Hayley Nivelle is the co-founder and CEO of ellie (available on iOS and Android), the simplest way for parents to connect with relevant and local communities. We chatted with her about how she created this new platform, what it’s been like for her company to experience rapid growth, and how a local community group can help parents stay sane!
How did your own experience as a mom inspire your idea for the ellie app?
When I was pregnant with my first son, I was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I am a planner and I thought I knew what would hit me when I had a baby—but I was not nearly prepared for how new everything would be, how my life would utterly shift and how I would constantly have questions. This is when I discovered the power of moms groups—both virtual and in-person. The more I relied on my moms groups, the clearer it became to me that there needed to be a platform made for parenting groups. Parents deserve a more organized and simplified way to connect beyond email and Facebook. And new parents need a way to find these communities on a safe, intimate platform. That’s why I created the ellie app.
What were the first steps you took after your decided to run with your idea? How did you balance mama life, your corporate job, and getting the ellie app concept off the ground?
I couldn’t shake the gap in the marketplace for parenting groups, so the first thing I did was survey moms about their involvement in moms groups. I received hundreds of responses within 24 hours, which in and of itself told me something. My sister is a graphic designer and she helped me start bringing ellie to life. I started with simple wireframes and a feature list, and I kept honing in on that. I was constantly listening to startup podcasts during my commute and reading everything I could about getting a product going.
Looking back, I’m a little in awe that I was able to get ellie off the ground while working full time, but I put one foot in front of the other and kept going. I was also pregnant with my second during a lot of the development process. I was at a startup intensive the weekend before he was born. I think non-moms are shocked when moms are still running full-speed at 38 weeks! It made me feel a little like a superhero. And I am super excited because I’m bringing on a new co-founder at the end of the month—an amazing woman and mother who I met through HEYMAMA! Together, I think we’ll be able to take ellie to the next level.
How did your background help you in building your own tech startup?
Until a few months ago, I was working full time as a senior level corporate attorney for a publicly traded technology company, so it was a lot of late nights and early mornings. In every position I’ve ever had, I’ve worked a lot and learned how to manage various stakeholders while focusing on the issues that really matter—from negotiating multi million dollar deals at a top NYC law firm to learning how to manage a highly dispersed technology organization that moves quickly. The skills I’ve learned as an attorney have been invaluable when it comes to starting and running a company. There are so many moving parts on any given day. I’m forced to figure out what to prioritize and what can wait. I’m also very efficient with my time. I’ve never had a job with “down time,” so I have an incredible work ethic and take running my business as seriously as any other position I’ve had. I’m a tough boss for myself to keep up with! Even so, at the end of the day, I realize it’s really important for me to carve out quality time with my children. So it’s mostly my sleep, my headspace, and my husband that suffer in my quest for balance. I’m working on it.
What challenges is the ellie app intended to solve?
Parents are looking for organized, intimate, and secure places to connect with one another, and we give them that. Anyone can create a group on the app, customize topics for their group, and start connecting with their community. Parents can also search for existing groups on the app and request to join. The app has great meetup and event functionality. Anyone can create an event on the app and share it with a topic in their group. For example, if you want to plan an impromptu park date, create an event on the app and push it to your group. Everyone can RSVP and see who else is going. A mom can also add her spouse and kids to her profile. It’s a great feature in the app and a wonderful way to build community. It’s like a personal Facebook of your kids’ friends names and ages, which can come in handy! And users have control over who sees this information.
How did the ellie app evolve as you began collecting user feedback?
It’s constantly evolving! For example, when the app first went live, there was not an unread activity count outside of groups. We quickly learned that users want to know exactly what they missed and where to find it. It seems obvious after the fact, but when you’re scoping and building a product where every single tiny feature takes time and money, it’s easy to overlook something until you get it in the hands of users. We’re working on a bunch of new features for users, including improved notifications. We’re also doing a lot of things behind the scenes to stabilize and optimize the app.
How did you come up with the name “ellie”?
Our logo is an elephant, and elephants are my favorite animal. At some point as a wee girl I learned that elephant herds are led by the oldest female mother of the group. I thought it was cool that these big, huge, powerful animals are led by women, not men. Without the women leaders the herd will die. Call me a young femininist—from then on I was hooked. I collected little figurine animals whenever I could, and of course I decorated my son’s nursery with elephants. When I was trying to think of the name for an app made for moms, elephants seemed to symbolize the power and special force of moms everywhere.
