It’s been dubbed “Tinder for mums” and it has finally reached New Zealand. Alanah Eriksen talks to the founder of a matchmaking app for women wanting to make new friends.
When Michelle Kennedy had her first child, her friends weren’t at the same stage in life and those who were, lived far away.
Leaving the house with a newborn to go anywhere that took more than 10 minutes was a daunting prospect.
So she found herself trawling outdated blogs for parenting advice in the early hours.
“I suppose what I felt most prominently – which isn’t particularly comfortable for a 30-something woman to admit – is that I was lonely.
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“It was during this time I had the realisation: women need a safe space to find friendships and support online.”
And so Peanut was born. Dubbed “Tinder for mums” when it launched in 2017 (although it has now expanded to include women from all stages of life), the app connects women around the world, whether it be to arrange real life meet-ups or to join a chat room to discuss introducing solids while trying to stay awake breastfeeding at 3am.
Kennedy, 38, a former lawyer, already had a bit of experience in swiping left and right – she was on the board for dating app Bumble, which she quit in 2018 to concentrate on Peanut full time. Before that, she was the deputy chief executive of dating site Badoo having worked her way up the ladder from her role as in-house legal counsel.
Peanut matches women based on things like their location, interests and mutual friends. If you like the look of someone you are matched with, you can “wave” at them (swipe up on their profile) and if they’ve also waved at you, you’ll be able to start chatting. Users can also join chat rooms set up on various topics or live audio or video for real-time conversations.
“As a new mum, all the emotions come into play,” Kennedy tells the Herald on Sunday from London, where the app is headquartered.
“Watching your newborn grow and change every day is truly a gift, but there are so many questions that come with motherhood. I always think of how we go to school for so long to prepare for our careers, but there is no such preparation for motherhood – it is all new territory. Even as a second-time mum, things are different than they were with my first.”
But trying to find financial backers in a male-dominated industry in those early days proved difficult and Kennedy pushed aside advice from peers to launch another dating app or one that also catered to dads.
“When I set out to create Peanut, the fact some people ‘didn’t believe in the market’ was ludicrous to me.
“Women are half of our population. Mothers make 85 per cent of household spending decisions, which accounts for $2.4 trillion alone in the US. There was once an investor who pleaded for me not to create another social network, ‘then my wife will never speak to me’. I made that meeting a short one.
“The key is, the social narrative is changing, women’s issues are at the forefront of media more than they ever have been before, and this is changing the narrative around why women’s only networks, media and spaces are critical.”
The mother of two eventually found backers, including actor Ashton Kutcher’s company, Sound Ventures, and to date has raised $31.1 million for the app, which is free to use. But she says it is still an “entirely depressing statistic” that of all venture capital raised, just 2.3 per cent went to female-founded companies last year, according to figures from Crunchbase, a San Francisco-based database of company information.
“We have to do more to change that. I’m incredibly fortunate to have supportive, strategic forward-thinking investors backing Peanut, but it hasn’t always been easy, and we must support women in sharing these stories so we can make change.”
Peanut – a name that stems from Kennedy being told when she was pregnant that her baby was the size of a peanut – is now in 14 countries with 2 million members and recently came to New Zealand where membership is doubling daily, Kennedy says.
“As a team, we’ve always admired New Zealand, a socially progressive country that has been a world leader in supporting women.”
A lot of that support is down to our Prime Minister, she says.
“Jacinda Arden is an incredibly inspiring leader and we’re in awe of what she has done regarding gender equality and the empowerment of women.
“By bringing Peanut to New Zealand, we hope to extend her mission by providing a safe space for women to share their most vulnerable, honest experiences, not solely on motherhood, but on relationships, financial wellbeing, careers, health and life. We want to ensure that all women have the opportunity to access a community that understands.”
Ardern is not the only high-profile mum Kennedy admires, and it appears it is reciprocated.
After Meghan Markle said in an ITV interview that when she was pregnant with her son Archie no one asked her if she was okay during her work as a senior royal, Kennedy wrote an open letter to her. Posted on Instagram, she told her “you are not alone, mama”. Markle responded with a phone call to thank Kennedy personally.
“It was so incredible to hear from Meghan herself.
“We spoke about the challenges of pregnancy and new motherhood, along with why safe spaces and support networks for women are so important, especially when navigating these seismic life changes.
“Coming from someone as high profile as Meghan, we were moved, and frankly saddened, by her admission that not many people asked if she was okay. We felt a responsibility to remind her that a community of women who are going through exactly what she is going through (even if some of it is on a different scale) is here to support her. It doesn’t matter who you are, womanhood is universal.
