Hong Kong banker's 'LinkedIn for helpers' platform going global

Laurence Fauchon set up HelperChoice in Hong Kong in 2012 to better match domestic helpers with employers. It's grown so fast she's just quit investment banking to work full-time on expanding the start-up overseas

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 June, 2015, 6:23am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 June, 2015, 5:15pm

As Laurence Fauchon lay in bed five months pregnant, her mind buzzed with questions, both philosophical and practical, about being a new mum. Perhaps the question that occupied her the most in 2012 as she awaited the birth of her first child was: Who will take care of our daughter when she is born and we need to go back to work?

Since she couldn't turn to her family in faraway France and maternity leave was just 3-1/2 months, finding a helper became top priority.

"I was a bit stressed about the idea," says Fauchon, 30, who was in investment banking. "I was looking for someone who had experience taking care of a newborn, with a good level of English, and the ability to work autonomously … someone we could trust and rely on."

Fauchon began thinking about a service to link helpers and employers. Within a year, she had set up HelperChoice, an online platform that has matched dozens of families and is now poised to expand to the Middle East.

Launching a start-up wasn't part of Fauchon's plan. Having lived in Hong Kong since 2008, she and her husband just asked friends and acquaintances until they got a recommendation. However, when the helper arrived after completing the paperwork, the French couple realised they were not a good fit. "My husband and I were really disappointed. I think the same for her," she says.

Although they eventually found their current helper through a local agency, both were struck by how unfair and painful the selection process was. "When we went there on a Sunday afternoon, 10 to 15 helpers were sitting on a bench waiting for someone to employ them … Everybody looks at you, like 'Please, choose me.' It felt really hard."

But the huge inequities of the system really hit home after helper Jasmine joined them. "We learned that she had to pay big fees to the agency. That's when I started to really think about [the site]," Fauchon says.

Hong Kong limits the commission that an agency may collect from helpers to 10 per cent of their first monthly salary; however, some companies set much higher fees, ostensibly for training and other services. Between payments to agents in their home countries and those in Hong Kong, foreign domestic helpers often find themselves heavily in debt.

"I was really shocked; so I thought: 'Why isn't there a kind of LinkedIn [for helpers]?' It's normal to pay some recruitment fees, but [the amount] doesn't have to be crazy compared to your actual salary."

Just two months after Fauchon's daughter was born, the HelperChoice website went live in May 2012 between nappy changing and night feeds.

"Although I was very busy with the baby, I still had some time to think," she says. "It was me coding the website … I was doing everything by myself. At the time, I knew nothing about start-ups."

The platform has since signed up 1,500 helpers and 500 employers. Both parties can upload their profiles on the site themselves, and use it to search for possible matches. It also features a customised messaging system that enables users to get to know each other without an intermediary, before deciding whether to proceed to an interview and a contract.

Initially a free service, it now charges employers a monthly membership fee of HK$290. But the platform will always be free for helpers: "That's something we want to maintain," Fauchon says.

As simple as the business model may seem, HelperChoice was soon turning a profit.

"It was crazy to see that right after we put it online, we had helpers and employers coming in," Fauchon recalls. "It was a success right away; it was answering a need."

Her alternative service isn't entirely replacing regular employment agencies: she says matched clients and helpers are referred to partner agents which offer competitive prices for helping with visa applications and other paperwork.

Yoga teacher Jeanne Hauguel has found the site a valuable resource. "It was very easy to create a profile and search for helpers."

Her previous helper was planning to retire and an internet search brought her to HelperChoice.

Compared to the expense and circuitous experience with conventional recruitment agencies, Hauguel found the site presented a straightforward solution for employers like her.

"It's not expensive and the database is full of names, so you can find someone quickly."

Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, general manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers, views HelperChoice as "a modern way of finding an employer".

Still, helpers should be careful to protect their personal safety when posting profiles. Abdon-Tellez says. "They should take precautionary measures since it is something that happens on the internet."

Shiela Bocom, who has been in Hong Kong for six years, found her new employer recently through the website. The 45-year-old Filipino saw an expat family's advertisement, initiated an online chat, and went for an interview a few days later. She started work in April.

"With the website, I can choose from different employers and interact with them. It's easier for both sides," she says.

The process is certainly cheaper compared to her previous placements, when she had to pay an agency thousands of Philippine pesos. And because the site also features a blog and advice section for helpers, she often refers it to friends and relatives.

There has rarely been a spare moment for Fauchon since she launched HelperChoice. Between her day job and raising a family (she and her husband now have two children), she could only devote limited time to her start-up.

But that's about to change. She quit her job in May and plans to fully embrace her start-up dream after July.

"It's time for a change for me and I think that the start-up can really do well," she says.

She employs two full-time staff and two part-timers to help run the venture, and expects to hire a couple more people by the end of the year to grow the service in markets such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Singapore and Canada.

"We are expanding, particularly in the Middle East, where there is so much concern about the way [helpers] are treated," Fauchon says. "If they have the tools to make their own choices, it will be better."

For now, though, Hong Kong still accounts for about 80 per cent of her business.

Although the city generally offers better working conditions and benefits than others in Asia, there is room for improvement, Fauchon says. Many cases of violence against helpers have continually come to light in recent years, including Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, the Indonesian helper whose employer was jailed for subjecting her to months of abuse.

Fauchon, who aims to run her venture as an ethical service, says priorities include the need to introduce a work schedule so helpers are not expected to be on call all the time and an increase on the minimum salary, set at HK$4,110.

However, she stresses that her website isn't simply about preventing the mistreatment of helpers but also aiding "cheerful and happy women" to find the best possible job.

With the website, I can choose from different employers and interact with them. It’s easier for both sides
Shiela Bocom, helper

"They are women relocating from their country, alone, working long hours in tough conditions, and still on Sundays we see them so happy and cheerful. It's amazing," she says.

The service is constantly tweaked, based on feedback from helpers, particularly on Facebook, where its page has 114,000 "likes". Although she won't disclose annual targets, Fauchon hopes to see a 50 per cent increase in the number of users by the end of the year.

In the pipeline is a premium package that will offer clients more help with choosing helpers. "Now we ask employers to wear the recruiting hat, which some are happy to do. But others don't have the time," Fauchon says.

She is keen to reach more Indonesian helpers. Of the 331,989 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, 173,726 are from the Philippines and about 150,000 from Indonesia.

For now, more Filipinos are signed up, "maybe because they are more used to technology", Fauchon says. "But I am sure if it gets some early [Indonesian] adopters, the word will spread."

That's how the business has grown. By word of mouth. Little by little.