Motherly co-founders Liz Tenety and Jill Koziol on modern motherhood + launching Motherly

Surprise! We're bringing you a special bonus episode in anticipation of the launch of season two, featuring Motherly co-founders Liz Tenety and Jill Koziol. Listen as they describe their ambitious journey of starting Motherly as new moms themselves and the struggles of launching a startup in the motherhood space.

In this episode, Liz and Jill give advice for other women looking to launch their own startup, chat with their respective husbands on what they observed during the birth of Motherly, and Liz reveals the list of business names that Motherly could have been.

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Liz: So Jill Koziol, my co-founder at Motherly, welcome to the Motherly podcast.

Jill: Thank you, so excited to be here.

Liz: Yay, we finally have you in the studio. So, you know, one of the things that we always ask every guest at the beginning of the podcast is, what was your view of motherhood before you actually became a mom yourself?

Jill: It's a harder question than it seems when I'm just listening to the podcast. Uh, for me my vision of motherhood before was, was that there were a lot of different ways to be a mom, honestly. A lot of people told me that I was going to want to keep working when I became a mom. And I wasn't sure. The moment that I became pregnant, I felt like all bets were off. I wasn't sure how I would ultimately feel. So I surprised everyone, I think, once I had the baby and was done with maternity leave, I had a really hard time going back to work, and knew that I needed to find something more flexible. For me, because I had seen a lot of different visions of motherhood before, with working women, non-working women, lots of children, few children, I feel like I actually had a pretty open perspective on what motherhood would be, which frankly gave me a lot of freedom for what motherhood would look like for me.

Jill: And I know through talking with you, it was a little different for you. How was it for you?

Liz: When I was pregnant with my first, I was actually so worried about giving birth. Like that was this giant mountain in my future that I, which ultimately was only eight hours long, but it was this thing I couldn't see over. I was just so scared of it, I didn't understand it, and I couldn't' even believe it. There was this feeling of disbelief. I just remember thinking so much about the birth and post-partum recovery at that time, but not having an understanding, and in a way nobody really can, about how deeply and permanently motherhood would transform me. It's almost like, you said at the beginning, it's harder to sort of answer that question sitting in this seat. It's almost like I have an amnesia about my life before becoming a mother.

Jill: That's so true.

Liz: You just like forget who you were, in a way, because you transform into this new creation as a mom. And your identity, and the things that you think about just really end up permanently changing, and I didn't see that coming.

Jill: I think even though I was used to always being very in control of my life, I think because I still felt from the exterior that I was and that I was gonna, I've got this, it definitely came through for me in different ways. I had bizarre dreams when I was pregnant. One actually was when I put my daughter, my infant daughter in the refrigerator.

Liz: Oh my gosh.

Jill: So that she could just stay fresh while I went out and did some things. So I definitely had some deep-seated fears.

Liz: Totally. I had a, I had a similar recurring dream actually, not to the refrigerator, but I kept dreaming that I forgot that I was a mom. I kept dreaming that I left the house and left the baby there. And it was terrifying, but so symbolic, of like, your brain and your body know this thing is happening. And obviously you've never done this, I've' never left my kids or you've never had the refrigerator incident, but like, things are changing, and we know it, but until it's right in front of us, it's just an idea.

Jill: There's so much uncertainty.

Liz: Yeah. So I think it would be fun for our listeners to hear a bit about how motherly got started, but also how you and I actually met for the first time. We've reminisced on this several times, but what do you remember about the first time that you and I met?

Jill: I think we talk about this some that you and I had parallel lives for a while without actually meeting. Both of our husbands went to the naval academy and served in the Navy. We both went to Georgetown U for undergrad, me for graduate school at the same time. We never met during any of this.

Liz: We both lived in Washington while we worked after school.

