Making Something From Nothing: Rachel Breitenwischer and Lyndsey Wheeler Of Supernow On How To Go From Idea To Launch
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Validate the problem. You need to determine if then idea you have is actually solving a problem that really haunts people. Talk to potential customers and survey your community to get clear on the user and problem.
As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Breitenwischer and Lyndsey Wheeler.
Rachel Breitenwischer and Lyndsey Wheeler cofounded kids’ edutainment platform Supernow at the height of the pandemic. Convinced that learning should always feel like an exciting adventure, they set out to create a brand new learning experience that combined interactive, digital content, an inclusive universe of magical characters and hands-on, play based projects for kids ages 6–11.
Prior to Supernow, Rachel and Lyndsey co-founded Here/Now, a dating and human connection startup. The two met while working at the fashion tech company Rent the Runway, where Rachel served as the Director of Business Ops and Expansion and Lyndsey led product marketing for the Unlimited subscription. Rachel started her career in management consulting, helping Fortune 500 companies navigate their digital transformations while Lyndsey started in innovation consulting, where she built new products, services and experiences for brands using a design thinking approach.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
The Supernow experience was very much inspired by our own childhoods — which were filled with lots of creative projects, summer camps, performances and outdoor adventures.
My childhood can be described as constant learning, wrapped in fun and creativity. I loved making crafts, using my imagination and dreaming up worlds and stories that I was the main character in. I was a PBS kid — we weren’t allowed to watch cable cartoons, but I was obsessed with Arthur, Wishbone and most importantly Zoom. I actually auditioned for Zoom when I was eight years old because I loved the show so much (sadly I didn’t make the cut). I also attended lots of enrichment camps. I was a camper and counselor at Camp Invention (a weekly camp focused on building products and transforming old things into new masterpieces). I was also a participant in Odyssey of the Mind — a team based creativity competition. All of these experiences have deeply shaped the Supernow content that we now design for our Superkids, which weaves together learning, imagination and hands-on creation.
Lyndsey and I share the background of having a childhood defined by creativity and curiosity. I give my mom a lot of credit for this because she intentionally didn’t make learning for me a chore (i.e. “Rachel you have to spend an hour today practicing reading”) but rather she made me want to learn by letting me explore my own curiosities. So for example, she’d take me to the museum and I’d find an artist I loved and then I’d get a book from the library to read about that artist. Or we’d take a hike at the nature preserve and bring a book about wildflowers and learn about the different species. My mom’s philosophy has made its way into Supernow as we focus on child-led learning in order to spark their love of learning (instead of dread!).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve always loved this CS Lewis quote and find it motivating when building something the world has never seen before — “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
I give Brene Brown the credit for exposing me to this Teddy Roosevelt quote. I think about it a lot, especially when I’m in a moment of doubting myself or our company. It helps me snap out of it and be grateful that I had the courage to step out and embark on this wild startup adventure.
“It is not the critic who counts… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again…If he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
We’re both really inspired by Brene Brown’s style of leadership — we’re big fans of her book, TED talk and podcast — and we try to weave courage and vulnerability into the way we run the company.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?
First, you should validate the idea through initial research. Gather up friends, family and strangers for interviews and surveys to ask if people really want this product and if it is solving a real problem. Then, assess if the business model works or could work in the future. There are a lot of product ideas that customers would be crazy about but if you can’t create a real, scalable business, then it’s not worth your time. Ask yourself, “is the market big enough”, “is it scalable?, “do the unit economics make sense?”. But once you’ve concluded this could be a great business and worth the opportunity cost of your time, then just try it! Don’t be hobbled by the fear that you don’t know exactly how the product should work because no matter how hard you try, you aren’t going to get it right on your first try. So just launch your best guess and see how customers react. From there, let your customers tell you where to go next by staying close to them through interviews, surveys, and user data. Continue to pivot and adjust until you find something that is sticky.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
Start with the problem — if you observe a problem that you see lots of people dealing with, it means that there isn’t a solution that is perfectly designed for them yet. Two products on the surface may look similar, but often, there’s some aspect of the design, mechanics or positioning that make them very different. It’s important to know the competitive landscape you’re playing in so search the web and understand the category, but don’t dwell on the competition. Focus on solving problems for your customers.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why?
- Don’t get too caught up in what other startup people are doing — especially when you’ve just started and are many steps behind everyone else. It’s easy to see all the Techcrunch success stories and get intimidated, but staying heads down and focused on what you’re building is the best way to stay true to your vision and your customers. We started Supernow while quarantined in the middle of nowhere Texas, not in the middle of the NYC startup hustle and this really worked to our advantage. We were able to tune out the noise and build something without the constant distractions and comparisons. If you find yourself getting imposter syndrome, put down the article, delete Twitter and tune out the noise. You’ll sleep easier.
