From shutting down my startup to finishing a full-stack dev program and launching a new company. I'm Avni Patel Thompson.Featured

Hi Elpha! I'm Avni Patel Thompson - I was the founder and CEO of Poppy, which was a managed marketplace that connected parents to vetted caregivers when they had gaps in care. We grew it for 3+ years, serving thousands of families in Seattle across a range of services. Our mission was to build something that could serve as a safety net for the millions of parents in this country and when it was clear the scale and supply side economics weren’t there, we shut it down at the end of last year.For the past nine months I’ve been exploring new ways to tackle the challenges of working parents (in particular, working mothers!) and I also just finished a Full-Stack dev program through Lambda so I can put together my own prototypes in React/Node. After playing around with a couple of things, I’m now working on launching a new company.Prior to taking the entrepreneurial leap, I built consumer products at P&G, adidas, BCG and Starbucks. I studied chemistry at the University of British Columbia and have an MBA from Harvard Business School. Outside of work, I like to write , and travel with my husband and daughters. Ask me anything - from making the hard decision to shut down your startup, building a marketplace, being a parent while scaling your startup, going through Y Combinator (W16), or something else!
Thank you for joining us, Avni! Please ask Avni your questions below before the end of the week. Note that she may not have time to answer all your questions, so be sure to upvote the ones you most want her to answer with emojis.
Hi Anvi! Thanks for sharing your story. As an employee of CozyKin (a series A funded childcare tech startup in Boston) I followed Poppy's wind down process from afar. Unfortunately, we've recently had to make the same difficult decision of shutting down the operation. While I was not a founder, it's easily been one of the biggest heartbreaks of my life. May I ask if your new venture will be another company to help working parents or children? Are you hiring? I've got some incredible East Coast talent if you'd like any intros!
Hi - I heard about this last week and I wanted to say: Congrats to your whole team for trying to tackle something hard and necessary. I'm sorry you're all going through this painful time. To answer your question - yes, the new company is very much focused on helping working parents - it's what I've found I'm deeply passionate about and 4+ years in, am uniquely qualified to build in. I would love to stay in touch with you and hopefully in the not too distant future work with all of the people equally passionate about solving these very real challenges.
It's great to hear that your new venture will also be working towards tackling this problem. I would love to stay in touch too! Let's connect on LinkedIn -
Thanks, Avni Joining us. So how do you manage ( mentally ) to shut down the funded company? and starting other??
This is, as you can imagine, a super tough question.I think about at 3 levels: 1) the now 2) the after3) the next1) the now: When it was happening, I had to focus on duty - to employees, to users (both caregivers and parents), to investors, to other stakeholders (lawyers, taxes etc). Once I had made the decision, it felt like everything started moving in fast-motion. The hardest part mentally for me was that I didn't feel like I had (or could have) even a couple minutes to catch my breath and reassess things. It's just a blur of everything that needed to happen, all the decisions that needed to be made to make sure everyone could walk away from this experience as whole as possible.The hardest part bar none was with my team. These were and are the very best people I've had the privilege of working with. Smart, driven people with character and heart. They stood by me and helped to do the hard things with users and the endless checklist of things (inventory, sell things, admin process of shutdown, working with competitors to make sure users were set up for after etc).Even after we told our team they were out of jobs, everyone showed up to do this hard work even when they strictly didnt have to. That helped me get through the immediate. But honestly, I didn't/couldn't think about things in an emotional way for myself. I buried all of that deep and told myself I would deal with that after an appointed date. 2) the after: one thing that isn't talked about a lot but there are A LOT of things to do after technically shutting down a service. We shut service down in Dec but Jan/Feb were still taken up by legal, settling accounts, taxes etc. And importantly, supporting everyone in finding a new job.I was getting a lot of great emails to talk about "what's next" which I'm grateful for but I realize now that I jumped into those too fast (even as I had said I wasnt going to take any of those until Jan). The best advice I was given was to "take time" to grieve/process/recharge. But people like me don't really know how to do that 😬so I almost leapt into a couple of things without feeling 100% ready. The reality is that the financial pressure was driving this more than anything - there was 0 financial safety net outcome out of this and if anything, I'd been digging a personal financial