The Number One Goal is Getting Started – Avni Patel Thompson of Poppy
We recorded this episode at our Female Founders Conference in Seattle. We’re also hosting female founder events in New York and SF this year. You can sign up to our newsletter to get updates about those events.
Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey, how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon, and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s podcast. Today’s episode is with Avni Patel Thompson. Avni’s the founder and CEO of Poppy, and Poppy lets parents book the best caregivers with just a text. She went through YC in the Winter 2016 batch, and we recorded this episode at our Female Founders Conference in Seattle. We’re also hosting two more events this year for female founders, one in New York and one in San Francisco. So if you want to get updates on those, you can sign up to our newsletter at blog.ycombinator.com. Alright, here we go. So, Avni.
Avni Patel Thompson [00:34] – Yeah.
Craig Cannon [00:35] – You, by traditional standards, were incredibly successful in the traditional world, like you get an MBA at Harvard, you start working at these big companies. What made you decide that you wanted to leave that world, when you’re clearly on a trajectory to just be successful that way?
Avni Patel Thompson [00:49] – Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s one I sometimes ask myself at 3 a.m. No, so the way I think about my career, I actually have an undergrad in chemistry, which is a little bit, kind of random, maybe. But I started my career at Proctor and Gamble in brand management. It was just because as a young person, when you don’t really know what you’re wanting to do, you sort of take the opportunities that are kind of put in front of you and see what that leads to. And that has really served me well. And when I got to Proctor and Gamble, they make things like Tide and Pampers, Crest.
Craig Cannon [01:19] – Of course.
Avni Patel Thompson [01:20] – Lots of different consumer things. What I ended up, I didn’t even realize this until I got into it, but what I ended up falling in love with is consumer psychology. And they taught me how to really see consumers’ problems. Not as they say them, but as they actually experience them. That actually means going into people’s homes, and not just listening to what they’re saying, but how they’re actually, their behaviors and things like that.
Craig Cannon [01:45] – Is that your job?
Avni Patel Thompson [01:46] – Yeah, so as a brand manager, your job is for a different product, for the product that I worked on was actually in pharmaceuticals, so it was drugs. And I was working on, for example, a packaging project. And you can have people come in to do kind of focus groups and stuff like that. But when you have them come in and even being their little pill packs and stuff like that, they’ll say, and you’ll just ask them, “Hey, how’s the packaging working for you? Any issues or things like that?” And you’ll try to ask it in non-leading ways. But inevitably they’re like, “Oh, no, it’s fine. I don’t have any issues with it.” And then we’d go do in-homes, and there would be fewer, like maybe just a couple of them. But you now see them kind of in the wild. You’d see their homes and then just all these different things. I still remember this one time I walked into a home, and I saw the pill pack on the kitchen table and there was a pair of scissors next to it. The woman had just completely cut the damn thing up and had set each of the individual pill pack things into those daily kind of pill counter things.
Craig Cannon [02:46] – So pill packets like the blister packs, right?
Avni Patel Thompson [02:49] – It’s like the blister packs, yeah.
Craig Cannon [02:50] – So like the tinfoil?
Avni Patel Thompson [02:51] – Yeah, the tinfoil situation in some kind of cardboard packaging.
Craig Cannon [02:54] – And she takes the scissors, cuts them out, puts it in the-
Avni Patel Thompson [02:55] – Right.
Craig Cannon [02:56] – Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.
Avni Patel Thompson [02:55] – Right.
Craig Cannon [02:58] – Yeah.
Avni Patel Thompson [02:59] – She tried to approximate that. The thing is is that obviously child-resistant and all these types of things, but sometimes those can be challenging on the other end, if you’re older and got arthritis and things like that. So the insight there was here we’re spending all this money on this beautiful pill pack with all this kind of stuff, and people are just ripping into it. And there’s no delight. There’s friction, all that kind of stuff. That was really powerful for me because I realized the importance, already, of talking to your users but then also seeing their problems in real life and not just taking them at face value. That’s where surveys and things like that can be limiting, because people, sometimes the can’t articulate what their problem is in the way that they want to. But sometimes there’s other emotions at war, like shame or embarrassment or things like that, insecurity. I started in pharmaceuticals. I then went and got my MBA. I then went to consulting. So very, very standard kind of background. But the thing that was consistent was they were all consumer companies. So even the consulting, worked on grocery brands and drugstore brands. And then after that, good stint in consulting, but then went to Adidas and did footwear and apparel for a little while.
Craig Cannon [04:12] – Okay.
Avni Patel Thompson [04:13] – The thread in my life has never been necessarily the what, but it’s just a really compelling human kind of problem or a really interesting brand problem to kind of solve. I went to Adidas, and it’s kind of funny, started there in Boston. And then my husband was asked to move to China. So we actually moved to China. And he worked there, and I continued to work for Adidas in China.
Craig Cannon [04:36] – From China.
Avni Patel Thompson [04:38] – From China, and did strategy there, and that was just a phenomenal experience. One of my favorite quotes is the Steve Jobs quote that says you can only connect the dots looking backwards. Even though the arc appears very traditional, the choices that I’ve made with my career have been a little bit unorthodox. But that’s fine, because now as I’m in startup world, I’m connecting these dots that have kind of come to me from the past. But we lived in China for a while. And that’s also where I was pregnant with our first daughter. We decided to come back to Boston to have her and embark on that journey.
Craig Cannon [05:12] – Yeah.
Avni Patel Thompson [05:13] – When we did, we realized this whole thing of, both my husband and I are these people that have loved our careers and moved around for them and love all that. When you have a kid, man, that is a life change. They tell you, but you really don’t understand it until you have a kid. So we decided we needed to get closer to family. My family lives up in Vancouver, Canada and we made it as close as Seattle.
