By Listening to Her Customers, This Entrepreneur Found a Larger Audience -- And a Greater Mission
Michelle Kennedy arrived at lunch, nervous about the conversation she was about to have with her best friend. It was 2016, and Kennedy had just made a big career decision. She was going to leave her job as a tech exec and launch a new app for moms. It was exciting — a new adventure, a massive market, a lot of potential upside.
But the downside was this: Her best friend, BBC journalist Sophie Sulehria, had been struggling for years to have a baby. In fact, at the time, Sulehria had just completed her third failed round of in vitro fertilization, and it was taking a toll on her mental health. Kennedy didn’t want to add to the burden.
“It was a very bad time. My husband and I were really suffering,” says Sulehria. “When Michelle said she had something to tell me, I thought, Oh God; she’s having another baby! But she told me about the business, and she was so worried: ‘I don’t want to be your best friend who’s not only got a kid but also has a mum business — I don’t want to alienate you.’ ”
But Sulehria was supportive. She knew the business was a fantastic idea, even though her exclusion from its target audience was killing her. So she asked Kennedy for a favor, as a friend and as a hopeful mom. This would be the earliest feedback Kennedy would receive as an entrepreneur, and although she wouldn’t know it yet, it would set the tone for how she would build her business — by listening to, and quickly responding to, the needs of the community it serves.
“I said, ‘Promise me one thing: When this app becomes successful, create a piece of it for people like me, a place where women having fertility issues can find support and friendship and discussions and information, because wouldn’t that be fantastic?’ ” Sulehria recalls. “And Michelle literally looked at me that day and said, ‘I promise.’ ”
Today, Kennedy’s company is called Peanut, and it has a million users and $9.8 million in funding. But back in 2013, before Peanut was even a twinkle in its founder’s eye, Kennedy was a rising star in the dating app world. She was deputy CEO of a European dating network called Badoo, and she also had a role in launching the brand Bumble, which would go on to become one of the industry’s major players.
Kennedy’s life was changing. Her personal dating days were behind her. She’d just given birth to her son, Finlay, and didn’t have many girlfriends with kids in her hometown of London. She wanted to find some like-minded women at a similar stage of life, but all she could find were archaic message boards and Facebook groups.
“The products available to me were all, quite frankly, crap,” Kennedy says. “Nothing represented me as a mother.” At the same time, she was watching a flood of utility-based applications enter the market — new ways to order food or pick up your dry cleaning — and felt that a huge opportunity was being overlooked.
“Women are 50 percent of the population the last time I checked, and motherhood, in some way, will touch everyone’s life,” she says. “But no one is touching this space?”
She came up with an idea for a networking app for moms and called it Peanut, after her nickname for her baby bump when she was pregnant. But she didn’t feel ready to take the leap — until three years later. “There were just signals in the market,” she says. “People were starting to talk about motherhood differently because we’d started to talk about womanhood differently, and it just felt like the right time.” In 2016, she began ideating in earnest, brought three trusted team members on board, and got to work.
Peanut set out to embody the voice of modern, millennial motherhood. The team wanted it to function as a friend — one who understands that being a mom is a big part of a woman’s identity, but it’s not her entire identity. They spent a lot of time defining its voice. Users, for example, would be addressed as “Mama,” which tracks in both the United Kingdom and the United States and has a playful edge.
In February 2017, just a few months after she shared her plans with best friend Sulehria, Kennedy brought Peanut into the world, launching in the U.K. and the U.S. A simple beta version allowed women to create a profile, swipe to explore other women’s profiles — like on a dating app — and chat.
The reaction was instantaneous. Thanks to some earlier-than-planned press coverage from the London Evening Standard, thousands of women flooded the beta offering, and Kennedy had fast validation. But the new users also revealed a vulnerability. Much like with dating apps, where happy couples no longer need the app, women were ditching Peanut once they’d made a new friend. “And why wouldn’t they?” Kennedy says. “You don’t need to make a new girlfriend every day — and in that case, you maybe don’t need to continue using Peanut.”
This was a problem in need of solving. And as it turns out, users were already proposing a solution. “A lot of our users were saying, ‘Wait; how do I ask all the women on here a question? How do I share this article with all the women in my neighborhood?’ ” Kennedy says. “We had always planned to build community-based features, but our users let us know that we’d have to build them a lot quicker than planned.”
