Michelle Kennedy: Incubating start-up success

MICHELLE KENNEDY

Having created an app that is helping millions of women at life stages from fertility to menopause, Michelle Kennedy is enabling other female entrepreneurs to realize their potential.

Michelle Kennedy was stunned. She had just finished describing to a potential investor how her fledgling app was captivating the attention of its all-women user base. The venture capitalist’s response, however, wasn’t the probing question or considered feedback she had desired.

“He simply commented that he wouldn’t be telling his wife about the app,” Michelle recalls. “His reason? If his wife got into it, he said, he wouldn’t get the attention he wanted from her! While I remained poker-faced, I just wanted to get out of that room as quickly as I could.”

It wasn’t the first time Michelle had run up against such a mindset while trying to raise funding. While prospective investors were mostly polite and genuinely impressed with her business, some others responded in ways ranging from mildly crass to jaw-droppingly awful.

Did women genuinely require an app like this? Was she aware that she’d need a male co-founder if she wanted to raise funding? How would she juggle running the business with childcare, especially when demands cropped up over the weekend? Did her husband approve of what she was doing?

Not once did Michelle lose her cool, however.

“All I could say in these situations was ‘let me tell you why I can challenge that’ and ‘let me explain how I am going to win with this business,’” Michelle recounts.

And win is exactly what she has done. As of August 2023, more than 3.5 million users engage every month with the app she started from scratch using her own savings. Peanut – whose name was inspired by the average size of a fetus at nine weeks – provides advice and a community for women at the stages of fertility, pregnancy, motherhood and menopause.

Michelle was serving as Deputy CEO of Badoo, parent company of dating app Bumble, when she had the inspiration for Peanut. Despite consuming various books and equipping herself with a full array of new baby paraphernalia, she confesses having felt underprepared for motherhood. Her friends with babies lived too far away across London to offer much of a support network. Upon returning from work late in the evening, she would therefore surf mother and baby forums online, looking for tips and chatting to others like her.

While grateful for what she found, Michelle also had a strong sense that things could be done better. Many of the existing websites she found contained stale content and their presentation and navigation weren’t all that they could have been. At times, it seemed like a bit of a free-for-all, with misleading posts left unchecked and curious outsiders coming and going as they pleased. 

Some of the existing internet platforms for mothers were fine for when they were created, but they didn’t always seem to think about my generation or those that would follow.

“Some of the existing internet platforms were fine for the era when they were created, but they didn’t always seem to think about my generation or those that would follow,” says Michelle. “They weren’t necessarily willing to tackle certain issues that women really care about. Also, today’s women want a much more contemporary digital platform.”

Peanut therefore does things rather differently. As with the dating apps that Michelle previously worked for – see Michelle Kennedy: My life – users are shown the profiles of potential connections based on their location, life stage and interests. They can swipe up to “wave at” rather than “like” other women they’d like to talk to. While free to use, enhanced access – such as instantly seeing who’s waved at you – is available for a subscription fee. 

Amid this vibrant, safe space, users chat about anything and everything. “Baby gender disappointment – have you ever had it?” enquires one post. “Stretch marks!!” is the title of another, alongside “Best bras for comfort?” However, the forums also encompass the likes of celebrity gossip, entertainment and hobbies. In addition to text-based threads, users can participate in constant live audio discussions known as “pods.”

“Peanut is about the multi-faceted nature of womanhood, which includes motherhood but much else besides,” says Michelle. “There are things we are proud to take a stand over, such as women’s reproductive rights. At the same time, we don’t allow anti-vax rhetoric in our community. We shadow-ban content until it’s been verified. We’d rather have a small, safe community than become the Wild West, even if that means forgoing some growth.”

Among Peanut’s own rich content is an initiative to recast much of the negatively charged terminology that is at times used in medical notes. Within the #RenamingRevolution, “incompetent cervix” becomes “early cervical dilation;” “geriatric pregnancy” is replaced with “35+ pregnancy;” and “barren” is superseded by “reproductive challenges.” Likewise, Peanut is promoting diversity in the representation of pregnant women and offers advertisers a library of royalty-free images of mothers-to-be of every body shape and ethnicity.

