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UrbanSitter sends its engineers to Portland
UrbanSitter is just one of many companies, like Vimeo and Lithium, that has opened a Portland office to relieve some of the pressure on its Bay Area operation.
With just four staffers in Portland right now, rising to six later this year, UrbanSitter has calculated that it's better to let staff pick where they want to live if they can work remotely.
The startup is a simple concept: a marketplace for babysitters, what CEO Lynn Perkins calls "OpenTable for babysitters." Parents pay $20 a month for access to the database. The sitters keep all of the hourly rate, which in Portland averages $16, in San Francisco $18.
She says that six years ago, the average babysitter response time was 23 hours. Now it is three minutes.
"Our business is now almost entirely on mobile."
Perkins founder her staff were becoming mobile too. As in restless and antsy. Those with kids had to live over an hour's drive from the office to afford to buy a house. The firm already has one engineer in Boston, a marketing person in Hawaii and software testers (quality assurance) in Mexico.
Three staffers approached her separately asking about working from Portland, so she decided to give it a go, for engineers.
The three-person team landed in WeWork, atop Pioneer Place Mall, in July 2017. Although it cost about the same as a regular office, it was much less hassle. WeWork is a shared office space that offers hot desks and phone booths at the low end to soundproof glass cubes and boardrooms at the high end. Certain drinks are free and subscribers are encouraged to hang out and network.
"We looked at renting, but then I'd have to be the office manager," says lead software engineer Travis Dobbs looking around the room. "I don't want to be ordering coffee. I had to buy some chargers and a coat rack, but that's it."
In April, the UrbanSitter Portland team moved from one tiny oblong space into a cube with windows and a view of downtown.
Their real view however is on their screens, which around twice a day are taken over with video chats with their colleagues in San Francisco.
On a recent morning, Dobbs and his fellow engineer Tashi Bhutia logged in for the regular Monday standup meeting with their colleagues in the Zoom Room at HQ. Zoom makes cameras, microphones and speakers, as well as software, for video conferencing. A wide-angle lens and a large, boxy microphone, attached at an iPad and an Apple TV, brings up a clear image on the monitor in San Francisco, and on Dobbs's laptop. The image, sound and signal are surprisingly clear.
They go around the room talking about what work they did on Friday and have lined up for today.
"Friday, I worked on small API tweaks for messaging stuff and helped Brian with the Drupal branch stuff," says Dobbs. "So, any bugs you guys find, assign them to me. And Jenny and Michael, I'll be assigning them to you, so look out for them."
Bhutia says "On Friday I worked on search-by-name features for sitters...today mostly working on the testing..."
"Awesome!" responds Sarah Selim, the product manager who is running the meeting. She's very up and encouraging.
Someone else talks about working on "messaging for parents." There's talk of the sprint, which is part of the agile process, lots of people are "doing metrics," and one person spent Friday at the beach so she is catching up on her inbox.
Software as a lifestyle
It's the vocabulary and mood found at most software companies these days. The manner is casual but there's always the pressing need to create a product and grab market share before the investors' money runs out.
As lead engineer, Dobbs spends around half his time writing code and the other half in meetings — some remote, some in person — and managing the other engineers. "For Tashi it's 90 or 95 percent coding. Tashi gets to be more heads down," he says admiringly. "My role's the bigger picture, the architectural view of the code, and helping team members get unblocked." For the latter he does a lot of calls on the instant messaging software Slack, where they can share screens of code and see each other's faces.
Typically, a feature for the software is dreamed up by someone and the product manager runs it by the stakeholders — the investors and top managers. "Then they pull me in or another engineer and ask if it's feasible. And I say 'Yes, it'll take six months to build,'" he says with a slight smile. "We can do anything, it's just a matter of time." He says they have the startup mentality of getting something 80 percent done and then releasing it to see how it works and what the adoption rate is.
Actually, it's not features like adding live video to the app that are difficult. It's stitching new things into the software they have already built.
"Most of our challenges are dealing with our technology stack and integrating something on to our system. It's less about specific features and more 'In order to make that work with this one here you have to make sure it's right with this over here...."
They are now making the three different ways to message people all work together as one. It's been a four-month project.
According to CEO Lynn Perkins, the offices also use video conferencing to play Jackpot Trivia together, and they have a book club. (This month they're reading "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City," a non-fiction Pulitzer Prize winner about housing costs.)
On the first Friday happy hour they did by video conference last summer, she saw jaws drop in San Francisco as they saw their Portland friends' office, with a microbrew tasting going on and a band playing.
"Looking at their faces I thought 'They're all going to want to move to Portland.'" The office and housing markets are tough. She only found their current office there by calling realtors when companies got acquired and were probably moving, so she would have a head start on the competition. With valuable employees like Dobbs coming to her and wanting to move with his wife and two kids somewhere affordable, she took a chance.
She pays Portlanders 78 percent of what she pays her Bay Area people. They look at the differential between Portland and Bay Area cost of living (using Nerd Wallet) and pay entail half the difference.
"We're aggressive by Portland standards," she says.
Transportation is 23 percent cheaper in Portland, while housing is 46 percent lower.
She also factored in elementary schools, rating Portland's better than the Bay Area — in particular, less crowded.
With less commute time, she says the Portland staff can work about as hard as they do in San Francisco but enjoy a better work life balance.
Party on, semi-annually
They also have each other, unlike the other remote workers in Boston and Hawaii.
And they can come back twice a year for the holiday party and the mid-year off-site.
UrbanSitter is in 60 cities now. To open up a new city they first target the job boards at colleges of nursing and early education, such students make the best babysitters. Then it grows from there. Facebook is essential to spreading recommendations, as it is mainly moms and their friends who are the gatekeepers who approve who comes near their kids.
Won't staff be tempted to change jobs in a year, like in Silicon Valley?
"I think they'll stick around," says Perkins. "We have high retention because we're mission-driven. People like the problem we're solving (instant babysitters). There's no obligation but I think they like it and will stick around."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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