“We empathised with Meghan as women, because every mum can relate to her experience, and it’s hard enough without the world watching.”
A post shared by Michelle Kennedy (@michellekennedylon)
The Covid effect
Peanut now has a global team of 30 people, based in London, New York, Greece, France, and other European countries.
“There’s nothing more humbling than starting your own business,” Kennedy says. “I went from a big company with a finance team, HR, legal and support functions, to being all those things myself – all while trying to raise money and build the vision.”
Kennedy has hired former Bumble, Deliveroo, and Twitter staffers and says the company is committed to having a diverse team, which is made up of ethnic minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
She, of course, uses her own product and even hired someone to help on a marketing project after they connected on Peanut.
A post shared by Michelle Kennedy (@michellekennedylon)
Running a company while having two young children (Finlay, 7, and Nuala, 2) is busy enough but when Covid-19 hit, things ramped up even more. Like for millions of other companies, the requirement to switch to remote working was quick and unexpected.
“My son is now back in school so I get to do the school run with him every day and it helps add structure to the day. We are starting to go back to the office and it’s really helped add structure but I do miss those little feet running into my office from my daughter coming to say, ‘Hi’ to my Zoom participants or doodle on my call notes. If I could bottle that, I would.”
Similar to other social networking platforms, Peanut saw a 30 per cent surge in users during the pandemic.
“The pandemic has meant that the joys of motherhood can feel muted and the struggles can feel isolating.”
That’s how Peanut’s live audio function – known as Pods – was started and later came its video chat feature.
“We’ve even had a week-long running Pod of women who talked throughout their entire day as a source of connection while being at home during the pandemic.
“It’s just like hopping on the phone with a girlfriend when you need it most. It really helps me unwind at the end of a busy day.”
'That's someone I could build a friendship with'
Kennedy’s hoping to celebrate the app’s entry to the New Zealand market in real life once borders open but in the meantime, the company is recruiting Kiwi “brand ambassadors”.
Called Most Valued Peanuts (MVPs), they will be paid and “equipped with swag” to promote the app by hosting events and meet-ups.
Christchurch mother-of-one Christina Gourlay, 30, wanted to join the app as it was popular in Melbourne where she used to live.
“A lot of my friends back there have met people through it and I was gutted there wasn’t something like that available in New Zealand.
“I think it can be hard for mums because you meet lots of other mums at baby-related classes, like swimming or baby sensory, and often you have these big epic discussions about birth and pregnancy but it’s uncomfortable to take that next step and initiate a hang out or play date, or to get more in depth, getting to know each other.
“One of the other mums I’m talking to had something in her bio about how motherhood was harder than she anticipated, and she has a son the same kind of age as mine, so straight away it’s like, ‘Yay that’s someone I could build a friendship with’, I haven’t met her in person yet but we have been chatting basically since I joined the app and talk most days, just about baby stuff, work etcetera.”
The only complaint from Gourlay, whose son Ronin is 9 months, is that it “can be a bit needy” because of all the notifications that come through.
“I don’t use the app for much other than chatting – I commented on one or two of the help forums when I first joined, but I tend to ignore everything except the friend matching and chats.”
London-based Kiwi mother of one Rachael Helsby, 34, joined the app when she was pregnant this year after seeing an ad on Instagram as she didn’t know any mums in the area.
“I’ve found women are never the first communicators in life. They never messaged me first on the app but they always respond when I message them. Everyone’s so nervous to take that first step.”
She matched with one woman, Kat, whose baby, Tommy, is a month older than her 10-week-old son, Chester.
Their communication moved to Whatsapp, they became friends on Instagram and then, after the UK’s third lockdown, they met at Richmond Park for a walk. They’ve since been to a shopping centre, a bottomless brunch and met with their partners for lunch.
Helsby, who lost her sales job due to Covid, found the chat rooms helpful for networking. Also a qualified personal trainer, she posted a message asking if anyone wanted to hire her and she connected with a client whom she still trains.
Kennedy is also big on empowering other aspiring female start-ups. She’s recently launched a micro fund, StartHER, which invests in women and people from under-represented groups.
She wants to challenge “the bias and privilege” which is often a barrier to getting a company off the ground. Referred to as the “friends and family round,” she argues it is assumed everyone will have access to wealthy relatives who can spare the startup capital.
“After a year of financial instability and social unrest, we hope to offer underserved business owners the support and recognition they deserve.”
Kiwi women are eligible to apply and Kennedy’s advice for those wanting to start a business is, be prepared to work harder than you have ever done.
“There is a huge amount of sacrifice required. You will never ever work harder, you will never be more terrified but you will never ever feel prouder.”
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