Friday, March 5, 2010
Carlisle “mompreneurs” make it easy for families to find kids’ activities
It was the quintessential “Aha!” moment. While out for a run with a friend, Cary Keller of Partridge Lane was talking about how easy it had been to find a nanny for her then one-year-old son through SitterCity.com, a website that draws upon the user’s zip code along with answers to various questions to generate a list of potential child care providers. If only, Keller expressed to her running buddy, the same paradigm could be used to find kids’ activities.
Since Keller holds an MBA from the prestigious Tuck School of Business and has career experience in both investment banking and venture capital, it wasn’t too big a leap from wishing that the website existed to realizing that she herself was exactly the entrepreneur to make it happen. And in doing so, Keller joined the ranks of so-called “mompreneurs,” women who draw upon their own needs and wishes as mothers to develop business plans.
But Keller’s business background wasn’t going to be enough to make a fabulous website, she realized. She needed a top-drawer designer to transform her vision into a reality. And it wasn’t long before she found just the person: Casey Smith of Lowell Street, whom she had met recently through mutual friend Tracy McArdle and bonded with over a shared affection for Ferns coffee stops.
Smith signed on to the project for her design skills but would eventually become a full partner and co-founder of Ziptivity.com, whose tagline is “Family activities in your zip code.” The two began collaborating in January of 2009; their beta site launched at the very end of that same year.
“Ziptivity.com is a way for families to find the ‘who, what, where, when, and how much’ for events and classes that fit their family’s profile,” Keller explained. Smith didn’t need to be convinced that this was a business idea with potential; the mother of four herself, whose oldest is now ten, she knew well the challenges of finding activities while taking into consideration not only the kids’ interest level but also the day, time, cost and frequency of the activity.
The two women formed a solid partnership working two days a week out of Keller’s home office. In a way, the part-time approach made it easier, Smith says. Any time the start-up tasks began to seem overwhelming, they would by necessity set the project aside for a few days, and when they next met to work, they felt refreshed and ready for new challenges. “Casey is right-brain creative, I’m a left-brain MBA type,” Keller said. “Sometimes when we talk, we sound to each other like the teacher in Charlie Brown: wah wah wah. I’ll ask Casey about making a background red, and she’ll say, ‘We don’t want it to be red; we want it to be pumpkin.’”
Keller knew that Smith’s skills were important to the project, though. Having a website full of useful content is one thing, but in today’s Internet-saturated world, a site needs to look magnificent to attract attention as well. The two women spent hours poring over sites they knew appealed to their demographic in order to get ideas for their site’s all-important look and feel. “We knew it had to be aesthetically appealing but also navigationally logical, easy to use,” Smith says. “We didn’t want a website that would require a tech support phone call to help people get through it.”
And Smith’s expertise with a decade of parenting under her belt was an invaluable resource as well. “When my older children were little, I felt like I spent a lot of time researching the options,” she says. “I’d be thinking, ‘The boys don’t have preschool on Tuesday or Thursday afternoons; they’d love to do a soccer class at that time.’ It would have been so much easier to do it this way: just put in my zip code, the activity, the days I wanted, the ages of my kids. With four kids, I don’t have time to search the newspapers. Another thing that would have helped me was the spontaneity we offer on Ziptivity.com. I love our “Find activities for today” function, for when it’s raining out and plans got canceled and there’s nothing to do.”
Its functionality is just as Keller first envisioned: users, who are often parents but can also be grandparents, babysitters or any other caretakers, enter their zip code and some basic information about what they are looking for – whether it’s story hours, art classes, indoor soccer, ballet lessons, private school, summer camp, or a way to fill one rainy afternoon – and up comes a list of options.
Ziptivity.com is free for users, and in its current beta form it is free for advertisers as well. After official launch this spring, businesses will pay a subscription rate to advertise, though it will remain free for nonprofits such as cultural groups, libraries and town-run organizations.
Taking full advantage of social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, Keller and Smith are surprised by the ease with which they are attracting advertisers and users. “Viral marketing is huge for us, and we’re in the right niche for it,” Keller said. “Moms talk to each other and share information. It’s all word-of-mouth, grassroots marketing. We have yet to do one paper mailing. We visit businesses, talk to people, and we rely on our users to spread the word too. The most exciting part of our work day is when a complete stranger finds their way to our site, whether it is a family or a business.”
In the future, Smith and Keller hope to extrapolate the model to other regions. “Our goal this year is to focus on Metrowest,” Keller says. “We want to be the ‘go-to’ place for Metrowest families to find things to do and for Metrowest businesses to market their events. Next, we’ll try to reach the North Shore and South Shore regions. Cities are already well served as far as promoting kids’ activities. Our goal is to fill that need in the suburbs.” ∆
© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito