Marissa Alden in Creating Sawyer as a Modern Approach to Parenting
Marissa Evans Alden is a seasoned technology entrepreneur and founder with more than a decade of experience in startups. She currently serves as CEO and Co-Founder of Sawyer, which connects children, parents, and providers of the best enriching childhood experiences through a suite of industry-leading technology solutions with a goal to ensure every child has the opportunity to discover their own love of learning.
Prior to starting Sawyer, Marissa founded the consumer fashion application Go Try It On. After being acquired in 2014, Marissa lead the Growth Team at Rent the Runway until starting Sawyer. She holds an BS in Human Development from Cornell University and an MBA from Harvard Business School. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband Ben and their daughter Blake.
Business Today (Grace Hong): Can you start off by telling us how you became interested in entrepreneurship and came to found Sawyer?
Marissa Evans Alden: I became interested in entrepreneurship in college when I had my own startup — a T-shirt company. That was my first foray into owning a company, and I really enjoyed the mindset of being able to focus on risk. After college, I went to business school and learned a bit more about how different businesses operate in different industries. I then made my way to New York, worked at a consulting agency for a few years, and after a while, I got excited about moving back into the product space and started my first venture-backed company in 2009. Given the post-crash nature of the markets during recession time, a lot of smart people were looking for work to do. It afforded me the opportunity to work with great people to start a tech company, and that was my first go at it. After that, we ended up joining Rent the Runway and continued to be involved in the startup scene. That was how it all happened.
BT: It's interesting that Sawyer employs an "a la carte" model of selecting classes, similar to the process for selecting clothes at Rent the Runway. What was the thought process behind that design? Are there any lessons you've transferred from your experience at Rent the Runway over to Sawyer?
MA: The nature of Sawyer’s “a la carte” style in which parents pick classes is how they book classes on residual providers’ websites. Children class options run from 8 - 12 weeks, and there may be a scheduled class every week for 45 minutes that kids go to. We just wanted to give parents an easier way to book those classes, rather than writing a check or having to pay the cash. Being able to quickly book it online through a credit card made sense.
BT: You’ve previously worked in merchandise and fashion. How would you say you transitioned into the parenting/childcare industry, and how did you adapt to the learning curve?
MA: I would never consider myself a merchandiser, per say. I was always interested more in consumer product and consumer-driven companies. Fashion, specifically Rent the Runway, were things that I knew as a consumer, and I was excited about them from a product standpoint. A lot of the lessons I had to think about through product development could be applied across multiple industries. When my co-founder first came to me with the idea, I saw a lot of similarities in terms of the pain points we were trying to solve and the challenges consumers were dealing with. Despite it being a different industry, my knowledge was quite applicable.
BT: How would you describe modern parenting and its evolution? How is Sawyer meeting those needs?
MA: Today, the modern parent is very much mobile-first, and she or he is always on-the-go, juggling between work and home life, and needing to support both. Having access to information at their fingertips in a really stackable way becomes super important. Companies that can provide that type of modern access are going to be super impactful, and what we’re trying to do at Sawyer is all about giving parents easy access to browse all the different options that are offered and all within a few clicks.
BT: In a previous interview, you’ve spoken about the program “Sawyer for All.” Can you speak a little more on what this program is and how it plays into Sawyer’s overall mission?
MA: Sawyer for All is a program that we developed in-house that we are really passionate about. Because there are around 20 million kids in this country who don’t have access to after school programming — they can’t find it, they can’t afford it, or they can’t get to it — we believe Sawyer is in a unique position to open up our doors, our providers, and our offerings to children who traditionally don’t have access to these programs. We work with providers and local communities to donate their extra spots and bring students into those activities when they otherwise wouldn’t have access to those.
BT: Along the note of expanding Sawyer’s offerings, what is Sawyer’s plan in expanding its platform across the US or even internationally?
MA: We’re trying to focus on a few key cities in the next year: New York, Chicago, LA, and possibly DC as our next big city. In the upcoming year, there will be a few more cities that will be launched in the United States. Keep an eye out — we’re not quite ready to announce them yet, but they’re coming!
BT: Sawyer serves two audiences: the parents and the vendors. What resources do you provide to keep both audiences in touch with Sawyer and ensure both of their needs are met?
