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Not sitting on the sidelines

Buckeye engineers Natalie Amling, McKenzie Kennelly and Allison Cuba never intended to be entrepreneurs. But when presented with the opportunity to create Sitti—an online marketplace that connects families with vetted babysitters—they were all in.

Buckeye engineers (from left) McKenzie Kennelly, Natalie Amling and Allison Cuba are the engineering team behind Sitti, a free online marketplace for care services.As Sitti’s engineering team, the trio is developing a platform for care services that, unlike its competitors, is free to users. Sitti is funded by Drive Capital and began rolling out features in January to a limited number of families and sitters residing in a Columbus suburb.

While building their product and startup during the COVID-19 crisis, these computer science and engineering majors are also expanding Sitti’s reach to provide free childcare to first responders.

“We spent a couple of weeks at the end of March watching all this stuff happen and realizing that we’re in a very different position than a lot of college students,” Amling said. “We have a platform to do something about it.”

The team raised $20,000 from donors, including a contribution from Sitti, to provide free babysitting to 40 central Ohio families.

“It’s been an amazing experience to help them out. We’ve gotten the most heart-warming feedback,” Amling shared. “But we did have to scale faster than we were ready to.”

While the original goal was to help first responders, their impact has gone even farther.

“During coronavirus, the sitters have increased exponentially, because sitters need financial relief,” explained Kennelly. “So not only are we helping first responders, but we’re helping sitters who are out of work and need a job, and we were able to give them a job.”

Sitti is the brainchild of central Ohio native Olivia Weinstock and Chris Olsen, a partner at venture capital firm Drive Capital.

When Weinstock moved north to attend the University of Michigan, she contacted her longstanding babysitting clients and offered to recommend reliable replacement sitters and coordinate the arrangements.

Olsen was one of those clients. He not only took Weinstock up on her offer, but also suggested she turn her idea into a business.

But Olsen knew Weinstock would need some help. Amling, who was an intern at Drive Capital at the time, was brought on as a technical co-founder. When the team needed a second engineer, Amling recruited Kennelly, who she worked with on a game design class project, as another technical co-founder.

That was in August 2019. In September, the trio successfully pitched Drive Capital and received funding. After realizing they’d need another engineer to get Sitti up and running, the engineers recruited Cuba, another classmate. Double majoring in art, Cuba splits her time between coding and design.

From September to January, the team started rolling out Sitti’s basic features, including an app and texting platform. They also began signing up families and sitters in Bexley, the Columbus suburb where Weinstock grew up. Their plan was to perfect their product with a limited number of users before expanding to Columbus and then other cities.

But the pandemic hit and the team decided to quickly scale up to serve first responders. Within the next six months, they plan to replace their texting platform with a web portal and open Sitti up to anyone in the Columbus area.

“One of the things that I’ve found with Sitti is we pretty much always do something that we don’t feel like we’re quite ready for, then it ends up being fine,” explained Amling.

When the team needs confirmation that they’re ready to take the next step or other advice, they’ve gotten it from Drive Capital, which also provides the startup with office space in addition to funding, Kennelly said.

Instead of charging families or sitters like its competitors, Sitti collects a small transaction fee, paid by the merchant or retailer, each time its debit cards are swiped by sitters or money is added to them.

“Even if you have the best platform in the world, if you are charging sitters or families every time, eventually once those sitters and families establish a relationship, they’ll probably leave the platform,” Amling said. “We’ve found that the combination of a good platform and it being free sets us apart.”

The time involved in launching a startup was initially a shock to the engineers. Kennelly worked and went to school full-time spring semester in order to graduate in May. Amling took the semester off to focus on Sitti, while Cuba is taking classes part-time.

“I really worked my butt off to get this far and to be so close to the finish line and push it back is tough,” Cuba said. “But I get to work 50/50 between art and engineering, which is something I never thought I was going to be able to do.”

While working at a startup can be challenging, the trio has discovered even greater rewards.

“The biggest reward for me has been the personal growth and knowing we are capable and good engineers,” said Amling. “It’s something you have to do to know.”

“This is the best experience of my entire life,” added Kennelly. “I’ve learned so much about engineering, about how to make a product and working with a team in an effective way.”

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, clevenger.87@osu.edu