Happy Family is quite the modern-day success story. Founded with the mission to create an impactful organic baby food company, the brand grew incredibly from a concept to a mega-brand in just a matter of years. An instrumental part of its growth and expansion can be attributed to co-founding partner and COO, Jessica Rolph. From their innovative products in the baby/toddler category to being honored by publications like INC, the brand has made organic, ready-to-eat food accessible, affordable and delicious for our children. While Jessica still serves on the board, she recently decided it was time to embark on a different path. Inspired by her interest in the developmental stages of the first year, her and her partner, Rod went on to co-found, Lovevery, a company that believes in ‘playtime with purpose’ with a focus to create developmental products for the first year. This includes the launch of their first product, The PlayGym, an early learning platform that’s designed to guide babies through all of the learning stages that happens during their first year. Read on for more about her big pivot and what’s in store for Jessica’s second-act at Lovevery…
You were an instrumental part of the growth of Happy Family, which began as a start-up. What were the early days like when you didn’t have funding and a small team?
It was crazy, so crazy. We were living hand-to-mouth, begging suppliers to ship to us when we couldn’t pay, even though we were already flagged for credit risk and required deposit. We were working out of my basement with my baby upstairs and five employees crammed into one room (or spreading out to other areas of the house during competing phone calls). We had old doors on top of sawhorses as desks. Bonus: breastfeeding my newborn was easy, as I was working from home.
We were juggling failed new product launches, and in some cases, an unforeseen demand on other products. Then there were other days when we had to deal with out of stock products or retailers breathing down our necks for inventory. During this time, we also raised money from “friends and family.” People always say this, but the people you know who you think would be able to invest, often don’t. Then other acquaintances or people you meet serendipitously sometimes end up investing. We would take as low as $2,500 in the beginning, and would spend the money as soon as it came in.
Having a baby is one of the biggest life events that inspires so many of us to rethink our priorities and values.
Happy Family started in 2009 and by 2013 was named one of the fastest-growing women-led companies by Forbes. What do you think was the biggest factor in the quick growth of the company?
We have good instincts about what parents really want (since we are parents, too!). Having a baby is one of the biggest life events that inspires so many of us to rethink our priorities and values. We created a trusted brand that aligns with parents’ desire to give their children the best, healthiest start.
We were also totally into health food, always looking for the next superfoods, micronutrients, pro and pre-biotics. For example, before it was popular, we put chia in a pouch, combining it with veggies and fruit. It was an immediate hit, even though most people didn’t know what chia was. I read the studies on the importance of choline for the developing brain and also learned that a lot of children are choline deficient, so we created a “super smart” recipe that combines fruits, vegetables, DHA and choline.
We were also not so aspirational that we lost touch with the realities of parenting today and the need for convenience and food that simply tastes good.
You mentioned that not being afraid of failure is a big part of your work ethic. What other values do you think an entrepreneur needs, especially during the beginning stages of their company.
There is so much chaos, especially in the beginning. It seems almost unavoidable, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. Flexibility to deal with the ongoing onslaught of challenges, the ability to still live your life and find present moments with your kids, family and friends, knowing that there is a never-ending list of urgent things to get done, an inbox full of unread un dealt with messages, issues that derail your plan to get “ahead” of your work flow.
Especially pre-launch, I would sometimes feel exuberant about the possibilities for my business and so energized about how my business could make a difference. Other times, I would feel doubt and worry and wondering. How was I going to get to where I wanted to be with no product and no money to making a meaningful impact on someone’s life.
I realized that feelings come and go depending on who you talked with last. How I feel about what is going to happen in my business in the long term isn’t grounded in reality. The only reality is putting one foot in front of the other each day, making progress, taking in feedback and being flexible.
What advice would you give someone who is seeking funding, based on what you learned?
We had success having low minimums and going to individuals rather than institutions, especially in the first few rounds while we were getting in the groove with our business model and figuring out product market fit. I seem to have to keep re-learning this lesson: there is no golden ticket! In the long run, no one institution or person can save me from the grit, putting myself out there, problem solving and pivoting that is required to make my business work. No one cares more than me and my co-founder.
Can you tell us about the moment or point in your life when you realized you wanted to try something else?
We sold Happy Family to Group Danone in 2013. It felt right, Danone is based in Paris and has a global business in infant nutrition. They shared our values for health and wellness, and we could bring them a new market in baby (the US) and most importantly a model for innovation and an authentic connection to what parents in the US are looking for. Our process and speed for innovation was exciting for Danone, and we loved their depth of knowledge around infant feeding and their ability to expand our organic offering globally.
Going from Happy Family to a new brand is an exciting leap for you. What do you think you know now that you didn’t when you were a part of the beginning stages of Happy Family?
