Startup Foundations: Interview with Jill Koziol

Greg Miaskiewiczby Greg Miaskiewicz • 7 min readpublished January 13, 2023 updated January 23, 2023
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Jill Koziol is the CEO and co-founder of Motherly, an educational platform and lifestyle brand redefining motherhood. Motherly’s goal is building a movement helping women across the world thrive as mothers and make the most of their parenting experience.

Jill talked to us about how the idea for Motherly was born, and how she and her co-founder Liz Tenety originally met. Jill discussed building the brand recognition, getting the first publicity and leveraging the organic content distribution to get the initial traction. We also talked about the advantages of a content and community-first approach to building a startup.

Greg: Hi, Jill. Thanks for joining us on the podcast. Tell us what you're working on at Motherly.

Jill: Motherly is a well-being brand that is empowering our 50 million plus monthly audience to thrive as mothers. We are laser focused on giving her all the tools that she needs, whether it's content, video, and increasingly expert evidence-based digital education.

Greg: How did you get the original idea and start working on this?

Jill: Prior to Motherly, I invented, patented, and brought to market a baby goods product. And because of that, my co-founder had heard of me, and she, Liz Tenety, was an award-winning journalist and editor from the Washington Post. She had the initial concept of a modern parenting brand, that would be more woman-centered, that would really put her at the center of this process, which so often she's left behind and it's very baby-centered. And so, she called me, almost exactly seven years ago, in April of 2015, and really was just doing what great founders do. They go out and they talk about their idea, and they get feedback. And, our conversation was a little different though. We really built off of each other and left the conversation breathless almost, with the realization that there was something there, that there was a huge white space in the market, and that if anyone was going to do it, we could.

Greg: In terms of building brand recognition, how did you go about getting the initial publicity for your brand and making Motherly a destination for mothers to find products for them and their babies?

Jill: We always, from the very beginning, planned for Motherly to be a generational brand. And so we were laser focused on building out truly a strong brand, and that meant that we needed to sit at the intersection of content, community and commerce. And because of Liz's superpowers and content, and the fact that we felt it was the most authentic way to really engage and build a brand with this specific audience, we went content first.

We actually launched six weeks after that first conversation, on Mother's Day, in 2015, and what we now refer to as our alpha. We launched a Facebook page, I think, back then and a pretty simple website and newsletter, where we were really testing and iterating with content. We then joined an accelerator in the Bay Area called Matter that was more media-centered, and we did leveraged design thinking approach, to go really deep into who this audience was. Because while Liz and I are both millennial mothers ourselves, we knew that we were two coastal, very educated women, and that not everyone's experience looked like ours. And so, we were really adamant about getting out from behind ourselves, and really knowing who this woman was, this generation of modern mothers, and to building content for her.

We had a very different approach than anything else in the market and still do. We are woman- centered, not baby-centered. We are evidence-based and expert driven, not user-generated content. And we're really empowering and supportive. We're not judgmental or scary. And, there was such a white space in the market for that kind of voice and tone, that when we put content up, especially on social, moms shared it. Moms became our engine. That organic mom to mom sharing of our content is how Motherly has always grown. We spend very, very little on any kind of marketing. It's all organic.

Greg: You found your co-founder, but how did you decide who does what at your company? How did you decide who was the CEO, who was dealing with fundraising and so on?

Jill: Yeah. So Liz and I are pretty unique. We did not really know each other before. We had met maybe a handful of times, but we had really parallel lives before we met. Both of our husbands went to the Naval Academy and served in the Navy. We both attended Georgetown at the same time and never met. Both of our husbands, when they got out of the Navy, were at Stanford for business school, and we were both working mothers having children, frankly, at the exact same time. And we were two working mothers, so we didn't overlap very much socially, because who has time, as a working mother, to overlap socially. But what we found when we did connect is that, our skill sets are very complementary with very little overlap. And because, in part, we weren't coming at this from a friendship or any baggage that can come from a friendship, we really came at this as two professional equals that, because of our shared backgrounds, knew that we had similar values, and that helped us to get to a place of trust pretty quickly and respect as the foundation of our relationship.

