Female Founders: Katy Mallory of SlumberPod On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a…

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Female Founders: Katy Mallory of SlumberPod On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

You’ll have hard days when you’re in a leadership role at a startup, but the success that leads on the other side is so worth it. We are so proud to have more than $30M in lifetime sales and to have helped more than 200,000 families enjoy life more thanks to being well-rested.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katy Mallory.

Katy Mallory is the co-founder of SlumberPod®. Professionally, Katy has worked for more than a decade in corporate communications and sales operations. As the oldest of 15 children (a modern family tree with many branches), mom to three children, and with a deep babysitting history — Katy has a great deal of experience with kids and organized chaos. Katy lives with her husband, three young children, and two dogs in Decatur, Georgia (an in-town suburb of Atlanta).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

This career path, in some ways, was unexpected. Pre-SlumberPod, I was overall very happy in my internal (employee) communications career at a large company because it was perfect for my super extroverted personality and enjoyment of working with many different departments on many different topics.

A 2014 sleep-deprived family trip ultimately inspired SlumberPod. My mom and I started the company a year and a half later when I was on maternity leave with twins (my mom helped us during most of my maternity leave, which was a true gift). She and I harnessed our respective marketing backgrounds to do our own social media, website, press releases, Kickstarter campaign content, email automations, and more when we officially launched in 2018. After that, I continued to lead many of the creative aspects of the business and had many operational responsibilities, leading the business day-to-day. I didn’t leave my full-time job right away, partially because I was afraid I wouldn’t find as much energy working for a small business (we only had four full-time employees at the time, including my mom). I joined SlumberPod full-time in March of this year.

Similar to my past life in internal communications, I get to touch many aspects of the business and still get to be creative even if I’m not the one executing every aspect of a marketing campaign or new product launch.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One interesting story is the ah-hah moment when we realized our customer service and support and general empathy is important because of who our customers are. We got an email from an incredibly frustrated customer around Thanksgiving, about a year after we launched. She talked about how distraught she was with trying to set up our product. Worse, she effectively blamed an all-around bad weekend on us and our company. The email was emotional, and we felt like a punching bag. About a year later, I recognized the author of a vulnerable, viral blog about postpartum depression and anxiety as this customer. We reached out to the customer, telling her we read her blog and applauded her shining light on such an important but taboo topic. She responded with appreciation and admitted her initial email to us was in the middle of her darkest days. It was a reminder that parents go through a lot — physically and emotionally — and we need to support them by being patient and thoughtful. This also led us to share helpful parenting advice via our social media and blog.

Did you know that a sizable percentage of Shark Tank deals don’t go through? We were part of the estimated approximately 40- 50% of deals that fall through after a handshake happens on air. Barbara was impressed by our business know-how and sales, but after the show, her team decided they really wanted us to be carried in physical stores (e.g., Target, Wal-Mart). Fortunately for us, we were already profitable at that point and weren’t desperate for the money, so it worked out well to keep the equity. Of course, we are forever grateful for the exposure and still very honored to be Shark Tank alums.

It’s the weirdest and wildest thing that we are now a known brand in the baby space. My husband was talking to a vendor, and the vendor happened to mention that he was in the dog house because he forgot to buy “this thing called a SlumberPod” before a family trip. My husband was beyond excited to respond that his wife was one of the co-founders of SlumberPod, and if needed, he could even bring a SlumberPod by his office the next day since he was in a pinch. The guy was blown away in shock that he was talking to the co-founder of the company. Similarly, I have to pinch myself when I randomly scroll past an influencer using a SlumberPod. I honestly still can’t believe it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I actually wrote a blog post about a mistake I made when we had just formed our company and networking our booties off, and I was just returning to my job in corporate America after maternity leave with twins (they weren’t even sleeping through the night yet!). A few lessons that came out of this story: 1). You have to laugh, or you might cry 2). It’s important to slow down and take deep breaths, so you don’t make a major mistake — especially if you’re trying to juggle a lot.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

This is the easiest answer of this interview! My mom: hands down. Not only was she a fantastic mother and role model to my siblings and me, but she is the reason SlumberPod exists. She knew we were on to something after my husband and I had a miserable trip to visit her due to room-sharing with our baby going beyond terribly. She’s the one who pushed us to start the company, design a solution to make room-sharing less stressful and more restful, and join an accelerator program to put the gas pedal on our plans. She also took a giant leap of faith (and a pay cut) in 2019 to do SlumberPod full-time. She’s also been critical in lifting me up on a bad day or during a bad week. Moms are good for that, and so are co-founders. She happens to be both. I’m so grateful for her and her vision and belief in this company and in me.

