Arranging affordable, reliable childcare is a problem for many parents. When Jules van Bruggen’s first child was born, he struggled to find childcare for his baby: long waiting lists at Amsterdam’s day care centers meant that he was left to find a nanny to look after the baby during the day.
Naturally, this was an expensive and arduous process, and left Jules wondering “if this is a struggle many parents are having, why isn’t there a platform where parents can connect with each other to arrange childcare?”
So, he stepped up and created one himself. The result? A platform called oudermatch.nl (“parent match”), unsurprisingly matching up parents so they could arrange childcare together. The platform recently rebranded itself to Sitly. After testing the product in the evenings alongside his job as Global Marketing Manager at ING Direct, Jules decided to tweak the concept from the niche of parents connecting with each other, to an idea that enabled him to reach a far greater audience.
There was a big need for this service, and no one else had grabbed the opportunity yet.
The new idea involved a babysitting website that allows parents to connect with babysitters and childminders in their areas. After reaching a couple of thousand users in the Netherlands, Jules quit his job to throw himself to his company full-time. He then spent a year completely redesigning and redeveloping the site, a move that Jules is reaping the rewards of now. “I did it because I wanted to have a platform developed that allowed me to go to more countries, because I believed that this would only work if it would be a scaleable platform”, explains Jules.
Sticking to his guns
Throughout the process, Jules was determined to stay bootstrapped. This has allowed him to do things his own way. “If you go for funding and have millions to spend, then in the next one and a half years you need to show X factor growth”, he says. This would have forced Sitly to expand in certain ways, into key markets like Germany and the UK. Jules points out that those markets are already saturated, so “if you go to a red ocean market, you’re just trying to beat the others - you’re not fulfilling a need, because it’s already been filled”. He instead sought out countries with little competition, “markets that people didn’t necessarily think of as obvious choices”, allowing his company to enter big markets without receiving external funding.
So where to expand to first? After a brief stint in Germany, which Jules realised “was a little too optimistic for me”, competing against companies with €110 million in funding, he decided to conduct his own data analysis. His results showed that Italy would be a good bet. “There was a big need for this service, and no one else had grabbed the opportunity yet”, he explains. Despite being told by his Italian former colleagues that the market in Italy wasn’t ready for this sort of product yet, Jules placed his trust in the data, and sitter-italia.it was launced.
I’ve chosen to go for markets that allow us to get a really healthy cash flow due to little competition despite demand, and then gradually grow from there.
From there, Sitly has expanded to other ‘unusual’ countries including Spain, Norway and Denmark. Scandinavia was another region he was advised against: “after all, everyone thinks that in those countries, the government pays for everything, so why would people go online to look for a babysitter?” Once again, Jules went with what the data was telling him - and it paid off. Norway is one of the markets in which Sitly (locally barnevaktnett.no) is particularly popular. Most recently, Jules has launched in Argentina, with tuninera.com. Argentina was a particularly bold move, Jules explains, since “the market used to be very closed from a regulatory perspective: two years ago you weren’t even able to transfer money from Argentina to outside, so it made no sense to go there”. Recently, the new government has been liberalizing the market, and so Jules decided it would make an “interesting” next step.
An unusual expansion strategy
Jules’ unusual expansion path is thanks to the nature of the product. He’s not limited geographically because he doesn’t actually need to visit the country where he next wants to launch. Wanting to remain bootstrapped throughout the process has driven Jules’ strategy - “I’ve chosen to go for markets that allow us to get a really healthy cash flow due to little competition despite demand, and then gradually grow from there”, he explains. This has paid off so far: across the seven countries where it’s active, Sitly has over a million signups, and they’ve doubled their growth year on year. They average 30,000-40,000 new members each month, and in the next two years, Sitly plans to be present in between 15 and 20 countries. Jules doesn’t have a ‘dream country’ to conquer: “I just look at the data, and see where the need is, what the competition is doing, and where I can make a difference”.
Sitly used different consumer names in each country, which can become confusing as the company expands. The rationale behind this decision? “In Italy or Spain, 70% or 80% of people don’t speak English”, Jules points out, so an English brand name won’t be memorable. “The local names mean we give a local flavor to each brand - it’s more trustworthy if it’s local”. This choice is now becoming slightly problematic for Jules, since marketing materials can’t be easily repurposed, and creating an app would require a separate app for each country.
Remaining easily scaleable is crucial for Jules. He therefore chose to rebrand all the local brands to Sitly. Looking towards the coming years, he says that “it would be really cool to maintain a small, very effective team who’s able to cope with so many countries and languages”. It’s definitely a challenge, both in terms of technology and management, but one which Jules is very keen to crack. And although he’s aware he’ll have to make trade-offs as his company grows, losing the local touch won’t be one of them.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Most of the things that are being said about entrepreneurship are true. It’s hard work and all that. But I think that if you are at the step of deciding “should I go for entrepreneurship or not”, for me, that was the biggest step. I think people always think like “I’m at this stage in my career path, and if I step out [of that path] then there’s no way back”. That’s a mental block many people have. You can always go back, maybe not to the job you left but there are many more jobs out there. You can go back in a year or two years, and you’ll have far more experience than you used to have, so what do you really have to lose? And I think that should be your mindset.