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Startup on the Prairies with Birdie Break: the childcare app that offers freedom in real-time 

February 9, 2021
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12 minute

Startup on the Prairies profiles emerging tech companies and their founders. We highlight startups that we've worked with, learning more about the entrepreneurial journey, market opportunity, and how we've supported the launch and growth of innovative companies from the Canadian Prairies.

What’s the secret to catching your big break as an entrepreneur? 

We had the opportunity to ask a Canadian female-founded business in the Prairies how they transformed their ideas and passions into reality. 

Birdie Break is an on-demand, pay-per-service app that allows parents to book trusted childcare and tutoring services anywhere from two hours to two months in advance. 

Born out of the frustration from not finding reliable sitters for children, it became clear that there were very few options for professional high-quality childcare services in Edmonton. Co-founders, long-time friends, mom and former nanny–Cressida Raffin and Melanie Swerdan–set out to fill that gap.

They launched their MVP, a mobile marketplace app, amidst COVID-19 to better serve parents, tutors, and childcare providers. Now, with thousands of users in Alberta, they’re building out a repeatable playbook for each city launch across Canada, with the hopes of one day going global.

Doing babysitting differently, Cressida and Melanie share how scalable technology has helped them push the envelope to create change and advance the childcare industry.

What’s the market opportunity like for childcare services in Canada, and how is Birdie Break disrupting this industry?

Cressida: Finding on-demand babysitters and consistent childcare is an ongoing issue. Not just in Canada, but North America and globally. For most people, the days of the 11-year-old babysitter across the street, who you would always rely on are gone. Last-minute things pop up, people get busy, and that physical kind of community doesn’t have your back 24/7.

With Birdie, we’re rekindling that sense of convenience and trust by creating a digital community that offers parents freedom in real-time. We’ve built this network of sitters that parents can access whenever they’re in a bind or if they’re looking to spend quality time by themselves. 

It’s as simple as browsing on the app, booking the service you want, and paying within minutes on your phone. Many of our competitors’ platforms simply offer a way to connect parents with sitters but miss out on the convenience of booking care in real-time. 

Melanie: Additionally, we thoroughly prescreen all of our Birdie sitters to ensure only the highest quality of care for the little ones. They must have a minimum one year of childcare experience, a clean police background check with vulnerable sector search, valid training in CPR, and undergo a formal interview where we run through various childcare and tutoring scenarios to assess their experience. Most of our competitors don’t go to the same lengths as we do. 

All Birdie providers are loving, trustworthy, personable individuals who are passionate about making a difference in the lives of children and their parents. They’re like an extension of the family–there to add value, actively engage, encourage play, and tidy up–rather than just being an adult in the room.

How did you decide on starting a business together? What advice do you have around building a founding team?

Melanie: I had seen my sister become frustrated with finding reliable sitters for her children, and Cressida went through the same thing with her own. There just didn’t seem to be a good solution out there, and we knew parents deserved an option that was easy to access and use. 

After chatting with our mom friends and doing market research, it became clear that something was lacking in the current marketplace. That’s when we decided to provide an answer.

My advice for building a founding team is to choose a partner who fulfills certain skills that you may lack, don’t enjoy, or maybe aren’t as experienced in. Cressida brings my ideas to life. She comes from the event management world–with an impressive smattering of business marketing and sales. So naturally, she excels at developing our roadmaps, the organizational structure of our goals, operational tasks, concept execution, managing our finances, and investment details. 

Regardless of what we chose to start together, I knew that it would be enjoyable, and that’s the other key part of it – it’s important to find a partner who you genuinely want to spend a lot of time with, even outside of work. You’re truly on a lengthy journey together – entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint.

Cressida: We’ve known each other for 15 years, so you could say we have a total understanding of each other by now. Mel is a big-picture thinker and creative, with experience in photography, videography, and movie costume design. It’s no question that she tackles Birdie’s aesthetics and visual design. And she’s got some great guerilla marketing ideas up her sleeves that we can’t wait to eventually roll out.

