When Papa Founder and CEO Andrew Parker first started developing the idea that would become his platform to match up seniors and college students, he wasn’t really thinking about starting a business. Mostly, he told PYMNTS for this week’s edition of Matchmakers, he was trying to solve a very personal problem. His grandfather – who he called Papa – had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.
The condition eventually progressed into full-blown Alzheimer’s disease – but at first, long before his Papa needed extensive medical care and intervention, Parker needed something a whole lot simpler.
Parker’s Papa wasn’t the only person with that need. His still fully functional grandmother needed a companion for Papa to give her a break from her duties as a family caregiver.
“I was thinking about this one day at work,” Parker said, “and realized that there are so many seniors out there, and so many college students who could use the income. So I started to wonder if maybe there was something I could do to connect them and maybe let something magical happen.”
Parker’s minimum viable product was finding a college student for Papa to spend time with – and Papa loved it. So much, in fact, that Parker started to informally offer this service to others with a similar need, and quickly realized that this was not a niche product, but an unmet need in the market.
Fourteen months ago, Parker quit his full-time job to focus on a platform that would create a marketplace of “Papa Pals” to help seniors do all of the things their grandkids would do for them.
How It Works
Papa, by Parker’s description, is a very robust logistics platform that makes is easy for seniors to connect with college students and essentially hire them for an hour or two, for a variety of tasks. About 40 percent of the time, those connections are facilitated by younger family members introducing this new support structure to an aging parent – but the rest are seniors who find their way to the service on their own, while looking for a variety of services.
“The first time someone contacts us, they often have a specific idea about what they need, and we catalog that and send it on to the student who will be working with them,” Parker explained. “Sometimes they want a ride to the doctor, sometimes they are looking for someone to teach them how to use Netflix. We had a member who was on the campaign trail with Ronald Reagan 30 years ago, and her family hired a Papa Pal to help her transcribe her very interesting life story into a digital format for her family.”
What they often found, however, is that the relationships evolve between the users and the Papa Pals, so that the tasks they end up doing together often range widely from where they started. The student workers are there not just to help with the task of the moment, but also to help find new ways to engage with the customer. That means tasks like learning how to use Instagram filters, using video chat to talk with grandchildren or even just taking regular walks.
And the students’ ability to do this isn’t incidental, Parker noted – it’s by design. Because seniors are a notoriously vulnerable population, the Papa platform can’t just open the doors and assign any random student who signs up with a user. Instead, all students are thoroughly vetted through a 10-point checklist that includes things like a criminal background check, motor vehicle inspection and personality test.
The service, Parker noted, is billed as “grandkids on demand” – which means the people who show up at the door need to be as trustworthy as the user’s own relatives.
The service is also designed to be accessible to seniors – which means while there is an app interface from the user side, the service is also available by phone. A member calls up, explains a bit about what they are looking for in a Papa Pal and the request goes into the digital queue.
“I have one grandmother is 84 and uses an iPhone better than I do,” Parker said. “My other grandmother struggles with a landline sometimes. For this service to be really relevant, it can’t expect seniors to come in and have to learn new skills to use it.”
But making the service accessible for seniors, he noted, is about more than making it easy to dial into – it is also about making it an affordable service.
Paying for Papa
For members paying directly for the service, there are three options. Those who prefer a la carte services can dial in and request a ride, which covers an hour-long window for pick-up and drop-off.
This is how many users start their relationship with Papa, but most move from there into the subscription service. With this option, users pay $15 per month and $15 per hour for visits, for services that include household help, companionship or technology lessons. For $30 a month (with the same hourly fee structure), the user gets to select their entire Papa Pal team and interview their potential college-age companions.
“What we are seeing is that the seniors we are working with are often pretty active, but they can be isolated – especially if they don’t have a car or family nearby,” said Parker. “What they need is a little bit of support, and we can easily provide that to them.”
In fact, he noted, providing that support is actually becoming easier. For seniors with Medicare Advantage plans, Papa will soon be a covered service under the supplemental benefits plans.
“Basically, as of 2019, services like Papa are going to be part of supplemental benefits for Medicare Advantage patients, or people with plans issued by the government and administered through a private insurance firm,” explained Parker. “About 30 percent of Medicare patients are part of Medicare Advantage, so that could be a very significant line of business for us.”
And, he noted, more interestingly, the move to make services like Papa accessible under insurance for some Medicare patients signifies a change in how people think about health and wellness, particularly for the growing elderly population.
“There are innovative ways to help seniors that are not specifically clinically focused,” he pointed out. “Just because we aren’t administering medicine doesn’t mean we aren’t improving people’s health.”
The Bigger Vision
As of right now, Papa’s services are only available in parts of Florida – though within the next two months, they expect they will have statewide coverage in major population centers. By the end of the year, Parker noted, the goal is to have operations up and running in their second and third states. The following year, the goal is to be live in 10 states.
Although Parker did not offer any sneak peeks into which markets they are pursuing, he did note that they are looking to replicate Florida conditions as closely as possible: a dense population of older consumers and an equally high density of university students.
They are also looking to expand their technological reach, with future plans to add ordering-up capability for voice-activated AIs, like Alexa and Google Assistant. This could provide seniors who are already calling the service with a new, and yet familiar, way to interact.
“What we really want is to help seniors engage with tech in new ways,” Parker said. “Being able to simply call up and say ‘I want someone to come to my house today’ – that is a fundamentally new experience for a lot of seniors, the way ordering up and Uber was for a lot of us a few years ago. And right now, that is an experience we can give them and build on for them.”