According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Gosh, there’s a lot to cover here, from imposter syndrome to connections. One other big one is that women are still taking on the majority of household work and childcare, and other caregiver responsibilities. Since early 2020, about two million women have left the workforce — widely because of caregiver responsibilities. If we are going to be successful female entrepreneurs, we need time to dedicate to being female entrepreneurs. A lot of this comes down to more equitable responsibilities at home.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

While not perfect, it’s worked out really well in our two-parent household to try and divide up the physical and intangible (i.e., “mental load”) responsibilities related to the house and the kids. And also to mostly keep the same responsibilities so it doesn’t get confusing who is supposed to do what. Some examples: I book and bring kids to their doctor’s appointments, I grocery shop and cook. My husband makes the dentist appointments, does everything for our dogs, cleans up after meals, and puts away leftovers. We split responsibilities for the kids’ school stuff; some years, he is in charge of two kids’ homework reminders, permission slips, adding money to the school lunch account, etc., and I do one kid, and the next year it flips.

Also, there are more and more accelerator programs and entrepreneurship courses catered to women and at no cost to the entrepreneurs. Due to COVID, more and more of these programs are available to women outside of the geographical area where they are hosted because we’ve realized we really can work and learn virtually pretty darn well. Just be wary of programs that have expensive participation fees or require you to give up equity in your program. You’ll want to vet those programs — e.g., get references from past participants — before making a financial commitment.

We also can and should look out for each other more. If you are an entrepreneur reading this, reach out to your college and ask if you can speak to a class. Put a note out on LinkedIn offering to mentor an entrepreneur who is early into their journey. Accept the request from a friend-of-a-friend to have a 30 or 45-minute call about your path and what smart moves got you to where you are, and what mistakes you learned from.

Lastly, we can hire women and be supportive of the flexibility needed for working women. We’ve had the pleasure of working with several amazing women and being part of their growth. And very transparently, these women have helped us grow and learn as well.

Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

It is INCREDIBLY rewarding to start your own company, and if done well can be financially lucrative (eventually) as well.

It may sound cheesy, but one of the reasons I eventually went all-in on this journey was to show my kids that if you have a good idea, you can make it happen versus wondering what could have been. I tell our kids all the time that they inspired SlumberPod and they can and should dream big as well.

I’ll also say that the village of other entrepreneurs we’ve met — especially female entrepreneurs — has been nothing short of amazing. Many of these women are now close friends, and we lift each other up, pump each other up and share best practices as well as transparent stories of “failure” we can all learn from. I use quotes around the word failure because I don’t see many of our failures as failures. We’ve learned from all of our mistakes.

Lastly, serving as the head of SlumberPod has given me even more access than I had in my internal communications career to all the aspects of creating, maintaining, and building a company. My former boss — who, by the way, supported SlumberPod even when I still had my day job working for him (I’ll be forever grateful) — referred to us starting this company as a real-life MBA. This journey is great prep for most any leadership role.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

One myth that comes to mind is “you can be your own boss.” Ha! The reality is that when you’re leading (or, in my case, along with my mom, co-leading) a startup, you may not have a boss, but your organization is too lean to be able to delegate much. This means you’ll be the one printing and picking up postcards to insert in packages or dropping off product to local customers. Those small things, of course, can help contribute to an awesome customer experience.

If you’re looking at it all the right way, we do have a boss: the customer. We should be working hard to make sure we hear them when they have an issue, that we are interested in their input on future ideas and that we appreciate their kind words when they take the time to share them.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee?

Saying you have to be self-motivated is an understatement. If you need to be given a list of tasks and deadlines, being an entrepreneur may not be for you. You have to find ways to respond to reactive needs while also moving proactive tasks forward, such as product innovation planning. You also can expect to work 50+ hours a week, at least for quite some time. Not that there won’t be weeks where you can get by with a little more coasting, which we all need.

