Avni Patel Thompson | Crain's Portland

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Avni Patel Thompson

Background:  

Poppy provides childcare solutions for the Seattle area, connecting families with a team of talented and vetted sitters. The company’s algorithm creates matches based on preferences and style. Each family that is signed up with Poppy gets a “roster” of sitters who are asked first if they are available to care for the family’s children. Families pay a monthly fee to participate and can text when they need childcare.

The Mistake:

I do come at this venture with my 10 to 12 years of classic corporate experience with companies like Starbucks and Reebok. I built and worked for big businesses with lots of consumers. But many people probably don’t know I had a first startup. It was a subscription-based service, where you received things in a box related to raising culturally curious children.

At the time, I had my first daughter and was pregnant with second. It was true to something I’m passionate about – raising kids who are aware of different cultures and everything that goes along with that, from languages to food.

I followed the traditional route my education, training and corporate work dictated. I wrote a business plan, assumed what the product would be and sunk quite a bit of personal money into it.  Coming straight from my large corporate experience, where you had existing, loyal markets and you can put out a product and learn from thousands of people and adjust accordingly. I thought the process would be similar.

I agonized over the first product launch and spent countless hours crafting those first, perfect why-you-need-this emails. I thought I had all the bases covered and the questions answered based on what I knew. But an existing consumer market is a luxury you don’t have with a startup. And the market just wasn’t there for this to be fast-growing and scalable. Poppy started from the ashes of that.

I didn’t start with the perfect  product,  or the perfect email.

The Lesson:

Instead of being driven by passion, or the result of having all the answers, Poppy just started because I was having difficulty with childcare. I listened to family, friends and colleagues discuss similar childcare issues. I saw a need.

My undergraduate degree is in chemistry, which requires experimentation. That’s important to note, I think, because Poppy began as an experiment. Unlike my previous venture, I made no assumptions and did not start by telling people what they needed. It began as a ton of tests and hypothesis.

What if I could find and vet caregivers, and parents could access something like that when needed. Would that work? I didn’t start with the perfect product, or the perfect email. I just found a few people, told a few people and waited to see what happened. I did not make any conclusions. I allowed for experimentation and was open to all options.

When I started this, for example, I thought it would be a date-night solution and looked for sitters who would be available on Friday and Saturday nights. But what I quickly discovered was there are many gaps in childcare – from unexpected snow days to nannies taking vacations.

That wound up leading us to something bigger than I’d thought. Instead of presuming to know, and telling people why my thing was awesome, I left things quite open and waited to see how parents were using us and following up with them.

I’ve learned there’s no typical family, so we tried to build this as flexible as possible, to work for the two-career families and stay-at-home parents who need to run errands or take fitness classes.

I approach this as a parent first. Ironically that has meant focusing not just on childcare needs, but on the caregivers themselves. It’s important that they select the right families and have great experiences since working for Poppy is how they make money and remain economically viable. That’s been a major key to our success.

The hardest part is staying true to our process, which is constantly experimenting and asking questions. It would be easy to get into a rut because we’re doing well, but if our intentions are to get bigger and better, then we must ask questions and be willing to change based on answers.

Right now, we provide in-home child care. But parents are asking for services like overnights, meal prep and driving their kids to soccer practice. We also are open to branching out beyond Seattle. We are willing to experiment and change, which I think has been critical to our success so far.

Follow Avni Patel Thompson on Twitter at: @APatelThompson

Pictured: Avni Patel Thompson. | Photo courtesy of Avni Patel Thompson.

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