So the team hustled to launch community-wide message boards (called Peanut Pages) and group chats (Peanut Groups). Kennedy and her team thought they knew exactly how women would use these features; they expected to see chatter around the usual early-motherhood pain points, like getting babies to sleep or working through pregnancy discomfort. But they got something much different.
“Women were sharing about really intimate stuff: relationships, love, sex, work, money, housing, social issues,” says Kennedy, whose team kept an eye on developing conversations via a combination of artificial intelligence and human monitoring of message boards. “We had to stop and say, ‘Wait a minute. Why are these conversations happening on Peanut?’ And it’s because they just aren’t happening anywhere else — you’re not going to post on a local Yahoo message board about postpartum sex or frustrations with your partner. This has to exist in a private network.”
While some popular topics did prove to be playful (“boobs and books”), the majority had a more solemn tone — and one in particular was being discussed at a surprisingly high volume.
“So many women were talking about trying and struggling to conceive baby number two,” says Kennedy. “Maybe they were going through IVF, or had just suffered a loss, or found they were facing infertility, or had been diagnosed with endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome. Whatever it was, there was so much conversation.”
Kennedy immediately thought of her best friend, Sulehria. She knew the facts were brutal: One in eight women will be affected by fertility issues, and one in six will experience a miscarriage. She also knew that the emotional burden was vast. “The most poignant thing Soph ever said to me was, ‘You know, I could use someone other than you to talk to,’ ” Kennedy says. “So now here we are with Peanut, and if all these women are talking about their struggles to conceive baby two or three, what about the women who haven’t had a baby at all?”
Kennedy planned to serve this audience someday; after all, she’d made a promise to her friend. But she thought it would be a long time from now, and a small part of a much larger pie. Now, by following her users’ lead, she realized she had it wrong. She needed to fulfill this promise fast — and the opportunity could be very big.
Women who struggle with fertility issues have already given their community a name: It’s TTC, for “trying to conceive.” Across the internet, there’s evidence of these women craving connection. Search #TTC on Instagram and you’ll find 1.4 million posts; #TTCcommunity has more than half a million posts; #TTCaftermiscarriage has nearly 82,000.
But those makeshift communities, as the Peanut team saw it, weren’t working. “These women are making use of existing social networks, but they’re not finding a real community,” says Hannah Hastings, Peanut’s head of growth and brand marketing. “Instagram is a public space. If you choose to have a private profile, discovery is limited. So you’re either sharing personal information publicly or cut off. It doesn’t solve the need.”
Sulehria backed that up. She found no comfort in the major social media networks, and in-person support groups were too far from where she lived. “Plus, the face-to-face thing is so daunting — to walk into a room and say, ‘Hi; I’m having this mental health problem,’ ” she says. “I just wanted something I could look at and engage with while I was lying in bed.”
Peanut had identified a problem worth solving, but the team knew it couldn’t just create some new message boards called TTC and invite their users in. The psychological struggles facing the TTC community are significant and nuanced, and the internet can quickly become an emotional minefield.
“There are articles and articles out there saying, ‘If you’re going through [infertility], just get off Facebook,’ ” says Barbara Collura, president and CEO of Resolve: The National Infertility Association. “Because the moment someone inevitably drops an ultrasound photo on there, it’s like…Oh my God. Women feel bombarded by this day in, day out. People stop going to the mall, restaurants, family events. So in a digital space, they want to feel safe. Anyone who’s trying to be inclusive to an audience of people who are trying to conceive has to be übersensitive.”
Keeping these sensitivities in mind, Kennedy decided to shield the TTC community from the rest of the app. Peanut TTC would function almost like a separate platform and have its own onboarding process. That way, TTC users wouldn’t accidentally stumble upon conversations from happy new moms (though they could opt in to see everything else if they wanted).
After that, the Peanut team had to dive into the nuances of the TTC world, and they leaned heavily on Sulehria as a guiding voice and gut check. Kennedy also asked Sulehria to connect her with other women who’d been struggling to conceive and may be willing to share their experience. Slowly but surely, a small but mighty focus group helped her build this new product with care.
The team learned, as an example, that there are plenty of tensions within the TTC community that Peanut would have to contend with. “A woman who’s been trying for five months and a woman who’s been trying for five years are in very different positions,” Kennedy says. “To put them in one bucket? That’s not the experience we want to give users.”
