Why Your Next Nanny Might Be the Parent Next Door
By Emma Gross
Photography: CAYCE CLIFFORD
Published December 7, 2021
Some startup ideas are born from a founder’s 3 a.m. epiphany. Some evolve gradually over years of focus and study. And some, as Helen Mayer tells it, are inspired by a feeling of “total rage.”
It was May 2020, and Mayer looked out the window of her Boston apartment to a city transformed. The silenced streets and boarded-up restaurants echoed the disruptions that COVID-19 had imposed on Mayer’s own life. That March, her first startup—a texting application designed to help first-generation college students navigate college life—had shuttered as universities closed and students returned home. Days later, her 16-month-old twins’ daycare shut down.
While her then-partner continued to work, Mayer was suddenly unemployed and stuck in a too-small city apartment entertaining their sons. Between hours making play goop from cornstarch, Mayer searched for a job. Finally, she found one—a good one too. The problem was childcare. Even in a city like Boston, the options were limited and prohibitively expensive.
Mayer was forced to turn down the job offer, simply because she could not find childcare. During her sons’ nap time, Mayer began canvassing online parenting groups to see how other families were faring. She quickly realized she wasn’t alone. Story after story detailed parents, overwhelmingly women, driven out of the workforce because they could no longer find or afford decent childcare. According to the National Women’s Law Center, more than two million women were forced to leave their jobs during the pandemic and assume the responsibility of looking after children. Approximately half of all Americans now live in communities that the Center for American Progress dubs “childcare deserts.”
What pushed Mayer over the edge, however, was looking into the last time the U.S. had invested in childcare as infrastructure: World War II. This fact left Mayer angry. “Not angry,” she clarifies. “Enraged.” She dove into finding a solution.
Jess Lee, a Sequoia Partner, first learned about Helen Mayer via Maran Nelson, the founder of Interact, an invite-only mentorship program for young entrepreneurs. This was October 2020, just a few months after Mayer began working on a startup that could provide a remedy for America’s childcare crisis. Mayer had been among those selected for the program, and after spending time with her, Nelson wrote to Lee, “I am strongly behind this person. … She is clearly a star.”
Ever since Lee joined Sequoia in 2016, she had been searching for “the” childcare company. “It’s clear to me it’s one of the biggest pain points for moms, and moms are one of the most important consumer groups in the world,” Lee says. “Over the years, I have met with dozens of childcare companies. No one’s ever been able to crack the problem.”
When Lee met with Mayer in early October 2020, the founder was in the midst of organizing pandemic pods for parents. Her idea was for parents to trade hours watching each other’s children when they weren’t working. Mayer had interviewed 100 families in New York and was matching them by hand. “I was very struck by her,” Lee says. “My concern about what she was doing, however, was that pandemic pods are temporary. I felt the idea was a little niche. But I remember thinking, I wonder what will come of this?”
Following their meeting, Lee sent Mayer some materials that she thought might be useful: diagrams that help families compare and contrast their parenting styles. “She wrote back two days later and said, ‘I’ve incorporated the diagrams into my project,’” Lee says. “And I was like, wow, that’s really fast moving. Most founders never even write back after you send them a suggestion.”
Mayer discovered through matching parent pods that the the most successful swaps were those where families were matched with stay-at-home parents. “I dug deeper,” Mayer says, “and I learned that working parents who were getting childcare were thrilled with the solution, but the stay-at-home parents weren’t getting paid. I convinced the parents to switch to a model where parents who need childcare pay a stay-at-home parent to care for their child.” By late October 2020, mere weeks after meeting with Lee, Mayer launched Otter with this model.
Less than six months later, in March 2021, Otter had helped more than 3,500 stay-at-home parents in New York and Chicago provide care and earn more than $20 million collectively. What’s more, Mayer had achieved this singlehandedly—she was the sole employee at the company. “I learned all this and I was like, What?” Lee says. “That’s insane. How is that even possible?”
Mayer attributes this period of growth to a lot of late nights (and a lot of toddler naptimes) spent on her computer with a cup of coffee. While she is admittedly not a coder, Mayer nonetheless managed to translate her analog system of matching families by hand into an automated program that used the same qualifiers (parenting style, location) to pair families.
