Mom Knows Best
Entrepreneur|March 2020
When entrepreneurs really listen to their customers, their businesses can transform. That’s what Michelle Kennedy learned when building Peanut, a social networking app that set out to help moms make other mom friends…but has become about so much more.
By Stephanie Schomer

Stephanie SchomerMichelle Kennedy arrived at lunch, nervous about the conversation she was about to have with her best friend. It was 2016, and Kennedy had just made a big career decision. She was going to leave her job as a tech exec and launch a new app for moms. It was exciting—a new adventure, a massive market, a lot of potential upside.

But the downside was this: Her best friend, BBC journalist Sophie Sulehria, had been struggling for years to have a baby. In fact, at the time, Sulehria had just completed her third failed round of in vitro fertilization, and it was taking a toll on her mental health. Kennedy didn’t want to add to the burden.

“It was a very bad time. My husband and I were really suffering,” says Sulehria. “When Michelle said she had something to tell me, I thought, Oh God; she’s having another baby! But she told me about the business, and she was so worried: ‘I don’t want to be your best friend who’s not only got a kid but also has a mum business—I don’t want to alienate you.’ ”

But Sulehria was supportive. She knew the business was a fantastic idea, even though her exclusion from its target audience was killing her. So she asked Kennedy for a favor, as a friend, and as a hopeful mom. This would be the earliest feedback Kennedy would receive as an entrepreneur, and although she wouldn’t know it yet, it would set the tone for how she would build her business—by listening to, and quickly responding to, the needs of the community it serves.

“I said, ‘Promise me one thing: When this app becomes successful, create a piece of it for people like me, a place where women having fertility issues can find support and friendship and discussions and information, because wouldn’t that be fantastic?’ ” Sulehria recalls. “And Michelle literally looked at me that day and said, ‘I promise.’ ”

Today, Kennedy’s company is called Peanut, and it has a million users and $9.8 million in funding. But back in 2013, before Peanut was even a twinkle in its founder’s eye, Kennedy was a rising star in the dating app world. She was deputy CEO of a European dating network called Badoo, and she also had a role in launching the brand Bumble, which would go on to become one of the industry’s major players.

Kennedy’s life was changing. Her personal dating days were behind her. She’d just given birth to her son, Finlay, and didn’t have many girlfriends with kids in her hometown of London. She wanted to find some like-minded women at a similar stage of life, but all she could find were archaic message boards and Facebook groups.

“The products available to me were all, quite frankly, crap,” Kennedy says. “Nothing represented me as a mother.” At the same time, she was watching a flood of utility-based applications enter the market—new ways to order food or pick up your dry cleaning—and felt that a huge opportunity was being overlooked.

“Women are 50 percent of the population the last time I checked, and motherhood, in some way, will touch everyone’s life,” she says. “But no one is touching this space?”

She came up with an idea for a networking app for moms and called it Peanut, after her nickname for her baby bump when she was pregnant. But she didn’t feel ready to take the leap—until three years later. “There were just signals in the market,” she says. “People were starting to talk about motherhood differently because we’d started to talk about womanhood differently, and it just felt like the right time.” In 2016, she began ideating in earnest, brought three trusted team members on board, and got to work.

Peanut set out to embody the voice of modern, millennial motherhood. The team wanted it to function as a friend—one who understands that being a mom is a big part of a woman’s identity, but it’s not her entire identity. They spent a lot of time defining their voice. Users, for example, would be addressed as “Mama,” which tracks in both the United Kingdom and the United States and has a playful edge.

In February 2017, just a few months after she shared her plans with best friend Sulehria, Kennedy brought Peanut into the world, launching in the U.K. and the U.S. A simple beta version allowed women to create a profile, swipe to explore other women’s profiles— like on a dating app—and chat.

The reaction was instantaneous. Thanks to some earlier-than-planned press coverage from the London Evening Standard, thousands of women flooded the beta offering, and Kennedy had fast validation. But the new users also revealed a vulnerability. Much like with dating apps, where happy couples no longer need the app, women were ditching Peanut once they’d made a new friend. “And why wouldn’t they?” Kennedy says. “You don’t need to make a new girlfriend every day—and in that case, you maybe don’t need to continue using Peanut.”

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