The app uses machine learning and algorithms to connect moms with common interests and aspirations. Once people fill out their profiles, they can swipe through potential mommy friends to set up a playdate. Peanut launched in early February and had 450,000 wave ups (equivalent to a "swipe right" on Tinder), 20,000 connections (mutual wave ups) and 70,000 sent messages in the first week! It trended number one in Apple’s App Store and was featured as one of Apple’s “Apps We Love” during launch week. They have raised an undisclosed seed round from NEA, Felix Capital, Partech and other angel investors. As their tagline says, they are helping people "meet as mammas, connect as women."
Elana Lyn Gross: What inspired you to start Peanut? What was your career path?
Michelle 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 groups 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 the dating industry, where it was my day-to-day responsibility to produce products people could use to find a match, or a date and I was struggling to find a like-minded woman 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 They felt outdated, old fashioned and in some cases patronizing.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 and 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 out there for mothers.
You started your career as a lawyer. How did you make the switch from law to business?
- I was formerly a merger and acquisitions 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 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 online dating. He was funny, intriguing and it sounded exciting. This was before tech was really even a ‘thing’ in London. I became Badoo’s in-house legal counsel, setting up the legal function, before moving to acquire other reporting lines in the business such as human relations, finance and business intelligence. I became deputy CEO and worked as Andrey’s right-hand woman. 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 and the joy of understanding all of the mechanics of a company, which was so different from the legal perspective I’d had in mergers and acquisitions where you don’t really have the opportunity to spend time understanding and watching growth.
You rose to deputy CEO of Badoo and were integral to the launch of Bumble. What were your roles at those organizations?
- At Badoo, in addition to holding board positions throughout the group, I was responsible for key operations in the business and worked with Andrey to identify growth opportunities for Badoo and the Badoo Group. I remain on the Badoo board. With regards to Bumble, I worked closely with the founder and CEO, Whitney Wolfe, at inception to bring it to life and was a trusted advisor and member of the board.
What has been the biggest challenge and, on the flip side, the biggest reward of starting Peanut?
- 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 and seemed outdated like “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 that when there is a pain point, if you understand it and have the context and data to support your assumptions, you should pursue your solutions, so I did. Now, the overwhelming response to Peanut has been “Why hasn’t there been something like this sooner,” and “what a phenomenal concept!” If you believe you’re right and you can substantiate why don’t let people deter you. The biggest reward is the user feedback and the emails from women thanking us for making the product. I am thrilled by the big picture impact we’ve had in just a few weeks, but I’m obsessed by the small details in the user emails. They are so emotional and personal, and people even offer to help spread the word and grow the community.
What advice do you have for other women who hope to start their own businesses?
- If you have a belief in a pain point, research it, support it and 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 your business to anyone, you have to understand the challenges before anyone else even knows they exist. Don’t be too proud to ask for help, advice or call in favors. Be humble when people share their time with you, and then work. Work harder than you ever have. I really really believe that I might not have the perfect execution all the time, I might not even get it right the first time, but I work hard. 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 revolutionize motherhood. That belief drives me harder every day.
What is a workday as Michelle like? Please walk me through a day!
- I wake up twice, once around 4 am to check messages from my cofounder, Greg Orlowski, before he wraps up his day in Chicago, then I (hopefully) go back to sleep until 6:45 am to get up with my son Fin and we get ready for nursery drop off. I get into my office at 9 am. Greg comes online around 1 pm my time, so we usually check in with each other then. I leave the office religiously at 6 pm every night to get home and put Fin to bed. I start work again at 7:30 pm and work until around midnight, sometimes later. There is no typical day. Sometimes we’re heads down working on a sprint for a new release, sometimes we’re brainstorming feature development, sometimes we’re writing a script for a promotional video and sometimes I am talking to users. The founding team of Peanut is exceptional in terms of expertise and determination, so every day going to work with these guys is a pleasure, however atypical it is.
What are your responsibilities as cofounder and CEO of Peanut?