hole for the previous 4 years that I was sitting at the bottom of. So I felt the pressure to start contributing financially. But I knew I wasn't done with the mission of Poppy, so I knew I needed to buy time to get there.I'm grateful that I have people that saw and understood that and helped me figure out a way to buy the time for me to figure things out properly.3) the next: after almost jumping into a couple of things I knew I needed to just lay low and figure things out - the offer to do Lambda school came at this time and it was the perfect thing for me to commit to June-Sept - I was doing something challenging and tangible but also buying the time to figure out what was next.It's in this time I would say most of the "healing" has happened. Not because I was actively pushing it to happen but I created the space for it to happen. There's still stuff I need to work through and process - startups are such hard things mentally, physically, everything. But by the end of the summer I was getting excited about different ideas. I was slowly, regularly talking to my users every week. And eventually, the spark came back, I filled my store of creativity and I start to get obsessed about a problem.A super long winded way of saying - it's a process. There is loss and grief coming to terms with the fact that you're going to kill something you love, that you nutured into life. And in many ways, I can't imagine anything harder, professionally. I had to be super careful that I didnt trigger my anxiety to take me to a place that would be hard to come back from. So a lot of self-care, a lot of kindness, and above all, a lot of my people surrounding me and supporting me.
Hi Avni! I saw your talk a while back at the Female Founders' Conference -- I'm definitely a fan of yours! As a parent, I'm thrilled that you're building tools for working moms. I feel like we are always in the situation where no matter what we do we feel (at least, I feel) like I'm falling behind somewhere. I'm wondering how you even begin to approach this problem, especially since it is so intensely personal and everybody seems to have an opinion. :)
Thank you for those kind words 🙏🏽 I hear you - a thousand times over. It's impossibly complex, vast and nuanced but my POV is you need to start in the places people feel the most, accute pain. It's why I started with childcare last time.My secret is just that I'm selfish 😉 - I'm just trying to build products that help me and my family out. And if I can manage that, then I think we have something to work with and expand to others.The biggest, most present problem in my life today is all the coordination and family management that I am the PM for and how very inefficient it is. So the place I started was to start fixing it for me, and now a smaller set of other families.It's not a lot (yet) but it's the only way I know how to work on really hard problems.
I often feel that being a parent and a founder is sometimes at odds with each other. Both of them need a person to be "all in" - which is why people often say that it is way easier to start a company before kids. What are your experiences with Poppy? You moved to CA for 3 months, you grew Poppy for 3 years, you traveled and raised funding, you traveled and gave several talks. I am sure that there are a million challenges that you faced and overcame in all of those experiences. Could you share how you worked through some of those challenges?
I feel this 100% every day. I would say that over the past 4 years I've settled into both roles - both as a mother and as a founder. I'm less hard on myself on both sides - both my family and my team know me and how hard I am trying. But the biggest thing is that I've learned how to define things on my terms and hold true to that. Meaning - I've had to figure out what it means to have to be all in as a founder (YC, never really off, unique stresses) and I've had to work with my husband and family to build the right support system. This has meant moving the family to Vancouver where my parents live. They serve as our support system and back up to our incredible nanny and first line caregivers. On the other side, everyone at Poppy and now the new co know that I'm proudly a working mother. Video meetings that I take from my home office might mean a cameo from one of my girls that just want to sit on my lap and see what I'm up to. It might mean I'm rearranging meetings to be able to accommodate a request at school or doc appointments because that's the kind of parent I want to be.Overall it's meant drawing clear lines on both sides, communicating them openly on both sides, making necessary changes and living to those. Importantly, this usually means being acutely tuned to if things are working - with the kids, with my husband, with my team. We have told our kids' teachers and our nanny that if you start seeing anything off behaviorly, we want to be the first to know. It's a constant dance of try, measure and reassess but everyday I feel so very lucky and grateful that I get to be both of these incredible roles - mama and founder.
Hi Avni! I'm excited to see your doing an AMA on Elpha, I loved listening to your YC interview when it came out. Can you talk more about transitioning into your next start up and if you're doing anything fundamentally different this time?
