This week, we’re speaking with Lauren (McLaughlin) Longo ‘01 in celebration of Small Business Week 2019. Lauren is the founder and CEO of Talli™, an innovative, parent-focused company founded in 2017 that is on the move and making a splash on the small business scene. Their first product is Talli Baby, a device and operating system to help new parents keep track of baby care activities like feedings, diaper changes and sleep.
Lauren graduated magna cum laude from the South Carolina Honors College in 2001 with a major in political science. She then served with Americorps VISTA before earning her master’s degree from Clemson University before beginning her career in user experience and product management. She currently resides in Atlanta, GA with her husband John and two beautiful children.
Today, Lauren is sharing her experience with starting and growing a small business, how her idea was born and how the Honors College gave her a foundation for success.
What inspired you to create the Talli Baby Tracker? What needs do you feel it met outside of or beyond the traditional baby products already in the market?
The weeks and months after bringing home a baby are a blur. You’re learning how to take care of this tiny human being, and you’re operating on very little sleep… kind of like reliving a final exam week of all-nighters over and over for months. It’s rough. You’re more exhausted than you thought possible, and you feel this enormous sense of responsibility to ensure you’re giving your baby the best possible start. There’s also a sense of worry that maybe you’re not doing it right.
For us, and for a lot of other parents, keeping track of feedings, sleep, and diaper changes was a way to start seeing patterns in the chaos. Pediatricians monitor feedings and diapers (input and output) as well as sleep in the early months to make sure development is on track. We had to keep notes on these things to make sure we were giving accurate answers at our check-ups. And keeping track of these things also helps you spot the current patterns in behaviors so you can start shaping routines that work for your family…and hopefully getting a little more sleep. That’s an ever-present goal.
Until now, the options for tracking have been pen and paper or mobile apps. With our son, who was born in 2009, we used pen and paper. The downside of that is that you accumulate notebooks, and of course, there’s no automatic tabulation of the data. With our daughter born in 2016, we figured mobile apps were the perfect solution. But they turned out to be harder than pen and paper. The activities parents are tracking are happening around the clock and between 10 and 20 times a day. As a new mom, I often didn’t have my phone with me. Finding it, unlocking it, opening the app, navigating, and then entering data was often just too much friction. So I found myself logging less consistently because of the app, and I went back to pen and paper. But my husband and I have both spent our careers in technology, and it bothered me that pen and paper was the best we could do.
One night, I looked at the Amazon Dash button my husband had gotten me for ordering diapers. And I had the thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if logging a diaper change or feedings was as easy as pressing that button to order more diapers?” So I took the button downstairs to my husband and asked him to hack it for me. I didn’t want it to order diapers; I wanted it to log diaper changes to a spreadsheet. No finding my phone or navigating. No manual logging or tabulation. When I woke up the next morning, he’d not only hacked that button, but had wired up 5 more buttons to log the other care activities we were tracking. Pressing a button was SO much faster and easier than the app or pen and paper. I found myself keeping much more consistent track of things and getting better data to share with our doctor and to start shaping a schedule. We’ve since added a full-featured mobile app as well as an Alexa skill. So, really, we’ve evolved that original “easy button” idea into a full platform of options. The app is great when you’re on the go or want to add more detail, and the Alexa skill is super helpful when you need to log hands-free. But that one-touch button device is still the fastest and easiest way to log, hands down. There’s no other option like it on the market. And I’m happy to report it’s evolved since the early days of hacked together buttons. It’s a nice, sleek device that I think parents will be proud to have in their nurseries.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve met so far?
There have been so many challenges of almost an unlimited variety. So I think the biggest challenge is simply perseverance. Not letting one rough day get you down. Or allowing any one challenge derail you. There are bound to be ups and downs in anything, and the stakes are high when you’re not only starting a new business but building something from nothing.
I went to hear Michael Seibel, CEO of Y Combinator, speak here in Atlanta recently. Y Combinator works with a lot of software startups, and someone asked him about hardware. His response was that doing any startup successfully is really hard. Like joining the NBA. But doing a startup with a hardware component is like going NBA All-Star. I think he’s right that both of these things are really hard. But they’re not unattainable. So, I think the trick is taking experiential advice like this to heart, but also maintaining a belief in yourself and your product, connecting with and learning from your target audience often, and maybe most importantly, building a great team around you.