Mel is also a tried and true entrepreneur – she’s worked on developing and opening a few restaurants. It’s so valuable to have someone that has gone through the motions of starting a business. She has the “it never hurts to ask” approach to problem-solving, an unrelenting focus to find solutions to roadblocks and has gone above and beyond to eliminate guesswork when providers and parents join our app. Her positive attitude is also beyond compare, which is a huge asset to a team on this journey of entrepreneurship. 

What personal and professional challenges did you overcome to get to where you are today?

Cressida: I became a mom and an entrepreneur at the same time. Juggling both is incredibly hard, so you have to be able to compartmentalize and have great time management skills. I spent the first three years building this business without childcare–the irony of it, I know–and without boundaries in place. Finding time to work during nap times, waking up early in the morning before my kids got up, and working after they went to sleep all became critical to my ability to focus.

If you’re working and your kid calls for you, you have to be able to separate the two aspects of your life. The mom guilt is real, but that’s what has sustained my passion for Birdie Break because I know so many parents out there dealing with the same balancing act, especially now during the pandemic. 

My advice to working parents or those working from home without childcare is to structure your day to ensure you have dedicated time to be present for your kids and your work. We all know that trying to send “just one more email” isn’t really going to work out when it should be playtime with the kids. 

If your kids are old enough, establish an area of the house or a sign that signals to them that you’re working and they can’t bother you. This could be a type of music playing or if you’re simply in front of your laptop. The whole hustle mentality can get you far, but it can also lead to burnout. 

How do you know when you’re experiencing burnout, and what do you do to mitigate it?

Melanie: When feelings of dread set in, your to-do lists seem too large or daunting, and you start to feel like you’re falling behind in both your business and personal life. Almost all of us have moments like this, but hurdle after hurdle, you just have to power through. 

Progress is everything. Focus on tasks that move the needle in the same direction as your immediate goals. In more challenging times, tackling what you are “able” to do and being kind to yourself will go a long way.

Organizational software is also a hero when it comes to avoiding burnout. The more you can streamline your work, the easier it becomes to accomplish your goals. And finally, allowing yourself to take breaks is essential to mental health and long-term success. I know how hard this is for passionate entrepreneurs, but you won’t do yourself or your business any favours when you’re not on your A-game.

You launched your MVP before securing seed funding. What features of your app did you need for a successful launch, and what were some of the “nice to have” features that you could build out later?

Cressida: We have a grand vision for Birdie Break to go international, so it was difficult at first to pare down our vision into something that was solely functional. As time went on, we realized that we needed to focus on delivering the features that removed manual touch points. Things like automating the booking process–matching the two sides of parents with sitters–and payment processing.

So much of our time had been spent heads down working in the business rather than on the business. Our MVP needed to incorporate basic features that allowed us to lift our heads and start looking at the bigger picture, while letting the technology take care of many of these day-to-day functions.

Melanie: Now that we have the core functionality out with the beta, we can now add all the wonderful extras, such as our recurring bookings calendar, a favourites tab, historical data for past reference, direct messaging, and referral codes. These ancillary features improve the user experience and add stickiness, which keep people coming back for more.

How did you determine which markets to test and where to go next?

Cressida: We did lots of market research and surveys to validate our target customers. who were upper-income families with a healthy disposable income. These individuals were tech-savvy, working parents aged 30–45 in Edmonton and Calgary, who needed daytime or occasional sitters and wanted to pay for the quality of their childcare. 

On the sitter side, we targeted passionate and experienced childcare providers, who ranged from student sitters to nannies with decades of expertise. We also make sure we have a fair number of sitters with various special needs experience, so we can be more inclusive while upholding this high-quality service.

Melanie: As for which markets to tap into, we have Harvest to thank for our decision to launch in Edmonton and Calgary, and soon other cities across the Prairie provinces. It’s all about the network effect and decreasing our customer acquisition cost so that we can scale as quickly as possible. 

It’s much easier for us to launch in Edmonton, where we’re based, and surrounding areas where we’ve established our network than to launch in, say, Toronto, where we have fewer connections. We aim to roll out across Canada in the same way SkipTheDishes did to maximize the network effect. 