- When in doubt, talk to customers. It can be easy to come up with tons of cool ideas of what the product could be, but none of those matter if they don’t solve real problems for your customers. When you’re unsure of the next step, talk to your customers and they will illuminate their problems, reveal behavioral quirks and give constructive feedback that will get you unstuck. This has happened to us many times. Through the many phases of Supernow, customer feedback has helped us make the jump from summer camp to after-school enrichment, and from subscription classes to adventure club.
- Don’t get stuck to the version of your idea today — be open to pivoting. Over the lifetime of a startup, the product and execution will change a million times. Pivoting is inevitable so when you get the sense that things aren’t working, be open to change. We were always committed to our mission of cultivating a generation of kids with love and curiosity for others, the world around them and themselves, but the product itself has evolved a lot. By staying focused on the mission and not the specific features of the product, we’ve been able to adjust and evolve in a changing climate while still feeling authentic to ourselves and our team.
- Make a fundraising plan and practice. Raising money is a critical part of building a startup and being good at it requires preparation and confidence. It’s important to have a plan of attack — determining which investors to talk to, planning how you’re getting introduced and sticking to a timeline. This is not a time to just “wing it.” It’s important to practice your pitch and get feedback from other founders, investor friends, etc. because the more times you pitch, the better you are at pre-empting questions and telling your company’s story. Fundraising is a mental game so make sure you’re in the headspace to be able to tell investors they should be LUCKY to invest in you — not that you need their money. They’ll sense it. In our case, we set a very strict deadline for the raise and told investors that we’d be closing by July 1. By asserting that we were running a strict process, and condensing the timeline, we were able to get the fundraise done and move forward quickly.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Starting a business for the first time is really hard. There are lots of people who have gone before and have experienced very similar challenges to the ones you’re likely facing. Seek out peers and mentors who have done it before and ask for advice. We’ve found that fellow founders are great resources when we’re facing a new challenge that we’ve never dealt with before.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Step 1 — validate the problem. You need to determine if then idea you have is actually solving a problem that really haunts people. Talk to potential customers and survey your community to get clear on the user and problem.
Step 2 — explore the category. Part of the discovery process is understanding the category your solution would exist in. You might be an expert in the field already but there’s likely lots more to learn. Do desk research, read articles and test other products in the space for inspiration.
Step 3 — design your prototype. Once the discovery is done, develop the first version of your product. This will likely change a lot over the course of your business. Remember, the goal here is to learn a TON so done is better than perfect. You just need something for people to test or respond to.
Step 4 — pilot your solution. Recruit test subjects to pilot your solution — you could use the group of customers that you explored the problem with and also entirely new people with very little context. You’ll want to observe their behaviors, ask for their opinions, and gauge their satisfaction. Stay close to these folks.
Step 5 — iterate. You’ll quickly start gathering insights around how to improve the product and also develop hypotheses on what to test next. Try to roll out weekly tests to incrementally improve the product experience. The more you test, the faster you’ll get to product market fit.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
If you came up with the idea, you are the best person to bring it to life. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek out help. Lean into your superpowers and get mentorship for where you are gapped and bring on consultants (and eventually full time hires) to help you where you need it.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
If you can bootstrap, bootstrap you’ll maintain more control and ownership. But if you are building a business that requires upfront capital for product development or research, then consider the VC route. Also consider the VC route if scaling is important to your business model. Bootstrapped companies generally scale slower unless they are generating a lot of cash upfront to be able to reinvest in the business. We started off as bootstrapped but when we realized we wanted to build out our digital product to scale, we knew we needed outside investment.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We started Supernow during the pandemic and have been moved by the stories from families who have claimed that we’ve made their kids happier, less lonely, and more excited to learn during this challenging time. Plus we’ve provided a respite for tired and overworked parents who just need an hour back to themselves after working, teaching and taking care of their kids.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The Supernow program has been built atop the principles of Social and Emotional learning and we believe that learning values like gratitude, mindfulness and emotional self awareness are just as important as learning STEM and creativity — in fact, the two go hand in hand. Our goal with Supernow is to inspire a movement of kids who are emotionally intelligent, tolerant and resilient, and armed with the creativity to be able to face life’s challenges head on.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
We’re so inspired by the female entrepreneurs who also happen to be amazing parents too, including Sara Blakely, Serena Williams, Gwynneth Paltrow, and Reese Witherspoon. We’d love to have a roundtable with these badass founders to get advice and get them on our cap table!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Making Something From Nothing: Rachel Breitenwischer and Lyndsey Wheeler Of Supernow On How To Go… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.