Craig Cannon [05:38] – Okay.
Avni Patel Thompson [05:39] – At the time, my husband went to Amazon, and I went to Starbucks. Still a very neat and tidy kind of corporate story. But at that time, to sort of circle back to your question, I’ve always had this sort of entrepreneurial kind of inkling that I wanted to start something. My parents were small business owners. I’ve always been around business and entrepreneurship. I always figured at some point I’d take my shot.
Craig Cannon [06:05] – Okay.
Avni Patel Thompson [06:05] – Most people wouldn’t think that once you have a kid is when you’re going to go-
Craig Cannon [06:10] – Definitely not.
Avni Patel Thompson [06:10] – Take that shot. But for me, it also is an interesting thing because when you become a parent, and I can only obviously speak as a mother, but your calculus on your time kind of changes. For me, what I wanted to do with my time, I knew I wasn’t a stay-at-home mom, but if I was going to be away from my kids, I knew I wanted it to be something that I personally felt a little bit more was worthwhile of my time.
Craig Cannon [06:36] – Just, I want to continue with the story, but I have a question related to your story. What’s your advice to people for moving for their partner for a job? You’re both career-minded people, and you moved all the way to China. What do you tell other people? I mean, obviously a female founder, that’s a neat, but it’s probably a classic example, whether or not that’s good or bad.
Avni Patel Thompson [06:55] – Yeah.
Craig Cannon [06:57] – Yeah, so what do you say to people?
Avni Patel Thompson [06:58] – Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s a really relevant question. For me and my relationship specifically, my husband and I have always looked at ourselves as sort of equals in that way. And so even in this instance, though I was the trailing spouse, if that’s what it’s called, there have been other instances that my husband moved, for example to Boston, when I was doing school there. And so it’s always been this idea of we have a conversation, and we say, “What is the net good for the both of us?” It isn’t always perfect. Seattle is an example where we managed to both end up moving at the same time and find really interesting jobs for both of ourselves. But there are trade offs, right? Where one of us could have probably accelerated faster or further in either of our careers, what we have always said in the arc of our lives, are we making the choices, are we doing the things that is really true to us? I think China, that was actually a particularly difficult one for me, because I’d just started maybe seven months prior, that job. So if you think about it from a resume standpoint or anything sort of rational, that’s not a good move to make for your career.
Craig Cannon [08:08] – But it’s crazy that you could even stay in the same company.
Avni Patel Thompson [08:10] – That’s also a testament to when you work hard and when you focus on doing the work, you buy yourself options.
Craig Cannon [08:17] – Yeah.
Avni Patel Thompson [08:18] – In that instance, in seven months I was able to prove myself, still. I was able to prove that I was someone that you should give a chance to to do something very different, in a different role. Sure, not part part of the plan. But also, I was prepared that if that didn’t work out, I was prepared to not, perhaps, be working while we were in China. Those are conversations that you need to have and be prepared to do. There can’t be lingering resentment. You have to own your choices. Whether it was me or my husband or for whatever the reason is, that’s really important. It’s also really important as founders, now. You have to own your choices. It is hard.
Craig Cannon [08:56] – Yeah.
Avni Patel Thompson [08:58] – But you have a choice, every single day, to do it or not to do it.
Craig Cannon [09:01] – Right.
Avni Patel Thompson [09:02] – As long as you own your choice, that’s an empowering thing. You’re not thinking about it through the lens of regrets or what ifs, but you’re thinking through, “No, this is my choice. I made it, and now I’m making the best of it.” That opens up really cool doors. But I think managing careers with dual working spouses, I think, A, is not a topic that’s really talked about a ton. But B, I think there are ways. It doesn’t necessarily always have to be in the context of trade off. But there is this, you do have to have the honest conversation about it.
Craig Cannon [09:38] – What are your pro tips for managing two careers and kids?
Avni Patel Thompson [09:42] – That’s a lot of layers. When it comes to careers, the conversation for both of us has always been we are people that get engaged by ideas. We are not people that can sort of do a job just because it’s rational and right and necessarily pays well. There are days that I wish I could be that person. Even leaving my consulting job.
Craig Cannon [10:06] – Totally.
Avni Patel Thompson [10:07] – I mean, if I had stayed there and was a partner in consulting, it affords you really nice things. I’ll say this super honestly. For those of us that come from really somewhat more humble backgrounds where money isn’t always a sure thing, that drives us to go, and I know it drives me, to never be in the position to have to question money. I will say very honestly, that is something that I struggle with now, today, in starting a startup, because I’ve now got myself in a position where I am not financially sort of sound and where all my previous choices have been at least around, if not going all for financial security, but at least in a comfortable place. That is something that needs to be talked about, because it it’s a reality. You need to address it. So from a pro tip standpoint, it sounds sort of silly, but it is communication, right? people don’t have hard conversations often enough and deeply enough. It is saying, “Hey, this makes me uncomfortable, but we need to talk about it.” Any time you start feeling something shifting into just a little bit of fester, you need to talk about it. When it comes to kids, it’s the same kind of thing. I’ve had founders kind of ask me, “When’s a good time to have kids?” The same way that there’s no good time to start a startup, there’s no good time to have kids. You’ll figure it out. It’s sort of a cop-out answer. But for me, it is having a combination of family, an incredible nanny, and a dance.
Avni Patel Thompson [11:38] – Every single week, it’s a dance. Everyone needs to know their spots and all their roles. As long as as that’s working, it’s working.
Craig Cannon [11:47] – Okay.
Avni Patel Thompson [11:47] – One person’s sick, somebody has a business trip, something else happens, and that throws it off, and you have to work to bring it back to neutral. But that’s the constant fight.
