FOUNDER OF THE SAWYER MARKETPLACE // MARISSA EVANS ALDEN
MARISSA EVANS ALDEN
What was your inspiration in launching your business?
The inspiration behind Sawyer came while I was at Rent the Runway with my now Sawyer co-founder, Stephanie Choi. We were talking about how we were spending all this time enabling women to get access to something as simple as a dress in under an hour, at the click of a button. But, when it came to our children, it wasn’t nearly this easy. It was a challenge for Stephanie to find great stuff for her kids to do outside of school and we thought, “why is it so hard?” Why is something as important as our kids’ education so difficult? We recognized there was an opportunity to really help busy parents. Given our technology backgrounds, we felt we had the knowhow to just go out and build a platform that would do just this.
What challenges came up and how did you surpass the challenges?
This is the second startup that I’ve raised venture capital for. In this industry, challenges are the name of the game. Everyday there’s something new that comes across your plate. Something that came to mind in the very beginning was the fact that we thought the business was actually going to go in a different direction; we believed it was going to be more of a Classpass for children. We pretty quickly realized that unlike the fitness industry, the education space doesn’t really have a software component that powers all the different fragmented mom and pop businesses out there. To ever really build a huge consumer business, we needed the underlying technology to connect all of these different providers. We ended up really pivoting the business from what at first was a purely consumer product to a software solution for our partners.
Now, in addition to running a marketplace for parents, we also have a whole software arm that really helps small business owners (of which 75% are women) to run and manage their businesses. Having that insight around what we thought the market was and then realizing that there was actually a completely different need was challenging. We were hungry and naive and were willing to switch gears and build something bigger.
We ended up having to completely overhaul and redesign our business model which ended up being a big moment in Sawyer’s history.
What are some action steps you would share with FEMS looking to launch a business?
I’m a big champion of prioritizing the very early stages of getting a business off of the ground. The biggest thing you need to do, is to just get started. A big piece of that is answering the question, “Will people pay for this product?” That is something usually you can figure out with very little tech, very little design, and very little resources. You need to think about how you intend to build the minimum viable product and then test to see if people are going to want it.
Say you’re starting a bathing suit company and you want to get the word out, maybe set up a Paypal link and email it to 100 friends and see who would preorder the bathing suit. Really push yourself to get those answers early on. It’s not to say the idea isn’t a good one if people won’t pay for it, you just have to figure out ways to continuously iterate and improve.
We actually started Sawyer with a completely different name. Our corporation is called See Jane Run because we couldn’t think of a name. We couldn’t think of anything and we just wanted to get started. The business was initially called the Kids Passport which as I mentioned kind of fit the model at the time but then didn’t anymore and so we evolved. Constantly feeling like you have the ability to shape, own and define your business, that is the best part -- that’s why you’re doing it. Living in that gray space of constant metamorphosis is one of the best parts of running a company.
For us, it’s always been about weighing the pros and cons of working for yourself versus working for somebody else and knowing yourself and knowing where you’re happiest. Obviously nothing is perfect, but feeling like you can prioritize what is important to you is part of this whole process.
What would you say to a FEM that is listening and needing that motivation to just move forward and launch their business?
How do you take that first one step? What is the smallest thing that you can do to start your business? Whether it’s setting up a simple Squarespace webpage on the weekend and seeing how it looks, or taking a trip to a flea market to buy a couple of products that you’re excited about. What are those very small things you can start doing even if you have a fulltime job or if you have a crazy schedule during the day? Where is that hour or two that you can carve out during the week to test and see what happens? It’s those baby steps that will make a big difference. All of a sudden you’re doing it and you’re not even thinking about it -- you’ve started. That’s a very exciting moment when you realize you’re not just saying you want to be an entrepreneur, you are one.
Any additional motivation to share with FEMS?
I think of my own personal motivation in three pillars. The first one is really about having the upside. Seeing that I have real financial upside in running this business is very important to me. The second one is really being able to have the autonomy around my days and my schedule. Being the CEO I do have a lot of autonomy in my day which matters a lot. On the other end of the spectrum, I have a 20-month-old daughter who is very little and she is very important to me. The third is working with great people. If those three things are in sync, I know that I’m going to be pretty happy. So that’s how I think about macro-motivation. Day-to-day, I really do love the “How I Built This” podcasts to listen to and find them to be very inspiring. There’s a really famous venture capitalist Ben Horowitz who writes a great blog on being a founder and a CEO. He wrote a book called ‘The Hard Things About Hard Things’. There are folks that write things you can really relate to, which is always helpful.
So much of this game is perseverance and having that grit to keep going. I think that’s the big secret. There’s no real right way, it’s just about keeping your head above water.
How can FEMS find you?
Sawyer is on social. I would say Instagram is definitely a good place to find us and it’s instagram.com/hellosawyer. We’re on Facebook too and you can find Sawyer there. I tweet sometimes -- it’s @mevans1. When I’m around, that’s where I am, on Twitter.
Sawyer is an online platform that provides a convenient, all-in-one booking service, the Sawyer Marketplace, for parents looking to discover and schedule activities for their children outside the classroom. Created by Marissa Evans Alden and Stephanie Choi -- who connected during their time at Rent The Runway -- the two Brooklyn moms were overwhelmed with the task of finding activities for their children. Providing a solution, Sawyer was born as a way to connect parents to an array of providers through their user-friendly booking tool, ensuring every child is given the opportunity to discover their own love of learning and adventure - right in their own neighborhood. Sawyer’s diverse range of providers gives parents ease of mind when booking anything from a last-minute infant playgroups, to a semester-long French class, to a three-month summer camp and more. Sawyer is equally committed to helping providers who offer the best enriching childhood experiences through Sawyer Tools, a payment, scheduling, and business management SaaS product that streamlines the online registration and booking process. The platform is currently active in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago neighborhoods, with plans to further expand in 2019.