Allyson Downey is the founder, along with her husband, Jack, and friend Melissa Post, of weeSpring, a social media site designed to help new and soon-to-be parents navigate the overwhelming world of baby products with crowd-sourced confidence. Allyson is also an alumni of TechStars NYC.
Parents: Allyson and Jack Downey
Kids: son, Logan, 3.5; daughter, Caroline, 9 months
Parent Co: You recently moved from New York to Boulder – what prompted such a big move?
Allyson Downey: Well, I had this epiphany where I realized if you don’t have to live in New York, why would you live in New York? I totally get it for my friends who work in finance and publishing – that’s the place they have to be.
Jack and I worked in politics in New York and I worked in publishing in my early 20’s, so it felt like I was tied there for a long time. Then once we started weeSpring, the expense of running a small company or start up in a city like that, it just feels irresponsible.
I was always afraid of the difficulty in navigating the schools, figuring out if private school is the way to go…
We lucked out. My son got into a great school, and it was on the path that would get him to Harvard Law School – you know, that ridiculous mentality that parents have when they’re trying to get their three-year-old into preschool.
But we didn’t take into consideration that the people who were sending their children there were extraordinarily affluent and doing these big time Wall Street jobs and they were living in a different stratosphere. We felt really inferior. Even though we knew we weren’t!
But when people are having a birthday party at Dylan’s Candy Bar for a three-year-old, you stop and think like ‘oh, God, do we have to aspire to this? Are we supposed to aspire to this?’
Do you ever see that kind of behavior or mindset on weeSpring? Are people kind of like, ‘you need to have this because everyone else has this?’
Oh, totally. I mean the whole reason the Bugaboo stroller launched into it’s rocket ship success was because people were talking about it on Sex in the City. It becomes a status symbol. I had a conversation with someone, I don’t know, probably in the early days of weeSpring, and we were talking about how people really strongly identify with the baby carrier that they’re buying. In the same way that you’re driving down the street and you see someone in your same car, and you think to yourself, ‘oh, that person is like me!’ When you see someone walking down the street and they also have an UPPAbaby Vista there’s a sense of affinity there.
I think, in part, that’s because all of those decisions feel so fraught, so you know like after you’ve done all of this deep research and you’ve thought about it and you’ve wondered, ‘is this going to be the best for my child? Is her development going to be stunted because she’s not high up enough off the ground in the stroller?’ Then when you see other people who have come to that same conclusion it validates, first of all, the decision that you’ve made, and it also gives you the sense of belonging.
And I see it with baby shampoo. That’s another great example. I saw an article recently in which someone had recommended a few different baby shampoos, and the cheapest one was $10 for an eight ounce bottle. That’s preposterous! You’re only using a little bit of it, so it’s going to last you a long time, but, you know, some of them were $25 for a small bottle of baby shampoo.
There’s this real push toward making parents feel like, if they’re not choosing the most expensive products, they’re doing something wrong or they’re taking something away from their kid, which is so absolutely not the case.
The whole raison d’être for weeSpring is that you have to buy tons of baby products and it’s totally overwhelming and hard and stressful. But despite that, I did a segment on TV like a year ago in which I talked about the five things you need when you get home from the hospital. Because you really only need five things… Like, you don’t need a crib. You just need somewhere for the baby to sleep that’s safe. A box is fine, they give boxes to people in Denmark. It’s really much more simple than they set it out to be.
How does weeSpring help simplify that whole process for parents?
We have believed from the very beginning that there’s no such thing as a real expert when it comes to decisions you’re making for your family. There’s only what’s right for you and your children’s life. So rather than putting a stake in the ground and saying this is the very best, we wanted to tap into the wisdom of crowds and give people a way to see what people in their own social network were recommending, but then also kind of broadly see what the community is saying about something.
It becomes really clear when something is floating to the top of a page, because everything is sorted by popularity, that that’s a stand out product and it’s a quality product. We’re just trying to narrow the selection set for parents, as well.
When you go into weeSpring if you’ve got friends on the site, instead of seeing 400,000 search results for car seats the way you do when you go to Amazon, you see the four car seats that are most popular with your friends. Beyond that, you see car seats that are popular with what we call featured parents, and those are people on weeSpring who have rated at least 25 products and they share with us a bio. It gives you a little bit more color and background into the person. A lot of times when you look at reviews you can see, for example, Heather is between 25 and 34 and lives in New Jersey. That kind of helps, but not really.
But if I know that Heather is feeding her baby organic baby food and we have the same stroller and we’re using the same brand of baby shampoo then I’m going to feel a little bit more confident about her recommendation for a high chair.
That makes perfect sense. I’m curious, too, about what it was like for you running a start-up as a new mom.
It is an ongoing challenge. We started working on weeSpring in 2012 and we launched it in 2013. My son was born in 2011. So after he was born I had this idea I couldn’t shake. My husband had just started his MBA and was talking about entrepreneurship and thinking about really what he wanted to do over the next two years, and we spent all of this time talking about this idea – this idea of simplifying things.
Jack was the one who kind of took it and ran with it. I was working full time at a nonprofit…I was able to kind of weigh in and opine on the things that were exciting to me and interesting to me, but for the most part, I was focusing on paying the bills for our family and taking care of my baby.
But there came a point where Jack and I both realized that if I didn’t take that leap, weeSpring was never going to get off the ground. We could both do it halfway for a couple of years, or we could go all in and focus on it 100% and see where it went. I left my job when my son was about a year and a half. We have a third co-founder as well who had twins who were six months old at that time.
