How caregiver marketplace Care.com looks to avoid its "Airbnb meth head moment"
We live in a world of marketplaces -- multi-billion dollar platforms that rely on elegant software solutions to enable often messy human transactions, like renting a vacation home, hailing a ride across town, or finding a babysitter.
But in order to scale quickly, companies like Uber and Airbnb have at various points in time adopted attitudes that, while wildly conducive to growth, cast off responsibility for the actions of its users. Uber is the most obvious example, having faced a massive number of controversies pertaining to background checks and insurance requirements that resulted in real, horrifying, and -- in the minds of many -- avoidable consequences for riders. In fairness, Uber has made improvements in regard to some of these failings, but only after the company's dangerous "disrupt-first-ask-questions-later" strategy allowed it to penetrate markets around the world.
And then there's the infamous "Airbnb meth head moment." In 2011, an Oakland resident rented his property via Airbnb to a man who turned out to be a meth addict, and returned to discover his valuables pillaged and his home damaged to the tune of thousands of dollars. "Littered with meth pipes" were his words.
Now let's be frank: the human element of these businesses means that events like this are never entirely avoidable. But the bigger issue was that Airbnb was unprepared to deal with its aftermath, offering poor communication and customer service, failing to make the situation right in a timely manner, and publicly downplaying the incident to protect its own reputation.
“We had no protocol for anything," CEO Brian Chesky told Pando's Sarah Lacy at a PandoMonthly event. "We were just trying to keep everything going.”
Luckily, it turned out to be a turning point for Chesky, who thereafter put in place a $50,000 guarantee to protect hosts from future incidents.
Coming home to a trashed, ransacked house is an ordeal nobody should have to endure. But unwittingly inviting a meth head into your home while you're away is one thing -- finding out the person taking care of your child is a meth head is more frightening by infinite orders of magnitude.
So how does Care.com, a marketplace for finding babysitters, petsitters, and caretakers of the elderly or infirm, avoid similar disasters? The company's CEO, Sheila Lirio Marcelo, explained at last night's PandoMonthly event in New York City:
"We have to feel comfortable that we can hire on the service for our own children -- that's the bar," Marcelo said. "So whether that's child care, senior care, tutoring... I've used the service for a lot of different things, and it's something we need to feel good about. And so our safety features we encourage, but the fact that we provide it at a significant discount from what other agencies or other people offer... you can hire, for about $300, a private investigator to go fully research a caregiver. And we encourage families, if you can afford it, you should go do that. [Be]cause most people don't background check the people that they hire. So we're trying to educate them. We educate them on unannounced visits, we educate them on proper interviewing outside the home first before you introduce them to your children. A lot of different steps and great content on the website on educating them on safety."
Maybe that too sounds like casting off responsibility by placing the onus on users to initiate background checks and other safeguards. But even if Care.com doesn't carry out these checks itself, by building a platform that encourages and enables this behavior -- as opposed to a marketplace like Uber or Airbnb which may be too frictionless for consumers -- the company has found a balance between scale and safety.
"The most important thing is, ultimately, we're making it efficient and the tools available for families to make the best decisions for them," Marcelo said. "We are not an agency. We do not employ these people. We are a marketplace. And we're trying to build scale to make it available for people."
That Care.com has yet to encounter its "Airbnb meth head moment" could be evidence that the site's efforts to properly educate users on safety are working -- or it could be sheer luck. In any case, if the company continues to grow, more and more unpredictability will be injected into its system. And sadly, when so many people are exchanging human-level services, it's practically inevitable that a tragedy of some sort will occur. But if the steps Care.com takes to help families avoid horrific turns of events continue to be largely successful, that enables the company to spare no expense to make things right -- to the best of its ability -- in the rare event of a disaster.
That said, the company is largely untested in this regard. And while Marcelo talks a good game about building a platform she herself is comfortable using, all we can do is hope that if the behavior of one of its caregivers ever leads to the unimaginable, Care.com won't look to shirk responsibility like Uber has so many times, and like Airbnb did in its early days.