The Internet, it turns out, is not always a friendly place if you're an expectant parent like Genevieve Thiers.
This was a surprising revelation for someone who built a career around using the Internet to help parents: Thiers is the founder and former chief executive of Sittercity, the Chicago-based technology company that pioneered the online matchmaking of families and caregivers.
Google to look up whether it was safe to travel. She found an alarming post by a woman saying that flying between the seventh and 10th weeks would subject the unborn child to "cosmic radiation," causing irreparable harm during organ development.
When a concerned Thiers called her doctor's office, the nurse guffawed into the phone over the claim.
"It was such a shock to find that the Web is not your friend sometimes," Thiers said with a laugh. "What it is, really, is the combined social power of lots of very anxious parents kind of hitting you in the face. So I learned specifically to avoid message boards. But it definitely gave me a new view of content."
The last year has been a period of transition for Thiers, 33, who spent nearly a decade building a subscription service to help parents find baby sitters before starting a family herself. She passed the Sittercity CEO role to Martin Clifford, the company's chief operating officer and chief revenue officer, in 2010 and is preparing to launch her second Web startup in September.
In another important change, Thiers is tackling her new entrepreneurial venture without her longtime business partner: her husband, Dan Ratner, who helped her found and run Sittercity. Ratner is now working full time for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, which would not make him available for interviews for this story.
Although Thiers and Ratner no longer share a day job, they brainstormed the idea for the new company together. Contact Karma will use a combination of deals and recommendations from trusted contacts to match business users with service providers they need, from law firms to videographers.
For Contact Karma, Thiers is drawing on the lessons she learned while helming Sittercity for nine years, a process that had its share of challenges and hard-fought victories. Thiers' earliest attempts at raising venture capital got her "laughed out of the room," she recalled, while a second, ultimately successful effort coincided with the financial meltdown.
The company today has 54 full-time employees and more than 2 million members worldwide. It has expanded to other areas of caregiving, including pet sitting and elder care; a new job is posted on the site every two minutes. Sittercity also has a corporate program that allows companies to cover membership for their employees as a benefit.
The privately held firm does not disclose revenues, but spokeswoman Mary Schwartz said Sittercity's have doubled every year since receiving venture capital funding. Sittercity raised $7.5 million in financing from investors led by Point Judith Capital and Apex Venture Partners in January 2009. In May, Baird Venture Partners and New World Ventures led a $22.6 million round.
"To this day, I'm incredibly glad we didn't take VC until we did because it forced us to live on what's kind of a nice edge," Thiers said. "Every single day that you haven't taken VC and you're living on angel or seed money … every single move you make is critical. You have no luxury to go out and make a frivolous buy. You can't make mistakes. We went for roughly six years doing a fantastic job of growing our revenue based on taking in very little, and I was proud of that."
The story of how Thiers founded Sittercity has become a classic tale in entrepreneurial circles. As an undergraduate at Boston College, she saw a heavily pregnant woman struggling up a long flight of stairs on campus to post fliers for a baby-sitting job. Thiers offered to take over so the woman could go home. While putting up the fliers, she had the idea for an online service that could connect parents with baby sitters.
Thiers' entrepreneurial career path wasn't as inevitable as that story suggests, however. She wanted to be an opera singer, and it was as much fear of being a starving artist as sympathy for the pregnant woman on campus that motivated her to start the business.
"There is absolutely a version of me that went off into the opera world," Thiers said. "I don't know what she'd be doing right now, but I think about it a lot, actually. It was funny because when I did step back last year, I suddenly remembered that I had launched Sittercity to be able to sing. … It just goes to show, when you have a labor of love, you can throw yourself into it so wholeheartedly that you almost forget other pieces of your identity for a while. But then when you come back out, they're there for you."
She's now devoting more time to singing, including recording some songs she wrote herself. Thiers moved Sittercity from the Boston area to Chicago in 2002 so she could study opera at Northwestern University. After graduating with her master's degree in 2004, she helped start and occasionally performs with OperaModa, a Chicago opera company that performs pieces in English vernacular and showcases emerging artists.
Sometimes business and music intersect in unexpected ways. At the 2010 TEDGlobal conference — which features short talks from "thinkers and doers" from a broad cross section of fields — in Oxford, England, Thiers mentioned offhandedly to TED curator Chris Anderson that she was trained in opera and musical theater. Days later, Thiers and Ratner were seated in the Oxford Playhouse when a technical glitch caused the stage lights and microphones to go out. Anderson called Thiers up to the stage, and she sang a selection from "The Sound of Music" as a little impromptu entertainment.
"That's the sort of presence that she can have," Clifford said. "I don't think there are many people like that."
Clifford, an operating partner at Providence, R.I.-based Point Judith Capital, recalled that when his firm was considering an investment in Sittercity, his early research was spent "trying to figure what Sittercity was. I was confused between Genevieve the opera singer and Genevieve the businessperson."
Genevieve Thiers, founder of Sittercity.com