Aug 4, 2015 ยท 6 minutes

Something terrifying happened to me this past Saturday.

I was with my 4-year-old and my 2-year-old at an indoor play place in San Francisco. It was one of those ones with a big complicated structure with multiple exits and difficult sight lines. One of those places where parents are encouraged to let their kids run around freely, protected by an interior gate to keep children from running outside. A place that even offers kid drop off “date nights” some evenings. A place that stamps parents and kids wrists with matching invisible ink as an extra security backup. You know the kind of place.

The security gate is supposed to have an employee manning it at all times. That gate is supposed to be latched.

On Saturday, that system broke down. The gate wasn’t locked, and it wasn’t manned. While I was distracted by my 4-year-old in the play structure, my 2-year-old snuck out of the structure, walked out of the gate and then walked past the registration desk -- past three employees-- to stand on the sidewalk all alone, at a busy San Francisco intersection. Fortunately, another family spotted her and brought her back immediately. I still feel like I’m going to throw up thinking about it.

When I asked the employees how they let a two year old walk out of the gate and the front door alone, one looked awkwardly sort of laughed and said, “It’s my first day.”

I’m not naming the play place here -- that’s not the point of this post. I talked to the owner at length over the weekend. She is also a parent and was equally horrified. She swore nothing like this had ever happened before. She told me there was a clear policy that someone should be standing at the gate at all times. She wasn’t aware the gate no longer latched. And the reason there was an inexperienced worker at the door is because a more experienced staff member had called in sick. Further, she only hires people with childcare experience and personally trains them.

But there’s always going to be turnover in retail job in a market like San Francisco. There wasn’t much she could tell me to make me comfortable going back, because she had good policies in place. They just weren’t followed on this occasion.

As she spoke, I felt for her. But I also couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation I’d recently had with the moms building HopSkipDrive -- the car sharing service that promises to provide safe transportation for unaccompanied kids. They also have the industry’s most extensive background checks and the best safety policies you could possibly dream up. They also only hire people with childcare experience. And yet, as I learned this weekend, all of those safety and security procedures are only as strong as their weakest link.

Mistakes happen. Procedures fail.  And yet when that happened this weekend at the play place, it could have easily ended my entire world. In a heartbeat, this business owner and employee’s understandable “off day,” could have taken the most important thing in my life from me. As is it’s left me shaken for days. Even my 4-year-old was horrified. “Mama, why would the adults let Evie leave?”

I hate to write this because I want Shuddle and HopSkipDrive to succeed. I think they solve a huge problem, particularly for working moms. I think the founders of each company are taking a sound, thoughtful, slow paced approach that’s refreshing in the frenetic Valley right now.

But -- bear in mind-- this play place wasn’t even as scary as a moving vehicle. My kids weren’t alone in this place. I wasn’t trusting their care to people I’d never met or laid eyes on. This wasn’t a chain of play places trying to grow at venture capital scale and eventually IPO.

No matter how careful you are about hiring and training, no matter how much the owners of these companies love their own kids and would only create a service they themselves would trust, it is inevitable that “innocent” growing business mistakes like these will be made. This one was scary enough, but I was there. I could go grab her and pull her into my arms and reassure her once she was scared.

I’m not trying to convince people not to use these services, as much as I’m flagging the challenges I think these companies will have between growth and safety. I understand the appeal of these services as an emergency backup (although I think one like Kidsanity, which taps an existing network of families who already know your child is a much better approach), but I simply can’t understand why a family wouldn’t just hire a part-time sitter to drive their kids around. To me, the risk is just too great to have your family “disrupted.”

Yesterday I read a smart blog post by former VC Allan Morgan about “leakage” in on demand services-- or what I’ve been calling disintermediation. You know: When someone starts renting a house on Airbnb without going through Airbnb. Or hires a Handy cleaner directly. Or -- as I expect will happen -- someone hires an amazing driver off of HopSkipDrive or Shuddle just to work for them directly.

Morgan argues the more commoditized a service is-- getting a ride to the airport-- the less likely people will go off platform. Home cleaning isn’t a commodity because there is a huge range in quality and reliability. And driving kids places is even less of a commodity. There’s a huge delta between a driver who keeps your kids safe and one who doesn’t.

To me it’s simple: The solution of using the service has to be better than not using it at every point you engage. There has to be a benefit to having a stream of different people doing the same task rather than hiring a regular contractor. With transportation or delivery there clearly is -- you want the person closest to you. With Airbnb, there is a benefit of the community and assurances of a certain quality if you are visiting somewhere new, but little benefits if you go to the same market over and over again and find a place and host you like.

With Shuddle and HopSkipDrive you have to book the night before anyway, so the service can’t even be used as an emergency back up.

When I interviewed the founders of HopSkipDrive a few weeks ago, they argued you won’t get things like tracking or insurance if you “leak” off the platform. And others have argued you never really know how good a regular babysitter you may find on a service like Care.com is, so the trust you put in a company like UrbanSitter or Care.com and a HopSkipDrive or a Shuddle isn’t that different. Maybe. But with those services I get to pick the sitter I want, not trust Care.com will send a good one everytime.

To me, the risk of the unknown-- the “It’s my first day!” employee who doesn’t yet know you don’t let a 2-year-old walk outside alone despite the founders best intentions, policies, and rules-- is just too great.