Craig Cannon [11:56] – Is your husband still working in a traditional big company job?
Avni Patel Thompson [12:01] – No, so now he’s also made the leap.
Craig Cannon [12:03] – Oh, really?
Avni Patel Thompson [12:03] – To tech. And to startups, as well. I think, again, that’s the same thing. It’s like, you could say that, nope, one person has to hold the fort down.
Craig Cannon [12:12] – That’s what I was thinking, yeah.
Avni Patel Thompson [12:13] – It sounds very rational, and it sounds very reasonable. The thing is is that there’s so many things happening. To say tech is a silo or tech is a vertical is sort of an incomplete kind of statement. Tech is everywhere now. For both of us, we’ll get so excited about the way that tech is touching everything. For him, yeah, he’s just equally as excited. He’s doing his own thing also working on a startup.
Craig Cannon [12:37] – Interesting. Before we get into the full Poppy story, what was it like working in China?
Avni Patel Thompson [12:41] – Oh, so this was in 2011, and we’re in Shanghai. I don’t know, it’s wild.
Craig Cannon [12:46] – Okay.
Avni Patel Thompson [12:47] – It is hard in the sense of, we have moved around. We’re both Canadian. We lived in the States for a number of years, over a decade, and our work has taken us all over the world. But nothing really prepared us for China. It’s a fascinating culture, fascinating country. Its history is really, obviously, informs a lot of its current. But everything from language to, because Mandarin is a very difficult, going to Hong Kong, we’re like, we’ve been to Hong Kong. Maybe it’s somewhat similar. It isn’t. Mainland China is a thing of its own. To live in Shanghai at the time still felt like the wild, wild west. There weren’t a lot of expats. To get around, you still need to learn a base amount of Mandarin. We picked up Mandarin while we were there. The most, it’s like a drug. I will tell you, you start working there, and 40% growth rates feel like sandbagging. If you can imagine something like that, and we’re coming from the US, where one to two percent is like, cool, we’re growing. 40% is sandbagging. Everything is moving so fast. You’re hiring people, you’re trying to do all these things. The world is changing. They’re building buildings so quickly. There’s an energy and a buzz in the air. To tell you the truth, having lived in Shanghai for that year and then coming back to the US, having your kid, and then coming back, that truly was also an impetus to wanting to get into startups, because it has this drive of things are happening in the world.
Craig Cannon [14:14] – Yep.
Avni Patel Thompson [14:15] – Things are changing. People are doing exciting things, and I need to be a part of that. Coming off of living in China, working in footwear, apparel, which was a really hot category at the time, just sort of showed both of us how we could just get out there and take big swings.
Craig Cannon [14:32] – Well, it’s not a coincidence that big companies, a big art, a lot of celebrities in LA, whatever, they come from certain places, because it’s not only do the people that want to work in that industry move there, but then you’re surrounded by people that are your peers, and you’re all doing the stuff. You’re like, “I got to keep up, at the very least.”
Avni Patel Thompson [14:50] – That’s exactly it. But what the beautiful thing is, because you come from other places, becomes this amazing mosaic of different ideas. But we’re speaking the same language, because we’re trying to do the same thing. That’s often what I love about YC, is because we come from very different backgrounds. We’re doing very different things, solving very different problems. But we speak a common language. We’re trying to do, we’re trying to all talk to users. We’re all trying to build product. We’re all trying to grow companies and disrupt archaic industries. That commonality gives us the common language to talk. But we come from fascinating different backgrounds.
Craig Cannon [15:27] – Right. Like today, yeah. Oh, we’re at the Female Founders Conference in Seattle. So Gustav, a partner at YC, asked you why did you start Poppy?
Avni Patel Thompson [15:37] – Maybe I can fill in the blank also in the intervening time of working at my traditional background and companies to starting Poppy. I actually started a separate startup. I have always been passionate about raising culturally curious kids. So the idea of, we’ve moved around a lot. If we can’t live and move around and live in all these different countries, then how do you bring that to your kids and have them grow up to be sort of globally savvy? It’s just super important for the next generation.
Craig Cannon [16:09] – Yeah.
Avni Patel Thompson [16:10] – To understand differences in backgrounds and be conversant and not make it feel very threatening and things like that. So anyways, a friend and I had this idea, said why couldn’t this be, this is also the era of subscription boxes, in 2012 or so. We thought-
Craig Cannon [16:26] – It’s just funny how there were like chapters-
Avni Patel Thompson [16:27] – There’s chapters.
Craig Cannon [16:28] – But within the past five years. Okay, keep going.
Avni Patel Thompson [16:30] – No, there are, there definitely are. That was, when you’re seeing other folks doing it, you’re like, “No, no, I could do this for this vertical.” Very similarly, we thought, let’s build subscription boxes that have, each month, a different culture. So India one month, China, Japan, and instead of doing what we call saris and samosas, or sushi and samurais, very stereotypical stuff, let’s take you into a market. Let’s talk to you about language and food, the things that really inform a people and how they think. We were really, still am super passionate about the topic. But the way that I approached it or we approached it was very, very conventional, I guess? But we had built a business plan. We pulled market numbers. We had a story, right, because you can find any numbers you want. We focused more on product, of what we wanted to have in the box. Less what we thought was going to solve the problem. We built this. We thought we were being scrappy and did it in about six months, and launched, and started to get going. As you know, ecommerce is hard. Customer acquisition costs can be crazy. The longterm value, or LTV, is not necessarily there. So we learned that the hard way. This is a very niche market. Even though people, so this is where I, when people tell me, “Oh, I’ve been talking about my idea, and everyone loves it.” I say, “Be careful.” Because everyone loves you, or you can sell an idea, and there’s no skin off their back to say, “No, that’s a really great idea, can’t believe no one’s thought about it.”
