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Episode > Season 1 Episode 10

Roderick Morris episode

Why Lovevery invested in science and data for subscription growth

Rod Morris, Cofounder & President at Lovevery

What's in this episode?

This episode we're talking to Rod Morris, Cofounder & President of Lovevery. We discuss how the company was created on years of child development research.

Rod dives into how he and his cofounder found true product market fit in an oversaturated industry with legacy competitors. He also shares why it was so important to build Lovevery with his own children’s development in mind.

Other highlights include scaling past 6 figures in an era where everyone is looking for a silver bullet, advice for brands just starting out, and suggestions for breaking through plateaus.

Connect with Rod on LinkedIn or Twitter. Check out Lovevery.

Episode transcript

Chase: Rod, thank you for joining us.

Rod: Great to be here.

Chase: Give us a little bit of background on yourself and about Lovevery.

Rod: Yeah, sure. Lovevery is a company that does early childhood education products, by subscription, primarily, and we've been in market for about three years. I'm the co-founder and president, and I spend most of my time on revenue growth and digital and finance.

Chase: Awesome. Love it. We're just going to hop right in. Lovevery is one of the best, "I founded this company because," Stories. I know it's all over your website, but give us the context. I think it's an awesome way to start.

Rod: Yeah, sure. Well, I've known my co-founder, Jessica, for more than 20 years, because she was my wife's best friend growing up in high school, and so we've just known each other for a long time. Our families would vacation together, Jess and I would talk about business ideas, and she was busy running her last startup, Happy Family, which became the number one organic baby food company in the country before she sold it to Group Danone, and I was busy taking a SAS company public, where I was running up that company, a company called Opower that has helped people save energy, and we were talking about this idea that she had.

She had had her first child, I already had twins, and she was trying to figure out the best way to play with her child was using a toy that somebody had gifted her. It was a purple cow that popped out of a piano, all these lights were flashing, and she just started asking herself, "Is this all there is?" Because it felt empty to her. And someone close to her had handed her an unpublished doctoral thesis that was basically a survey of all the child development research with ideas and things she could do, and she had actually started putting that into practice, creating some of her own products and her own toys and was talking to me about this idea she had of like, "Hey, what if we had a program for parents where they can get all of this just very simply, and we just took care of it for them."

I loved the idea as a dad. I could totally see the value. I said, "Well, how about I help you start this?" I was living on the East coast at the time and she was in Idaho with her husband Decker, and ultimately my family, we all moved from DC to Idaho and started this company up and we've had some nice growth over the past few years.

Chase: It's an awesome story. We talk all the time about product-market fit and not selling just to sell or to make money or whatever it is. You sell for a cause and there's a reason there. This, it perfectly fits into that sentiment.

Rod: Thanks.

Chase: There's a lot of science behind this product. You mentioned that there's doctoral thesis is involved in all of these technical terms. It was clearly important for you to have the science behind this particular product, right?

Rod: Yeah. Look, every product that we do, we try to make sure that it's aligned with child development principles and it's super important to us. Science matters to us because of the mission of helping early childhood be all it can be, is what's first and foremost to us. So let me just step back and just explain why like this is all really important.

Chase: Sure.

Rod: 80% of your child's brain is developed by the time they're three years old from a brain mass perspective, and so the more ways in which you can expose your child to how the world really works, the richer the neural networks that are building on their brain become. And so we endeavor to build products that make it easy for parents to engage with their child and actually the way the child wants to learn at a very specific time.

So getting specific both about what the child wants to learn, what they need at that time, tied to their specific age. It takes some real study and some expertise and some testing, so we work with pediatric occupational therapists, we work with Montessori educators, speech and language pathologists, researchers focused on early life cognition, and we confirm clear themes around what the children are trying to learn. Then we craft products designed to function within those themes, and then we test them very, very rigorously to make sure also, actually, that they're fun for the children, which is pretty amazing to see, because when it all comes together, we'll often get responses from parents where they'll say something like, "I was excited about this kit with these products, but I was really surprised because the thing that I was least excited about was actually the thing that my child was most into, and now I get why and I get it." That builds confidence in our subscription that the parents have, and it all comes back to the science, which comes back to the mission.

Chase: So on that note, you mentioned that you work with a lot of different experts in the fields and then the website is packed full of documentation. There's a ton of really, really cool content on there. On that note of the adult thinking that the kid was going to not like this one, turned out that they liked that one, do you find that the parents, the people who actually buy your product, are super interested in the science? Or do you think that they're just excited because their kids love the products?

