The key to success is recognizing those “decisive moments” said Joe Keeley, CEO of what is now College Nannies + Sitters + Tutors and the speaker at the Feb. 15 Twin West Chamber of Commerce Leadership Luncheon.
The decisive moment to start his own business came in the summer of 2000 when Keeley was a college student at St. Thomas University.
In need of a summer job, Keeley answered a classified advertisement by an Edina couple seeking a hockey player to watch their two boys for $10 an hour.
Since he was a hockey player, Keeley accepted the job and became “a manny,” Keeley told the group.
“I didn’t know what being a nanny or a manny meant,” Keeley said, but this was the decisive moment in his entrepreneurial journey he calls opportunity recognition.
What he realized was that the parents weren’t just looking for someone to watch their children, they were also looking for a role model.
Soon, Keeley’s job became something his college friends envied. While Keeley was spending his summer watching the kids at the pool, his friends were busy digging pools.
He also began to see other parents take notice. They too wanted a role model for their children.
Seeing the “supply and demand,” 20-year-old Keeley began recruiting friends to become nannies for the other Edina families and his business began to blossom.
At that time, however, it was only meant to be his “beer money.”
Soon he began to get more involved, with the help of his college friends, and did what new businesses do, such as filing paper work to become a corporation and branding his business. He began winning awards, including the “Global Student Entrepreneur of the Year.”
Keeley admits there were a lot of road blocks in starting a new business, that he didn’t have a business plan and needed to find a way to recruit people directly.
“We had to figure it out, and we did,” he said.
Keeley began looking at expanding and franchising the business.
“You have to be able to teach someone, without them earning a Ph.D. in whatever you do, if you’re going to replicate it,” he said. “It is so important to create value … to replicate to scale.”
He heard about corporate back-up care, “where companies will pay to have a baby-sitter show up at the house if a child’s mildly ill and you have to get to work, or the school decides to have a day off.”
He need to give people what they wanted, which was nannies on short notice.
The business went from a four-week lead time to under 40 minutes in some cases.
“That’s a big difference,” he said. “So we had to figure it out.”
The company began to add franchisees, “and we faked it until we made it,” he said.
As the business grew, Keeley also had to realize it wasn’t about him.
“I had to have people who really knew operations, who really knew marketing,” he said. “It had to be about the team, it had to be about the purpose.”
“Once you have this team, they make you better,” he said, noting he was free again to think about what was next for the company.
Seeing there was “unmet potential,” Keeley realized the “X-factor” the solution to a problem in a business that everyone has. For his business, the X-factor was the ability for parents to book on demand.
After taking his first Uber ride in Chicago in the early 2000s, Keeley realized his next step would have to be developing an app. He needed to quickly match his inventory of nannies on demand.
“How do we present that in a way that is elegant for (sitters) and presented to mom on her terms so she can book what she needs when she wants it so that she’s always set for a sitter, thus making our purpose come alive of building that family just a little bit stronger,” he said. “We had to figure it out.”
And the My Sitters app was created becoming a “transformative” step for the company to grow, he said.
The company became the nation’s largest resource for customized nanny and tutoring services. In addition, in 2010, Keeley became the youngest man to win the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.
To meet the company’s full potential, which for Keeley was becoming a $100 million brand by 2020, he knew he had to put the company “in the place of greatest potential.” For him, that would mean being acquired by Bright Horizons, a national network of child care centers.
Now, rather than an entrepreneur, Keeley considers himself an intrapreneur, “an employee of a large corporation who is given freedom and financial support to create new products, services, systems.”
Contact Kristen Miller at [email protected]