Missy Narula of Diapertainment: “Market research is essential”

My 1-year old would not sit still on the changing table, which is developmentally typical for a toddler. In a desperate attempt to get her to stay still on her back for a few seconds, I would sometimes hand my toddler my phone with a video playing. This setup always achieved my goal of keeping […]

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My 1-year old would not sit still on the changing table, which is developmentally typical for a toddler. In a desperate attempt to get her to stay still on her back for a few seconds, I would sometimes hand my toddler my phone with a video playing. This setup always achieved my goal of keeping her patient and entertained, but handing a toddler such an expensive device was risky! I wanted a way to keep my phone safe but display it at the perfect viewing angle to entertain a baby on a changing table. Diapertainment was born! It is designed such that the toddler views the phone through a clear tray, which keeps the phone safe.

As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Missy Narula founder of Diapertainment.

Missy Narula, the woman behind Exhale Parent is launching Diapertainment this Fall. Toddlers are developmentally curious, and one major challenge is convincing them to lie on their back patiently for a diaper change. After chasing her baby around and wrestling her on the changing table, Missy began handing her baby her phone (playing Elmo videos of course!) in hopes of entertaining her so that she could safely change her diaper. After realizing that she had just handed a thousand dollar device over to a baby who could not only hurt themselves, but so easily destroy it with a simple drop or throw, she found herself immediately wishing there was a safer option to entertain her baby on the changing table. And with that, Diapertainment was born! Diapertainment displays the phone at a perfect viewing angle for baby while keeping the phone safe.

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”?

Thank you so much for having me! I grew up in a typical midwestern town: Euclid, Ohio. My mom was a teacher and my dad was an engineer, and my parents really supported my creativity. I loved art and science, and I was committed to ice skating; every morning I would practice skating at 4:30am before school. Skating instilled in me resilience and an earnest drive for excellence that translated to most other areas of my life, including academics. While my parents always supported my ambition, they also gave me assurance that as long as I was doing my best, they were happy with me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is by Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I love this quote because it begs the reader for a creative response while reminding the reader of the brevity and privilege of life. I grew up in a normal Midwestern town, and going to Yale for college changed the trajectory of my life. After Yale, I went into investment banking, then got into Harvard Business School. Without question, my education opened doors to jobs and networks that I otherwise would not have had. I feel a tremendous commitment to leverage the privilege that I have into responsibility, and this quote is a gentle but powerful reminder of that dynamic.

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?

I loved the book Let My People Go Surfing which is the story of Patagonia’s founding. At every step, Patagonia’s founder chose authenticity. Decades later, he has built a company that is a win-win-win for employees, for customers, and for investors.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

My 1-year old would not sit still on the changing table, which is developmentally typical for a toddler. In a desperate attempt to get her to stay still on her back for a few seconds, I would sometimes hand my toddler my phone with a video playing. This setup always achieved my goal of keeping her patient and entertained, but handing a toddler such an expensive device was risky! I wanted a way to keep my phone safe but display it at the perfect viewing angle to entertain a baby on a changing table. Diapertainment was born! It is designed such that the toddler views the phone through a clear tray, which keeps the phone safe.

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. How did you overcome this challenge?

I spent part of my career working for the Boston Consulting Group. In that job, I learned that any big problem can be broken down into bite-sized modules. This skill has proven to be invaluable in building a company. My bite-sized steps have included product design, patent applications, website building, supply chain identification and testing, and countless more discrete workstreams that are all mission critical. By staying organized and slowly problem-solving piece by piece, the daunting task of building a business out of an idea was transformed into an organized series of steps.

In addition, I spent 14 years working in big businesses with sophisticated organizational structures and resources. In 2019, I left my job in private equity to found a tech company called Exhale Parent. The skills I learned from that experience included things like building a website, getting a logo designed, getting incorporated, learning Google Analytics, etc. Building Exhale Parent was a training camp for me in hands-on nitty gritty problem-solving, and it reminded me that any problem can be solved with resilience and creativity. When I first imagined Diapertainment, I had zero experience in product design or supply chain, but I dove in step-by-step through product design, patent applications, supply chain and procurement, website setup, etc. I am proud to now have an entrepreneur mindset and to have the creativity and confidence to dive into new problems.

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?

Some people advise keeping your idea a secret, but I took the opposite approach and shared my idea with many friends in the target market. This approach served two purposes: (1) it allowed me to get feedback on my proposed solution, and (2) it allowed me to ask others if they knew of any product on the market that solved the problem I was seeking to solve. Both of these purposes were exceptionally valuable, though they created a risk that others might take my idea. My view was that if others wanted to copy my idea and could do it better than me, then this product probably wouldn’t be successful in the long-term and it would be better to find that out sooner rather than later. Further, I believed that the benefit of the market research outweighed the risk.

Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?

Role models are great, but in my experience building two businesses, there is no substitute for peers. I formed relationships with several entrepreneurs at similar stages, and we became each de facto advisors to each other for both tactical and strategic advice. Role models can boost your morale, but peers can share specific advice for your stage. Personally, I have needed morale boosts on occasion, but I seek tactical advice daily!