“This is Mayer in a nutshell,” Lee says. “She’s a very deep, thoughtful person and she is always looking to define the why and the why again? She had found the kernel of promise inside of arranging pandemic parenting pods, and she was like, ‘Aha!’”
One month later, Mayer closed on a Series A round led by Sequoia. Otter was off the ground and swimming.
Mayer was forced to turn down the job offer, simply because she could not find childcare.
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Mayer was born in Paris to an American mother and a French father, whose job as an IT security consultant took him back and forth between the two countries. Mayer’s childhood was defined by one move after another. By the time she graduated high school, she had gone to 12 different schools. The constant motion, while disruptive, also taught her some valuable lessons. “I think I learned to be very patient with trying to understand why people did things, what they thought, what motivated them, what they were excited about,” she says.
Through changing cities, schools, and friend groups, Mayer’s stay-at-home mother Sarah was her constant. In each new place, the two would seek out the local library. There were two rules: Mayer could borrow as many books as she could carry home, and her mother would read to her until she lost her voice.
As Mayer grew up, her mother encouraged her to pursue what interested her, be it a math formula or the violin or an area of philosophy, and to learn through “doing”—through research, problem solving, failure, and, most important, persistence. At the prestigious private high school in Boston that she attended on a scholarship, Mayer and her classmates were tasked with finding an adult to shadow for a week. Mayer decided she wanted to work with a surgeon. Only problem: “I didn’t know any surgeons, I didn’t know any doctors. Someone at school was like, ‘Don’t your parents know somebody?’” They didn’t, and Mayer came home feeling defeated. But her mother wasn’t having that: “She said, ‘We don’t know any doctors, but you could just look at a directory and call people.’” So Mayer printed out a list of 50 names and started working her way through it. “I heard twenty-two no’s,” she says. “And then the twenty-third person I called said yes.”
She didn’t know it at the time, but this innate scrappiness and determination was exactly what would define her future life as a startup founder. She just needed to connect her natural-born drive with causes that truly inspired her.
“I heard twenty-two no’s. And then the twenty-third person I called said yes.”HELEN MAYER
Why hasn’t the problem of childcare been solved? Why hasn’t anyone founded a great, parent-helping, kid-nourishing childcare business? And why have those who previously set out to solve the problem failed? The way Lee sees it, the childcare challenge is multifaceted. “A lot of companies have built models around trying to help create new daycares, which is really hard,” Lee says. “Daycares have bad unit economics, meaning the profitability of a single daycare isn’t high. What’s more, acquiring daycare licenses is difficult.”
But the problem with childcare, according to Lee, isn’t simply a problem of accessibility—it’s also one of affordability. “Folks have tried to build babysitting marketplaces or nanny marketplaces, not realizing for most Americans, nannies are simply not affordable,” Lee says.
One of the key insights that Mayer tapped into, and which Lee believes sets Otter apart from its competitors, is that it draws from a new supply of caregivers: stay-at-home parents. These are individuals who are already doing the work of tending to children, but have never been paid for it.
When Mayer first approached New York City families from her original 50 matched pods to see if they would be open to paying the stay-at-home parents who were already watching their children, the response was immediate and nearly unanimous: Yes. Then she called the stay-at-home parents to see if they would accept payment; to Mayer’s surprise, this proved much more challenging. “I had really interesting conversations with people who were like, ‘I didn’t become a stay-at-home parent to make money. I became a stay-at-home parent for my kids,’” Helen says. “And so what happens if you add money? Does that make my commitment to my kids any less pure? Am I kind of using my kids? Is my work even worth paying for? All these things kept coming up.”
Eventually, Mayer landed on the refrain that care work is real work: It should be compensated.
“Just because you weren’t paid for it before doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth something,” she says. Choosing to be a stay-at-home parent, Mayer says, is signing up for a job where you never have days off: “It never ends, and you sleep where you work. But you’re also caught in a position where you don’t add to the family balance sheet with money. And often that leads you to undervalue yourself.”