And we also were very comfortable having hard conversations. We, as two women in business, we talked about ego regularly. It first started... It was clear to me, as a repeat founder, and as someone who'd been in consulting for some time, that I was more prepared for the role of CEO than Liz. But this was Liz's initial idea. And so, even though she came from a purely content and a journalist, not content business, background, the story she told herself was that she should be the CEO of this business to start. And so we talked about that. We talked about ego and wanting to do what was best for the business. And, we decided to punt that decision for the first four months, and to wait until we were doing a launch out of our accelerator. And so we started out as purely co-founder roles.

And, through working together those first four months with the accelerator, when the time came where we had to put CEO down, the head of the accelerator actually came over and said, "Okay, we're writing this down. What do we do?" And Liz said, "Well, clearly, Jill's CEO." And so, it was very clear because we'd earned that. We'd worked through those things together what each other's superpowers were in this particular project. And so, I took on the role of CEO, and that was really everything business and operations focused. I am a brand builder, and so everything brand oriented was my lead as well. And then investors, raising capital, doing all of that. Liz, because we launched out as a content platform to start, she served as our chief digital officer, and that was really the bulk of our product to start with. And then tech, we really split managing that. I'd had some experience in tech in the past, and so I managed the technical requirements from a product manager standpoint, and she really focused on user experience and how that intersected.

Greg: When you hired your first employees for Motherly, what were you looking for? What do you think it's important or traits are important to have in your first employees at a startup?

Jill: Passion for the mission is most important. Over time, a business, you start to hire people in specialist roles, and that's really important. And frankly, over time, they also naturally may have slightly less of a direct connection to the mission. It becomes more part of their career and their path. The first people that you hire though, you want them to be as excited and passionate about the mission and what you're doing, so that they are willing to go outside their comfort zone in whatever their role is.

We have found, that in the early days, you need jacks of all trades. You need people that can jump into and just get smart fast into lots of different areas, versus having their lane and sticking to it. Startup life is not for the fainthearted. It requires, again, being outside of your comfort zone and constant change and agility. And so, from our experience, really finding people that were just smart and passionate, and really persistent that they were going to find a way to make something happen, those were our best early employees. And over time, we've been able to, instead of someone having seven jobs, they can increasingly have one or two jobs at Motherly.

Greg: How did you raise your first funds from investors? Was it after you did the accelerator program?

Jill: Yes. So, we went and had a demo day at Google headquarters in New York, and then also in San Francisco. And, we started our capital raise then. And we were, this is 2015, early 2016, and we were two millennial mothers as a co-founding team. This is before the Me Too Movement, and before, I think, women really found their voices, and before there were more female investors in Silicon Valley and in venture funds. And, it was incredibly challenging.

We came in with a very professional deck, a lot of traction already, and a really exciting TAM. And, we were often told what a lot of female founders that come with more female-oriented businesses as their audience. We were told, "I'm going to go check with my assistant and see what she thinks of this," or, "I'm going to talk to my wife about this tonight." And, that was challenging. It was a really challenging time. Basically, the overall message was, "Oh, aren't you cute? Good luck with that," in the very beginning. And so, we had to, what I believe is the cornerstone of success, is really passion and persistence in how they come together. And so, we knew that we were right. We knew that there was something there.

And so, we went out and moved away from institutional investors at first, and we raised through friends and family and did an angel round, raised much less than we thought we needed and got really scrappy. Our initial writers for Motherly, we had a great amount that we were paying them per article, and we told them we could pay them half now and we'd pay them the other half once we raised capital. And again, people that are passionate and committed to what we were doing, they all did it. And we paid them all in the end. So we raised through a friends and family round, and then, about a year later, we had an inbound interest for a very strategic investment that ended up leading our seed, and ultimately, doing two tranches, but over the course of two years for that seed round.