Avni Patel Thompson [18:00] – We used that as validation, and that was sort of wrong because the only real validation is their money.
Craig Cannon [18:06] – Even with your friends.
Avni Patel Thompson [18:08] – Oh, absolutely.
Craig Cannon [18:09] – I know it’s kind of trite to say your friends weren’t going to yes you, but most of your friends won’t just give you money, straight up.
Avni Patel Thompson [18:16] – They won’t, they won’t.
Craig Cannon [18:17] – So you can actually ask your friends.
Avni Patel Thompson [18:18] – Totally.
Craig Cannon [18:19] – Even if they want to make you happy.
Avni Patel Thompson [18:20] – It’s also why I don’t believe in friends and family discounts. It’s not to say that you don’t maybe give them discounts or things like that, but just don’t give it to them for free, right, because that won’t give you the right signal for whether they’re actually valuing it. Anyways, the long story short was that we spent about a year and, truthfully, about $20,000 of personal money, bootstrapping. And ultimately came to the realization that this was not a fundable, scalable company. Instead of running it as a small business and sort of like a lifestyle business, we were going to shut it down. That was a really hard thing, because I figured this was my go at startups. I had bought myself like a year of time of not taking a salary, which was a hardship for my-
Craig Cannon [19:02] – Oh, you had already quit?
Avni Patel Thompson [19:03] – Yes, I quit my job.
Craig Cannon [19:04] – Oh, alright.
Avni Patel Thompson [19:05] – Cause if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this.
Craig Cannon [19:07] – All in, if you believe, yeah.
Avni Patel Thompson [19:08] – Well, we had been talking about it on the side for about a year.
Craig Cannon [19:11] – Right.
Avni Patel Thompson [19:12] – We both had kids. The funny thing is, maybe not so funny, is that the day that I gave notice that I was going to quit my job, I found out I was pregnant with my second daughter. So, life choices and me. No, it is motivating. I don’t believe in wasting another day if you don’t think that that’s going to serve you. For me, though, we now had two kids. I felt like I had taken my shot at startups and failed miserably. If not wholly, I learned so much. But it still feels like failure. Used up all my money, used up basically all the time that I’d said, “Hey, can we swing it with savings and stuff for me to not make any money?” But as you’re failing or closing something else down, what was really important was I needed to learn from this experience. I started talking to parents and saying, “Hey, if this thing isn’t really necessary in your life and isn’t really important, then what are some of the big problems in your life that you face on a daily, weekly stand point?” The topic kept on coming back to childcare. I mean, I knew that, because I lived the same thing. Both my husband and I work. We didn’t have family that lived in town. There’s all these kind of random things that would pop up. Nanny’s sick or meeting’s running late. Just little things like that can just throw off your complete week and add stress in a marriage, add stress in a family, all the things. Having kids is hard enough. That is just like a slap in the face. As I started to hear that,
Avni Patel Thompson [20:44] – I realized that what people weren’t talking about was just needing a sitter or a nanny. What they were missing was this idea of their village. Everyone says it takes a village to raise a child. But all of us are moving around for our careers, for education. Neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be. How many people know their neighbors such that you would leave your children with them? With all of that happening, we don’t have any safety nets as parents. That realization started to kind of pop into my head. Even though I don’t have any childcare experience, like in that industry, I have no marketplace background or anything like that, certainly no tech industry background, I quickly saw how, or at least hypothesized how you might solve that.
Craig Cannon [21:31] – Okay.
Avni Patel Thompson [21:32] – For me, this is where my chem degree kind of comes back. I broke it down into like a nice, tidy equation. It was that if a village is a function of someone that you trust, is a fit for your family from a values standpoint, and is there when you need them to be, could you break it down from technology, from a vetting mechanism, a matching algorithm, and a scheduler? It was this whole thing of let’s just break it down continually. Then I figured, okay, well, how do we test that? I could see an app, but I can’t build an app. For a little while, I was stressed out about that. But then, finally, I was like, if I was going to, you know when, for a lot of founders I hear this, you get obsessed with an idea.
Craig Cannon [22:13] – Yeah.
Avni Patel Thompson [22:14] – You literally can’t get it out of your head. You’re sleeping, you’re talking about it, it’s just in your head all of the time, and you’re just super distracted. Finally I remember by husband saying, “You just have to try the damn thing out. Cause it’s like, either do it or don’t do it. But you need to.”
Craig Cannon [22:26] – Oh, man, yeah. I have friends who have been talking about ideas for like five years.
Avni Patel Thompson [22:29] – Right, and it’s just like you want to say-
Craig Cannon [22:30] – Like, dude, stop. Make it or stop.
Avni Patel Thompson [22:32] – Do it or don’t do it. But you got to figure it out. Finally, I was like, well, I don’t know how I’m going to do this because I have no money left. I have no time, really.
Craig Cannon [22:41] – We should talk about that, right? So you try the box startup.
Avni Patel Thompson [22:45] – Yep.
Craig Cannon [22:46] – It doesn’t work. Did you honestly consider just finding a job?
Avni Patel Thompson [22:50] – I did.
Craig Cannon [22:51] – What was the moment that made you decide to double down?