I did extensive customer discovery and product-market fit early on to validate and shape the idea before I decided to go all-in. Now that I have gone all-in, I’ve been fortunate to build an incredible team around me. I have amazing co-founders and world-class advisors, and we’ve been so lucky to be part of a world-class startup ecosystem here in Atlanta. I couldn’t be doing any of this without the support of all these people. We’re building not only a software startup, but a hardware startup too. And I’m working hard to raise a family at the same time. So, yes. It’s extremely hard. I’d even accept the notion that maybe it takes as much dedication and sacrifice as making an elite sports team. But we have a validated product, a strong technology platform, and a dream team. So our mantra has been “bring it on.”
Your favorite thing about your job?
I would have never thought I’d be an entrepreneur. But this is my second business now. And it’s completely different from the first. My favorite thing about my work now is truly the fact that I learn so many new and different things literally every day. Probably every hour. I came from a software background but didn’t know anything about hardware when I started. It’s amazing to me how much I’ve learned in a relatively short time; I’m almost mortified to look back on how little I knew in the beginning. I’m amazed that so many of the people who are still my advisors even tolerated me back then. But that’s the nature of building a startup of any kind, I think. You have to do so many jobs yourself that normally would take a team of many people in a larger company. In the beginning, if there’s something to be done, you learn how to do it or you find people who know it and convince them to help you. I’ve been able to do both, and I can’t believe how much I’ve expanded my knowledge and my network through this endeavor. I’ve won pitch competitions, exhibited at CES, and represented Atlanta in London and Newcastle, UK. I’ve connected with parents, entrepreneurs, and advisors I would never have met otherwise, and I can even explain the way we’ve designed Integrated Circuits, processors, wifi radio, capacitors, switches, and batteries to build a flexible, reliable IoT device. In fact, I built and tested the first 25 by hand at our dining room table. Who would’ve thought.
Where do you look most for inspiration these days?
A lot of places. The baby and kids market is seeing a lot of innovation right now as we’re realizing all the ways we can leverage modern technology to streamline parenting and improve outcomes for kids. I get a lot of inspiration from other entrepreneurs in the Atlanta startup community, especially other Mom entrepreneurs. I’ve learned so much and gotten so much support from Atlanta area mompreneurs like Tiffany Krumins of Ava the Elephant (she was on the first ever episode of Shark Tank!), Katy Mallory of Slumberpod, and Janelle Fitzpatrick of The Stair Barrier. We’re all taking on the challenges of raising families and building businesses at the same time, and they have a lot of wisdom to share.
I also get a lot of inspiration from my kids. My son, Jack, turns 10 tomorrow. And my daughter, Marian, turns 3 next week. Jack has watched and studied every step throughout this process. He’s seen us research and learn and bring this product to life. And when things get hard, I’ve often thought to myself of the advice I’ve given to him over the years. About doing things even though they’re scary. And persevering even when things are hard. I give myself that same advice. And when I do events like the fast-pitch I was invited to give recently at the ATDC Showcase at Georgia Tech, I make sure he’s able to watch at least a live stream. It’s so motivating to know he’s watching. It’s been really meaningful to share this journey with him. And Marian is completely fearless. I love that about her, and I want her to keep that quality throughout her life. So I try to model it for her. Or at least model courage in the face of fear or hardship.
How do you feel the SCHC helped prepare you to tackle creative entrepreneurship?
I think you hit the nail on the head with the wording of this question. Entrepreneurship is about thorough research, careful planning, and disciplined execution. All of which I honed during my time at SCHC. But it also demands creativity. It requires it. Real-life entrepreneurship is primarily an exercise in creative problem solving. There’s no manual for how to do this. Each product, each team, and each market is unique. So, there’s no way that rote memorization or prescribed thinking can help too much. It’s about embracing the big questions, figuring out creative answers, seeking out guidance, and having the confidence to keep trying until you get it right. What I valued most about my SCHC experience was the wide variety of courses I was able to take that developed critical and creative thinking. I don’t remember much note-taking or test-taking. What I remember are the discussions. The debates. And the repeated exercise of interacting with different subjects and different groups of people in an open and exploratory way. I don’t think there’s any better way to learn, and I’m so grateful that SCHC gave me that foundation early on.