Greg: So, after you raised your first capital, what were your sort of first managerial hires? You hire individual contributors in the beginning, and hiring your first managers is, I think, actually more challenging from my personal experience.

Jill: Content was very clear for us, that we were building out a content department first. And there's some very clear hierarchies and systems and structures in place in the content world, and so it was kind of a no-brainer for us that we were hiring on individual writers, then we were hiring on editors, and then we were hiring on editorial director, editor-in-chief, and the such. So, content was the first place that we really started to build out a structure within the business, including managers.

Greg: I know that many founders don't realize, when they go to found a company, that they're actually going to be running sales. So, how did you approach that and hiring your first sales people or people on the growth side?

Jill: So, as a repeat founder, I did know that I was the person that would be in that sales role. There's no one that's going to tell your story better than you in those beginning days, and you are evangelizing your product and your brand, and that passion is often what's contagious and what gets you your first clients, and so it is incredibly important. Just like with fundraising, you can't outsource that. That has to be at the founder level. And so, I did know that we would be in sales, although we did not try to monetize initially.

People came to us from a sales perspective and wanted to work with us, so that made it easy to start with. And then we had a couple with traction. And then actually, our first salesperson came to us too and said, "I've been in this world and digital media for a while. I'm an audience member, a user of Motherly, and I just don't see you monetizing us fully as you could. I'd love to come on part-time and just test the waters through my network and see if we could really build out this business." And, that's how we got our first salesperson.

Greg: What were the initial monetization strategies? Was it paid advertising, product placements?

Jill: We certainly did some affiliate, and still do, from a product recommendations. Again, Motherly is trying to help this woman make decisions and empower her with information, and part of solving her problems is around products that support that. And so, shopping guides and buying guides, and just leveraging like Amazon and other things from an affiliate perspective, brought in some revenue in the very early days.

What we really started to monetize was a couple of years in with that that sales person. Once we got things beyond where real sales techniques started to be needed and building out pipelines and the such was around digital media and advertising. And so, still today, that is the primary revenue stream for Motherly. We have large blue chip companies that come to Motherly to run custom campaigns. And so that may be sponsoring our podcasts, the Motherly podcast. It may be writing custom articles for them, sponsoring content or different sections, doing social. It really runs the gamut what we can do, and we really customize that to our clients who all want access to this A+ demographic that we have with today's modern mother, who's making like 80%, 85% of the purchase decisions in the country.

Greg: As a media publisher, how are you approaching balancing the needs of your demographic and the needs of your advertisers? Are those ever in conflict?

Jill: Media's a pretty well established industry, and I did not come from a media background, but my co-founder, again, being an award-winning journalist, really understood what balance was necessary there. And so, I, even as CEO, do not influence our editorial team greatly. We empower them with information and data on our audience, and they are charged with growing and scaling the audience and engagement with that audience. And so, they need to be obsessed with who she is, and therefore, creating content within our brand constraints, for her.

When we have branded content, it's very clearly illustrated or highlighted that it's branded content, and those are, in most cases, written by different editors or writers that are working specifically for that.

Again, taking a lot of the insights that we have on what resonates with our audience to create wins for the brand, wins for Motherly, and most importantly, wins for our audience in some way.

There have certainly been times though where we have turned down campaigns. We are again, evidence-based and expert driven, and we have had a couple of brands come to us, throwing money at a problem that they were having with their product, and we felt that what they were recommending or what they wanted us to write on did not align with the American Academy of Pediatrics, as an example, for safe sleep practices. And we turned down the money. Because losing that trust and credibility of our audience would really have been most detrimental to the business and to our brand.

Greg: How does advertising work in terms of the actual placements? Are you using programmatic like display ad slots, or is it something that is a little more hands on in terms of working with different parts of your editorial staff?

