As Chicago Scene Matures, a New, Two-Time Entrepreneur Emerges

Genevieve Thiers is not a household name in Silicon Valley, but many Chicagoans know her as the founder of Chicago-based Sittercity, a 10-year-old online subscription-service that marries families to caregivers around the country for help with their children, pets, and aging parents.

Thiers is also among a small but growing number of second-time entrepreneurs beginning to emerge from Chicago’s young but maturing tech scene. Indeed, next month, Thiers officially launches her newest startup, Contact Karma, with co-founder Maureen Wozniak (no relation to Apple cofounder Steve).

Her timing looks ideal. Sittercity appears to be on solid footing. It lists more than 2 million caregivers; its corporate customers include the Department of Defense, which uses the service to assist military families; and in April, it raised $22.6 million led by New World Ventures, bringing its total funding to date to $30 million. Indeed, according to Thiers, Sittercity, along with the well-financed restaurant discovery and ordering service GrubHub, may not be far behind their local peer Groupon in filing for a public offering. “There are a number of [Chicago-based] companies that could very well IPO if they wanted in future years,” she says.

Now, Thiers — who is expecting twins in November and passed along SitterCity’s CEO role to the company’s COO last year –- is hoping to create a second, long-standing Chicago company with Contact Karma, which Thiers and Wozniak characterize as a “social recommendation engine.”

For the last few months, the two have been creating a database of recommended service providers  that businesses can find both by surfing Contact Karma’s platform, as well as through daily deals that Contact Karma sends out via email. Want a marketing pro for a particular project? You can visit Contact Karma and see who comes recommended and by whom. Meanwhile, you can probably land a cheap company lunch through an emailed coupon for group take-out.

The obvious concern, of course, centers on demand. Companies don’t tend to look for outside marketing or legal help all that often, and there are only so many small-ticket items, like a group lunch, that a business might want to acquire through emailed daily deals. That’s saying nothing of the glut of deals already being pushed to individuals on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

Thiers and Wozniak think variety will be one key to their success. In addition to daily deals on office lunch deliveries, group outings and even bonsai trees, every emailed deal has a module that allows people to let Contact Karma know if the offer was a bad fit while also directing them to its site, where they can find other, ongoing deals. Some include discounts to assistants and Web site developers, the ability to pay for six months of PR for the price of five, and discounted legal help.

As important, says Thiers, the service invites users to share and rank the vendors they’ve used – a la Yelp — so that future customers can make better-informed decisions.

Vendors list with Contact Karma for free. The company takes a commission when a sale is made.

Is the company revolutionary? It doesn’t sound it. It’s also very early days. Right now, Thiers and Wosniak are its only employees. (Thiers says that once the company is out of beta, beginning next month, it expects to begin “hiring quickly.”)

For her part, Thiers has dealt with plenty of skepticism before. In fact, she says she was laughed out of venture capitalists’ offices when she was building Sittercity.

More, Thiers now has plenty of supporters because of her first company — and advocates can often mean the difference between quick failure and ultimate success.

For example, Thiers credits Sean Marsh, general partner at Point Judith Capital, for steering SitterCity’s most recent fundraising process to a successful end. And Marsh remains a “great source of advice” about Contact Karma.

“He’ll always give you the skinny on something right away,” says Thiers.