Startup Stories: Lessons From the SoFi Startup of the Year

Jennifer Beall, Founder & CEO of Tot Squad, does not have the average startup story.  As she puts it, “Everyone else wanted to start the next Facebook, while I was working on cleaning baby poop off of car seats.”  But Jennifer, Kellogg MBA ’10 and Duke ’05, and her business are about more than just stroller and car seat cleaning/installation.   She and Tot Squad are on a mission to make moms happier, kids safer and the world a better place.

Which is probably why Tot Squad has found so much success with both consumers and investors so far.  The company has raised almost $600,000 since launching in 2011, with plans to raise another half a million before the end of the year.  And recently, Jennifer was named the SoFi Entrepreneur Program “Startup of the Year.” As a direct result of being a member of SoFi’s Entrepreneur Program, Jennifer has received more than $150,000 in financing for the company from the SoFi community, led by investor Michael Kane.

We asked Jennifer to share a few lessons from her journey so far, including her time in the SoFi Entrepreneur Program.  Here’s what she said:

1.  Connect to something bigger
When I applied to business school, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I had no idea what my venture would look like.  Of course, everyone tells you to do what you’re passionate about, and for me that was making life easier for working mothers – particularly because I knew I’d likely be a working mom myself someday.  I spent a year researching ideas, and out of the 50 I came up with, the Tot Squad concept was the clear winner.  Why?  Because every mom I talked to wanted the service, and no one else was doing it.

So I knew I had a winning combination – a great business concept and passion for the idea.  Then, midway through writing my business plan, I took a car seat training safety course.  There I learned that 85% of car seats are incorrectly installed, and that car accidents are the #1 cause of death for children.  I had started the company with this social mission in mind – to help busy moms – and that’s still a huge focus, but when I realized this business was about more than that, it drove me to succeed even more than before.

2.  You don’t have to be high tech to be high growth
Having a non-technology startup is definitely not the norm in this day and age.  Before my acceptance to the SoFi Entrepreneur Program, I had applied to Tech Stars and Y Combinator, and both turned me down because my business didn’t fit their criteria.  When I was writing my business plan at Kellogg I had help from 40-50 of my classmates, many of whom jokingly teased me because my business idea was far from “sexy.”  And at my first pitch meeting, the room was filled with older male investors – none of whom had ever cleaned a car seat in their lives.

But in many respects, having a non-tech company has also helped me stand out from the crowd.  At school, for example, I won the Kellogg Cup Business Plan Competition and was recognized as the Student of the Year in Entrepreneurship.  And after that first pitch meeting, an investor who had been on the phone sent me an email offering to introduce me to more potential investors.  It turned out that he often didn’t get excited about high-tech startups, but something tangible like cleaning car seats – that made sense to him.  In the end, he came in as my lead investor and became one of my biggest advocates, as well.

3.  Never underestimate your opportunity
Last year, SoFi arranged a pitch event for the members of the Entrepreneur Program.  After my pitch, a couple of leaders from the program came over to congratulate me on my presentation, but also to question me about the number I had put on my “opportunity slide.”  They both suggested a figure that was three times what I had outlined.  It sounded crazy at the time, but I took their advice and increased the number.  When I emailed a follow-up version of the deck to some of the investors, every single one noted that even without knowing the details, the new opportunity amount sounded right.

It was at that point that the long-term vision for Tot Squad crystallized for me.  I realized I hadn’t even thought of the big, big picture.  Nordstrom was already interested in rolling out a nationwide partnership.  What if we had a kiosk in every Babies R’ Us?  What if we could be the Geek Squad of the baby industry?  The enormous potential was always there, but I couldn’t quite see it without the advice and mentorship I got from the SoFi Entrepreneur Program.

“Student loan debt shouldn’t stop entrepreneurs from developing and raising capital for their companies,” said Mike Cagney, CEO of SoFi.  “Congratulations to Jennifer. We look forward to following the growth of Tot Squad.”

The SoFi Entrepreneur Program continues to accept applications. For further details, please visit our SoFi Entrepreneur Program website.

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