Avni Patel Thompson [22:53] – Yeah, so truth be told, I was pursuing three in a good, risk-averse kind of way. I had three options. Option A was just return to my corporate career. I knew I could do that, knew I was good at it. It didn’t excite me. I can make some money and figure the next thing out, regroup. The second thing was, you know what? Now I’m into startups, I don’t have to start another startup. I could work at another startup. That’s another way to go and do that. Actually for some time, I did actually go, there was a local travel startup with nothing but engineers. I was their first non-technical hire. Even though it was for only a couple of months, what that taught me was I now, I met engineers for the first time in a really telling way, started to see how software was built. That was really cool. But that was my second path, cause I just figured that’s what I’m going to do. For some period of time, I’m just going to go work at another startup, lend my passion and experience to another startup, which is a compelling opportunity for a lot of different people. Then the third was just go at it again. The problem was that even as I was thinking about the more, I guess rational or responsible opportunities, the idea just kept on gaining steam. As I kept on thinking about it, I was like, it doesn’t matter I don’t have, I can’t build an app. I can use SMS. I could approximate it by, I could just go and find and vet a couple of caregivers, and I can go find these parents in just my neighborhood.
Avni Patel Thompson [24:20] – Doesn’t have to be a big, fancy thing. Honestly, there are kind of vanity, emotions and stuff like that. People didn’t even realize that I had shut down my first startup. I didn’t want to make a big hoopla about starting another one. That was kind of good because that gave me no expectations. I literally, this is where this whole idea of the four-week test was. I figured, and my husband had said just go try it out. Go figure it out. I figured if I gave myself the space of four weeks, and the whole point was by now I had started reading some of PG’s essays. I’d never been in Hacker News and all that kind of stuff.
Craig Cannon [24:56] – Okay.
Avni Patel Thompson [24:57] – Cause that’s not my background. But I started reading this stuff, and I was just so interested about ideas. I started reading this and started watching How to Start a Startup. This whole idea of, can you just get consistent weekly growth, and can you talk to users and build products? That resonated back to my P&G days of doing that, and that spoke to me. I thought if I could find myself four weeks, I had like 200 bucks left in my business banking account.
Craig Cannon [25:22] – Okay, great.
Avni Patel Thompson [25:23] – I was like, you know what? Typeform, Squarespace, I can do a four-week trial TypeForm, do signups and things like that. I can use Excel as a database. I can use Google Calendar as a scheduler and SMS to kind of connect it all.
Craig Cannon [25:37] – Your personal cell phone?
Avni Patel Thompson [25:38] – Yep.
Craig Cannon [25:39] – Yeah, okay.
Avni Patel Thompson [25:40] – Gave people my personal cell phone number. For the longest time, and even to this day, I will have old school parents still text my phone.
Craig Cannon [25:46] – Great.
Avni Patel Thompson [25:47] – They’ll say, “Hey, I need a Poppy.” It’s wild. No, so I set it up as a four week test. I still remember the day. I was like, am I going to actually do this? Because it feels janky, and it feels scary again. But I said, “I have to know.” So literally sent an email to 15 parents and just said, “Hey, I’ve got these three amazing people. If you need them, just text this phone number.” I gave them a phone number. It was my phone number. That day got our first booking. and that week, I got four. So that week was, okay, that’s my base. If I’ve got four, then next week, 10%, I need to get five.
Craig Cannon [26:17] – Okay.
Avni Patel Thompson [26:18] – Ended up getting six. And the week after, even more, and the week after, even more. More than the actual numbers, it was this idea of consistent growth. Then it feels different, when you’re not pushing people to try your product, but you people are pulling you to give them more. That felt very different. Anyways, that was the genesis of Poppy. Very, almost accidental in some ways. But very driven by a specific need. I had a problem. I needed to solve it. I figured I had a different hypothesis than the other, very crowded people in those very crowded industries.
Craig Cannon [26:50] – Yeah, so someone from Twitter asked a question. 494 asked, they heard about your four week test. What are your suggestions for someone who doesn’t have four weeks or works a full-time job, or, say, is a college student, whatever, just generic busy person. What are your tips?
Avni Patel Thompson [27:08] – The reason I love the, and this is just in retrospect, the reason I like the construct of a four week test is that for a lot of people, and especially underrepresented founders and things like that, we face a disproportionate number of hurdles, whether it’s you have kids or you have to care for aging parents or you come from communities that don’t have startup things. The point is, you have to get to growth. You’re going to have to double down to prove that you deserve funding, to be around, or whatever else it is.
Craig Cannon [27:35] – Just pressure from your family, like I know a lot of my friends who, they have a big, fancy job somewhere, and their family’s like, “Why would you ever leave that?” I’ve never had a 401k or whatever, stock options.
Avni Patel Thompson [27:44] – That’s exactly it. And so if you use the construct of a four week test, inside of four weeks you can know whether you have something or if you don’t. And that way, at least, if you do have something like I ended up having, that gives you the confidence, it gives you the rationale to be able to go tell your family or whoever, tell yourself, “No, no, I can do this, there’s something here.” And if there isn’t, then there isn’t. Then at least you can kind of either regroup and learn or whatever. You can decide your commitment to it.
Craig Cannon [28:14] – But you have to be focused, right?
Avni Patel Thompson [28:15] – Oh, absolutely.
Craig Cannon [28:16] – So say, the question this person seemingly is asking is like, you don’t have four weeks of 40 hours a week or whatever. How do you kind of figure out the problem, figure out what to spend your time on if you’re just going to do it, yeah, limited time?
