How I Did It - I Left The BBC While Heavily Pregnant To Found A Parents Tech Startup

5 Min Read

In our How I Did It Series, we profile entrepreneurs whom we admire at Solid State Group, especially those who’ve made the leap from corporate life to founding their own businesses, or go above and beyond to support London’s tech industry.

Sara Tateno launched her startup Happity, helping parents to find and book local baby & toddler classes, after an experience she’d had as a new mum. She learnt to code when her son was just 6 months old and built the first version of the platform herself. Before this slightly busy period in her life, she was a Development Manager at the BBC, launching Radio 1’s visual channel in BBC iPlayer, the first fully off-schedule channel for the BBC.

Her startup Happity is for the type of underserved users she knows best, parents like herself. With her commercial acumen as an ex-management consultant and corporate strategist, and her mother-of-two-can-do attitude, her site has reached over 60,000 new parents in its first year despite operating in an area of less than 100 square miles.

Here’s how she did it.

Let’s set the context, how have you ended up here?

I had always wanted to start a business and was always having ideas growing up, but I didn’t have the confidence as a young woman or the experience to get started. When a big redundancy round came at the BBC, it felt like the right time to take the plunge. I’d had 10 years of experience by then and the redundancy package was good. The only catch was that I was also heavily pregnant by the time I left!

It was daunting facing redundancy at that point. The BBC had been a part of my identity for so long, but it was the push I needed to get my business started - I had nothing to lose.

My idea was related to my children. I’d experienced the problem of feeling trapped at home with a small child and not knowing where to go at short notice. I wanted to make it easy for new mums to get out and about and connect with other people in their local communities.

But I had no experience in technology whatsoever so had no idea how to build the idea. I knew it was a deeply held problem by women who are so often overlooked by tech, and with my background in strategy I could see the market size was in the billions in the UK alone, and that it was an enormous opportunity being missed.

From that nugget of an idea, I applied to Google Campus for Mums pre-accelerator programme and got accepted - which I started when my baby was only ten days old! I also joined the pilot programme of Mums in Technology which allowed you to bring a baby along and start to learn about coding. From there I discovered Makers Academy and jumped at the opportunity to re-train as a web developer.

I’ve spent my working life presenting analysis, working in teams, communicating and managing others. It’s been incredibly valuable to be able to apply that thinking to a technical product.

Why Happity? What’s been a great moment for you, when you realised you were achieving what you’d set out to do?

We had 2500 users in our first month of launch - despite only covering 4 London postcodes, with no marketing budget. We were getting contacted by parents who were so happy and thankful to discover the site.

After that, getting backed by a tech accelerator and securing our first paying customers. We’ve also just held a hugely successful pilot event in partnership with Mothercare which felt like a pretty major milestone!

What skills from your corporate life do you rely heavily on now?

All of it! My strengths are in market analysis and strategy, which has helped me find what direction to take the business in. I’ve spent my working life presenting analysis, working in teams, communicating and managing others. It’s been incredibly valuable to be able to apply that thinking to a technical product.

I have a well-rounded skillset, though I do think if you have a VC or banking background then fundraising is much easier. You have a better established network and already understand all the jargon and the fundraising process. For those of us new to it, there’s a lot to learn aand it’s easy to make mistakes. I read up a lot when I was getting started and the tech accelerator has helped with this too.

Was your corporate background a hindrance at all?

Sometimes investors can be wary of ex-management consultants as they can be guilty of spending too much time “strategising” and not enough time doing. Thankfully I’ve also spent time working at an operational level at Radio 1 alongside multiple functions, so I’m not afraid to get stuck in and get my hands dirty. Building the first version of the site myself was good evidence of that!

The world has changed since I started out, and there are many tools you can use to create a proxy for your MVP without much cash or development. It’s easier than ever to prove a concept and secure your first customers without building anything.

Why did you take the technical route that you did? Who does that route work well for?

I felt too far removed and inexperienced from the tech startup world and not well geared up to work with and communicate with developers. Not just that, but so many opportunities are now in the tech sector. I wanted to upskill and ensure I’d be well placed to start anything I wanted in future.

I also used to dabble in making websites as a teenager and knew I would enjoy coding, so when I discovered and the next intake at Makers coincided with my husband’s shared parental leave, it just felt like the stars were aligning!

Now I have a Technical Lead who does the coding and I focus more on the Product Management side of things. It’s a great combination of my skills. And it means we can easily have technical discussions when necessary, and I understand the decisions he takes without needing an explanation for it.

It’s definitely not necessary to retrain before starting your startup, though it felt like the right move for me personally. The world has changed since I started out, and there are many tools you can use to create a proxy for your MVP without much cash or development. It’s easier than ever to prove a concept and secure your first customers without building anything.

You have to consider how much of it is really a tech product - and does it need to be bespoke. If it does, then does it need to be bespoke right now or can you do something else to prove your concept and then raise funding? If you really need to build a product for your MVP and you don’t have a technical background, then find a consulting CTO or advisor who’s on your side and can help you navigate the process.

What do you look for in a your hires?

In the early stages of your startup, I think it’s really important that the people are really behind the idea and have a strong desire to bring this thing into the world. That’s number one. Passion for the idea. After that it’s about work ethic, how self-motivated they are and a desire to learn and stretch themselves.

What entrepreneurs do you admire?

I follow female entrepreneurs, especially ones which are a few steps ahead of me. I think they tend to have a different leadership style from what’s perceived to be ‘normal’ in a very male dominated industry. They’re more frequently solo founders too, like myself, and they demonstrate a way of building teams that I can relate to.

Rachel Carrell the CEO of KoruKids often emphasises in her job descriptions that her team members need to be not just incredibly smart, but also humble and kind. They need to be able to acknowledge there’s always room for improvement.

And Alex DePledge who was the CEO of Hassle has talked frequently about the times she cried, and that whilst she’s an incredibly strong leader, she also shared that vulnerability with her teams. I find it inspiring to see these women paving the way and demonstrating that there is more than one way to build a tech company!

We’ve interviewed more of London’s fantastic entrepreneurs who left a corporate career to found high growth businesses. Visit our blog to see other stories from ex-lawyers, consultants, accountants and more.

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