Jill: Exactly. We had children within months of each other, even. So we had these really parallel lives that in some ways were constructing similar approaches and going through similar stages of life together without meeting. And then both of our husbands ended up going to business school out in the bay area. And we were there a year before you. And because of the military, the way the things work in the military, you know, your husband called mine and said, hey, we're coming out, we're bringing our child, six-month-old, same as my daughter at the time, can we just drop him off for a little bit while when go to a dinner? And of course, military wife said yes, of course, no problem. So that was when I met you, when you dropped your child off at my house.

Liz: For the very first time. I remember it. When you're a new mom, that idea of leaving your child, not to mention with a perfect stranger you've never met before is terrifying. But um, I actually remember having a lot of confidence in you.

Jill: Thank you.

Liz: I remember you like, I remember you had a baby carrier and you were like, ok, worst case scenario, I'm going to carry this baby around for three hours, it's gonna be fine. And I really did believe that. But you and I sort of bumped into each other on campus, we were sort of both working, we both had really small kids at the time, and we say we were friendly, but we weren't really friends. We didn't hang out.

Jill: Right, I think it's really testament actually to how different we are too, which I think has been a massive strength for motherly. We, I think, we ran in slightly different circles and were also working moms, which left not a lot of time for chit chat. But we just approached motherhood generally differently so that when I got that first email from you, really, I hadn't seen you for at least a year.

Liz: Jill was living in New York at the time. After grad school, your family moved back to Manhattan and I was still living in California. And did have this sort of epiphany moment about motherly so. I had worked in media and journalism for about 10 years before this time. I really remember I was about to go to a mother's conference at Stanford the next day. And I was standing in my tiny little grad student housing kitchen and I had that light bulb moment. I had been kind of restless professionally and was looking for something new and creative. And I really felt that moment of motherhood. The thing that I'm looking to make my impact on is motherhood. This space where there's a missing conversation is in the life that I am living. At the time I had a, I think we had one-year-olds and two-and-a-half-year-olds.

Jill: I think Kate was only at that time, about one, yeah.

Liz: So they were really small kids and we were just living this transformation to motherhood and experiencing how life changing it was. But the public conversation, the media conversation, even the way that brands were talking to and about moms, that didn't feel relevant to the lives that we were living. So that was a light bulb moment for me, and I remember my husband came home from some school event, and I sort of told him a sort of stream of consciousness, here's an idea and he was so encouraging. Like, that's a great idea Liz, you should really chase that down. And the rest is kind of history. But how do you see how it happened from there?

Jill: So at the time we were living in Manhattan. And honestly it was a really hard time for me as a mom. I was exiting my first business in the baby good space, so I had been marketing to mom, and I had invented a product and a brand in that space. So I had a little bit of kind of a pause moment of what am I going to do next. But I wasn't wanting to jump into something new, which was rare for me, in part because New York was kicking my butt. Having a two-and-a-half-year-old and a one year old, and just the physicality of motherhood that I felt at that time, living in a small apartment and moving throughout New York, and the subways and the double strollers, and the rain and the sleet and all of those things, it was just a hard time for me then. (8:55) And so when you called, or when you emailed and we set up a call, I know, first off I know you were not looking for a cofounder through that at all, but it was like a breath of fresh air for me. IT was something that immediately resonated with me and that you put words to these feelings that I was having . And it – I'm gonna tear up—it came at a really important time for me, because I was feeling a little bit lost. So it also gave a great excuse to come back to the bay area.

Liz: you might have been having rain and sleet in march, but I was actually at a picnic table outside of this grad school housing where we lived. So I knew you had worked in the baby industry and I was really emailing you to pick your brain about this idea. And we had like the most energizing hour-long conversation of my life. And I remember kind of being breathless, like we were feeding off of each other's energy, and felt so aligned immediately, and I don't know, was I that phone call or one of the next few days, you said, I don't know if you want a co founder, but I want to do this with you.

