This startup connects parents with childcare providers

When Ben Marr had the idea to connect childcare providers and parents over the Internet, “it was like a gong going off,” he says.

“If I can get two people to work together in for in-home child care, it immediately creates availability for those two, and the ability to add more than two can make things significantly more affordable.”

Marr has founded a company, Hapu.com.au, that he believes will create a new institutional framework – one built on age-old tribal principles – that will enable more people to team up and provide in-home childcare within their communities.

The Sharing Economy

In the process, he’s also using some of the same sharing economy principles that have made companies like Uber and Airbnb so successful.

The concept, Marr says, is rooted in his heart and in the Maori tribal culture that he knows so well. Marr’s father is the son of a prominent Maori matriarch from New Zealand and a member of the Ngati Rangitihi tribe of New Zealand’s Eastern Bay of Plenty.

“When I’m in New Zealand, the tribe is as it was 1,000 years ago,” Marr says. “I’ve grown up watching hundreds of people work together and achieve amazing things, often at a moment’s notice.”

Marr’s father married an Australian woman and raised his family in Sydney, so Marr grew up with one foot in both cultures. He wondered whether he could marry the two and bring tribal values and order to his other home. He saw child care as an institution ripe for tribal values.

An Institutional Framework

He thinks of the issue in terms of how institutions function. “Institutions have power,” he says. Think of a daycare center as an institution.

“Daycare centers set the rules and rates and you agree to abide by them as long as you’re a member. The individual’s position in respect of the institution is to agree or not. There is no negotiation. Individuals respect this power dynamic, as they need the service offered.”

The process can break down, he says, when people try to set up a nanny share without clearly defined rules and roles.

“Three individuals can mean three equal powers which can create a perpetual state of negotiation,” he says, making it hard to accomplish anything. If the sides don’t agree and one member leaves the arrangement, the whole operation can fall apart.

Rules And Protocols

He has watched closely over the years to learn how the tribe operates as an institution. “A tribe has set rules and protocols that you are born into,” Marr says. “The consequences of rejecting these rules is to reject the tribe itself. Like any institution, the tribe will survive the individual’s exit.”

With Hapu.com.au, Marr aims to establish an institution that childcare providers and patrons could use – one with clearly defined rules. Hapu is a Maori word meaning both “tribe” and, fittingly, “pregnant.”

“What I see currently in terms of child care and child care centers,” Marr says, “is there’s a powerlessness evident in where these individuals, these parents, can only turn to a child care center. The power balance is way off there. You wait six months to a year for a place, pay what they tell you to pay; you do whatever they tell you to do.

“That’s one person against the institution. You get two or three people together, and the power dynamic of the individual shifts to the power of the group. As I started to look into how my family and tribe work together so well, it all became clear. There’s a hierarchy in place, transparency over money and clear rules. When you step on tribal grounds, you know who’s in charge, what the rules are, and what’s expected of you at any given moment.”

What if that clarity was applied to in-home childcare?

“Hapu seeks to create visibility to in-home childcare listings so filling open places and replacing guests is no longer a problem,” Marr says. “This is one step in shifting the power back to the institution so that any in-home service is no longer too dependent on individuals.

“A second step is formalizing payments from subscription-based terms, notice periods for leaving, and late fee policy and late fee processing as an act of creating the institution’s rules and protocol and as a further pillar of stability and shifting of power away from individuals to that of the group.

“It is this creation of community-created institutions that is the heart of Hapu and the key to scale,” Marr says. “And that is Hapu’s ultimate goal – the scaling of in-home childcare via clear protocols and processes to a national and global level able to rival existing large scale institutional childcare.”

He has launched Hapu in Australia, and plans eventually to expand to the United States.

Hurdles to Overcome

Those are ambitious goals, to be sure, and Marr faced several hurdles in building Hapu.

Marr needed to build the app, and it needed to be robust enough to handle all payments. Marr was a veteran user experience designer, so he knew what he wanted. As a “one man band,” he was too busy on other tasks, so he knew he needed to outsource the app’s construction, but he recalled other instances when he tried managing an offshore design team and had nothing but headaches. “It’s just hell,” he says. “Even though I’m a tech pro, trying to get someone to develop your design is difficult enough if you are running your own team.”

