Bringing Babysitters Mainstream in Japan: Kidsline Founder Tsunezawa KahokoSociety
Creating a Low-Cost Service Accessible to All
Prime Minister Abe Shinzō continues to assert that Japan must become a place where all women shine , but there are many obstacles along the way to making this a reality. Childrearing is still regarded primarily as women’s work, and finding childcare remains one of the biggest hurdles that women face. According to a government survey there were 55,000 children on waiting lists for daycare places as of October 2017, an increase of 7,600 over the same month the previous year. A dearth of daycare workers and difficulty of finding land for building daycare centers in Tokyo are just two problems the government must overcome if it hopes to cut the number of children on daycare waiting lists to zero.
Recognizing the lack of sufficient childcare support in Japan, entrepreneur Tsunezawa Kahoko set up Kidsline in 2014 as a convenient, low-cost online system for providing reliable babysitters. In Japan babysitter culture is just beginning to gain acceptance, and according to Tsunezawa it is still regarded by many as an expensive service used only by affluent families. Kidsline is changing this image, however, by making it easy for parents to arrange for a babysitter at rates as low as ¥1,000 per hour.
“It’s impossible for women in Japan to be fully empowered when there’s so little childrearing support,” says Tsunezawa. “Young people commonly move to Tokyo for university and stay on in the city, finding jobs here and marrying. This means that many young couples live a considerable distance from both sets of parents. More women are working outside the home now, but without their parents or in-laws nearby, there’s no one to help with the children. In many cases too, working women assume they must bear the entire burden of caring for their children. We need a social infrastructure where childcare is readily available, but that won’t happen overnight. My idea is to provide a service that fills this need.”
A Daughter’s Legacy
Tsunezawa graduated from university in the late 1990s and began working for Recruit, an integrated human resources company known for its pro-active hiring practices. The firm expected all employees regardless of gender to bear the same responsibilities, and Tsunezawa was immediately put to the test doing cold calls. A few years later she moved to then fledgling e-commerce and Internet company Rakuten, where she worked on developing new businesses. In 2000, at the age of 26, she attracted attention as an up-and-coming entrepreneur when she set up Trenders, a marketing company targeting women. The firm did well, but when Tsunezawa entered her 30s she experienced first-hand the burden of being a working mother.
“I had three children in my early thirties and it taught me the challenge of balancing work and parenting duties. It was especially hard with my first child. She was born with had an incurable illness and required special care, and at one point I really thought that I would have to give up working altogether.”
That was in 2005. Tsunezawa, unable to put her daughter into daycare because of her medical condition, thought of selling her company. With the help of family members and babysitters, though, she was able to care for her daughter until the child passed away at the age of four. This experience opened Tsunezawa’s eyes to the possibilities of what she terms “team child-rearing” and the enjoyment that it brings.
Tsunezawa continued working full time while looking after her two younger children with the help of her mother and babysitters. Trenders was listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange Mothers section in 2012, but motivated by her own experience and wanting to make child-rearing more pleasurable for mothers with sick children or those waiting for daycare slots, Tsunezawa left two years later to found Kidsline.
Tsunezawa says she aims to make Kidsline a ubiquitous part of Japanese society. “Many daycares are only open from nine to five, which is neither helpful for families where both parents work nor compatible with today’s more diverse work styles. Ideally, parents should be able to easily book a babysitter whenever they need one. Just as mail-order shopping is convenient because delivery services bring parcels to your door no matter where in Japan you live, I want to build a nationwide babysitter network to provide people with easy, reliable childcare. This kind of service should be an invisible infrastructure that can counteract the falling birthrate and help people achieve better work-life balance.”
Quality Assurance Through Customer Feedback
Starting Kidsline has convinced Tsunezawa that now more than ever people are eager for a reliable babysitter service.
“There are so many mothers with nowhere to turn for advice on child-rearing. For example, many parents worry that their child isn’t developing as quickly compared to their other children. By talking with an experienced babysitter, they can get reassurance that their child’s development is on track.”
Tsunezawa says the key to Kidsline’s success is the quality of its babysitters. “Some say that one reason daycare lags in Japan is that talented individuals don’t stick with the job because the pay is low. But I think this can be changed. We interview our babysitters carefully and customers give feedback every time they use our service. Those customer reviews can be accessed and shared by registered users. The sitters know that they are being evaluated so that helps maintain standards, and visibility of the information helps reduce mishaps. Using IT also boosts efficiency of the matching process, so we can reduce our middleman margin. The more good matches we can make, the better it is financially for both babysitters and the company, and that is what I am working to achieve.”
Kidsline currently has 1,700 registered babysitters. The number of regular users is growing and a nationwide Kidsline support network is up and running. Prospective sitters are first interviewed by staff and are given on-the-job training by “trainer moms” who are also Kidsline users. The firm offers its sitter service for infants to children up to age 15. Older children are covered because the sitters also often work as tutors for schoolwork.
Tsunezawa says the latter is a major selling point for many parents. “We have 600 university students registered, some of whom speak more than one language. They can pick up the children in their charge from school, help them with homework, and eat dinner with them. Many women feel conflicted about leaving their children in the care of others, but saying their child is with a tutor makes it easier for mothers, especially those who worry about what their peers think, to use the service by avoiding the stigma associated with babysitters.”
Tie-ups with Businesses and Municipalities
The hourly rate for Kidsline babysitters starts at ¥1,000, but sitters are able to name their own rates based on experience and the services they are able to provide. To keep rates affordable for users, though, Tsunezawa has approached businesses and municipal authorities about using the service. “A business, for example, can have a contract with us whereby they offer babysitting as an employee perk and provide a subsidy for the service’s users. We also have arrangements with several municipalities in and around Tokyo and elsewhere that offer subsidies for Kidsline users.”
Tsunezawa adds that many users of the sitter service are single mothers. “The issue of poverty among single mothers is often mentioned in the media, but more attention needs to be given to the factors, such as lack of daycare, that prevent these women from working enough hours to make a decent living. Of course, there are many single mothers who are financially well off, but there are plenty of others who are struggling to make both ends meet. Corporate or municipal subsidies make babysitting services more affordable while benefiting mothers by enabling them to focus more on their careers and their children by allowing them to interact with different kinds of adults. Many single mothers are so harried that they have no time or energy to move outside their own restricted circles. I hope that using sitters will help them broaden their contacts. I’d like Kidsline to be a ray of hope to these women and their children by opening more opportunities in life.”
Caring for Other People’s Children A Heavy Responsibility
Kidsline is currently staffed by about 30 people, including 15 regular employees. Many staffers have IT backgrounds in advertising or game development. “Most of our engineers are married with children, and many came to Kidsline wanting to work in a job that uses technology to contribute to society.”
After four years Tsunezawa envisions taking Kidsline abroad and eventually listing the company on the stock exchange. Asked whether she is worried about rivals entering the field, Tsunezawa says she is confident her experience gives the firm a competitive edge. “A service like this can’t be run unless the operator is committed heart and soul. We are dealing with children’s lives here. I founded Kidsline based on my experience setting up my previous company and as a mother. I feel most people be warry of the risks involved and introduce all kinds of rules instead of working for transparency. This would make the service more complicated, expensive, and harder for customers to use.”
Kidsline’s biggest advantages are the quality of the service, based on Tsunezawa’s know-how as an entrepreneur and mother, and its trusted reputation among users.(Originally published in Japanese on June 1, 2018. Interview and text by Itakura Kimie of Nippon.com. Photos by Miwa Noriaki, except where otherwise noted.)