Jill: I think it was a few days later. Because I had the same feeling on that conversation. It was literally like that moment when you fall in love. It's all you can think about, that obsession that starts. And so I remember I was in a café for that first call, and I went and talked to my husband about it, and he was like, I thought you were going to take a break. But he was also incredibly supportive. I think we talk about it a lot, but how supportive our husbands have been throughout this entire process is a game changer. Who you choose to marry as a woman who is trying to shake things up in the world really really matters. So I think having both of our husbands' support for what seemed like a little bit of a wacky idea, maybe actually was incredibly important. So I talked to him about, how do I tell her that I actually want to co-found this and do this with her? So he actually kind of coached me thought that first conversation when I called you with effectively a business plan on how to take over the world through parenting.

Liz: I remember that so well. And, you know, we talk about how our superpowers align. I certainly felt like my media experience and audience development experience helped me understand how to start to speak to this woman as a mom and a modern woman, but I had absolutely no experience in business. And you literally three days later came with a business plan like, here's what we're going to do. And do you want to talk a little bit about matter and how we got from six weeks later, this first conversation to actually launching with a trademark and a website and our alpha.

Jill: Yes, it was a crazy time. I called you back, I think we set up a call to talk about what we could build. And you were really visionary in thinking about this from the content, and the commerce and community side of it, but frankly, your superpowers in content made it incredibly obvious that that was an area we should try to explore first. And my superpowers certainly in the business and execution side from my consulting days, and having it not be my first rodeo. But also understanding the power of brand, and I remember that, we immediately kind of respected and deferred to each other's superpowers for this. Because I remember we put in our own little seed money to get this started. And we spent most of it on branding, and I remember you being like, are you sure, because I think we need some writers for this business? And that's a whole another story on getting the domain, and using my graduate degree in international security studies to navigate that international domain and then ultimately we decided to launch because mother's day. If you're launching a company named motherly, then mother's day is great. Do you remember though, by the way, some of the horrible names that we had before motherly?

Liz: That was what I, that was what was coming to mind to me because I also have a distinct memory of our brainstorming of, what do we call this? I was actually reading 'Girl boss,' that awesome book by the founder of Nasty Gal at the time, and maybe sort of inspiring some of my own entrepreneurial instincts. So I actually wrote the names down, it was the only paper I had with me, so I wrote a bunch of the names down in the back cover of the book.

Jill: Oh, that's amazing, so you still have it?

Liz: I still have it in my office. So what do you remember from that brainstorming conversation?

Jill: Well, it's not what I remember from the brainstorming conversation, but what I see is on automatic renewal still, the millennial hood, that was really bad.

Liz: I definitely remember that one. But what I do remember is that we said the word motherly at some point in this conversation. This one,

Jill: It was around words that we wanted. We separated back a little bit and did almost a branding exercise and said what are the words that we want to evoke, what are the emotions that we want to evoke. And that is how motherly, I think, first came in as just a brain, not even actually as a name.

Liz: Yeah I remember we said it, once and we kind of moved on. And then we both sort of, maybe 20 or 30 minutes later said wait a minute, motherly. And I actually think the owning of that word is so crucial in our mission in the need for motherly. In other words, the fact that no one was trademarking this word was actually representative that the ideas about motherhood in our culture, in our broader culture, were really outdated. And we were like, this, this, this is a powerful word, this is an amazing word, and we wanted to start to redefine and own what motherhood represents.

Jill: That's what I really love about it. Is that it actually is a word that has meaning, but that through this community and through this generation and these women and this platform, we have an opportunity to redefine what it means. And that is really empowering to me. It really is at the crux of our mission. It's why I say that I want to change the dictionary definition of what it means to be motherly. I want to take it from being just loving.

Liz: And nurturing.

Jill: And nurturing, right. You can be loving and strong. You can be driven and caring. Put the ampersand back in.

Liz: Right. Okay. So after we had this initial idea, we launched a very early website, we actually ended up joining Matter, which at the time, was a early-stage media incubator, which means it's a boot camp program, a 20-week design thinking program which helped us take all the design ideas that we had about what we could do in our business and really own a product in a really clear vision and launch out. Can you talk a little bit about that time and what you remember in the year or two after?

