Conversation with Shilpa Dalmia, Co-Founder & CTO of ActivityHero.com
October 17, 2018
1. What is your business?
ActivityHero is a marketplace for kid’s classes and camps where organizations that host fun and educational activities can add online listings for virtual registration and payment. Families can browse through our database of camps and classes to find activities based on dates, location, their child’s age, or activity type and register immediately. It’s like a one-stop shop for families and a lead generator for providers.
One thing that our users like is that we store their information so that the next time they visit the site, they can skip the tedious but necessary information that each place supervising children needs. Every camp and class asks for the same general information like medical, insurance, parent contact, pick-up details, and emergency contacts.
With school out 16 weeks a year, parents need to find stimulating and fun places for their kids to go to during school breaks and summer. So, we’ve found that camps are a big part of our marketplace throughout the year.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
It all stemmed from my personal needs. When my kids were young, I was a full-time working mom, and I was always looking for stimulating things for them to do while I was working. When they got older, I needed classes and summer camps. There just wasn’t a place where I could easily find useful activities for my kids.
I worked as a software engineer and, as a tech person, I was always thinking “there’s Yelp for restaurants and Expedia for hotels, but there isn’t a place for kids’ activities.” I was spending a ton of time on the internet searching for activities because there wasn’t a specific place to find classes and camps in my town.
My co-founder Peggy Chang started her own company in a similar space that was focused primarily on summer camps. We met through a mutual friend, and there was a definite synergy (activities + camps!) so we started working together. We got admitted to the startup incubator, 500 Startups, and launched the company after completing the program. 500 Startups was a great experience, and the energy from all of the other entrepreneurs was amazing.
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
Yes, I did some research and found that this was a pretty big space. Parents spend $30 billion each year on camps and classes. After talking to some friends, I created a quick prototype to share with them. I built a website, a friend of mine designed the pages, and then we used email to share it with our personal network. I was hoping friends would go in and write reviews. The response was amazing, and that gave me the confidence that this was a great idea that needed to be pursued.
Having a co-founder who shared my vision and everyday problems was great. Running a start-up is like a marriage, and having a co-founder is like raising a kid with your spouse/partner. You can do it alone, but it’s harder. Having someone to share the responsibilities with made it much easier for me. Yes, there are challenges, and we make compromises, but overall it’s a very positive thing.
4. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?
My husband and I were both working on launching our startups at the same time, and because of that shared experience, I always felt supported by him and my kids. They were all so excited to see me working on ActivityHero. My kids always thought it was “awesome” and “so cool” and wanted to be a part of it whenever they could. In the early days, when I would find camps or events that I would pitch on joining ActivityHero, my kids would help make up logos and names. In the early days, when we were coming up with names & logos for the company, my kids would love to pitch in and help design the logos.
5. Was outside funding/cost a challenge to getting your business off the ground?
After going through the 500 Startups program, we were able to raise money through the organization and through other venture capital firms. The biggest challenge was the fact that people saw ActivityHero as a lifestyle business, and investors were not interested in funding something that didn’t have a lot of potential to be huge. It was definitely a catch-22: we wanted to get into bookings and registrations, but we needed to raise money to hire people to help us.
We ended up putting our own money into it, and it took a bit longer because I was trying to do so much of the development work myself. Once we implemented a booking system where camps and classes could list themselves, and parents could also book on their own then we were able to raise capital.
6. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
The fact that we were able to grow even though we were bootstrapping the company. That we were able to raise venture capital. It was challenging to raise capital, as investors often viewed ActivityHero as a niche business so we had to prove them wrong. Our experience was that VCs first reaction to two moms focusing on a kid-centric business was, “Are they serious? Or is this just a lifestyle business?”
7. What are some of your current challenges?
Right now it’s trying to scale up the business to be a nationwide marketplace. Today we are the #1 marketplace in the Bay Area, and our goal is to become the #1 marketplace nationwide. But we need a lot of capital to scale, so that is our biggest challenge. Many of the venture capitalists that we speak to want to see exponential growth. ActivityHero is a very focused marketplace so being able to show that kind of growth is challenging.
Our expanding strategy is to pick a few cluster of cities with a good density of providers and families. We acquire the providers first and then quickly start driving demand to them. Then the network effect starts to kick in. We’ve noticed that providers who have multiple locations will attract other families and then families will invite other families. There’s definitely a network effect.
8. Have there been positive or negative impacts on your family and work/life balance once your business was off the ground?
At one point, both my husband I were both working crazy hours at our start-ups. It was only about a year, but it was a lot of work, salaries were lower than what we had been making, longer hours, and we had two kids. That was challenging, but fortunately, my husband’s company was acquired. So now I’m the only one with start-up hours and pressure.
There has been a lot of positive, especially with my kids. They are so proud especially since it was something they could relate to. My daughter told me she was at camp that used ActivityHero, and the camp owner told her “Tell your mom how great ActivityHero has been for my business. It’s really good, I love them.” My daughter came home so proud.
9. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
Our goal for the next five years is to become the #1 marketplace for kid’s classes and camps. Anytime that a family is thinking about an activity for their kids, we want them to go to ActivityHero directly. Our goal is to be the go-to booking spot for families.
10. Are you willing to serve as a mentor to others interested in your sector?
I am definitely more than willing to help anyone in this space. It’s a journey, and it’s pretty interesting. I’d be more than happy to help anyone with any kind of advice.
Date of conversation: May 1, 2018
Are you working toward a goal like starting a new business, growing your existing business, or changing careers entirely? Check out our Course Marketplace that’s stocked full of content by life and career coaches. Just like the Founders featured here, our coaches have overcome challenges and fought for their dreams – and now they have a passion for sharing their story with others.
All in? Join our online community.
Need more information first? Drop us a quick note.