Jack and I obviously had Logan together, and we started Tech Stars pretty soon after that. Tech Stars is boot camp for start ups. It was a three-month-long period. I was the only woman CEO. There were 11 companies. I was the only one with a baby. There were men whose wives had young children, but it was very different.
With both of us expected to be there and present and physically in this accelerator space for 12 plus hours a day, it was trial by fire. But we saw that there was an end date on it, and we knew that this three months that we’d be spending with the company as opposed to really getting a lot of quality time with our son, that was an investment in his future, as well.
It was something that not only, hopefully, someday will provide financial stability and security for our family, but it was about making us happy; giving both Jack and me the opportunity to do something that was really exciting and stimulating and challenging. And I can’t imagine anything I’d rather be doing, even with all of the stress and craziness and insanity. I have complete flexibility in when and how I do my job. I mean, it is a demanding job, it’s still a twelve-hour-a-day job, but those twelve hours can come to a halt between, like 3 pm and 6 pm.
So I can do school pick up and hang out with my son. Then I go back to work at night after the kids are asleep, and it just works.
And the other thing that I really love about it is that there’s really no limit when it comes to creativity, and you can generate an idea while you’re lying in bed at night and can’t sleep and then the next day just jump into action with it. That’s not really something you see very often in other jobs in the corporate world. You know, in government, in nonprofit, any of those sectors, there’s a scaffold in place that you have to stick with. I personally always found that really challenging and frustrating. Then when I had my second baby, weeSpring was about a year and a half old, and I just made it work.
Do you have advice for parents who can feel that intuitively that if they could shift the flow of their day they would have more time with their kids?
I think that’s a big cultural shift that we need to take as a country that would afford parents more flexibility, and really, any employees more flexibility. Because you might like to go wind surfing at 7:00 in the morning and you’re 24 years old, and if that’s what’s going to get you turbo charged for your day and make you feel really excited and energized, you should absolutely be able to go wind surfing at 7:00 in the morning and get to work at ten.
I think it’s a mentality that’s going to take a long time to shift. Even if we had, let’s say, broad government initiative that encouraged flex time and incentivized it, there’s still a bit of a cultural stigma against it.
So for the people that currently have the flexibility to do that, do it. Jump into it, embrace it …
Set the example!
Yeah, exactly. Talk to other people about how and why you’re doing it. If you manage a team of ten people and there are two parents and eight non parents, encourage everybody to take some flexibility that’s going to make their job more exciting and stimulating for them because they’ve gotten to do things they love in the time that they’re not actually at the office.
I’ve seen lots of studies recently that show that millennials now expect that kind of freedom and flexibility. So we’re moving in that direction, it’s just going to be a slow shift, and the only way we’ll get there is if people are really talking about it.
Yes, I think that’s brilliant. I’ve heard you say that there’s no such thing as work-life balance, there’s work-life juggling. I’m wondering if you have any insight that you’d like to share with other parents about that work-life juggle and making it work for your family.
I think that the most important thing is to go easy on yourself and manage expectations – not just to the people around you but your own expectations, too. I’ve talked to so many women who have told me that they perpetually feel like they’re not doing well enough. That they’re not doing well enough at their job, that they’re not doing well enough with their family, that they’re not invested enough, they’re not a good enough mother, like all of these insecurities are kind of rippling under the surface in pretty much all of us.
We’re all really, really hard on ourselves, and if you can kind of take a step back and see that and be aware of that and try and shift it a little bit and ease up, it’s just going to make everything better and easier and happier.
That’s such great advice. I’m tempted to stop there, but I have to ask one more question.
Yeah, of course.
What got you to that point?
I have always been a perfectionist. I felt like I was afraid to be normal, and that would have been the biggest disappointment to me, that if I was just normal and not doing something exciting and not being a great parent and not doing all these things better than I thought I could.
Then after I had Logan I had this kind of career epiphany that it was okay to work a job that wasn’t necessarily keeping me on a rocket ship trajectory, and that it was okay to take a couple of years and step back a little bit and go into something that was going to be a little bit more manageable, because I wanted to have that time with him.
I think part of that is that when you’re a new parent, everything changes for you cognitively as well as emotionally and physically and all of these other things. There’s this expectation of women particularly to scale back up to their pre-baby capacity really, really fast. That they expect they’re going to be able to jump into a 9- or 10-hour-a-day job and function at it perfectly even though they’re only getting two, three-hour stretches of sleep at night.
In (my previous) job I was just, I was beating myself up, and I was really hard on myself for little tiny mistakes that didn’t mean anything. I realized that if I didn’t stop, I was going to make my entire family miserable as well as myself. That I was just stressed all the time, and I just made a conscious decision to take it easy on myself.
Wow, that’s great. Was that the point at which you left that job and jumped into weeSpring?
Yeah, so pretty much the entire time I was in that job I was going through that struggle where I just felt like I wasn’t good enough. And it was gradual, over time I started to accept that, but I also realized that part of the reason I was feeling kind of dissatisfied there was because I didn’t have that freedom and flexibility and ability to kind of just jump into something and do it.
I started working on weeSpring, as I shared before, on the side while I was doing that job. So I went from this job that I felt like I was doing really poorly from 9 to 5 every day, and then taking care of this kid and then trying to launch a start up from 8 to midnight. And that’s when I kind of turned things around, because I was able to recognize that the little small things that were making me so crazy really were little small things, and that I could kind of zoom out and look at the forest and see ‘perfect’ isn’t the end goal.