This Former Dating App CEO Wants to Make Motherhood Less Lonely.
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality—and the first steps they took to make it happen.
Michelle Kennedy had done her homework before becoming a mom. “This sounds crazy, but I had a spreadsheet,” she says. “I’d done all the prep and nesting.” But motherhood was still a massive culture shock. “For women who have had careers, living a million miles an hour, that first day when you’re sitting on your own with this little person, it’s really intimidating,” she says. So the dating-industry vet, who had served as deputy CEO of social network Badoo and is a board advisor for Bumble, decided to apply that swipe-right networking to the world of motherhood. Her app, Peanut, connects moms, allows them to ask questions, share advice and even form friendships in the real world -- something she craved as a new mother. “Women today are told that we can get what we want, we just have to work harder for it,” Kennedy says. “But with that comes a massive fear of failure, and you don’t want anyone to know you’re having a hard time [as a parent].” Here’s how she created a comfortable space for an often-ignored audience.
1. Learn about your future customers.
Kennedy knew how to build a social network, and was suddenly painfully aware of how badly moms needed one of their own. “I’d had the idea, but I did what everyone else does: go back to work and park the idea,” Kennedy says. “But as my working life as a new mom progressed, the idea became more crystallized, and I started to hear other people talking about motherhood in a different way. The timing felt right.” She knew her own needs as a mom but wanted to hear about others’. She reached out to friends and asked them to connect her to their friends. She spoke to founders of mom-focused Facebook groups to better understand those growing communities. “It was a lot of time, coffee and patience.”
2. Accept the unknown.
In 2016, after her tenure at Badoo had ended, Kennedy was working on Peanut as a side hustle, making money doing some consulting work and serving as a board member for Bumble. “I’d been running a big company and had been integral to Bumble’s launch, so I had seen something built from the ground up. I knew what I had to do,” she says. “It got to the point where I had to test it, and if it failed, it didn’t matter. I’d rather fail than be the person who talks about the same idea for months and months and bores their friends, which I had been doing.” She was prepared to dive in, both financially and mentally. “I had a little war chest of savings, and I knew that my life would change. I knuckled down for some hard work. No holidays. That wasn’t an option.”
3. Get it on paper.
There were some basics that Kennedy was sure of -- the name of the app, for starters. “Peanut was always in my mind, because that’s what I called my little bump when I was pregnant,” she says. As for what the app would look like? That was more amorphous. She reached out to a former colleague and they started working on a mockup, spending weeks going back and forth, testing features and forms. In the midst of turning the idea into a reality, she got some positive feedback. “I was in New York for a Bumble event and told [Bumble founder] Whitney [Wolfe Herd] about what I was planning,” she says. “She responded enthusiastically, which was great, because she was the first person I spoke to about it outside my own friends.” It was reassuring, though Kennedy had always been confident in the idea. “The spend of mothers is worth $3 trillion,” she says. “It’s no joke. I was never nervous about it, because I knew my research.”
4. Network your way to investor meetings.
In the same way Kennedy expanded her network of women to research and understand Peanut’s eventual audience, she reached out to her professional network and asked for additional connections to investors and VC firms. “If I had spoken to someone once, I’d reach out,” she says. “Here’s what I’m doing, can you intro me to this person, do you know anyone who does this, etc. I really believe that if you’re forthright about what you need -- and you pay it forward -- people will want to help.” It didn’t hurt that Kennedy was already a well-known industry leader. “I knew I had earned my stripes. I didn’t feel I was asking for anything that I shouldn’t be asking for. And if people had said no, well, no problem!”
5. Build a team.
Contract stipulations from Kennedy’s previous job prevented her from poaching former colleagues, so building a team -- something that was quickly becoming an urgent need -- would have to happen outside the bulk of her network. She already had her trusted designer lined up, but she needed a technical person. A friend introduced her to someone simply to talk through ideas, and he ended up proving to be just what she needed and became her second hire. “We were small and lean -- we still are -- and we wanted to quickly release a concept. We started in September 2016 and by the following February, we had a release.”
6. Put the product out there.
The team launched Peanut in beta, but an early story ran in the press well before Kennedy expected it to, and as a result, women flooded to the app -- which wasn’t quite at 100 percent working order. “It was a blessing and a curse,” Kennedy says. “We of course wanted people to use it, but as the downloads came in we were like, wait, come back next week, we’re only in beta, we’re not ready!” But they couldn’t quell the interest in Peanut and instead decided to use it as an opportunity to learn and react quickly. “We made very rapid product changes and tweaks from onboarding to privacy to logging in if you didn’t have Facebook,” Kennedy says. “The surge of people that downloaded in beta was a delight, but on the other hand we wanted to cry because we just weren’t ready. But you have to take it where it comes.”