Rod: It was very important to Jessica and me from the very beginning that we craft brand and an offering that was going to appeal to every psychographic of family. We knew that if we only appeal to parents that were going to gravitate towards science or expertise, that we'd be cutting ourselves out of a second of the market. So yes, absolutely, we appeal to those parents, but we've designed the brand and our marketing and our approach, and even the way that we offer up our products, so that they're also appealing to parents who maybe are attracted to the aesthetics of the product, or maybe they're attracted to the simplicity of the subscription model, or maybe they just love the way that they're seeing ,their children, but maybe other people's children first respond to these products and then they like playing with them, maybe because they like to be organized and have a system. There's really a whole range of what different types of parents are looking for, and so we've tried to serve up a set of products that answers all of those needs, depending on where our brand meets that family.

Chase: Awesome. Awesome. That makes perfect sense. You mentioned at the front that one of the original reasons for founding the company is because the lack of really, really integrated products in the marketplace initially. Why compete with the Fisher-Prices of the world, or even now the Amazon's of the world, that sell thousands of these kids' products for cheaper prices? Do you find that the science really does take you over the edge there? What's the mindset for competing with some of these retail giants?

Rod: Yeah. It's funny because when we were starting the company, folks said, "Well, gee, this seems like kind of a very crowded, mature space. Are you sure you want to do this?" And by the way, our first product wasn't even subscription. It was a baby play gym. I don't know if you ever bought one, but there's more than a hundred of those. You go to Amazon and we were selling one that was more expensive than all the other ones, like 2X the price, "Are you guys nuts?"

Chase: Right.

Rod: But, it's funny. We were really convinced, especially after testing with families before we launched, that we were onto something, and it's turned out to be the case. What I would say is we really don't see ourselves as selling a collection of toys. We really are focused on offering up a system, and a system that makes parents feel more confident, that makes their lives easier, and that also eliminates a lot of waste. So you might be able to go to Amazon or a retailer and buy a lot of things off of different shelves, but if there's no logic behind it, other than, "Yeah, I guess this sounds good," Or, "Hmm, it's kind of at my child's age, but it's zero to three, so I guess, maybe. It's not very specific."

It's very likely you're going to end up with stuff that's not only not aligned with your values because it's a lot of plastic, but also it's not necessarily what your child actually wants, and so you can actually wind up spending a lot more money than just applying the system and wasting a lot of time and wasting your child's opportunity to learn. We really think actually when you step back and think about it, it's a great deal. Also, with the content that we offer and the system that we offer in science behind all of that, it gives parents a level of confidence that they don't get to tap into when they take another approach.

Chase: This seems to mimic a lot of what's happening in e-commerce in general, where Amazon in a lot of those other sites are selling products for super cheap, just hoping and assuming that people will buy them just to get the quick fix or whatever that is, but the companies that are winning long-term, these D-to-C companies, those are the ones who are creating quality products. There's really good product market fit, and you actually end up do saving money because you buy one product for the lifetime, rather than buying a couple or three or four different products that you're going try, and I think the science behind your product speak for itself. It really is a proven strategy.

Rod: Thanks. Yeah, look, I would never sleep on Amazon.

Chase: Of course, of course.

Rod: That's a very, very smart, very powerful company and they clearly figured out how to tap into subscription as well with Subscribe and Save. But I do think that if a company happens to win the trust of its customer base and put out product that they like and that everybody's enjoying, you can end up with a great situation where you've got high retention, very happy customers who are interested in continuing to get more products from you, and it's only possible, really, if you have a deep, personalized relationship with your customer.

Chase: You hit on two things there, personalization and in winning the trust of your customer. So let's jump into the checkout a little bit. Walking through the Lovevery checkout is an awesome experience. One of the coolest things that I saw is you take the name of the baby right upfront, which is totally on that personalization aspect. So if a parent, obviously the kid's not walking through the checkout themselves, so the parents walking through and saying, "Okay, this is for baby Chase or baby Rod, whoever it is, it's a personalized experience right from the get-go." Was that intentional? How did you guys stumble on that?

Rod: Yeah, absolutely, because the next thing that we do is we're recommending kind of what's what's right based on their child's age, and we want to build confidence immediately that you're buying something for your child and we want you to imagine your child experiencing this program of products and learning, right out the gate. And then it's important for us to collect this other information, not only to recommend the right products, but also, we provide, even for people who don't become our paying customers, personalized weekly emails based on their child's age, giving them tips of things that they can do to play with their child right at that moment that's that's to right then. So it's really important that early on we build credibility and connection with the parent based on the child's name, child's age, and so on.

