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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Baby-Sitter’s Club Was My Atlas Shrugged

It inspired my own babysitting empire.

I have always been a fan of a good hustle. My parents firmly believed that allowance made kids entitled. As members of the family, we were expected to pitch in around the house without the expectation of payment. And while I do not know that I will subscribe to this philosophy with my own future children, it did help me develop an instinct for making my own money at a young age.

As a kid growing up in the 90s, I was surrounded by fictional characters who valued making money. Every time Saved by the Bell came on and Zack Morris cooked up a new scheme to make money off his Bayside High classmates, I was inspired. Although Zack’s methods were sometimes less than pure (he has on more than one occasion earned a dishonest dollar), it was his entrepreneurial spirit that encouraged me to start my own hustle.

Problems and Solutions

As a kid growing up in the 90s, I was surrounded by fictional characters who valued making money. 

In the fourth grade, I noticed many of my classmate’s mechanical pencils were becoming jammed with lead. Unable to use them, my friends would get frustrated and throw the pencil away in anger. But mechanical pencils were prized possessions for nine-year-olds. Throwing one away meant you may not be able to convince your parents to replace it for several weeks. That meant having to use regular pencils. The horror!

This same predicament happened to me often as well, but I had learned how to fix the lead-jammed pencil myself. And it was this skill that led me to set forth a solution to this grammar school conundrum. I would start my own “mechanical pencil de-clogging” business.

For one dollar, I would take my collection of tools, including a bobby pin and several straightened paper clips, and poke and prod at the problem until the lead jam was no more. As it turns out, this was a fairly lucrative operation for a nine-year-old. I began taking on at least a few “clients” each week.

When my parents asked me now I had earned the money, I simply told them I had started my own business fixing mechanical pencils. As long as I was not stealing the money, they had no qualms about my entrepreneurial spirit.

Other parents did not hold the same view. A friend of mine caught onto my business idea and began competing with me. Unfortunately, her parents believed it was “not right” for a fourth grader to be making money off of other fourth graders, and she was quickly shut down. Once again, I was the only game in town, which did not bother me one bit.

Each installment of the Baby-Sitters Club was filled with overarching themes of entrepreneurship that surely inspired many of its readers, including me.  

This side-hustle only lasted one school year, but as I got a little older I would discover a more lucrative way to make money thanks to the “Baby-Sitters Club” book series.

Kristy’s Great Idea

I had received one of the books for Christmas. The cover featured a picture of the young teens conducting a laid-back business meeting and the words, “Kristy’s Great Idea.” This was a perfect title since it does, after all, always begin with a great idea.

The book tells the story of Kristy Thomas, who does a lot of babysitting in the small town of Stoneybrook. One day, her single mother is overwhelmed when all her older children are too busy and cannot watch their six-year-old brother. She begins frantically calling sitter after sitter, but to no avail. Each is already booked. But just as I saw an opening in the market when my classmates kept jamming their mechanical pencils, so did Kristy see her mother’s predicament as an opportunity to solve a problem, while earning money.

A passage from Ann M. Martin’s classic, told in Kristy’s perspective, reads:

I chewed away at a gloppy mouthful of cheese and pepperoni and thought it was too bad that Mom’s pizza had to get cold while she made all those phone calls. I thought it was too bad that David Michael had to sit there and feel like he was causing a lot of trouble just because he was only six years old and couldn’t take care of himself yet.”

Then comes the brilliant watershed moment when the idea for the Baby-Sitters Club first occurs to Kristy:

Then the idea for the Baby-sitters Club came to me and I almost choked. I could barely wait until nine o’clock so I could signal the great idea to Mary Anne.

Kristy realized that if her own mother was having to call several sitters before securing one who was available, other parents were surely experiencing the same. Since all her friends were already working as babysitters after school and on the weekdays, she knew exactly who she could call on to help her with her business.

My idea was that Mary Anne and Claudia and I would form a club to do baby-sitting. We would tell people (our clients) that at certain times during the week we could all be reached at one number. We would hold our meetings during those times. That way, when someone needed a sitter, he or she could make one phone call and reach three different people. One of us would be available for sure. Of course, people could call us individually at other times, but the beauty of the meetings would be the opportunity to reach several baby-sitters at once. Our clients wouldn’t have to go through what Mom had just gone through at dinner.”

By streamlining the services they were already each providing separately, they were able to save clients the time of having to call several potential sitters. And from this idea, Kristy and her friends were able to create their own babysitting empire in their small town. And it was this great idea that provided the setting for 133 books in the series. Each installment was filled with overarching themes of entrepreneurship that surely inspired many of its readers, including me.  

My Own Babysitting Empire

As a writer, I am a lot like a prospective babysitter, trying to earn a positive reputation that makes people feel comfortable trading money for the value I create.

The babysitting business idea was of particular interest to me. Growing up in a Mormon community meant that childcare was an oft sought-after commodity since large families were the norm. My own family, for example, has ten children. This means lots of kids in need of a sitter.

If Kristy could turn babysitting into a lucrative hustle, certainly I could too. So I set to work, using the old computer program “Print Shop” to make business cards to hand out during church. Sundays would be my most important marketing days.

In order to demonstrate how good I was with children, I made sure I was always around to help busy parents who seemed overwhelmed listening to the Sunday speakers while also trying to keep their children in line. This made a huge impact.

My parents also helped me through word of mouth, advertising, and attesting to my topnotch childcare skills. Eventually, the word spread and I was making a pretty penny. For five dollars an hour, I would entertain your children while keeping them safe. This was a steal for most of the members of my community.

From the ages of 12-15, I spent a fair portion of my weekends and after school hours babysitting and making money. Throughout my junior high years, I do not remember ever having to ask my parents for money to go out with my friends. In fact, nothing made me prouder than being able to use the money I had earned to buy the things I wanted. This must be what independence felt like, I often thought to myself.

Of course, my successful business didn’t negate my curfew, so it wasn’t true independence, but it was a nice glimpse of what free market success felt like. And my childhood entrepreneurial skills have come in handy throughout my professional career.

As a writer, I am a lot like a prospective babysitter, trying to earn a positive reputation that makes people feel comfortable trading money for the value I create. And by returning to my entrepreneurial roots as a freelance writer, I have been able to build a prosperous future for myself. But this time around, I have nicer business cards.

  • Brittany is a writer for the Pacific Legal Foundation. She is a co-host of “The Way The World Works,” a Tuttle Twins podcast for families.