MA: The company is divided into two business areas. There’s one that focuses on the provider-side communication, and then there’s one focused on parents. At our headquarters, we think a lot about how to service both parties and one is in the condition of the other in many ways. Doing right by our providers lets us think about how to grow their businesses and in many ways, helping parents connect and reach to those providers and ultimately what they want as well. It’s truly an ideal situation in many ways because every stakeholder is inspired by incentives to really help the other.
BT: How would you describe Sawyer’s brand, and how does that factor into building the team at Sawyer and your leadership style?
MA: I would describe the brand as delightful, playful, smart, and simple. Those words are what we try to form and build our product around. We try to build things that are not only sophisticated and smart, but things that our users can understand. Those are our core values which have shone through our culture, our product, and our team as well.
BT: How did you figure out the right time to found Sawyer?
MA: I think it’s personal, and everyone has to make this decision for themselves. For me, I had been working for a different digital company for a few years, and I personally had a real itch to get back into the startup scene and be the entrepreneur. I also think market timing is really important. Given the fact that millennials are all now starting to have children, it felt like a really great time to develop technology that would service millennial parents. It’s important to understand the macro environment and evaluate times when you can peak people’s interest in a specific category.
BT: Could you talk about the process of finding your co-founder?
MA: I met my co-founder at my previous company, Rent the Runway. I had been working with them side-by-side for two and a half years, so that was a really good way to understand people’s working styles. For me, I really love having co-founders because I love being able to share the highs and lows and you become this unit that operates together. We try to understand where each of us can shine and do our best work and help each other get off our feet.
BT: In terms of decision making, are they made based on how it falls under a certain team’s specialty or are they made as a group?
MA: We usually sit down together. Our team is around forty people now and getting bigger, and we all have discussions a little bit more. When it comes to business strategy for the next couple years, we work very collaboratively on that, but when it comes to execution and day-to-day tasks, we each try to function in our own lanes.
BT: With Sawyer’s focus on parenting and childcare, has any of that factored into the culture?
MA: The whole company is very focused on supporting parents, so we’re definitely trying to support parents who come into work. I happen to live really close to the office, so my daughter actually does pop by regularly which is really nice. Recognizing and celebrating employees who are just starting families and what that means in someone's life and celebrating milestones for those who are a little bit down farther down the path are all really important as an employer. We do a fun annual Thanksgiving potluck where everyone brings in food and meets each other’s families, and it’s a fun opportunity to see how the kids have grown, who’s adding to families, and all that good stuff.
BT: Can you share the challenges you’ve faced in founding Sawyer and how you overcame those?
MA: There have been lots of challenges, anything from how to start building a customer base when your product is just getting started to raising capital and facing competition. They’re all different challenges, and trying to have a long-term perspective while balancing the day-to-day bumps in the road will be the biggest way you can move forward. Try to make decisions that will be beneficial in the long-term and not necessarily take shortcuts if something is easy or right in the moment and seems to be the right strategy.
BT: What were the first steps you took in testing your product?
MA: A lot of it was collaborating with our customers, who are our providers. Going to their spaces, understanding how they were struggling to find a great piece of software that could help them run their classes, and partnering and dreaming with them on what could be the technical solution was a big piece of the puzzle. We approached building the company through constant contact with our parents and providers to understand what they want.
BT: Is there one value that helped you coming into your career that really helped you along the way, and how would you recommend college students develop that value?*
MA: Being curious is something you can’t go wrong with. Having an understanding of curiosity allows you to let anything come your way and feel interesting. Trying to approach other problems with curiosity can lead you down a very fun and interesting path that you previously weren’t aware of.
BT: On the opposite end, what is one skill that you’re still working on?*
MA: Maintaining a balance of thinking about work and our business and our future versus putting it aside on whatever else I have in mind. I’ve been meaning to not let myself go too far down the path of “what if.”
BT: Is there any piece of advice you’d like to share with undergraduates?
MA: I would say be really open to starting. A lot of students ask “How do I start a company,” but it’s most important to just get going, whether it’s sending emails to friends and asking if they would buy your product or setting up a PayPal and trying to take orders. There’s a lot of little steps you can do to start to get this thing to work and test if your idea is good.
BT: You’ve talked about the different goals Sawyer has, but what is one thing that makes you excited to come to work on Sawyer every day?
MA: The business challenge of solving a problem is really tiring, and I love the people that we hire and work with every day — those two pieces make it a lot of fun.
*Questions submitted by Nicole Allport from University of Arizona. If you would like to submit a question for one of our upcoming interviews, please do so here.