It’s also important to prepare yourself to handle all types of tasks such as: Operational — setting up insurance or creating standard operating procedures for customer service; Analytical- understanding your P&L; Personnel- managing team members and navigating conflict; Big picture — finding and communicating a vision for your company. As a founder, you don’t really get to pick and choose what you do — you need to do it all. That is, unless you have a co-founder, then you can look at your strengths and experiences and figure out how to best divide and conquer. But you’re still going to need to do a wide variety of things if your company is young.

Don’t expect to be making the big bucks, especially out of the gate. Unless you are well-funded, you are likely going to need to put profits from recent sales back into the business: for additional inventory and/or product development and/or marketing costs. Think of it as a long-term investment.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Use your instincts when it comes to choosing partners, but also get agreements in writing, just in case. We learned this the hard way with a few vendors. For example, we were referred to an industrial designer to create a design for a very early prototype for us. We missed that he had an appendix to his agreement that committed us to giving him 7% of our revenues for perpetuity if we used his design. Fortunately, the design didn’t work, and that saved us. Also, we trusted a distributor to maintain our “MAP” pricing (essentially a specific retail price) and had an agreement via email that they would do so, but we didn’t have a formal contract. They discounted the price of our product significantly for several weeks, and there wasn’t much we could do about it. So a follow-up to this is: Have a good corporate attorney to create and review your agreements.

You’re going to doubt yourself, but it’s going to be okay. At various intervals on our journey, we’ve had moments where we could have thrown in the towel. I remember we had a focus group in the fall of 2017, and people told us there was no way they would pay more than $79.99 or $89.99 for our product. The problem was we couldn’t find a manufacturer who could make it for under $52.00 per unit, and we understood the rule of thumb was to mark your product up by 3x to ensure you have enough margin for sales expenses and other overhead. Good thing we trusted our instincts and had an initial 500 units made … because it turns out people will absolutely pay more for a quality-made product that improves their life. SlumberPod now retails for $179.99, though it has a few additional bells and whistles compared to the earlier versions.

Out of one side of my mouth, I talk about instincts. Out of the other, I have to talk about data. We also thought that it would be a great idea to launch a pet version of SlumberPod because we could (or so we thought) leverage a very similar design and market to the same customers, who surely must have a dog or a pet, right? This product has widely bombed because traditional crate covers seem to work fine for most pets and cost less. This was a costly mistake but one we’ve learned from. You can’t and shouldn’t skip over consumer research in the form of focus groups and interviews and leveraging Amazon seller tools such as Helium 10 to understand the competitive landscape.

If your company’s finances allow, it’s super helpful to outsource the responsibilities that don’t fit with your skillset or expertise or that can be done by someone other than you. If that’s not an option for you, you may have a friend or family member in your network who would be open to helping you for a finite amount of time with a finite time commitment per week. We lucked out when a local banker saw us pitch at the end of an accelerator program and offered to do some basic financial planning for us at no cost because he believed in us. Stemming from this, we eventually hired a fractional CFO who could give us the level of support we needed for where we were business maturity-wise.

You’ll have hard days when you’re in a leadership role at a startup, but the success that leads on the other side is so worth it. We are so proud to have more than $30M in lifetime sales and to have helped more than 200,000 families enjoy life more thanks to being well-rested.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

In addition to our product helping parents of young children sleep better, which is critical for attitude and productivity, we donate a portion of proceeds each quarter to a not-for-profit chosen by an employee. Last time it was my turn, I chose Nana Grants, a 501c3 organization that provides childcare grants to single moms so they can complete their college education and pursue their dreams.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be?

In some ways, we are already doing this by creating products that allow families to actually enjoy being together — aka making the most out of trips or vacations — versus being anxious and stressed about sleep, or worse, being sleep deprived. We are helping families take their nap time and nighttime routines on the road, which creates freedom and flexibility. Through our network of sleep consultant ambassadors, we are regularly sharing advice about sleep, travel and/or parenting in the form of social media content, blogs, YouTube videos, and more.

We want to take this a few steps further by creating sleep and baby care products that cater to additional age ranges. We are all better people when we are well-rested; that goes for the littlest babies all the way to grandparents.

Fun question: Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’ve always wanted to meet Barbara Walters. Or to be more candid, I aspired to be Barbara Walters as a kid. She’s met so many successful people and I’m sure she would have so many stories about what they had in common, as well as some stories about the quirkier sides of people she’s interviewed. What a legend.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Female Founders: Katy Mallory of SlumberPod On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.