Avni Patel Thompson [28:33] – I would challenge people that you probably have more time than you think. Again, it is, and I don’t mean to be flippant, but at the time, my second daughter was maybe three or four months old. My older daughter was three years old. I was still in the process of wrapping up my other startup. So let’s just say there was a lot of noise. But when something takes a hold of you, and you can’t, you have to do right by the idea. I actually love that I started startups as I started a family, because a startup, for me, there’s a lot of parenthood parallels. You would do anything for your kids. You become a momma bear. You don’t care if you’re afraid. You would do anything for your kids. It gives you a courage that you don’t know where it comes from. The same way for my startup. For my second startup, because I knew it had to exist, not for me and for any vanity reason, but because I know my users need it. I know it does something amazing in the world. My job is to make sure it doesn’t die. For that, I will do anything. I will talk to anyone. I will hire, I will do any work that it takes to make sure my startup doesn’t die. Because it has to survive in the world. My point is that if it is the right idea, it is the idea that you’re going to commit, and I think here’s an important point, too, is that it isn’t about the starting. Cause if you’re lucky and you actually have something, you’re about to spend the next five or 10 years-
Craig Cannon [29:54] – This is a big misconception. It’s like, oh, Alright, I shipped Poppy v1.0. It’s like, congrats, you just started.
Avni Patel Thompson [30:01] – Congrats, you just signed up the next five to 10 years of your life to devote to this mission. Again, be very sure you want to do that. But it’s also my point, is that if this is something that you’re meant to do, that you are committed to doing, you will find the time. My second point, when it relates to college students, that isn’t to say lots of young people don’t or can’t start really great startups. But don’t feel the pressure to start it. I have loved that I’ve had a very disparate kind of younger phase, if you will, had the chance to go and do lots of different things, experience the world, all that kind of stuff. All of that has been fodder for building a more thoughtful, more interesting company. If you’re a college student, and it just feels like you want to start a startup but don’t necessarily have that specific idea or whatever else it is, I would say go focus on your studies. Go take really cool courses, philosophy or whatever else it is. Go get interesting experiences that will then serve you down the road when you go meet your co-founder and you actually have an idea and you want to go do it.
Craig Cannon [31:00] – It makes sense, right? Cause to what you were saying before, with the first startup didn’t work out, something that’s not talked about is that a lot of the most successful, monetarily, we’ll use that metric, many of those people just have a high batting average.
Avni Patel Thompson [31:17] – Totally.
Craig Cannon [31:18] – They didn’t shoot the ball one time. They never talk about the dumb stuff they’ve worked on, but they made all these stupid projects. They weren’t precious about them. I was that guy in college. I was like, Alright, I’m going to come up with this company idea, and this is it.
Avni Patel Thompson [31:31] – Totally.
Craig Cannon [31:32] – That’s not the average, by any means.
Avni Patel Thompson [31:34] – I’m Canadian, so I’m going to use a hockey analogy, but you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take, right?
Craig Cannon [31:39] – Wayne Gretzky, Michael Scott.
Avni Patel Thompson [31:41] – There you go. I love that, because it’s absolutely true. I applied to YC three times. That’s also something that is misunderstood or kind of glossed over. Persistence, right?
Craig Cannon [31:55] – Like half the batch applies twice or more.
Avni Patel Thompson [31:58] – Totally. What people misunderstand is that somewhere in the glossiness of startups and all that kind of stuff, and no founder, I bet, will tell you this, but most of us have had to persist through tons of stuff, tons of investor rejection, tons of consumer rejection, tons of just rejection. The point is, you have to have enough faith in self and faith in vision to be able to see you through. If the thing is the thing, like for me YC was the thing that I thought, very specifically, was what I needed and wanted to help me. Even when I was rejected the first time, I worked very hard to make it be something that would make it, increase my chances of getting into YC the next time. But I guess the point by that time also was even if I hadn’t got into YC, by that time I had a thriving company. I had customers, and I had all, so then I was like, screw YC if they don’t fund me.
Craig Cannon [32:51] – It’s totally fair.
Avni Patel Thompson [32:52] – I am going to do this anyways. But that was the right thing. I was not there with my first startup. I said, I want to get into YC because of the vanity badge then I made it. Or I want to get funded by this VC because blah. But with Poppy, again, it puts everything into the right context, because I wanted to get into YC because I wanted to accelerate my company and make it into something bigger and work with the best minds in tech to help improve my probability of success. Same thing with investors. I have now realized there are amazing people that see our vision, and their capital is helping to fuel our growth. There’s other people that don’t see it. In fact, even if you offered me money, I wouldn’t want it. Because I need the people that see our vision and are partners and aren’t just checks. There certainly will be times when you just need the money. But especially for a mission-driven company like mine, you have to have people that are bought into the mission, to the timeline, cause they’re not always the same. I’m not building this to a quick flip it kind of thing. Childcare is not that category. So you need the people that see why you’re doing this and believe in it and then also write checks for it.
Craig Cannon [34:02] – If you’re, I mean, a lot of the people that listen to the podcasts are interested in pursuing the VC route. So we can just kind of assume that, right? So say you’re going to build like a mission-backed company, similar to yours. What do you think about fundraising? How do you go about that process? Because it’s true, your numbers aren’t WhatsApp numbers, right? So how do you find those investors? How do you convince them? What do you do?
Avni Patel Thompson [34:28] – Definitely, it’s hard for me to say what factors kind of play into it. But I definitely know that in the early days of me raising, it was certainly harder because on the surface, it appears a very crowded market. It is hard for anyone to understand why a person that’s coming off of a failed startup who doesn’t have a technical background, all the things. If I was pitching me, I would say no, too, right? There’s no data to suggest that I am the one who’s going to make this thing go. But the beautiful thing, that’s also where YC kind of came in, was, especially what YC says, is go prove it from your users, right? Go prove that you’re making something that people want. That’s why I was like, I can do that. I went and I let the growth do the talking. There’s one thing around YC that we say, that growth solves all problems, and I love that one because if there’s nothing else I can do, I go and try to figure out growth. Growth helped me find my eventual CTO and co-founder. Growth helped me go and raise money, if not everyone’s saying yes, the right people started to say, “Oh, there must be something here.” What are those people? Then those people went and talked to parents or the caregivers. The people who are interested in your mission as well, you will find them. You just have to, again, it’s the Wayne Gretzky quote. You have to take more shots on goal. It’s a numbers game. But the point is is that again, because I refused to let my company die, I doubled down on talking to even more people
Avni Patel Thompson [35:57] – and making connections. Every person, even if you say no, introduce me to three others. That’s sort of this little kind of breadcrumb trail that leads you to all the craziest kind of places. But eventually, you will find your people. A couple will tip, and that’s the momentum you need.