While the millions of monthly users bear testament to Peanut’s powerful appeal, it is the personal testimonies that Michelle finds most gratifying. She frequently hears stories of women who became best friends through the app, who have started a business together and even two users who now have their own podcast. “I recently saw a photo of thirty Peanut babies whose mothers had organized a mass play date,” she recalls with a smile. “It’s amazing: these women become your most powerful marketers.”

Getting it right hasn’t always been easy, though. As she built Peanut, Michelle admits to “many avoidable mistakes” along the way. After the imposition of COVID lockdowns, the company needed to find a way to help women connect even when they couldn’t meet up in person. But the resulting video chat feature proved a flop.

“Users told us they wanted video, but that turned out not to be the case,” Michelle reflects. “A lot of women had already spent most of their day on Zoom calls for work or were run down from being around their families round the clock. So, the last thing they wanted was to see their faces on video when they logged on to Peanut!”

Out of this failure, however, a success was born. Peanut switched the feature from video to audio with “pods,” enabling women to have group chats in real time. “It’s amazing,” says Michelle. “Women are delighted just to join a call effectively with strangers to chat about life. I really love that part of the app.” 

For me, being a woman is central to my global citizenship.

Having established itself in the UK, the US and Canada, Peanut has most recently moved into Mexico. The platform already had a substantial body of Spanish content addressing Latina users in the US. With many Mexican women joining via the US app store, it made sense to create a version in that country. Adoption has been strongest in cities, where women can most easily get together in person after meeting on the app.

Despite the skepticism of various venture capitalists encountered early on, Peanut has successfully raised £23 million ($29 million) from investors. If Michelle were to start out today, she says she would approach financing rather differently.

“Having worked for a private equity–backed business in my previous role, that was the only route I knew of when starting Peanut,” she says. “I didn’t contemplate the friends and family approach because I didn’t know anyone who could readily write out a check for £50,000 ($64,000) just like that. Nor were there angel networks seeking to invest in women-owned start-ups as there are today.”

While women globally are starting more businesses than ever before, the overwhelming majority of venture capital funding still goes to companies founded by men. Within venture capital firms, the investment committees – which decide on the companies that receive funding – are still typically male-dominated.

“We need more women within the venture capital universe at every stage,” observes Michelle. “If you have so few women who write the checks within these firms, it doesn’t matter how many women there are at associate and principal level. And the few women there are can easily get typecast as the “women’s company” people, with all opportunities involving female-led businesses sent their way.”

As well as speaking out, Michelle is taking direct action to address the inequity. Having realized a gain on her stake in Bumble, she created Peanut StartHER, a micro-fund investing in women and underrepresented founders of all ages, life stages, ethnicities and sexual orientations.

“My liquidity moment with Bumble was life-changing for me,” she says. “It also gave me the opportunity to invest in others, not just with my time and advice but with money. And using the Peanut brand, I can share my network. I’ve assembled a small group of brilliant women to look at potential investments a couple of times a year. We are serving as the ‘wealthy aunt’ that many entrepreneurs starting out don’t have – and opening doors for them. Men have always been good at using networks. I want to help women entrepreneurs do the same.” 

Michelle Kennedy: My life

“I grew up as an only child in Peterborough, England. With an Irish mother and a Scottish father, I never felt as if that was where I was ‘from’; it was just where we’d landed. My upbringing was supernormal. Dad was an electrician, who used to get up at 4 a.m. to go on site. Mum juggled childcare with administrative and reception work, doing early-morning and evening shifts. So, the work ethic was strong in our household. 

I feel there are elements of womanhood that unify us. 

I attended the local state-run school. My passions were ballet and theater, and I had dreams of pursuing that as a career. But Mum and Dad made it clear to me that they wanted me to become a lawyer, teacher, accountant or something else professional!

My first job was at the age of fifteen in an upmarket department store in Peterborough. Tired of being on my feet all day, I managed to upgrade to a bank cashier’s role when I was seventeen. I was the first in my family to attend university. Throughout my law degree at the University of Sheffield, I worked behind the bar at my halls of residence in the evenings and then at the bank on Saturday mornings. Sheffield was a terrific place to live. I love the north of England.