It took many conversations to convince the stay-at-home parents to buy into the model that Otter currently employs, but eventually, the caretakers agreed. From Lee’s perspective, this is a testament not only to Mayer’s powers of persuasion, but also to the value of her unique life experiences. In order to create a successful childcare company, the founder had to be someone who knew the true value of parenting—and the true cost of sacrificing work for your family. “I think maybe we just needed a mom to come along and found this company,” Lee says.
When Mayer was 14 years old, she was told she would never be able to have children. This devastating news came the summer after her freshman year of high school, when she was diagnosed with late-stage cervical cancer. Her doctors gave her a less than 10 percent chance of surviving. In the following years, Mayer battled three more rounds of cancer. Several years later, and just over a year after graduating Smith College, she began to feel funny and went to the doctor. “Eventually a team of ten people walked into my exam room,” Mayer says. “I assumed I had some sort of cancer recurrence. And then they said, ‘You’re twenty-nine weeks pregnant.’” Mayer immediately started sobbing, only for the doctors to explain there was more news: it was twins.
Six weeks later, Mayer gave birth to Arthur and Andrew. They were born early and spent time in the NICU, one twin for 10 days, the other for 23 days. Today, both twins are happy and healthy. “They’re two and a half years old and they’re talking up a storm,” Mayer says. “I can’t imagine my life without them, but never thought I’d have them in it.”
As she embarked on her journey of founding Otter, Mayer decided that she would only stand behind a program in which she would enroll her own children. With every step the company takes, Mayer asks herself, “Would I trust Otter with Arthur and Andrew?” “If the answer at any point is, I would have some trepidation, then the product is not ready to go out to the world,” she says. This line of questioning led Mayer to do something unprecedented. In July 2021, just months after her Series A funding closed, Mayer approached Lee, as well as Alfred Lin, another Sequoia partner advising the company, to discuss pausing Otter’s operations.
The reasoning was one of trust and safety: through early July, Otter had facilitated matches for 3,850 caregivers, providing childcare for just over 8,000 kids. From October 2020 through May 2021, there wasn’t much variation to families’ routines. Children went to a caregiver’s house, sat at a table, participated in school via Zoom, ate a meal, did more virtual learning, and then returned home. But with the end of the school year and the gradual rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, families began introducing variation to their days: going to museums, eating at restaurants, taking trips to the beach. “During the school year and during lockdown, the risk that existed in Otter’s system was quite contained,” Mayer says. “But when summer came around, I did not feel that Otter was ready for the change in families’ behaviors. We didn’t have the tooling that was necessary to deliver on trust and safety.”
Mayer says the decision to pause operations was difficult and prolonged. She remembers approaching Lee to float the idea of temporarily shutting Otter down. “It was very counterintuitive,” Mayer says. “I’ve yet to meet other founders who have chosen a similar tack.” Mayer explained to Lee the need for a parenting handbook, community guidelines, a system for coordinating pickups and handoffs, and for knowing who is responsible for a child at any given moment. “When I talked to Jess about it, she said, ‘Yep, makes sense.’ She was very, very supportive and really understood.”
While Otter’s operations have been paused—they’re set to go live next month—Mayer has been busy with the work she outlined for Jess. She’s also no longer tackling the challenge alone: Otter is now a team of 14.
When Otter relaunches, Los Angeles will be the first city it serves. Mayer hopes to then expand operations to 10 cities in the following six months. “My goal is to scale in a way that is deliberate and responsible,” Mayer says. “I tell the team often that if we move fast and break things, we might break a kid.”
When asked about the name “Otter” and its origin, Mayer says she was in the market for memorable two-syllable names and came across a children’s book about animals. Mayer learned that otters hold their babies on their chests in order to support them. A group of otters is called a family. Otter also happens to be her mother’s favorite animal. “She used to take me to the New England Aquarium to watch the otters,” Mayer says. “Every day I think about her because I experienced first-hand what it’s like to have a stay-at-home parent involved in caring for me. She made a whole bunch of things possible that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. In a lot of ways, Otter exists because of her.”
“I think maybe we just needed a mom to come along and found this company.”JESS LEE