Lisa DeRienzo runs A Smart Nanny, an online nanny agency that places college-educated nannies, babysitters, and tutors with the local families of Westchester, just outside New York City. She founded the agency in 2013 to connect job-seeking college graduates with busy, dual-earning parents. A former nanny herself, Lisa loves working with kids and A Smart Nanny is her way of sending them the best – and smartest – child care.
How did you get started with your business?
I worked as a nanny before, when I was a teacher but couldn’t find full time position. I loved nannying because I could still work with kids and it paid better. People started asking me for nanny references and I saw an opportunity for A Smart Nanny. Westchester is 20 minutes outside of New York City. The cost of living is high so both parents will often work and hire a nanny. And with the economy as it is, many new graduates have difficulty finding a full-time job. I’m the middle person – I find and place college-educated nannies with families. I do the interviews and a background check. I require nannies to have a background in teaching or nursing. Parents pay me for the initial placement of the nanny, then pay the nanny for her services directly.
I started with five nannies, and I have a network of about 50 now. Most are my teacher friends or friends-of-friends and colleagues, and they babysit and tutor during the off months. Babysitting is really our most popular service.
How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?
That’s the problem, actually. I’m self-funded, and I started A Smart Nanny when I was unemployed. Thank God every magazine and newspaper I’ve been interviewed for was free. I keep entering contests for grants. My primary goal is to branch out into Manhattan and the LA, Orange County area.
Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
I had to learn how to market myself. I did a lot more public speaking. I would table at all the local events. I have to be a go-getter; customers aren’t just going to come to me. I really work to network and reach out, especially through social media like Twitter and Facebook. Facebook is my primary marketing tool. I can promote a status for $5 people and that brings a lot of people in.
Who was your first customer?
I will never forget. My first customer was a very prominent woman, a member of the school board, and she told everyone how great the sitters I sent her were. That really helped to get me started.
My average customers are parents in their 40s, both working, with a yearly income of at least half a million, and two to three kids. Usually the mom contacts me. Nannies are popular during June and August when kids are out of school and aren’t in camp. During the school months babysitters and tutors are really popular.
What was the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
Trying to please everyone and forgetting to follow what I believe in. If a parent said that they only wanted a nanny at $15 an hour, in the beginning I would tell them that I’d try to find someone. But now I would tell them that’s not going to happen.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
The name. A Smart Nanny has a quirky name, so it’s something people remember.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
Being my own boss. Since I was a kid I knew I wanted to be my own boss; I didn’t want to work for someone else. I also love that I get to work with children, maybe not as much in the classroom setting, but I’m sending them the best possible childcare.
What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
Doing everything myself. It’s just me right now. I need money to hire an assistant to do the little things.
Also, learning to turn people down. My mom taught me that money is not the most important thing in the world. If a customer is not a nice person then I would rather lose out on the money than send a nanny, a friend-of-a-friend, to work for them.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
I’m lucky I’ve never had people say anything negative. I’ve never have to replace or send a second nanny. I tell parents if they don’t like the nanny I’ll send another.
I have no complaints from the nanny-side either. Nannies are different than au pairs – au pairs live with the family and make terrible money. Nannies here work 9a – 5p and make $20 an hour for one to two kids, more than two is $25 to $30 an hour. Our nannies don’t have contracts because I don’t want to lock them in; I didn’t like contracts when I was a nanny. Contracts usually entail things like hours, pay, and vacation time, and parents will usually just send me a request that describes all of that.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
It’s funny, but I watch a lot of Reality TV, and one of the women from New York Housewives, Bethenny Frankel – she founded Skinnygirl, the company that sells low calorie cocktails. She did it all by herself and that’s why really I admire her. She just went out there and marketed herself, and now she’s a multi-millionaire. They even have Skinny Girl water at the supermarket now.
What I’ve Learned
What do you wish you had known before starting your business?
I wouldn’t do anything different; I knew what I wanted to do and it’s working out pretty well. I was recently in the New York Post, which is one of my favorite newspapers, and a lot of people contacted me after that.
What advice do you have for others starting their own business?
Don’t give up. Even people close to me said I couldn’t make a career out of this, but I did. If you work hard enough you will make money and be successful.
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About the Author — Sarah Tang is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley where she learned to love the diverse personalities of mom-and-pop stores. She likes intriguing storefronts, creative specialty stores, and well-designed business websites.