Q&A with Marissa Evans Alden, co-founder of Sawyer and pioneer of car seat marketing
If you’re a parent with young children, you can probably relate to this scenario: It’s 9 a.m. on a Friday morning, and your six-year-old is OOS (out of school) for a teacher’s in-service day. You’ve been busy all week as a full-time working parent and haven’t had a millisecond to think about activities that will keep Miraya from spending the entire day glued to an iPad—or worse, driving you crazy with endless curiosity and question-asking. You appreciate this quality in her, just not today.
Sound familiar? Enter: Sawyer.
Co-founded in 2015 by Marissa Evans Alden and her Rent the Runway colleague Stephanie Choi, Sawyer serves to provide a solution to the dearth of OOS programming by providing a convenient, all-in-one booking service for parents to discover and schedule activities for their children outside the classroom. The genesis of the company was a result of Stephanie’s personal frustrations as a new mother and working mom searching for child-friendly activities in Brooklyn, New York.
Sawyer’s ingenious, digital platform connects parents and children directly to the providers in their local neighborhood, allowing all parties an easy, flexible, and reliable experience. Currently, Sawyer is available in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, with plans to further expand to Washington D.C. then other locations next year. The mission: to ensure every child has the opportunity to discover their own, personal love of learning.
We sat down with Marissa to get her thoughts on everything from being a full-time working parent to personalizing customer experiences without being creepy. Full disclosure: several of us on the RG team use Sawyer regularly, so we are a little biased.
Ricciardi Group: In your experience building Sawyer, what are some of the biggest challenges for working parents?
Marissa Evans Alden: Finding the right balance between time at work, time at home with my daughter and husband is, of course, a juggling act. I think you should determine what works for you as a parent. I know for me, I feel like I can miss two bedtimes a week, so I often have to be very strict about what I prioritize in those two nights I’m not with my daughter. Whether it’s work or a night out with my husband or friends, time is the ultimate luxury when you are a parent.
RG: What marketing tactics did you use to acquire your first 100 customers? What did it take to get to 1000?
MEA: The first 100 customers were pure hustle. It was sending emails out to friends, friends of friends, and their friends. We also targeted curated social networks like Facebook groups, posted on list serves, and reached out to bloggers to get them to try our product.
The first 1000 were not that much different—we would do all types of non-scalable things. One of my favorites (which I am trying to coin) is “Car Seat Marketing”: We put flyers on cars but only those with car seats in the back in order to be hyper-targeted in our outreach. Eventually, we did a little bit of paid advertising on Google and Facebook. But ultimately, our goal was for the brand to be everywhere (online and offline) so that when parents needed to make a decision about activities for their children they would immediately think about Sawyer.
RG: Do you think starting a company to solve a personal frustration is more rewarding than simply solving a business problem based on unit economics?
MEA: I personally think it’s easier to run a business that you are a customer of. I started Sawyer before I had a child, and though I could empathize with my users, once I had a baby, the problem clarified on a whole new level for me. I’m a product person at heart, so when I can identify problems based on my own experiences, I can really dream up solutions based on what I think would work well. In terms of Sawyer, this became much easier once I had my daughter. I know this is not true for everyone, but for me personally, I like working on problems I can identify with.
RG: What is your current strategy for ensuring customers get a personalized experience, and not just a list of activities that may not be relevant to their children?
MEA: One of the biggest struggles, as a parent trying to book activities for your children, is finding the right fit. You may have gotten a ton of recommendations from neighbors, friends, and family members, but those might only apply to children older or younger than yours—or kids with entirely different interests. What we’re really focused on is using the same logic and data that inform how we discover new music, new places to travel, and new products to buy, and then apply it to how we book educational activities for children. We’ve started doing this by generating recommendations based on the child’s age, the location of the profile, and the lead time until the activity starts. That way, we’re always sending parents things that are entirely relevant to them!
RG: Do you have any thoughts on privacy in terms of having a business geared toward children? How do you keep the data safe?
MEA: Security and privacy are incredibly important at any company that manages transactional information – and that’s far more important when you’re dealing with data of children. We have strict internal standards about who can access data, how that data can (or can’t) be employed, and we never sell it off to a third party. This has been top of mind for us since the beginning, but it’s always going to be: You can never be too safe when it comes to your family.
RG: What is your own, personal, favorite activity? And/or how do continue your love for learning?
MEA: On Sawyer, I am constantly booking Treasure Trunk Theatre for my daughter as it’s the perfect mix of high energy theatre class mixed with creativity and imagination. She is almost two years old, so encouraging her to socialize with other children has been so fun to see and she often brings the songs and dances home from class which is the best!
I’ve studied comedic improv for over 10 years and absolutely love it. It’s a style of learning I still subscribe to, with lessons I can translate in my personal life or at work. It’s my favorite activity to participate in when I get the chance. Now that I have a small child (and one on the way) it’s been harder to find the time, but we recently got a group together in Brooklyn to startup some practice sessions, and I was reminded how much I loved it!