Chase:When they do provide the age there, you provide the range of products from zero to three years old. Is that correct?

Rod: That's correct. Right now we offer subscription up to age three.

Chase: Okay. So as soon as you put in the age there, your platform then can diagnose exactly what age they're at and it can start to recommend, "Okay, your baby is here. You should start to look at this product through the age of three."

Rod: That's right, and so we take you exactly to the kit that you would start with, and then we also make it possible for you to look and see what would come next, and after that, and then we give you different ways that you could pay for it.

Chase: When we talk about gifting options, is that something that you've also worked into there?

Rod: Yeah. We do provide options both to gift individually, and also to gift as a group, where different folks maybe who worked together or in a family can chip in and put somebody on a subscription.

Chase: That's awesome. How has subscription, it does make sense that in this product, because it's meant to be you hit this one age group, you age out of that group, you're right into the next age group, was that something that you kind of just got lucky on? Or was that something that when you were designing this product, you really set out to search for and say, subscription is definitely the business model that's going to work for us?

Rod: Yeah. I think this was a key insight that Jessica had very, very early on, was that she wanted to have something that people subscribed to. Not because we were enamored with the subscription business model, although that's what I came from, I came from recurring revenue businesses and have expertise there, it was because the subscription model was distinctly of service to a parent in this context, where we're not sending the same thing over and over again, but we're actually changing it. What's happening while we're doing that, when we're changing things based on your child's age, is we're offloading all this cognitive draw on the parent where you got to, "Oh, man. I've got to figure out what's next. What's the right activity? What's the right product? Is this product the right age?" We're taking all that cognitive load off, so the parent can, instead, focus on just Connecting with their child and allocating time to actually playing with them.

Chase: Hey, you say, "Okay, my baby's now bored of this thing, how do I figure out what they're going to like more? Do I just guess and get something that lights up or do I actually go with some proven cognitive research that I know the baby's going to like?"

Rod: That's exactly right.

Chase: Very cool. Let's get to scaling. Is there something throughout your whole process, I believe you're over six figures now, which is a huge accomplishment of subscribers, that's awesome to hear, but is there something that got you on that train to kind of continue growing? Or is it just slow and steady success? Was it a grassroots campaign? How did you get to that point?

Rod: Over the last 12 months, we've grown our subscriber base by 5X. We've we've grown pretty rapidly since we launched subscription. The companies been in market for just over three years now, this month, but subscription has been in market for even less than that. What I would say has been essential for scaling that up is, first and foremost, just products and making certain that the products that we are crafting and the content that we're putting together around those products is highest possible quality and as relevant as possible. Then second, making certain that the experience that customers are having is something that we honor, and so we invest a lot in great customer experience and making certain that if a customer feels that something's not quite right, we make it right. Then finally, along those lines, customer experience products where we're iterating constantly, we're trying to make the products better all the time, we're trying to make the experience better all the time.

So when you do that, you have high, high retention and we're proud to say that our subscription offering is very, very high retention based on the benchmarks we've seen. What that enables you to do then is drive a growth engine, and that growth engine for us includes a lot of different channels, whether it's organic content or organic influence replacement or paid acquisition across a variety of channels, we have the ability to take the customer love that comes from that great product and that experience, and then apply marketing engine to it and it feeds on itself. It puts you in a great position to grow when you have a loyal customer base that you can depend on.

Chase: It definitely sounds like a lot of your customers lean on that content that you're producing, because it's one thing to be able to just deliver a product and say, "Oh, we know based on research, your baby's going to love this." But something that I didn't even know you mentioned earlier, is sending these emails to people who don't even sign up. Just being able to deliver value and just say, "Hey, you don't to have to pay us, but the value here is that we want your baby to grow and mature and understand that these products are built specifically for them." Content seems like a huge piece of that for you.

Rod: It really is great. We have more than 400,000 people subscribed with our personalized birthdate-based emails, and the click to open rates on those are like averaging, I think, 40%, many times, much higher, and that's just a great way for us to know that what we're doing is on target and highly, highly relevant, especially given today when we're all getting a zillion emails, notifications, messages. I think we heard some notifications while we were doing this podcast interview. And so to get somebody, especially a busy parent, to actually open that up and read it, spend some time with our content, it's an honor that we can take up people's time with our content. It shows us that we're doing a good job.