Craig Cannon [36:12] – Yeah, absolutely. Let’s do one more question from Twitter. So Depac Chugani asked, “How are you measuring if your company has reached product market fit?”
Avni Patel Thompson [36:22] – That’s what… the billion dollar question.
Craig Cannon [36:25] – Yeah.
Avni Patel Thompson [36:26] – It’s a tricky one. As best as I can tell, I look at it a couple of different ways. One, is from a retention point of view, right? So if you’ve got product market fit, you have built something that is working for people. They’re coming back to it. They’re using it. They’re coming back to it. They’re not churning it some massive amount. Product market fit has to do with that. Stripping it down, I think about it from a consumer standpoint. Product market fit has to do with the fact that you’re solving their problem. You’re solving their problem, the friction that they experience in their lives, so well, so completely that they have no choice but to come to you, right? A lot of those things from like a Lyft or an Uber or an Airbnb, people who completely, in what, five years, completely changed how people think about a category. People can’t even fathom going back in time. That’s what we’re doing with childcare and parenthood. My thought on product market fit is how do we make Poppy something that parents just can’t even fathom being a parent without. We’re getting there. We have that here in Seattle, because people will talk about it. We even had just a parent yesterday, and we have a text interface. So we talk to our users, I mean literally every day. Someone talking about moving outside of our service areas and making, just talking about how that would make their lives just so much worse to not have access to Poppy. That is like goosebumps stuff.
Avni Patel Thompson [37:55] – But it’s also product market fit. When you have people that can’t get enough of what you’re making, and you’re scrambling to just keep up with that demand, in a lot of those types of terms.
Craig Cannon [38:08] – Okay, got you. I have a very random question, then, just about parenting in general. I saw this interesting video about three parents and one child. It was like this interesting relationship.
Avni Patel Thompson [38:21] – Yeah, yup.
Craig Cannon [38:22] – I’m just curious, do you have thoughts on the future of parenting and how it may be different than the traditional model that we’re used to.
Avni Patel Thompson [38:32] – I have, I guess most of my thoughts kind of almost come back to the past, where I love this idea of, I don’t know if it’s communal living, but like multi-generational living. My parents were Indian, and when we would go back to India, my grandparents’ farmhouse just literally had, in the same farmhouse, my three uncles, their families, my grandparents. You would go there and literally, we wouldn’t see my parents for like weeks, right? Cause they’d be somewhere, but it is like communal parenting, right?
Craig Cannon [39:02] – Yeah.
Avni Patel Thompson [39:04] – My parents would watch out for their kids. My aunts and uncles would be watching out for us. That struck me in a very early age, because I didn’t have that for the rest of my life when we were living in Canada. Just the ease, the naturalness, where parenthood isn’t in crisis, right? It doesn’t feel like a crazy thing that you’re like, what am I supposed to do with this kid? So how people do it in the future, whether it’s multiple parents or whatever, it’s more fluid, for me, the way that it works is that my nanny and her husband live in our house, right?
Craig Cannon [39:32] – They do?
Avni Patel Thompson [39:33] – Yeah, so it’s like an au pair-ish kind of situation. We have a separate kind of apartment.
Craig Cannon [39:38] – Like an in-law thing?
Avni Patel Thompson [39:39] – We have an in-law apartment. So instead of renting it out to somebody else, we rented it out to my nanny and her husband.
Craig Cannon [39:44] – Great.
Avni Patel Thompson [39:45] – The incredible thing is, and then when my parents come over, and if they’re staying over, they stay in our attic kind of thing. But it feels wild, because this is what I feel like it’s meant to be. The burden isn’t supposed to be all on my husband and I, right? It allows us to have much needed breaks. It allows my kids to get to know their grandparents in a really compelling and natural way. It allows me to have my nanny, who feels like family, be a part of the family. For my kids, for it to be just very interchangeable. That’s really important. I’ve read a lot of research on, I like the idea of resilience in kids.
Craig Cannon [40:23] – Yeah.
Avni Patel Thompson [40:24] – That’s a really important quality that we don’t necessarily talk about a ton. But there’s studies that say resilience is correlated with the number of positive connections the child has with people, related or not. That’s also what I think about when I think about Poppy, because here we have these incredible caregivers that go into the lives of these families and kids. They can be these positive role models. We can build, lots of families have lots of different situations going on, stresses or whatever else it is. You can never tell from the outside. But what I think about is that the more you can put positive relationships, positive kind of role models in the lives of children, you give them a better chance at being these resilient kind of grownups.
Craig Cannon [41:10] – So kind of following that line, what are your thoughts, and probably advice, around parenting while being a founder, well, two founders, now. What are your thoughts? What do you tell other parents?