How are you collecting feedback from your users? What’s the most useful insight you’ve learned from early adopters?

Melanie: From 2017 to early 2020, Birdie operated solely through our website platform. When we moved from being a web-based service to launching an iOS and Android app, we were worried that parents would lose that personal touch they felt when we were so hands-on with them. We wanted them to know that Cressida and I are still reachable behind the app and heavily involved in the customer experience. 

So we ran a focus group midway through the sprint of our MVP and reached out to 15–20 trusted parents who had been using Birdie prior to our app. We split them into two groups, had them download the app, sign up, go through the booking process in real-time over video calls, and tracked their feedback. It seemed daunting at first, but the insights we got out of it were incredibly useful, and getting live feedback is something we recommend for other founders.  Assumptions we previously had were sometimes corrected and adjusted through this real feedback!

Cressida: One surprising piece of information we received had to do with reviews. I thought that reviews would be an essential feature all parents looked for, but that’s not necessarily true for repeat users. I spoke with a long-time Birdie parent who’s also part of the tech world, and she revealed that reviews matter less for people already using the app. Once you’ve had good experiences and earned their trust, you don’t always need to have extra validation. 

When did you decide it was the right time to bring on a third party tech partner to create your app? When will it be the right time for you to bring development in-house?

Melanie: We decided to partner with an agency like Punchcard Systems after a few unsuccessful tries going down the independent developer route. Tech development is a voyage filled with a million questions and decisions. The rabbit holes are endless, and it helps to have a team of experts to uncover and navigate through them.

The owners of Punchcard, Sam and Estyn, are extraordinarily talented and enjoyable to work with. They’re currently assisting in creating a future tech roadmap and will vet an in-house dev for us in the next three to six months. As we grow and expand, it’ll be imperative that we have in-house tech talent to expedite new features.

How has Birdie Break supported parents during COVID? What changes have you had to make?

Cressida: When COVID hit, childcare switched from being a luxury to a necessity, so we had to support parents where they needed it the most.

We opened an entirely new division within Birdie that focused on educational help and added a blend of both childcare and tutoring. 

Let’s say you have a child in diapers and another child in school. You’ll need somebody who’s going to change your youngest child’s diapers and somebody who will teach your other child grade one math. We now offer that through our Birdie Blend option.

Melanie: This pandemic has also opened up new avenues for the future. We’re thinking about implementing COVID-safety related features such as a passport that documents information like when your last COVID test was and if you’re vaccinated, which can help increase the trust that both parents and providers have in us. 

Our tutor division created a whole new target market demographic, which inspires us to look out further. Since the pandemic started, something we’ve had in our peripheries was how we could target and support essential workers and healthcare professionals.

Now knowing what you do today, is there anything you would have done differently with your startup?

Cressida: Finding a co-founder who had a tech background would have added tremendous value. Having that from the start would have expedited our business and eliminated many of the learning curves–which, don’t get me wrong, are all great–but could have saved us time and allowed us to get our MVP to market earlier.

What’s next for Birdie Break?

Cressida: We’re so excited for what’s to come. Thus far, we’ve bootstrapped everything ourselves, and we’re now heading into our first investment round, which will allow us to scale. The household name for childcare in Canada is still up for grabs, and Birdie is well primed for it. We want to be synonymous with trusted childcare, and freedom for parents across Canada. Once we secure investment, we’ll start building out our team.

Melanie: While we haven’t fundraised to this point, we’ve been very fortunate to have some amazing advisors, such as Raine Maida (Our Lady Peace and Molotov Projects) who has connected us with investors and great resources in the tech ecosystem, helping to guide us down this path with valuable business resources.

We’re going into it with the mentality that it may take us 10 investor pitches or more before we secure an investment, and that’s okay. Each time is a chance to improve our skills. We much prefer imperfect action over perfect inaction. We feel confident that the right investor will recognize our passion, the positive impact of the solution we’re providing, and the expansive opportunity in the Family Tech (FamTech) marketplace.

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