Marr’s techie friends advised him to follow the “lean startup” method of releasing his site in beta and working out the kinks as he went along, but he knew that route wasn’t sufficient.

“Particularly because we’re handling a significant portion of a family’s weekly budget, it’s got to work,” Marr says. “The first kink in the system where the money doesn’t flow, you’ve got a lot of problems on your hands and your promise to both provider and customer has failed.”

He saw how Uber had solved the money issue by removing it from the discussion between driver and passenger. “You get in the Uber. You get out of the Uber. Money isn’t discussed,” Marr says.

Hapu aims for the same system. “When you first join, you’re aware of the payment structure, what it costs per week, and the amount comes out of your account and goes to the host every week,” Marr says. “You hopefully never talk about money again.”

For instance, Marr says, when you have something like a nanny share, “there’s a lot of complexity to money. What does a parent pay who has one child versus a parent who has two? When one parent leaves how easily do the remaining sharers pick up the slack? Say the nanny is on the clock. Say someone’s habitually late. What does that do to the strength of the institution that they’re trying to create?”

“With Hapu, the host can press a button, and the person is charged a $10 late fee. The email comes from Hapu, not the host. ‘This is our policy. This is what you signed up for.’ That’s me, trying to get the rules and protocol around money from tribal life, and apply that to in-home childcare.”

Making It Work With Gigster

Marr read an article on TechCrunch about Gigster. “I think the great idea about Gigster is that if you give someone a project engineer and a product manager, you’re essentially giving them their own development company,” Marr says. “It’s such a simple idea to put just one or two people between the client and the dev team, but it works.”

Marr was a busy startup founder, raising money, figuring out a business plan and the legal framework of childcare, and designing the site and the user interface. As such, he says, “you don’t have the mental space or time to micromanage the full production of your product. Micromanaging an offshore team essentially would make me the project manager, and that’s just one too many jobs.”

Instead, Marr simply gave site updates to his Gigster project manager, and had confidence that they would take things from there.

Gigster brought other benefits as well.

“One of the really great things about Gigster is the way they fill in the gaps,” Marr says. “All along the way, from project engineer to product manager to dev team, Gigster either asks, ‘Have you thought about this?’ Or they suggest quite adamantly that ‘you need this flow adjustment as it’s standard best practice.’

“This type of stuff is essential,” Marr says. “I had a chat with my PM who said the engineer had a better idea for the ‘Forgot Password’ flow. Now, that’s something pretty basic. But instead of just doing what I presented, the Gigster team are actively processing what I asked for in terms of best practice and best technical solution. It’s one of those delight moments where you just say, ‘Yes, please continue with your suggestion!'”

Merging Two Cultures

With the logistics handled, Marr is able to think about the big questions.

“As I delved into what makes a tribe work together so successfully, I felt I could bring that same knowledge to my other culture, which is Australian,” he says. “I’m Australian, and I’m Maori as well. As I’ve grown up here in Australia, the Western world is in its ascendancy and it appears this is the way to do things. But it’s not perfect. We’ve lost a lot of things.

“As the individual is paramount in Western culture, we lose a lot of what’s possible in community.”

People yearn for those sorts of connections. Uber has shown people are willing to get into each other’s cars. Airbnb has people opening up their homes. With Hapu, people can take the next step, and work together to raise their children in an exquisite embodiment of the old maxim that it takes a village to raise a child.

“We want people to create their own little tribes,” Marr says. “As we push it forward,, the message is clear. What I want to happen is an actual concrete change in how people view the nature of their own society. What I want is for people to think, “Can I as a parent create a little institution here that serves my interests and those of my neighbors?” And the answer is: Yes, you can.

Take a look at Hapu today.

Dan Fost

Dan Fost is a veteran journalist who was a staff writer at The San Francisco Chronicle and has had pieces published at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and many more. He's written two books about the San Francisco Giants and is passionate baseball fan.