This week, we catch up with ex-lawyer turned entrepreneur Michelle Kennedy — co-founder of Peanut, the matchmaking app for mums.
The app launched last year to huge acclaim, has been featured by Apple and has a number of big-name investors behind it including Ashton Kutcher. We caught up with Michelle to learn more about her background and how she found a niche in the market for the oft-forgotten demographic new mums.
Newnham: What were you like growing up — how would your friends and family have described you?
Kennedy: Probably geeky! I was pretty studious, and grew up in an environment where grades and hard work were always front of mind. I think this had pros and cons. I have a good work ethic for sure, but I think I developed a real fear of failure, and that’s something which I think can impede people trying to take risks and learn. I’m a work in progress in that regard.
Newnham: You started out in law — can you tell us what led to your transition from Law to tech?
Kennedy: I was formerly an M&A lawyer at leading international law firm, Mishcon de Reya. I was working frequently for one particular client (in life sciences) who asked me to go to work for them as their in-house counsel. During my time there, I received a call from one of the partners I used to work for at Mishcon who had a new client, a “young guy with a killer business.” That young guy was Andrey Andreev, founder of Badoo. We met, and over spaghetti carbonara, I started to learn more about the business of (then) online dating. He was funny, intriguing, and it sounded exciting (this was before tech was even a ‘thing’ in London really). I became Badoo’s in-house legal counsel, setting up the legal function, before moving to acquire other reporting lines in the business (HR, Finance, BI), and most recently becoming Deputy CEO, and working day-to-day with Andrey as his right hand.
It was a gradual progression, as I started to understand the business more. I am extremely inquisitive by nature, and I suppose the more questions I asked, the more I understood and wanted to know. Working with someone like Andrey opened my eyes to moving outside of law, of the joy of understanding all of the mechanics of a company, which was so different to the legal perspective I’d had in M&A (and where you didn’t really have the opportunity to spend time understanding and watching growth).
The power of women: I wanted to build a product which spoke to such a critical part of our economy (women who are mothers are responsible for $2.4 trn, that’s no joke.)
There is no “I” in team. Building the right team is absolutely paramount to the success of the company. It can be challenging, time consuming, and sometimes you feel like you may not get there. But when you do, it’s so incredibly exciting, it’s like building an engine.
Dogged determination: Knowing what you’re building, why, and then being determined about what you’re going to do has been invaluable to me. It doesn’t mean you don’t listen to feedback and advice, it just means you adapt and remain focused.
Newnham: What conversation led to you starting Peanut? What was the problem you were trying to solve and what were the first steps you took to take it from idea to product?
Kennedy: Peanut was born out of two main issues:
The first was the emotional aspect of becoming a mother. My girlfriends weren’t at the stage in their lives where they were having children yet, and even if some of my wider friendship group were, we all lived in different parts of the city (and leaving the house to go anywhere further than 10 minutes from home with a newborn felt like a military operation). I suppose what I felt most prominently, which isn’t particularly comfortable for a 30-something woman to admit, is that even though I had lots of friends and was successful professionally, I felt quite isolated. This was further compounded by the fact that I was working in an industry (dating), where it was my day-to-day to produce products people could use to find a match, or a date, and I was struggling to find a woman who was like-minded to go for a coffee with.
The second was my frustration with the existing products on the market aimed at mothers. I didn’t recognize the tone of voice the products used, or the UX/UI being used. They felt outdated, old fashioned, and in some cases patronizing. To me, I didn’t feel like I’d suddenly aged, or become less modern, less cool, just because I’d become a mother, and yet, the products seemed to have that expectation. I found that confusing. I still had an expectation of great user experience, from products like Uber, or Instagram, but I wasn’t getting that from the products for mothers that were out there.
Newnham: Peanut has grown so much — what are the challenges in scaling a business like Peanut and how did you overcome them?
Kennedy: There are always challenges when you start something new. I had researched my market so thoroughly, I knew and understood the market opportunity and I was confident about the need. Occasionally I was met with views that frustrated me, that seemed outdated; “Don’t mothers already have ways to meet, like mommy classes?” or “Mothers are a challenging market” (so should I not do something, because it’s a challenge?). But I was dogged in my determination. I really believe if there is a pain point, if you understand that pain point, if you have context and data to support your assumptions, you should pursue your solutions, so I did. Now, the overwhelming response to Peanut (which I always guessed it would be) has been, “Why hasn’t there been something like this sooner?” and “what a phenomenal concept…”
So if you believe you’re right, and you can substantiate why, don’t let people deter you. The biggest reward is the user feedback. The emails from women thanking us for making the product. I am thrilled by the big picture impact we’ve had in just one year, but I’m obsessed by the small details in the user emails. So emotional, and personal, and even offers of help to spread the word and grow the community, that is special.
Newnham: What have some of the highs / key milestones been thus far?
Kennedy: Some of our key moments include being featured at Apple’s WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conferene) just four months after our launch in 2017. I was so humbled to be included amongst some amazing tech products. We have also been featured on national TV, both in the US and the UK, which I’ll never get used to. The biggest breakthrough, however, is the real life wonder stories. Every message we receive from real women who’ve met friends on Peanut, found support, started a business together, or found childcare solutions, reminds me why I started Peanut in the first place.
Newnham: Discoverability is notoriously poor on the app store — how do you ensure you reach mums? What marketing has worked for you?
Kennedy: We tend to let the app speak for itself. I’m lucky enough to have groups of amazing female friends who have helped the app build a network for itself. The main ‘marketing’ strategy was really just word of mouth. Organic growth is the best form for an app like Peanut, and although we weren’t impartial to flyers, events and merch, what you need to create is a network effect.
Newnham: You have some great advisors and investors — what advice would you give other entrepreneurs who are looking for support and raise funding?
Kennedy: If you have a belief in a pain point, research it, support it, scrub your idea down over and over again. Listen to the feedback from your potential audience, it’s gold. Let’s face it, the reality is if you’re going to pitch anyone your business, you have to understand the challenges before anyone else even knows they exist. Don’t be too proud to ask for help, advice, or to call in favours. Be humble when people share their time with you, and then work. Work harder than you ever have. I really believe that I might not have the perfect execution all the time, I might not even get it right first time, but I work hard, and if you don’t let people outwork you, you can win.
I don’t see my friends as often as I would like, I haven’t been for a night out for a long time, and I’m currently eating pretty poorly (I don’t condone that by the way), but I believe in what I am doing, and I believe in its potential to revolutionise motherhood. That belief drives me harder every day.
Newnham: What’s the one piece of advice you would give other women looking to start their own business in the tech space?
Kennedy: Why can’t it be you? You’ll never work harder, but you’ll never feel prouder. Research, take the knocks, learn the lessons, and keep going.
Newnham: Finally, if you could go back in time, what advice would you give a younger Michelle, just starting out in her career?
Kennedy: Never doubt the importance of a network, whether personally or professionally. Every person you meet might have an impact on your path. Whether that is right now, or at some point in the future, know that every person you meet is part of your journey.
We couldn’t agree more…
Huge thanks to Daisy Leigh for helping to coordinate this interview