Law school was fascinating, soaking up all the theory and precedents. It was only after I qualified as a lawyer when I discovered that a key part of that career is being a salesperson and building your practice. These were alien concepts to me! I ended up going into mergers & acquisitions law, which felt glamorous and exciting. What I didn’t like was the all-consuming nature of each deal before moving on to the next one. Somehow, it left me feeling unsated. A biotech client then poached me to come and work in-house with them on their acquisitions. They didn’t have a legal department, so I set one up.

Biotech wasn’t my passion, however. A former employer then told me about a start-up company that was looking for someone to establish their legal department. When I found out the business was Badoo, a dating website, I was initially turned off! Whereas it’s pretty much the norm today, online dating was still somewhat stigmatized back then. However, the atmosphere at the company was electric. I was surrounded by thirty headphone-wearing engineers knocking back energy drinks as they wrote lines of code. The company had tens of millions of users and was growing rapidly. Being part of a pioneering organization was so exciting, especially since this was London, not Silicon Valley!

Eventually, we started working on another app which became Bumble. It was great being part of something from day one. At the same time, I had a six-month-old baby. So, I was living a double life: working in this cool tech start-up in London’s Soho by day before going home to my child by night. I was the only senior woman at Badoo and the only mother too.

For all the challenges I’ve faced as a company founder, I also know I have extraordinary privilege as a woman in the UK compared to many women worldwide. We don’t all have the same privileges, rights and opportunities. Nevertheless, I feel there are elements of womanhood that unify us. We love to support one another wherever we are. Women were the original “influencers” long before social media came along, whom people would turn to for guidance or inspiration in any village or city. For me, being a woman is central to my global citizenship.”

Using the Peanut brand, I can share my network. I’ve assembled a small group of brilliant women to look at potential investments a couple of times a year.

Contact us

Contact us

To help put you in touch with the right Private Bank team, please answer the following questions.

Are you an existing Private Bank client?

Are you an existing client?

Please fill out the form, so we can contact you.

I consent to the use of my personal information (name, telephone number and email address) by Citi Private Bank for the purpose of contacting me to send me marketing information about Citi Private Bank's wealth management products and services. I understand that my information will be used in accordance with the relevant  privacy statement for my location. I also understand I can withdraw this consent to be contacted by phone by emailing donotcall@citi.com, or email by visiting the email preference center at any time.

Please consent to the terms and conditions to continue

What profile best describes you?

I would like to discuss an investment (USD) of

I would like to discuss an investment (USD) of

I would like to discuss an investment (USD) of

Thank you for your interest in Citi Private Bank.

Our services have a minimum investment level of $5 million.

Based on the information provided, we believe that a Citigold relationship may be most appropriate for your needs.

To find out more: Visit Citigold

Thank you for your interest in Citi Private Bank.

Our services have a minimum investment level of $5 million.

Based on the information provided, we believe that a Citigold relationship may be most appropriate for your needs.

To find out more: Visit Citigold Private Client

I am interested in

Aircraft Finance
Art Advisory & Finance
Banking
Custody
Family office
Investments
inerested_in
Lending
Real Estate
Trust

Please select at least one.

I am interested in

Aircraft Finance
Art Advisory & Finance
Banking
Custody
Family office
Investments
Law Firm
Lending
Real Estate
Trust

Please select at least one.

Job title & Company

Job title & Company

Location

Location

How would you like us to contact you?

How would you like us to contact you?

Please enter your contact details

Please enter your contact details

How did you hear about us?

How can we help you?

I consent to the use of my personal information (name, telephone number and email address) by Citi Private Bank for the purpose of contacting me to send me marketing information about Citi Private Bank's wealth management products and services. I understand that my information will be used in accordance with the relevant privacy statement for my location. I also understand I can withdraw this consent to be contacted by phone by emailing donotcall@citi.com, or email by visiting the email preference center at any time.

Please consent to the terms and conditions to continue

How did you hear about us?

How can we help you?

I consent to the use of my personal information (name, telephone number and email address) by Citi Private Bank for the purpose of contacting me to send me marketing information about Citi Private Bank's wealth management products and services. I understand that my information will be used in accordance with the relevant privacy statement for my location. I also understand I can withdraw this consent to be contacted by phone by emailing donotcall@citi.com, or email by visiting the email preference center at any time.

Please consent to the terms and conditions to continue

Thank you for your interest in Citi Private Bank. A member of our team will be in touch with you shortly.