- I am always thinking about the next step, whether that’s thinking about the next development in the roadmap, the next step in fundraising or the next step in growth. I feel a huge responsibility to set the tone and vision for the company because there is a social importance directly connected with our product, and we want to make sure we capture that and do it justice. That means knowing when to get heads down and focus, and when to go out and sell.
What are the most important characteristics someone needs to have to be successful in your role?
- Self-belief, focus, the ability to receive and process feedback (however upsetting you might find it) and the ability to inspire those around you to believe in what you’re doing as much as you do.
What are three characteristics you look for when you’re hiring a new team member?
- Someone who believes in what we’re doing and shares the vision of becoming synonymous with modern motherhood. Someone humble. I’ve always taken on so many tasks, whatever they are. I’ve never thought I was above anything, that’s a really important characteristic because it means you’re willing to learn. Hunger or drive. Some people are excellent, but not driven. Some people are average, but they work hard and are hungry to make something succeed. If you have drive and integrity, it’s a double threat.
What are the most important skills for doing your job and how did you develop them?
- Becoming a storyteller. Being able to take someone on the journey, whether it’s an investor, an employee, a journalist or a user. You have to be able to explain the story, the vision, why it’s important and why they should care. I think I’ve always been good at telling a story. What I’ve developed is the ability to anticipate anywhere people may lose interest or disagree with the story. By pre-empting that, and already knowing your response, you can continue to engage people with your story.
The other important skill is patience. I am still learning that one, although being a mama helps! I am a pretty immediate person, but I listen to my team. If they tell me something is going to take longer than I had wanted, but it’s to the benefit of Peanut, I listen.
You are also a supporter of the organization FutureGirlCorp. Why is that cause important to you?
- I was always taught that it’s your responsibility as a woman, upon achieving success, to pull another woman up the ladder with you. If we can arm these women with skills to enable them to become the founders and c-suite of the future, why wouldn’t we do it? The founder, Sharmadean Reid, is an incredible woman. She’s inspiring, determined and honest. When she asked me to be a part of it, I didn’t hesitate. If one woman takes away just one new skill which arms her with a weapon to change her life by negotiating differently or making different career choices, well, then that will be a success.
What's the biggest lesson you learned at work and how did you learn it?
- I’ve made plenty of mistakes during my working life. Mistakes are good; you learn from them. I think the biggest lesson I learned is not to confuse business and friendship. I think as a woman that can be incredibly difficult—we form close, strong, sisterly bonds. Breaking those bonds or blurring lines can cause problems, particularly when loyalties are tested. I try to remember that lesson at all times now. I love my team, they’re my extended family, but we keep it strictly business.
What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?
- You don’t have to be in a box with a label! Doctor, lawyer, accountant. No way! Everything is possible, open your eyes, look at everything around you and question it. Do you like it, where did it come from, would you like to be on that journey, how can you do that? Success doesn’t have to be a six-figure paycheck and a labeled profession unless you want it to be. It can be something unknown. Sure, it’s a little scary, but it’s thrilling too.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
- Be kind always. Kindness doesn’t make you weak, and it doesn't make you a pushover, it makes you human. You never ever know what someone else’s personal struggle is. You don’t have to be any less tough in your negotiation, you don’t have to concede a point which you disagree with, you don’t even have to like the person. But there is this notion that kindness is a weakness. It’s not. Anyway, it’s far more disarming to be what people don’t expect you to be. I try always to be kind, but I am strong, determined and ambitious. And yes, those qualities can all fit together. I’m not ashamed of that.
What is your business advice for other young professional women?
- Take the opportunities that are out there, and if you can’t find them, make your own. We’re already in a better position to be professional women than our mothers were, and I hope this continues, so let’s take those opportunities. However, the course as a young professional woman is not without huge challenge, and it takes bravery to call out when things aren’t right. However, if you can, and it’s safe to do so, be brave. You owe it to yourself. Susan Fowler, formerly of Uber, is an incredibly brave and strong young woman. Taking a stand for other young professional women was not an easy move, but a testament to her character.
Elana Lyn Gross is a content strategist at mllnnl, journalist and the founder of Elana Lyn. Elana Lyn is a personal and professional development website that provides millennial women with actionable job search, career and wellness advice.