Chase: What are some of the challenges you've seen? Let's kind of split your growth. So before you started to scale, what are some of the challenges you saw getting this off the ground? It's my experience at least, a lot of people I interact with aren't heavy into science, even though I'm a math and science guy, so all that stuff's really interesting to me, but how have you gotten that off the ground initially? And then maybe talk about what are some of the challenges that, once you got it off the ground, how do you get it to the six figure mark?

Rod: Yeah, so I think the thing that I would say was critical for us pre-revenue, was to invest a lot of time, care in a lot of our money and brand. It might be counterintuitive to some to invest a lot in brand before you even have a revenue, but for us, it was pretty straight forward that if we wanted to really create a business that we thought could one day being maybe a billion dollar plus brand, it needed to be a mass brand, it needed to be one that would be resonant with lots of different types of families. So we spent a lot of time working on the name, working on every element of the brand we spent, we spent money on having the highest level of photography that we could get access to and really investing in getting incredible photography for our launch. All of that was really, really important for making things work when we launched.

Rod: Then I would say things that were challenging there once we launched and then kind of getting to scale with subscription, is just really figuring out paid acquisition just takes time. Early on it's easy because there's just like so many potential customers out there somebody who's going to like what you got, plus you've got your friends and family supporting you, but then once that runs out, you start to realize that creative velocity, experimentation just become more and more important. So for us, I think it was a pivotal moment when we were able to raise our series B financing, which was led by Maveron, a big consumer VC fund and also participation from Google Ventures, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and an education fund called Reach Capital. We were able to then bring in some really strong marketers and growth folks and just other people across the business to really help us scale this thing that much faster.

Chase: Awesome. That's great insight there. So closing out, a couple of questions for you. What is a piece of advice that you'd have for a braND that's just starting out?

Rod: I think, first and foremost, I would say knowing your mission. Being really clear as a founding team what your mission is and committing to that and everything you do is important. If you're not focused on your mission, you're not going to make amazing products. You might do a good job, but unless you're really clear about the mission, you're going to make compromises somewhere. You actually simplify decision-making, you bring in people who care about what you care about, it becomes a force multiplier for your whole team when you're focused on the mission. When you're creating great products as a result and when you're defined by your mission, you actually end up differentiating in the market. You don't have to worry about falling into this bucket of direct-to-consumer businesses that all kind of have a sameness about them, because the mission ultimately comes back to you and what you care about as a founder. So I would say mission, mission, mission. That's what to focus on.

Chase: I've been preaching mission. I was called the why, quote, unquote, all those kinds of things that are total differentiators. You said you spend a lot of money on brand, a lot of time on brand, that's not counterintuitive to me at all. You have a really solid brand. You have a really solid mission. People flock to that. It's honesty and genuine, people love that. What about advice for someone who's trying to scale a larger business, how to scale up to 100,000 customers?

Rod: I think that there's nothing more important than understanding how people are learning about your brand and your products and what they're saying to each other, and then tapping into that in your marketing engine, whether it's enabling more of those conversations by sharing compelling content, or having a structured program for sharing out what you're doing on social media, or when you're thinking about your paid and what you're experimenting with and you're creative, making sure that it's tied into what you're hearing from your customers. I'd say that's all incredibly important. The customer is always going to tell you what you need to know, and then you need to be able to execute on that to get to that scale point.

Chase: Awesome. Very insightful. You coming from a subscription background and running a subscription company, I have high expectations for my last question here, what are you subscribed to?

Rod: Well, content wise, I'm a huge Substack subscriber. I think I'm getting emails from, I don't know, maybe five or six different folks who I'm paying for their emails, which I never would have believed I was going to do that if somebody told me a year ago. Physical product wise, Harry's razors, Quip toothpaste. They're dominating my bathroom. I've been trying to drink a little bit less, so I subscribe to Curious Elixirs, which is a non-alcoholic cocktail based out of New York. Those are really tasty. Then the very old school subscription that I do is physical newspapers. So I actually like paper as a form factor for the news and I like to have my kids see me actually reading a real newspaper, because otherwise I could be looking at my phone and they don't know what I'm looking at and it's something that we can talk about in the morning we're having breakfast. So if I had to pick one subscription above all, I'd probably pick physical newspapers, but there are lots of things where subscriptions improve my life.

Chase: That's so interesting. Some of my earliest memories I remember waking up and reading the newspaper with my dad.

Rod: Yes.

Chase: That's a close to home one. Very cool.

Rod: Nice.

Chase: Well, thank you so much, Rod, for joining. Really appreciate your time.

Rod: Thanks, Chase.

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