There are so many new things to learn with each new business, and I’m trying not to learn every new lesson the hard way! I know that starting a business is all consuming, and that I need to practice “passionate detachment.” This means remaining passionate and caring deeply, but also not letting every little issue consume me!
Tell us more about Lovevery. How did the idea come about?
I had gone very deep on infant nutrition building Happy Family. When I thought about my baby’s brain, I had this nagging feeling that there was something more I could be doing to help his cognitive development.
Parenting is so messy and it is so full of so many insecurities. I was always asking, “Am I doing enough? Am I doing the right thing?”.
I discovered a doctoral thesis on infant brain development that my birthing instructor had given me. It was in two volumes, called ‘Neural Foundations & Brain Under Construction.’ It had all these detailed, nerdy, cool things that I could do with my child that felt really natural and simple. I couldn’t help but pouring myself into it! This study totally transformed my experience as a parent. I discovered the world through my child’s eyes and felt really connected to my baby because I was giving him what he was hungry to learn.
I was dissatisfied with the toys we had, and started making my own learning tools. And then I thought about the play gym; it has so much potential, but I wasn’t satisfied with what was on the market. My co-founder, Rod and I deconstructed and recreated a play gym to be a platform for learning for the first 12 months. This included features to help babies practice important skills like grasping, batting, mouthing, looking at dynamic visual stimulation and engaging developing senses.
There are so many new things to learn with each new business, and I’m trying not to learn every new lesson the hard way!
You recently launched your new product concept, “The Play Kits” – congrats! What was the catalyst for this new line?
Parents are busy enough, we shouldn’t have to worry about what types of toys our babies should or should not be playing with. And we certainly shouldn’t have to read a doctoral thesis on infant brain development to know what our babies want to learn at each stage. Our goal is to take one thing off of parents’ plates during that first year, as it is often a blur.
How long did it take for you to develop these new play kits?
I started testing some product ideas with my first baby, who is now 8 years old. When Rod joined as cofounder, we started applying the Stanford design thinking method to make sure we got it right. We wanted to deeply emphasize with the challenges of parenting so that our product could really be of service. We found parents overwhelmed by too much stuff or not the right stuff at the right time. They were nervous about what they were and were not doing to help their baby’s development, they shared a nagging feeling that they thought there was something more they could be doing but didn’t know what it was. They complained about too much confusing advice on the internet. Rod, our first hire Sara (head of Product Development) and I traveled across the US testing prototypes with 25 families, following the baby’s first year and iterating to create The Play Kits.
What differentiates these kits from other baby toys in the market?
Each Kit is grounded in science and tailored to the baby’s particular development stage. Our goal is to help parents feel confident. We want to help parents understand what is happening with their baby’s development and know how they can help. The playthings have no batteries, flashing lights or tech, are made with organic cotton and sustainably harvested wood, and most importantly, are captivating to the baby!
You launched with the Play Gym almost a year ago, do you have any key learning’s since the launch?
We began much of our testing with embarrassingly bad prototypes before getting to the final versions you see today. We learned so many things through testing and prototyping and we are so excited that the Play Gym has been well loved by so many babies!
You moved from NYC to live in Boise, Idaho. How did this move change the dynamic of your family and who you are as a person?
It was a huge change, and at first it was the “next stop” for my husband and me (after Austin, San Francisco, and NYC). We were thinking we would move after a couple of years to another city. But once we got here, we fell in love. Boise offers a great low-stress, supportive backdrop for an intense start-up life. My commute is seven minutes and the town is very bikeable. I love that my kids are close so I can easily pop in and see them. We work in a low cost co-working space that the mayor of Boise founded to support entrepreneurs. Boise has also really changed in the past few years. It is now a very liveable, hip mountain town.
What drives you in your work?
I love what I do. I care so much about children and really believe in the importance of the first few years of life. So much happens from birth to age three, and I want to make it easier for parents to feel confident that they are giving their children the best.
You have three children and a new start-up! How do you divide your time between work and your home life?
It’s sometimes a painful juggle, especially when I’m traveling. When I’m home, I work from 8:30am to 6pm where I see the kids most mornings. We eat dinner together and do bedtime, and then I usually do some more work before bed (lately I’ve been answering customer emails late at night). I try to keep our weekends low key. We like to make forts, play with LEGOs, color, etc. My best weekends are when I don’t let myself get distracted by my phone and when the kids don’t have many activities so we can chill. I also have a very understanding husband, but somehow this stage still feels hard right now!
Trust that they will turn out in the end.
Breathe in the power of now.
And my favorite quote about parenting, "The days are long but the years are short."