Kennedy had started to see evidence of this earlier. On Peanut, where some women had created fertility-related message boards, there was a lot of debate about which posts belonged. “A woman who had become pregnant posted an image of her positive pee stick, which can be really triggering for other women,” she says. “We’d get notifications and reports, and we’d also see our users say to each other, ‘Hey, maybe you should take it down, or post it somewhere else.’ ”
So in Peanut TTC, the company created UX solutions for those sensitivities. Blurred filters can be applied to potentially sensitive content (flagged by the creator or other users), and women will have to opt in to see those messages or images. The team developed proprietary artificial intelligence, which monitors group discussions and flags any comments that may not suit the brand’s ethos. “If a user is writing a comment and we detect an element of negativity, the app will say, ‘Hey, are you sure you don’t want to rephrase that? Peanut is a place of supportive conversation,’ ” explains Hastings.
In November 2019, after nine months in development, the company launched Peanut TTC. The community grew quickly, and user engagement skyrocketed — 60 percent above Peanut’s typical engagement.
It’s a good start, but Kennedy knows there’s a lot still left to do. She wants Peanut to expand its sensitivity features, improve how it matches women with relevant groups, and create room for TTC women to celebrate their pregnancies. And, more important, she also wants to keep following this line of thinking — watching how people use her product, and reacting with new solutions. She’s already seeing many options: Women are using the app to talk about raising teenagers, fighting chronic health conditions, sex after the age of 50, and more.
“Women have all these different life stages,” Kennedy says. “We can be the product that helps you find other women like you at every stage.”
Peanut is still in that early stage of a tech company’s life, when user growth is prioritized over profit. Which is to say: The app is free to use and makes no money. But Kennedy is building a monetization strategy based on premium products or in-app purchases. Imagine a user paying a small fee for direct access to a respected doctor, or an expert who can quickly and personally respond to a health-related question.
Maybe it’s a great idea. Maybe it’s not. Maybe women will be interested in using it, but not so interested in paying for it. Either way, Kennedy believes she’ll find her answer, so long as she keeps engaging and listening to her users.
To do that, her team is hustling to repeat the success of TTC with other communities. Later in 2020, for example, they’ll roll out Peanut Meno, for women approaching and going through menopause.
They also go beyond just monitoring conversations on the app. Peanut formally recruited some of its most engaged users to serve as MVPs — Most Valuable Peanuts. The brand ambassador program rewards some users with a tote bag or a sweatshirt when they share the app with other women. Other MVPs do more structured work, like distribute flyers at local coffee shops or the library, or organize a group meetup. The tasks are paid (“If I’d pay someone else to do the job, why wouldn’t I pay my user?” Kennedy says) and selected at the leisure of the user; some women have earned up to $500 in a month.
In Kennedy’s eyes, it’s a small expense to elevate the insights of Peanut’s most tuned-in community members. Her 1,500 current MVPs are, indeed, incredibly valuable. “They’re the women creating our product,” she says. “We look at the data, listen, engage, and implement. We get feedback, iterate, and do it again. And when we don’t get it right, we have 1,500 women ready to tell us how to fix it. And those 1,500 women know, because they have direct access to our million women, engaging with them, organically and naturally, day after day.”
Kennedy calls this a “constant user feedback loop,” and perhaps nobody better embodies that than an MVP named Tricia Bowden. She’s a former marketing exec who, in 2017, moved back to New York after spending a year on the West Coast. She had a 1-year-old son and was new to life as a stay-at-home mom, and a lot of the friends she’d returned home to weren’t yet mothers. “I googled ‘Meeting mom friends’ and came across Peanut,” Bowden says. She joined, started lining up playdates, and before too long had a reliable network of friends close by.
Her passion for the brand grew fast, and Bowden soon became one of Peanut’s most valuable MVPs, and one of the loud voices pushing Peanut to expand to the “Meno” community sooner than later. Kennedy was impressed and gave her a promotion: In January, Bowden started a full-time gig as Peanut’s head of strategic growth and partnerships for the New York market, where the company will build out an office later this year.
Bowden’s first order of business is to optimize and scale the existing MVP program, rolling it out on a hyperlocal, local, and national level — which is to say, Bowden basically became the feedback loop. She’s a user who helped shape Peanut, who then joined Peanut, who is now helping Peanut find and attract more people like her, who, of course, will then go on to shape Peanut anew.