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CozyKin: A Child Care Startup That Encourages Sharing

In Massachusetts, you can send a child to state university for less than the average cost of infant care, according to figures from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). As any parent knows, childcare costs can quickly jump two or three times the average price tag of $17,000 a year, when premium day care centers or a private nanny is factored in.

While that kind of expense presents a challenge even for families with two sizable incomes, it’s flat-out unaffordable for most single-income families, and completely unrealizable for low-income families. The salt-in-the-wound news for child care workers is that they don’t even earn enough to make ends meet for their own families: More than 90 percent of them can’t afford the cost of living in 7 of 17 metropolitan areas around the state, according to EPI. And nationwide, when compared to employees in other lines of work, the families of child care workers are more than twice as likely to live in poverty.

So what’s a young couple with a new bouncing baby to do? It’s not uncommon for working parents to peruse the available options and experience a range of reactions, beginning with sticker shock and sometimes leading to a rethinking of one’s return-to-work plan.The startup CozyKin, launched out of the Harvard Innovation Lab, is offering an alternative that they say is both more affordable and higher quality: nanny shares.

Share and share alike, it turns out, may be advice that lends itself both to children and child care. Hari Iyer, an Olin alum and one of CozyKin’s three co-founders, says the company interviews, screens, and hires the best child care workers they can find. Then they match families to one another, so one nanny cares for two families’ children at one of their homes. They are currently focused on the Somerville and Cambridge area, with hopes to expand through the Boston area.

By sharing a provider, the parents are able to afford higher quality care than they might on their own—each family pays $15 an hour, affording them access to the $30-an-hour providers. The provider receives greater job security and income, plus help negotiating fair contracts and benefits from full-time employment from CozyKin. The nannies are also grouped into teams that meet monthly, to share ideas and participate in a network of support. They have the offer of 24/7 support from CozyKin, plus opportunities for professional development in Montessori-inspired education.

To demonstrate how it works, Iyer says one woman on maternity leave—let’s call her Emily—found her way to the CozyKin website and registered. Meanwhile, “Rachel,” who was still pregnant, had signed up a few weeks earlier. In the initial phone call, Emily and Rachel are each asked to describe what their ideal child care might look like, the kind of experience they want for their baby, as well as a number of logistical details: age of child, address, work schedule, preferences for hosting vs. dropping off, and so forth. When Emily and Rachel look like a match on paper, CozyKin arranges for them to speak over the phone. If all goes well, the next step is an in-person meeting, hopefully the first of several, to discuss what they’re looking for in a nanny.

If it all sounds a little like a certain dating site, that’s to be forgiven, but discouraged. “It may be tempting, especially for a startup in the tech space, to say ok, we’ll set up profiles for everyone who signs up, create a matching system, hit a button, and make sure people are happy,” Iyer says. But decisions about child care are “among the most important and most personal decisions that new parents will make. And at the end of the day, this entire venture is about trust.”

By way of research, the startup team conducted more than 100 interviews with new parents across the country, asking: “What is the child care you wish you had?” The team spoke with physicians, human resources professionals, and looked to the healthcare industry, where they had prior experience. It was, as Iyer says, “a textbook User Oriented Collaborative Design exploration of the major needs, problems, perspectives, and areas of opportunity.”

But for the founders of this startup, it’s also personal: Iyer and co-founders Tatyana Gubin and Jeremy Au all grew up in separate nanny-share arrangements of their own. Iyer says his parents moved as immigrants to Huntsville, Alabama, where they connected with another family and shared childcare. “That community was such a part of my family life,” he says. “The quality of your network is so powerful.”