Jill: Yes. So Matter was really important to us because it was actually the only time we worked co-located. Motherly is really proud to be a totally remote business. Our entire team is remote, including you and I. And that first four or five months we spent together through Matter was really important because we got that time to really hone what our superpowers were together, to really learn how to interact with one another as founders, and to talk through things like what the culture of our business will be. Those things really do require you know deep understanding of one another and what we're trying to build and alignment on that. We wanted to make sure that we were not just building something for us, but that we were getting out from behind ourselves and understanding the unique needs of our users across the board and making sure that we were building something that would be for them, by them.

Liz: So we went through this awesome program, it gave us a little bit of funding to pay ourselves and our web designer.

Jill: I don't think we paid ourselves, actually. We definitely paid a few people to help with the content. Although do you remember like, we'll pay you half now and then if we get more funding, we'll pay you the rest later.

Liz: I'm sure they remember too.

Jill: We had really, I mean, that founding team, most of which are still with motherly today, is really phenomenal, they've always been really committed to our mission. But within a month later, you moved. You moved back to the east coast. So we swapped coasts, effectively. So that was a grueling time. It's only like 25 percent of venture-backed startups actually survive the first year. And it wasn't hard because we were doing it wrong, it was hard because it's just hard to launch a business. We had the fact that we had no funding, essentially. We were venture-backed officially, but only a small amount. that we didn't have a lot of funding. I was out raising in silicon valley as two moms, with at the time, four children between us, four and under, by the way. And also talking about the mom space and media, which is totally not sexy in silicon valley. So I was having, I must have had like 80 meetings, and just constant "No"s over and over and over again. Or people really just spending a lot of time but taking a lot of time to get to that no. Which was like very frustrating. We were worried about money and then three months after launch, I was having some eyesight challenges and I actually ended up being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And so in some ways that entire first year is such a blur. Kind of like the first year of motherhood is. It was grueling in so many ways and having the physical component for me, also. Which, blessedly, I have zero symptoms from and through I was diagnosed incredibly fast through symptom onset and it doesn't affect me much as everyone at motherly can attest at all. And but that whole first year was just a lot. It was actually a lot like the first year of motherhood.

Liz: And for me, we have a very large audience, a very engaged audience now. But that first year was very lonely. I was living in a cheaper place actually because I, we weren't really paying ourselves and I was living someplace far away from my friends and family. And it wasn't taking off, like we knew we had something good but it wasn't taking off. Like the audience was still very small and we were still testing and iterating as much as we possibly could. And I do remember sometimes thinking, did I make a giant mistake? What chapter in my life is this story going to tell, or what chapter is this going to be? And kind of looking back, we see that hard time as foundational to our success in that we had to really, we couldn't, we had to really solve our problems in a genuine way and double down on what was working. But it wasn't always obvious that it was going to end up actually meeting the audience and growing in the way that it has.

Jill: Well I think that you and I are two women that don't think small, ever. And that's really important as founders of a fast-growing business, we lean into opportunities. But I also think that we were holding ourselves to the standard and the level of businesses that have been around for 10 years. And I remember a light bulb moment one time when I read something that said, there's nothing like 10 years of hard work to look like an overnight success. And again, similar to motherhood, I felt like we needed to take the pressure off of ourselves, that this doesn't happen overnight, so again that grind. I agree. At the time I would've given anything for someone on Sand Hill Road in California to give us a trunk full of money for something we knew was going to work. But the fact that we didn't have that, now, when I'm out talking about motherly and this community of 30 million women per month, and the fact that we don't spend any money on marketing, people say that wow, how do you do that? And I say that money hides a lot of problems, and we didn't have that, so we had to make sure that there was real depth and understanding of our users through that time.

Liz: So there's a lot of women listening who probably are interested, just like we were, in starting their own businesses. What advice do you have for people who may have an idea or a product that they are really passionate about but really don't know, like I did, how to get there from where they are now.

