Many of the web’s largest parenting sites are now ancient in Internet years. WhatToExpect.com, based on a book originally published in 1984, launched in 2005. (On its about page, brags of how its platform has expanded in the tone of your grandmother’s holiday letter: “With even more books, a Web site, mobile apps, a Facebook page, a Twitter handle, and a movie under its belt, what more could What to Expect possibly have in store?”) BabyCenter is 19 years old, a relic of the turn-of-the-century dot-com boom, and is owned by Johnson & Johnson. As the rest of the Internet has rushed ahead, embracing niches, the long tail, and hypertargeted content strategies, it often seems as if parenting sites (despite a spate of publicity for “mommy blogs” in the early aughts) haven’t kept up.
But a new generation of sites — catering to a predominantly mobile generation and relying on business models beyond display advertising — are quietly emerging, led by a generation of younger, mostly women founders who found that existing content was not meeting their needs.
Elizabeth Tenety, the 31-year-old cofounder of Motherly, the former editor of The Washington Post’s religion section On Faith, and a mother of three children under five, had her “lightbulb moment” at a conference for mothers held at Stanford in 2015. She’d been taking design classes, thinking about companies like Greatist and Brit+Co that integrated content and commerce in new ways. “The depictions of motherhood online felt really out of step,” she said. “They were literally cartoonish. BabyCenter treated a woman as a vessel for a baby, not as a human being going through one of the biggest transitions of her life. Why didn’t that exist online? We’ve found motherhood to be incredibly challenging, but also incredibly beautiful and meaningful. We wanted to create a constructive, upbeat way to guide women through these changes.”
Tenety had been set to move her family to Cambridge and begin attending Harvard Divinity School, but she changed course abruptly: “I said thank you so much, but I’m not going to be able to come.” She and her cofounder, Jill Koziol, a consultant who has two young daughters (and is the inventor of this), came up with their concept for Motherly — “a woman-centered guide to motherhood,” for “real, highly-educated and accomplished women” — in May 2015. They quickly applied to media startup accelerator Matter’s fifth class and were accepted into it when the company was a few weeks old.
As they prepared to launch their company, Tenety and Koziol interviewed hundreds of millennial women who were either already mothers or wanted to be. Almost all of the mothers they talked to had signed up for BabyCenter’s weekly emails when they found out they were pregnant, “but they would tell us, ‘I get it, but I don’t like it.'” This suggested that while BabyCenter’s concept was strong — with customized, personalized information tied to your due date or child’s age — its content wasn’t, at least for some. (If you’ve received BabyCenter’s emails, you know that they are the ultimate in fear-mongering. In my first pregnancy, I signed up; in my second, I didn’t bother.) “We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Tenety said. “The content was the opportunity for us.”
When a visitor signs up on Motherly’s website, she enters her due date or her child’s age; whether she’s a stay-at-home mom, a work-outside-the-home mom, or somewhere in between; and whether she’s breast-, formula-, or combo-feeding. Based on that information, she gets her personalized weekly email newsletter and articles on the site. Content is written by a small team of staff writers and freelance experts; Koziol and Tenety are the only full-time employees. “Everyone else is some combination of payment and flexible hours and all sorts of different arrangements,” Tenety said. Many articles are illustrated with Instagram posts.
Motherly outsources all of its technology management and back-end to the publishing platform Quintype, in order to get to market quickly. “We would not be where we are now if we’d decided to bring it in-house or pay someone else to do it,” Koziol said. Quintype provides its services — which Koziol valued at around $300,000 — in exchange for a stake in the company.
In addition to Quintype’s service, Motherly has sustained itself on the $50,000 it got from Matter and another couple hundred thousand dollars in angel funding. It’s not that the company didn’t try to get venture funding: Koziol estimated she set up 80 VC meetings in the company’s first few months. A couple of problems came up repeatedly. The first was that Motherly’s cofounders lacked technical expertise: Even though the decision to outsource the tech was “purposeful and strategic” to reduce the product’s time to market, “that can be a really hard thing to overcome in the very tech-biased VC construct,” Koziol said.
