3 Unexpected Insights on Building Your Second Startup: Q&A with Marissa Evans

Young kids take classes for everything: music, dance, cooking, playing in the dirt... you name it. Sawyer gives parents the chance to go to their favorite classes or try new ones, without long-term commitments. 

In Episode 7 of The Control Room, Sawyer co-founder Marissa Evans shows us: 

  • What you worry about as a second-time founder (and why it's more straightforward the second time around) 
  • What happens when your users are really into Rolie Polie Guacamole; and
  • What improv comedy has to do with starting a company

To hear the whole interview, subscribe in iTunes here.


What’s so interesting about this idea to you? What drew you to it?

I was working with my business partner for about two years at Rent the Runway. We started working really closely together and then became really good friends. She initially came to me with this problem that she faced around trying to find activities and classes for her two-and-a-half-year-old. At first I was like, what are you talking about? Two-and-a-half-year-olds go to class? But it turns out they do. 

When the kids are little, their weeks are bookended by naps and lunch, but other than that, you really want things to start stimulating them and making sure that they’re hitting those developmental milestones. And so, the more [my co-founder] Steph and I talked about it, it felt like there was just this huge opportunity in front of us because of the way that parents wanted to reach these studios and these providers. 

But then there was this huge lack of information, finding the best classes, how you book them, when they start, where you go, how you pay for them.  So we got really excited for a variety of reasons. I mean, we loved consumer, I’ve been in the consumer space for almost 10 years. I think that the premise that we’re helping kids and parents is obviously something that gets us excited. And I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily right in the education space, but we’re certainly in that world which is really fun. 

And I love the early days of a start-up. I definitely get really excited when I start something new. I was eager to get back to it.

What are some of the things you’re doing differently now as a second time founder?

I think a lot of my learnings came in the form of [understanding] where to stress out. The first time around you just don’t know anything and you don’t have a sense for things, or at least I didn’t. And so I would be anxious and worried about everything, from how to find the right payroll provider to is my lawyer telling me the truth? 

Now, I just have a much better sense of what’s really important and where we need to focus, which certainly makes my life better.  I’ve been working with my team for a few years and we’re all relatively senior, and we’ve all been doing this for a while. We have a really good pace at which we attack and execute.

You said that you had a better handle on what to stress out about now. So what do you stress out about?

Always just around the product and the users. Are they happy? Do they like this? Are they going to tell their friends?

So tell me more about that.

That’s everything right? Are you building something people want to pay you for, at the core? And I think if you can boil it down to that, then growth and retention are all are just lagging indicators of that question. You can stress out about everything else, but if that’s not there, you’ve got a real problem. 

Are you building something people want to pay you for, at the core?

So a lot of times, it’s cutting through the noise. How’s your growth? How’s the retention? Are people happy? And just constantly trying to either get them to be more happy, or to tell more people about it, or use the product more. Those things, to me, signal that we’re either doing something right or we can be doing something better. So that is absolutely what keeps me up at night.

What are some of the ways that you know that you’re making people happy?

I watch my growth numbers. We have two sides of our business, we have a supply side and a demand side. We liken our product a lot to Etsy where you have a seller and a buyer. 

We have providers who are the ones that actually put on the classes and then we have our customers who actually go to a class. We watch both of those sides pretty religiously in terms of satisfaction.  We do lots of customer surveys, focus groups, or take customers to coffee. And constantly just listening and watching the users experience as well, and watching how they behave on the site and what they do and what they don’t do with some of the features that we build. 

It’s super iterative. We build something, we launch it, we see if anyone uses it. If nobody uses it, we’re like, it probably wasn’t the right thing to build. And similarly if we get emails from users about certain features, that definitely tells us that we should probably think about investing in them. 

An example was when we launched the first product where you could book a class for your child but you really couldn’t signify that you had multiple children. So you had to fake your way so you could have multiple kids going to a certain class. Where we get enough feedback that people say, I have multiple kids, and I want to have multiple kids on my account. We say, okay, time to build that. So that was one of those [examples].

You mentioned the supply side and the demand side of the business. Are there things about having two sides of this that have been particularly interesting or challenging to you?

The fact is that we are dealing with people who are putting on kids’ classes. It’s a very special community. These people are so well educated, they’re so creative, they have such patience, they’re just a really special type of person that runs kids’ classes. And a lot of our classes are focused on the under 5s. We’re talking about people that are just warm and loving people. 

It’s just fascinating. We talk about providers, and then we think, they’re putting on Rolie Polie Guacamole, or Teeny Tiny Ballerinas. I think in any business sometimes you forget about the actual product or, I know at Rent the Runway, sometimes we would forget that our units were these beautiful designer dresses. 

When we’re dealing with this business and growing it, at the end of the day, you think about what we’re actually doing and it’s just really cool and special. And we get feedback. We had a customer reach out saying that he took his son to a theater class, and his son said to him, dad, I never knew I could have so much fun without any toys in the room. 

This interview excerpt was edited for clarity and conciseness. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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