Jill: We certainly have some direct sold deals and do a little bit of indirect programmatic deals that leverage that kind of ad tech and the such, but that is not where the majority of the revenue is. Again, it's very custom. We're building out an essentials registry guide and a platform. We're building out new products for our clients. We're building special series within the Motherly podcast to meet the needs of what they want. But again, always putting our users at the center of that product that we're creating. And so, a lot of it's brand awareness for our clients, and it's giving them exposure to this highly coveted audience, but doing it in a way that feels value add and, again, always trying to create wins for her as well.

Greg: So, what's next for Motherly?

Jill: So, we're laser focused on doubling revenue and cutting burn this year, and just coming out of the pandemic really, really healthy in that. And we're on track, I'm proud to say. The last two quarters, we've been over goal and really excited to see the traction that we've got. Within that construct, which means being really focused on our current revenue streams, we've carved out... We're too small to say it looks like an innovation lab, but we're running a sprint right now around digital education. We'd launched our first digital education class in 2016, right after we had launched. It's something that we'd always envisioned being an important piece of Motherly from a diversified revenue perspective and a value add for our users. And frankly, the world wasn't ready for it back in 2016. But one of the few gifts that COVID has given us is people's comfort level now with digital education and video-based asynchronous education is much higher.

And so, we are now taking those classes that we have, and we are actually creating a platform approach to this. And so, we are onboarding experts, expert creators and instructors to Motherly's platform. We are in the early stages of this right now, really focused on the supply side, like how is it going to work to be a good partner to these instructors and these creators? We are finding they're very eager to work with us, that our brand stands very tall in this space, and that we are, in many ways, providing a seal of approval for them as experts by coming onto our platform. And so we'll be focused on that in the next couple of months here, and then we'll start to launch out and really focus on our marketing efforts and the demand side there. And, we'll start out with one off purchases, go to bundling subscription and also a B2B option.

Greg: I'm curious, are you building on top of a existing education platform that's white labeled into your product?

Jill: Yes. So, Motherly, interestingly, and this actually prevented a couple of investors from investing in us in the early days, I've been very adamant and purposeful about the fact that we are not a tech company. We are tech enabled. And so, we are always leveraging and outsourcing our tech. We have a product manager, a senior product manager who's amazing, and we have really strong partnerships with our providers, but we are not building tech internally at this stage. Come Series B, Series C, certainly, we can start to get efficiencies and customizations that would be better by owning that in house. But while we're iterating the product, while we're figuring out and testing, we can actually be more agile by outsourcing and layering on, getting to the 80%, 90%, and not having to invest as much, doing it that way. And so, for our classes, we're absolutely leveraging an external group.

We use Shopify for our shop. We're using Thinkific right now for our classes. And then, we're on WordPress for our main site. And so, we're integrating all of those things.

Greg: What are some of the lessons you've learned and things that you especially wish you'd known when you were first starting out as a founder?

Jill: One thing I learned over the years listening to podcasts like this, or how I built this is, that there's nothing like 10 years of hard work to look like an overnight success. And, I knew that because my father was a entrepreneur of small businesses when I grew up. And so I saw the blood, the sweat equity, the blood, sweat and tears that goes into building something. And I knew how important persistence was. But, I think so often, just as consumers out in the world, we look at businesses and we think they blew up overnight. But when you really dig in deep, you see that, in many, many, most cases, there's been 10 years of hard work, or more, going into these businesses. And so, I think recognizing that this is absolutely a marathon and not a sprint. It is a marathon made up of sprints in many cases. This is very, very tough. But, I try to remind myself that, but I still wish I had internalized that lesson from the very early days.

Greg: All right. Well, thanks for joining us on the show and sharing your journey as an entrepreneur.

Jill: Thank you, Greg. Really appreciate it.

Greg Miaskiewicz

Security expert, product designer & serial entrepreneur. Sold previous startup to Integral Ad Science in 2016, where he led a fraud R&D team leading up to a $850M+ purchase by Vista in 2018.

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