Avni Patel Thompson [41:24] – There’s sort of two pieces for me. One is you have to be very specific about boundaries. What that means for me is there’s certain days that I’m on, and I have to be 100% founder. I can’t think about, it sounds sort of harsh, but I can’t think about my kids and all the other things that are on. There will be days that my husband’s just primary parent. So if a teacher has to reach out, or if there’s PTA meetings or any of those things or a nanny needs anything, my husband’s on tap. There are other days that I am. That is just very clear. In the evenings, whose night is it, right, to work late? There’s certain nights that’ll be my nights. Certain nights will be my husband’s nights. There are nights that my mom will come over and stay over, and that kind of gives it, or our nanny works kind of late. So the point of that is is that again, it is very scripted. There are nights that we have to, one of us is traveling or somebody else has a meeting or something that has to shift. But we’re very specific about what those are. The more that you make it routine, the less disruptive it is for our kids. They’re just like, oh, yeah.
Craig Cannon [42:27] – Do you guys operate on the normal weekend schedule? Do you have any habits or traditions where like, Alright, Sunday dinner or whatever it might be, like we’re checking out, turning off the phone?
Avni Patel Thompson [42:36] – A couple of them. First of all, talking about the kids is really important, because I want my kids to feel that I am present, and both of us are and all that kind of stuff. But at the same time, so there will be times that I’m working from my home office. They’re very welcome, in and out of the house. But because my parents, we actually drop them off for sleepovers at my parents’ house some weekends. That gives my husband and I important time for us to be ourselves, connect. We try to do this tradition of Saturday morning dates instead of evening ones.
Craig Cannon [43:07] – Okay.
Avni Patel Thompson [43:08] – So we’ll go do yoga and have a coffee, or a spin class and coffee. That’s just something that we did when we dated or before we had kids. The importance of that is we remember ourselves before we became parents. That is really important for parents in general, cause I’ve heard this idea of, and I felt it, too, when I became a parent, of you lose yourself, you lose your identity. That is almost more harmful than anything else. For us, that’s really important that we square away time for just him and I or just ourselves to take care of ourselves. The last thing is we do have Sunday dinner.
Craig Cannon [43:39] – Okay.
Avni Patel Thompson [43:41] – I am a big believer of eating together, and that just the whole cultural aspect of that. At the very least, we have Sunday dinner, where we cook and my parents will come over and all that kind of stuff. That’s also important for my kids to kind of see.
Craig Cannon [43:56] – Yeah, that’s great. Alright, last question. So we’re at the Female Founders Conference. I should probably ask you, what’s your advice for a female founder just getting started?
Avni Patel Thompson [44:05] – You said it right there. There are so many people out there, and it can be female founders, it can be other underrepresented kind of founders, or people with just different situations. Too often we have really interesting ideas in our heads, and we just think about all the obstacles that are in our way, all the reasons why we can’t. That stops us from starting and just having a shot at it. It’s why I’m a big fan of this whole, I made it up, but it was just like a construct to fool my mind about the four week test. Just give yourself something small to get to 100 paying users, right? Because I love the idea of, having 100 is a tangible target. It isn’t so far off, but it’s pretty stretch. Paying users, to our previous point about, no, people vote with their dollars. Breaking that task down I find gives people tangible reasons and a way for them to get started. But especially when it comes to women, I find that we are perfectionists. This whole idea of we don’t want to mess up, or if we are going to start something, it should be perfect. So we plan ourselves to perfection, which means we also don’t start. We have to get really comfortable with it being messy and complicated. But the number one thing is we have to start. And we have to take big swings. They can’t be, I have no idea, I don’t have a tech co-founder, I’m not technical, how could I possibly? I had the exact same thought. If I had those thoughts and I let them stop me, I wouldn’t have started Poppy.
Craig Cannon [45:35] – So big swings means like not doing something too easy?
Avni Patel Thompson [45:39] – So this is a controversial, it can be a controversial comment, because if your vision and if your mission is to do something big, then have it be as big as possible. If you want to build a nice, smaller retail service business or whatever else that is, that’s great. But let’s not confuse that with startups. Let’s not confuse that with high growth, venture backed, ventures, basically, startups. I am a biggest supporter of small businesses, having been the daughter of two small business owners. But if we’re talking about startups and big swings that are going to get angel and venture funded, then we have to talk about big, disruptive technology. If that’s the case, then we have to talk about all the ways that that can be possible. And if we’re not talking about that, then we’re dead in the water before we even start.
Craig Cannon [46:30] – Totally, yeah. I heard, it was on Tim Ferriss’s podcast with Chris Sacca, and he was talking about his investment strategy. One of them was give yourself an opportunity to get rich. All these people make these $10,000 bets, and you can never really win that way. The same way, if you have an idea, maybe it’s a small business. That’s awesome, you can crush it. But if you’re going to take venture money and the max you can do is 10 million a year or something, then you picked the wrong game.
Avni Patel Thompson [46:57] – Exactly. And and my motivation in this, certainly down the road, maybe there’s some financial aspect. But for me, it really is, if we’re going to do this, certainly there’s a 10 million version of what I could do, right?
Craig Cannon [47:12] – Sure, yeah.
Avni Patel Thompson [47:13] – But if we’re going to do this, do it for the whole damn thing, right? If we’re going to do this and solve this for parents everywhere, let’s solve it for parents everywhere. That makes it the billion dollar idea, right? I have no idea how we’re going to do it yet. But I definitely know how we’re doing it here in Seattle and how we’re about to do it in more cities across the country. But so solve the problem that’s in front of you. Worry about that first. Just live to fight another day. That’s the biggest thing is that you have to get started and just going, because if we don’t, then we’re just talking about it.
Craig Cannon [47:40] – That’s great advice. Alright, thanks for coming in.
Avni Patel Thompson [47:42] – Thank you.
Craig Cannon [47:44] – Alright, thanks for listening. As always, you can find the transcript and video at blog.ycombinator.com. If you have a second, it would be awesome to give us a rating and review wherever you find your podcasts. See you next time.