Can any mama lead her own group within the ellie app? What kinds of groups are popular?
Yes! The app is a platform for moms—and dads—to make their own. It’s easy to create a group on ellie and share it with your community. There is a share group option accessible from the group’s topic page and a user can share a link to their group on Facebook, via text, or they can copy and paste the link into any medium they wish!
There are a bunch of groups on the app—from local groups such as Williamsburg/Greenpoint Parents (in Brooklyn), to a Milkful breastfeeding/ feeding support group, to Summer 2019 Moms (for expecting moms), to the group Toddler Love, which hits very close to home for me right now. I love the toddler stage but it poses a unique set of challenges. It’s nice comparing notes with others who have kids in similar life stages!!
As we grow and scale, we hope to have groups in every major city across the country. If anyone out there is interested in being a founding admin for a city group, please reach out to me!
What fears and hesitations come up for mamas who are interested in starting their own group?
Some admins of existing groups (either on FB or Yahoo groups, for example) are resistant to switch to ellie because they’re looking for a catch, or they think we’ll control their group or charge them a fee. We don’t control the groups and we don’t charge anything. The group admin decides if their group is public or private, vets membership to their group, creates topics for their group and moderates the conversation. An admin can also appoint co-admins to their group. The ellie app is a technology platform. We want to empower our users to make it their own.
How can businesses use ellie partner groups to develop community around their brand?
Building brand community is smart on so many levels from a business perspective. We’ve partnered with a few brand communities and you’ll see more on the app soon. A lot of brands are looking for a place to connect their family of customers, clients or followers. A community increases brand loyalty and also provides really great insights for the brand itself. And it adds value to the users because they’re cultivating a group that is in a similar life stage or shares a common perspective. Brands like partnering with ellie because our platform is fresh, organized and hyper-focused on parents. We are growing our user base of parents daily, so they benefit from our growth. We help brand partners launch their group and promote it on social media. Influencers and community leaders are also looking to create communities to engage with their followers on a platform that doesn’t have an algorithm. On ellie, the group is theirs, so they can reach it and message it in any way they like. No algorithm.
If a mama joins the app without the intention to join a specific subgroup, how is she integrated into the ellie community?
Every parent that downloads the app is automatically a part of the ellie group. You’ll see it on the My Groups screen (it’s hot pink!), along with any other groups you’re a member of. There are moms from across the country in that group, some of whom don’t have any other moms group. She can ask questions. Share advice. In the ellie group, we’re regularly featuring experts covering topics from sleep to women’s health and everything in between. That group has been really popular—particularly when we feature sleep consultants!!
What kinds of topics come up for discussion in the ellie main group?
Topics in the ellie group include Behavior, Breastfeeding, Health & Development, Pregnancy, Product Recommendations, Real Talk (my favorite), Reasons My Kid is Crying (my other favorite), Sleep, Self-Care, Working Moms and more!! I’m constantly asking (and answering!) questions in the ellie group. No question is off limits—from “how do I not hate my husband after baby” to “I need finger food ideas for my baby” to “what’s your favorite sippy cup” and every question in between!
How do mamas benefit from being part of an online community?
The benefits are really immeasurable, but I think it boils down to 1) practical advice and 2) knowing you’re not alone in the issues, challenges, and questions you face as a mom. Crowdsourcing information related to parenting can be an incredible resource. Whether you’re trying to narrow down which humidifier to buy for your baby who has a never-ending cold, or looking for advice related to meal planning or navigating relationship issues with your husband—relying on other moms is much better than googling the same thing. Trust me! And the second half of this (knowing you’re not alone) is all about mental health and sanity. Sometimes all you need is to think, “Okay, I’m not crazy. Someone else is going through this too. This is normal, and this too shall pass.”
What role has community (online and off!) played in your own life as a mama?
I am so fortunate to be surrounded by many communities, all of whom I lean on. From my original moms group in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to new mom friends in the suburbs, to my friends and family—and to ellie users —it truly takes a village. I’m an open book, so if I’m facing a challenge with motherhood or parenting, I prefer to talk about it instead of holding it in. I always feel better afterwards.
30 minutes of quality, phone-free time with your kids is equivalent to 2 hours of non-quality time.
Get up before the kids do. Have a cup of coffee and read a book, or check emails. Or take a shower and put on makeup. Or exercise. Whatever makes you feel human.
Be silly with your kids; make them giggle. It will warm their heart and yours.