Joanna McFarland ’s startup almost didn’t start. For six months she unsuccessfully pitched insurance companies, trying to find one that would underwrite her business: an Uber-style transportation service for unaccompanied minors. “If I’d accepted the first 100 no’s we wouldn’t be here today,” she says. With every rejection, she heard her Bubbie’s voice in her head, urging her to never give up. Her grandmother, Rose Buchalter, was a Holocaust survivor who’d worked the fields in a labor camp in Uzbekistan. Her unbreakable determination enabled her to make it out alive, while also saving her two younger sisters.
McFarland, who graduated from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2005, is co-founder and CEO of HopSkipDrive, a service that matches parents with drivers who shuttle their kids to and from school and activities. She is well aware of the biggest challenge of her business: Many parents have a reptilian fear of strapping their child into a car with a stranger. Rather than letting that deter her, McFarland uses it as a way to differentiate her business. HopSkipDrive invests in background checks, driver profiles, and tracking technology as a way to engender trust. McFarland, along with co-founders Carolyn Yashari Becher and Janelle McGlothlin, launched HopSkipDrive in November 2014 in Los Angeles. It has since expanded to Orange County and the Bay Area. McFarland says the company arranges “tens of thousands” of rides per month. “We make life easier for busy families by getting kids where they need to go, safely and dependably, when their parents can’t,” she says.
Why is this idea resonating right now?
Families are busier than ever. A recent Pew Research Center survey said 60% of kids in America live in families where all the parents work outside the home. Kids are also busier than ever. They have an average of five hours of extracurricular activities per week. So the kids are busy while mom and dad are stuck at work. Also, 40% of parents say their work schedules are affected on a weekly basis due to child transportation, and 47% have said their work schedule has prevented their kids from participating in an activity.
Why is this something you wanted to solve?
I was one of those parents. I remember telling my son, “I’m sorry but you can’t do karate because I can’t get you there Tuesday afternoons.” There are three co-founders of the company, and we are all moms. Between us we have eight kids in five schools and 17 activities. We were all struggling. We thought there had to be a better way.
How do you help parents get past the fear of letting a stranger drive their kids?
We set this up for ourselves from the beginning. What would it take to put our own kids in HopSkipDrive cars? We designed safety into every aspect. It starts with screening the drivers. They have to pass a 15-point certification process. We fingerprint everyone. We do background checks. They are on the TrustLine registry. We do car inspections, driving record checks, and reference checks. We meet every single driver in person. We do more than most people do when they choose a nanny or babysitter. You’re probably not doing DMV checks on your friend’s kid’s nanny, but you may be letting them drive your kid to an activity. We monitor every ride as it’s happening. The parents can track each ride in our app. We also have safety checks for things like speeding and phone usage.
Do you use it for your own kids?
Yes, we all use the service all the time. I use it to get my oldest son to karate. I get a picture and a profile of the driver. I show Jackson the profile. My son is 8 so I need to authorize the driver to sign him out of class. Also, he has a code word. The day of the ride she shows up in a bright orange shirt, she has decals on the car and a booster seat. She gives him the code word so he knows it’s her, and off they go. I get notifications about the ride when they leave and when they get there.
You’re serving a few types of constituents — kids, parents, and drivers. How do you describe each of them and how do you need to serve them differently?
Our kids range from age 6, all the way up. We drive lots of 17-year-olds who don’t have licenses. We drive anyone who needs a little extra caregiving — seniors included. A mom might be in the sandwich generation. She has a kid going to an activity and also needs help getting her mom to a doctor’s appointment. Mostly it’s kids going to school and activities like dance and soccer. Tutoring is a big one. In LA we also have kids going to auditions. It’s life-changing for them. They couldn’t get there otherwise and this enables them to do what they want to do. This makes them feel important.
“Important” as in, “Excuse me, here comes my chauffeur?”
More like, “I used to be the last one picked up, my mom was always late, and now I have someone here on time.”
How about the parents? What are they like?
They tend to be busy dual-income families. Maybe it’s both parents are working or maybe they are single-parent families. Some divorced parents use us for the custody exchange — we are a great way to never see your ex!
Who are the drivers typically?
Our drivers — we call them “CareDrivers” — have a minimum of five years of childcare experience. They are moms, empty-nesters, part-time nannies. Or maybe they are semi-retired, their kids have left home and they want to make extra money.
What are your biggest challenges right now in building your business?
Making sure we are balancing supply and demand. Making sure that as we grow, we are maintaining the quality of drivers as well as the service we provide.
If there was one thing that has enabled you to be successful as an entrepreneur, what would it be?
My co-founders. We divide and conquer and complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The startup life can be so lonely. There are so many high-highs and low-lows — often within five minutes. Having a partner who can understand you is so important. You get so much farther, faster.
How did you meet?
Janelle and I have known each other for eight years. Our kids went to preschool together. We were introduced to Carolyn through a mutual advisor.
What gave birth to the idea?
We were at a birthday party in late 2013 and all the moms were talking about this problem of driving the kids around. We joked and said we should collectively buy a van and hire a babysitter. Janelle was like, “Wait, this is interesting. Let’s make it happen!” Then we met Carolyn through Kara Nortman, another GSB alum. Carolyn was already working on the same concept. We founder-dated for several months.
We wanted to make sure we could mesh well. It’s really important. You’re starting a long-term relationship. At times you will be very raw, making really hard decisions together. You will have to fight with each other respectfully. So we did a lot of lunches and dinners and talked about our visions for the business and what we thought our roles would be. We had frank conversations around equity and responsibility and location.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. She taught me to never give up, never accept “no.” You do whatever it takes to get a “yes.” You may have to ask it another way or you may have to ask 57 other people.
How did that help her?
She was in labor camps in Uzbekistan. She finagled her way long enough to survive through the war. She and her sisters were working in the fields. Then she was offered a job in the kitchen. So she worked harder and peeled more potatoes than anyone. She convinced them to bring in her sisters by saying that they would work as hard as her. She kept doing things like that. She was always looking out for all three of them.
What was your first paying job?
I was a babysitter. I made $5 an hour.
How has that first job shaped the professional you are today?
It was about taking care of other people. I started when I was 13 years old. It felt like a tremendous responsibility. You know, these are someone else’s kids.
How do you handle that responsibility now, knowing something could go wrong on a ride?
We take very seriously the trust families have put in us and we try to be as authentic to our brand as possible. It’s about taking care of your family.
What is the best business book you’ve ever read?
The Hard Thing About Hard Things. It is a very authentic book that tells it like it really is. I’m living it, so I keep going back to it.
What’s the most important innovation in the past decade and how has it helped you build your business?
The smartphone. You come into our app, you tell us about your kids or riders, their age and gender, where we are driving and any notes about those locations. You can book rides the day before or book for a whole school year; set it and forget it. We also launched a carpool feature where you can invite another family into your carpool. In your smartphone you are getting notifications and you can track the ride as it’s happening. The driver is connected to GPS and our network in real time.