Photograph by Brad Torchia
Joanna McFarland’s startup almost didn’t
start. For six months she unsuccessfully
pitched insurance companies, trying to find
one that would underwrite her business:
an Uber-style transportation service for
children. “If I’d accepted the first 100 no’s,
we wouldn’t be here today,” she says. With
every rejection, she heard her Bubbie’s
voice in her head, urging her to never give
up. Her grandmother, Rose Buchalter, was
a Holocaust survivor who’d worked the
fields in a labor camp in Uzbekistan. Her
unbreakable determination enabled her to
make it out alive, while also saving her
two younger sisters.
McFarland is cofounder and CEO of
HopSkipDrive, a service that matches parents
with drivers who shuttle their kids to and
from school and activities. She is well aware
of the biggest challenge of her business: Many
parents have a reptilian fear of strapping
their child into a car with a stranger.
HopSkipDrive invests in background checks,
driver profiles, and tracking technology as
a way to build trust. McFarland, along with
cofounders Carolyn Yashari Becher and
Janelle McGlothlin, launched Hop SkipDrive
in November 2014 in Los Angeles. It has since
expanded to Orange County and the Bay Area.
Why is this idea resonating right now?
Families are busier than ever. A recent Pew
Research Center survey said 60% of kids in
America live in families where all the parents
work outside the home. Kids are also busier
than ever. They have an average of five hours
of extracurricular activities per week. Also,
40% of parents say their work schedules
are affected on a weekly basis due to child
transportation, and 47% have said their
work schedule has prevented their kids from
participating in an activity.
Why is this something you wanted to
solve? I was one of those parents. I remember
telling my son, “I’m sorry but you can’t do
karate because I can’t get you there Tuesday
afternoons.” There are three cofounders of
the company, and we are all moms. Between
us we have eight kids in five schools and
17 activities. We were all struggling.
We thought there had to be a better way.
How do you help parents get past the fear
of letting a stranger drive their kids? We
set this up for ourselves from the beginning.
What would it take to put our own kids in
HopSkipDrive cars? We designed safety
into every aspect. It starts with screening
the drivers. They have to pass a 15-point
certification process. We fingerprint
everyone. We do background checks. They
are on the TrustLine registry. We do car
inspections, driving record checks, and
reference checks. We meet every single driver
in person. We do more than most people
do when they choose a nanny or babysitter.
You’re probably not doing DMV checks on
your friend’s kid’s nanny, but you may
be letting them drive your kid to an activity.
We monitor every ride as it’s happening.
The parents can track each ride in our app.
We also have safety checks for things like
speeding and phone usage.
Do you use it for your own kids? Yes, we
all use the service all the time. I use it to get
my oldest son to karate. I get a picture and
a profile of the driver. I show Jackson the
profile. My son is 8 so I need to authorize the
driver to sign him out of class. Also, he has
a code word. The day of the ride she shows up
in a bright orange shirt, she has decals on the
car and a booster seat. She gives him the code
word so he knows it’s her, and off they go.
I get notifications about the ride when they
leave and when they get there.
You’re serving a few types of constituents
— kids, parents, and drivers. How do you
describe each of them and how do you need
to serve them differently? Our kids range
from age 6, all the way up. We drive lots of
17-year-olds who don’t have licenses. We drive
anyone who needs a little extra caregiving
— seniors included. A mom might be in the
sandwich generation. She has a kid going to an
activity and also needs help getting her mom to
a doctor’s appointment. Mostly it’s kids going
to school and activities like dance and soccer.
Tutoring is a big one. In Los Angeles we also
have kids going to auditions. It’s life-changing
for them. They couldn’t get there otherwise
and this enables them to do what they want to
do. This makes them feel important.
“Important” as in, “Excuse me, here comes
my chauffeur?” More like, “I used to be the
last one picked up, my mom was always late,
and now I have someone here on time.”
How about the parents? What are they like?
They tend to be busy dual-income families.
Maybe it’s both parents are working or maybe
they are single-parent families. Some divorced
parents use us for the custody exchange — we
are a great way to never see your ex!
Who are the drivers typically? Our drivers —
we call them “CareDrivers” — have a minimum
of five years of child care experience. They are
moms, empty-nesters, part-time nannies.
If there was one thing that has enabled
you to be successful as an entrepreneur,
what would it be? My cofounders. We divide
and conquer and complement each other’s
strengths and weaknesses. The startup life
can be so lonely. There are so many high-highs
and low-lows — often within five minutes.
Having a partner who can understand you is so
important. You get so much farther, faster.
What gave birth to the idea? Janelle and
I have known each other for eight years.
Our kids went to preschool together. We
were at a birthday party in late 2013 and all
the moms were talking about this problem of
driving the kids around. We joked and said
we should collectively buy a van and hire
a babysitter. Janelle was like, “Wait, this is
interesting. Let’s make it happen!” Then we
met Carolyn through Kara Nortman, another
GSB alum. Carolyn was already working
on the same concept. We founder-dated for
Explain “founder-dating.” We wanted to make
sure we could mesh well. It’s really important.
You’re starting a long-term relationship.
At times you will be very raw, making really
AUTUMN 2016 STANFORD BUSINESS
Do What It Takes
to Get a “Yes”
The cofounder of a children’s ride service
channeled her unbreakable grandma.
BY ERIKA BROWN EKIEL