The second problem they reported in getting funding from VCs was — surprise! — that Koziol and Tenety were mothers. “As a female founder, I believe we have made great strides in equality when it comes to women getting funded — until you get to the point where they’re mothers,” Koziol said. “It hindered us in our conversations.”
Koziol said the bias was never explicit, but that there was a clear gap between the experiences on the two sides of the discussion. For example, something she heard repeatedly was that Motherly’s market wasn’t big enough. “That is baffling,” Koziol said. “It is a huge market, and it is also a naturally replenishing one. 1.5 million first-time moms gave birth in the U.S. last year, and 90 percent of them were millennials — but only 20 percent of millennials are currently moms, which shows that this market is poised for exponential growth over the next decade.” She often felt as if she was educating the VCs on a major potential market while receiving nothing in return, and “wondering what they were going to do with it. I’m coming in with this pitch that’s incredibly well thought-out, we have a deep understanding of our user base because, in fact, we are our user…we were told we were very early-stage, but some men are getting funded from something that they write off a napkin.”
Frustrating though the process was, venture funding perhaps wasn’t a great fit for Motherly, Koziol said, simply because it is “a zero-sum game — you’re either a unicorn or you’re a failure. We really didn’t want to be pushed into one of those two; we felt there was a vast area of success between them, and we wanted to make sure we were making decisions about growing a business versus just getting to the next lilypad of funding.”
Motherly is reaching an audience: More than 70,000 women have signed up for its newsletters. A quarter of those are currently pregnant, 46 percent have a child between the ages of 0 and 1, 26 percent have a child over one, and 3 percent are trying to conceive. The site is on target to hit 1 million monthly uniques in January. Its audience is intensely mobile; nearly 85 percent of its traffic comes from phones and another 5 percent from tablets, leaving only a tiny fraction on desktops and laptops; 65 percent of users come just from iOS devices. Motherly is planning a more detailed demographic survey of its subscribers this month, but in smaller surveys it’s done, it found that 100 percent of respondents had a college degree or higher, 100 percent were married, 75 percent had a household income over $150,000, and 75 percent lived in urban areas.
As it approaches its second birthday, Motherly is expanding its ambitions as well. At the end of this month, it will add another year to its personalization engine, so the customized content will now cover kids up to age two. And it’s redesigning the formats of its newsletters, making them more visual.
Motherly is also expanding into paid online classes. This year, it will launch a “working moms’ class” in collaboration with Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit Lean In. In March, it will roll out a customized online birth-planning class that covers unmedicated births, C-sections, and epidurals. The birth class will probably cost $40; brands may also sponsor some of the classes. “We are going to be doing so much more brand collaboration,” Tenety said; last year, for instance, the connected baby thermometer company Kinsa sponsored a post on baby fevers. Other areas of possible expansion include buying guides with affiliate links, or e-commerce directly through the site.
Seventy-six percent of new Motherly users arrive via social media. Virality is an interesting challenge for a site that relies on an extremely targeted model: “We have thousands of permutations of content that a person could get,” Tenety said. “It’s different from [something like] The Skimm, offering one big story every day. I’m trying to speak to tens of thousands of real women, but they’re all going through something different.”
The strategy for now is that when a story does appear to resonate on social media — as did one last year about what a woman on maternity leave wants people back at the office to know — the team tries to figure out the stage of pregnancy or early motherhood at which it might be most useful for individual delivery. In the case of the maternity leave story, Motherly now sends it out to working mothers who are six weeks postpartum.
One platform that is working unusually well for Motherly? Pinterest. Motherly started using Pinterest two months ago, publishing graphics-heavy posts that lead back to the full-text versions of its articles — and it’s gotten more than a million Pinterest impressions over the last 30 days. “It’s a platform that people use to guide their lives,” said Tenety, “and our users are all about planning for pregnancy and motherhood.”