Jill: So I think one of the natural inclinations, when you have an idea for a business, is to keep it precious and to keep it quiet and to not talk about it, almost for fear that someone will steal it or run with it on your own. And My number one advice is talk about it. Get it out there to as many people in as many different forms as you possibly can. Because that feedback loop you're going to get throughout those different conversations are critical to testing it. Like you can't be inside your own head the entire time and so exactly what you did, basically. You had this idea and this concept, and had you kept that to yourself and not reached out, like, maybe it wouldn't have happened.

Liz: Totally.

Jill: So I think for me that's the number one thing is to talk about it, get it out there, get the idea there, and just keep iterating, keep moving it forward because at the end of the day, the real combination of success from my perspective and my experience has been having a real passion for what you're trying to do and the users, your customers that you're trying to solve for, and also that resilience and persistence and grit. Because it's going to be hard. It's hard for a reason. Anything worth doing that's' going to have real impact is going to be hard. So kind of fueling yourself up for those things. What about you? I know we approach things really differently from both a business and parenting and such, how would you say, what would your advice be?

Liz: I think my advice is a little bit broader which is that, you can do this. I had so many doubts about my ability to frankly run a business or even to work as much as I am as a mother of many small children, and I've surprised myself about how capable I am of this even though it's been challenging. Not to kind of box themselves in by other peoples' ideas of what's possible for their lives. You know, with remote work, with online businesses today, there's really this infinite number of possibilities, and the way that you might iterate or find your business might not even exist yet, right? So it's about crafting your own path and having the confidence that, you're not crazy. You know that you can actually do this and you can do it well.

Jill: And also, motherhood is, I think for some people, has the potential to take away from that confidence to do things outside of motherhood. But I actually think that there are so many amazing things you learn through motherhood that make you a far, I mean there are studies out there now that show this, that once someone becomes a mother or a parent, they become far more capable in the business world. Of just getting things done. And so harnessing that power and realizing that motherhood doesn't have to be this opportunity to lose yourself but to nurture yourself, and that can mean in your career. And you also might identify new needs in the world through this new experience and transformation of motherhood.

Liz: So, Jill, we always like to ask, what's the superpower that you discovered about yourself after you became a mom?

Jill: Great question. So I have always been a pretty type-A, turbo person. I think that's why everyone thought I was definitely going to be running back to work after motherhood. So I actually think that the superpower I found was empathy and connection and that I'm a really good mom. I feel like I'm raising these two daughters to be caring, empathetic people. And that I really learned that I can nurture. It really softened me. And that's a new superpower for me that is really important in running a business, frankly. So I think that newfound empathy and understanding like how to nurture my daughters has affected my marriage and softened me. It's affected my friendships, it's affected my business relationship. It's opened up this whole new soft side for me that is critical and I feel so grateful for. How about you Liz?

Liz: So, similarly I think the superpower that I discovered has really helped benefit me in my family life and at work. I think being the power of intentionally and real presence, whether that means I am with my kids after work, and my phone is literally tucked away and I can't even see it, and that I am soaking them up, we are having very meaningful connections and conversations, and I am really putting work away in another space. And I think as a CEO of a company, there are an infinite number of challenges that come up every day and instead of being overwhelmed, which Is what I would've expected that I felt, from the life that I live, I feel like I have this radical purpose in my life, and being able to come back to, here's where I can make the biggest difference at work today, here's where I can make the biggest difference in my family today, has been a massive personal growth initiative and a superpower that has been transformative for me at home and at work.

Jill: I really love that.

Liz: Jill, thank you for joining us on the Motherly podcast today.

Jill: Thank you so much for having me, this has been awesome.

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Hosted by Liz Tenety

Liz is an award-winning journalist and editor, and the co-founder of Motherly. A former Washington Post editor, she thrives on all things digital community + social media strategy. She's passionate about helping to provide women with more support, (and way less judgment), on the journey through motherhood. This podcast is an extension of her commitment to hosting honest conversations about modern motherhood. Liz resides outside NYC with her husband, two sons, one daughter and one amazing au pair.

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