I spoke to some of the journey in the question above but in terms of specifics that I'm doing differently this time: 1) Problem/business model - having spent 4 years in building a venture-backed startup I have a much greater appreciation of what is actually possible to build in a high growth way. I think I started Poppy much more with the naive - if you solve a hard problem well enough, the rest will come. Now, I have that lens, but also the reality of what's the biz model that's going to unlock/enable that to be a broad solution.2) Funding - I'm less desperate about funding in these early days. With Poppy I had to scrap for every $10 or $25K check just to keep it alive and that took so much effort that I could/should have been able to devote to building. This time, I have options to fund the early pre-seed stage that allows me to focus on the building in the right way.3) Team - last time it was just me just trying to keep this thing alive and trying to prove that it needed to exist. Eventually, I was able to add on the exact team that we needed but this time around I have the ability to start with the team right from the start.Beyond this, I'm going into this one so much wiser on so many things - hiring/firing, funding, culture.... the list goes on. It's also why I feel so strongly about going at it again. Last time didnt work the way I wanted/ thought it would. But I take all that investment and increase the probability of success this time ;)
What will your new venture be about?!
It's still really early but I want to build the tools that help working parents manage the dance between home and work more efficiently and more equitably.We're testing and experimenting with some early prototypes and what's the best help first.If anyone here is interested in being a beta user, you can sign up here:
What is your approach to building your startup while a parent and also building a marketplace, your methods of research and market strategy formation.
Thanks for doing this, Avni. I love your honesty and vulnerability when you talk about Poppy and I'm excited to see what you do next.My question is around fundraising - Are there any nuances to your approach to fundraising given that you are working on a problem that most VCs don't identify with? (since they aren't usually working mothers) Does it change who you talk to or how you talk to them about your business? Or are you seeing shifts in the investing landscape that makes this less of an issue?
Avni this makes me so happy to hear. I'm excited you've started another company. All the best to you!!
I'm literally listening to your podcast episode with YC this very moment aloud, and this is a featured Elpha post... crazy coincidence! So cool to hear your story then and a little about it now. I'm curious if there's anything you could have done to explore the supply side challenges earlier? I'm sure the 3+ years were extremely worthwhile, and it was clear you prototyped quick and dirty on the demand side and had exciting growth, but I love hearing "hindsight is 20/20" learnings when possible :) Thank you!
Hi Avni! Happy to see you here again and thanks a mill for taking the time to do the office hours. Well done on finishing Lambda and best of luck with your new venture! I watched and listened to your office hour with Greg Crain and your talk on Female Founders Conference. Your story is very inspiring and encouraged me to apply to YC W20. Yours and Ooshma Garg's actually. Didn't make it to the interview stage but keep going. Maybe do it again for the summer batch.
Hi Avni, thanks for hosting this AMA! I would love to know more about your learnings from building a marketplace. - How did you solve the "chicken and egg" problem in the beginning? - What about the supply-side economics weren't working and how did you try to solve this problem before shutting down? Thank you!
Thanks! I went through a similar path (none tech founder (also Canadian) => taught self to code because I will be a founder again => currently working on ML research while kicking around startup ideas) Would love to hear your thoughts on how you know you are ready for round 2 of entrepreneurship, how long it took from lambda to starting to build your new MVP, what is the main challenge now? And also how you plan to transition your role after you received funding (do you plan to hire a CTO to focus on other stuff etc...)A part of me knows time is running out (cause family / kids in the future) but a part of me feel so inadequately prepared after having to shut down my first startup and know now how hard this actually is.
Hi Avni,Thank you so much. How could you make your decision? Any check list?
Wonderful story! I am just curious, what scale and supply side economic lessons are you applying to your current company?
Hi Avni-- (fantastic meeting you at GHC with Cadran!)-- loved your share and was really intrigued by you learning to code. Research shows that for female founders being 'technical' is a critical piece in getting funded. Have you found that conversations with VCs have a different vibe now that you have this expertise? I've often wondered about doing a course like Lambda just to give myself more of an edge. Regards,Jocelyn