For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

Getting started can be the hardest part, but I took it step by step. First, I needed to iterate on product design and development. My initial drawings were a pencil on paper which I then had a CAD specialist turn into a 3D spec. I then needed to turn the 3D specs into a physical product and did so by ordering 3D prints, then tweaking the 3D spec. During iterations I improved on areas such as the angle of the tray, the curve of the corners, and the size of the screw holes. Physically using the product was very important in iteration. One change I made based on usage was to add a cutout to allow a finger to push the phone out of the tray. Concurrently with finalizing product design, I sent RFPs to several manufacturers in the injection molding space. Injection molding requires a custom mold to be built for your product and has a high upfront cost. Consequently, the stakes were high in picking a manufacturer, and I reached out to ten different sources for quotes. I sourced many of these manufacturers from people in my network who had used them before; when it comes to manufacturing, knowing someone who has worked with a manufacturer is the most valuable reference step you can take. In choosing a manufacturer, I assessed quality, price, and the ability to help source and assemble accessory pieces. One of the biggest decisions I had to make was around patent applications, because the specifications of the patent application may dictate its success. I interviewed several patent attorneys and really pressed on how this item would be described in the applications to increase chances of success.

Meanwhile, I was working through many small but critical details, such as product instructions, warning labels, and box design. Thanks to Shopify, creating an initial distribution channel was among the easiest parts, and I easily tested marketing using small budgets before launching.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

[This isn’t really a mistake, more of a funny anecdote]

My funniest early feedback came from a Mom of a boy, who told me that she frequently gave her baby her phone and he once peed on it during diapering. She was ecstatic that Diapertainment would protect her phone from pee, which was an advantage I hadn’t thought of before!

The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

I had a great deal of conviction in the product from my personal experience and from my friends’ encouragement, but the best research you can do is to ask strangers about the painpoint you’re solving. I launched a survey through a market research company to ask complete strangers about their diapering habits, and the results of this survey reiterated my instinct from a numerical perspective. I learned that 91% of parents of babies 9–36 months use some form of entertainment on the changing table, and 52% of parents reported that they have handed their phone to their baby while diapering, even without a secure setup. Especially when inventing a new product category, market research can be really powerful, and it served as a tipping point for generating conviction in the product idea.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  • To increase speed to market, many things can happen simultaneously: Product design, patent applications, and sending RFPs to manufacturers all take a tremendous amount of effort, research, and iteration. To the extent possible, doing these activities simultaneously will save time. Of course, product design should be complete before submitting patents, and manufacturers will need a final product to estimate complexity and material cost, but getting patent applications and supply chain started during product design can save time in the end.
  • Market research is essential: Inventing a new product can be a long and expensive road, and getting early conviction in your product will give you stamina throughout the process.
  • The inventor community is generous: I have discovered a network of entrepreneurs and inventor networks that have proven to be generous with their time and talents. It’s very empowering to have a network of peers and mentors at my fingertips!
  • Kids benefit greatly from seeing their parents invent something: My daughter (8) tells everyone she knows about Diapertainment, and my son (5) actually created plans for his first invention, which is a crib with a side that lifts up so the baby can let herself out of the crib. I’m not sure about that idea, but I love that he now has an inventor mindset!
  • The level of fulfillment I would get from seeing a physical product is unmatched: there’s something very special about using a product that wouldn’t exist in the world without you.

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?

Just get started! Take the first step in product design and focus on getting to the next step after that. For me, the first step was to draw my idea with pencil on paper. Then, I had a 3D designer turn it into professional drawings. Inertia can be very powerful, and a new invention can prove to be daunting. However, if you just keep moving forward and taking the next small step, you can quickly start iterating on a real product.

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?

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

VC investors are in the business of creating returns, and they will not (and should not) be shy about the fact that they are investing in the hopes of getting an outsized return. Depending on the investment firm, target returns are typically 20% per year. In exchange for its capital, a VC firm will receive an ownership stake and will generally also gain Board seat(s). Depending on the ownership amount and structure, a VC firm will at minimum have a say in the business’s operations, and may even have control. As such, a company taking on venture capital should think carefully about the tradeoffs of capital and control.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I have 3 children who will always be my greatest pride. Our family values are to be kind, be creative, be persistent, and be brave, and I believe strongly that if my kiddos live these values, the world will be a better place. I’m also involved in several organizations that envision a better world. I’m on the Board of PL+US which is fighting for paid family/medical leave for all, I’m on the Audit Committee of Aspire Public Schools which is a nonprofit charter school organization, and we give 3% of company profits to diaper banks because 1 in 3 families experience diaper need.

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.

I became an entrepreneur at age 38 after ~14 years in big business. Becoming an entrepreneur was scary not only because I had so much to learn, but also because I had worked so hard to develop my professional career. In retrospect, although it seemed like my entrepreneurial endeavors did not fully leverage the career muscles I had built, I now realize that my businesses are better because I started them after building hard-earned muscles navigating through big organizations. I believe strongly that mid-career pivots can unlock creativity and authenticity that this world needs.

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.

I would love to meet Sallie Krawcheck. She was a very senior woman on Wall Street, but she pivoted to found Ellevest which is an amazing invention authentic to her — and one that the world really needs. Further, Sallie is a Mom and I do believe that Moms have superpowers!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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