spun up a much larger team, in a pandemic, from people who have never physically been in the same space. We were moving so quickly at the start, and it was so intense. Being a startup founder for the past five years, I tried to express that this is a long-distance race, not a sprint.
Also, work-life balance is so hard to do in the best of times, and even more so now. We're trying to foster a culture of owning your weekends. You shouldn't be bombarded with requests that you need to respond to immediately. If at all, possible, we need to build that culture.
Alysha: Has the pandemic brought on any unexpected or positive changes?
Elize: The new virtual model is really exciting. I think it's a real innovation in childcare, and we never would have gone to it without the pandemic. So, I guess that's the one bright spot during a time that's been really challenging.
Catch these highlights and more in the full episode below.