Rachel Carrell, CEO of Koru Kids, explains what it’s like to raise money from investors while pregnant.
Earlier this year, I raised £3.5m for my startup, Koru Kids. Just over a month before that, I had a baby, Alexander. This post is about what it was like to do both of those things at once while also being CEO of a fast growing startup.
Lots of people know what it feels like to have a baby, and lots of people know what it feels like to raise money from investors. In case you don’t, let me explain.
Raising money from investors is a notoriously tough process. You have to pitch to many people, most of whom will tell you they don’t want to invest. Each time you hear ‘No’, you have to get over it and walk into the next meeting like a rock star. You might meet 50 people who say ‘No’ for every person who says ‘Yes’. Many will ask for extra analysis and documents, which you have to then create. Very annoyingly, many people will say ‘Maybe’ in several meetings and ask for lots of analysis before saying ‘No’. Just getting the intros and scheduling all these meetings is a lot of work, as you may need to pitch several non-investors to convince them to recommend you to their investor friend Super Awesome VC.
Meanwhile you also have to keep your business growing strongly, as flat performance is a major turnoff. This means you are doing two jobs – growing your business (normally a much-more-than-fulltime job) and fundraising. In the daytime you travel to meet investors, and in the evenings you do the extra analysis they’re asking for, plus schedule the next day, plus do your day job.In short, the whole thing is exhausting and stressful.
Having a baby is also difficult. Pregnancy involves a whole host of health challenges, most of which no one mentions until you get pregnant. Everyone knows about ‘morning sickness’ and that pregnant women are constantly tired, unable to sleep well, and need to pee all the time. There’s also about a thousand other things you can suffer from. Being pregnant is like a lucky dip where you get a bag of symptoms and unwrap them one by one. ‘Oh,I got piles.’ ‘Dammit, gestational diabetes.’ ‘Ah,severe joint pain.’
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What’s it like to do both those things at once?
The hardest part for me was actually not after the baby arrived. The hardest part was the last two weeks of pregnancy. This was driven by the fact that when you raise money, you have to get a lot of people interested in investing all at the same time. That means you have to have a lot of in-person meetings at their offices. Over the course of a month, whether you can do four meetings a day or only three could make a big difference to your outcome.
The fastest way to travel around London is by Tube. I experimented with taking taxis but they kept getting stuck in traffic and I had to get out and run to my meeting. At 9 months pregnant, running is not good. Unfortunately, the Tube also has a lot of stairs. So by the time I would get to my meeting – you really, really cannot be late – I’d be exhausted.
Pregnancy is a protected characteristic for employment, but not for investment. It is totally legal for an investor to not invest in you because you’re pregnant. Everyone I met with was far too liberal to imply that this was a factor in our conversation, but it’s hard to believe there wouldn’t be some kind of natural human bias. Most people don’t leave the house much when they’re 9 months pregnant, so people aren’t used to seeing very advanced pregnancies. Including me. Every day I would catch sight of myself in a shop window and do a double take.
At this stage, I was only operating at a negative. My clothes looked weird—I didn’t have time to shop for beautiful maternity wear—I was out of breath, and there was an unspoken question about how the birth would affect me and the business.
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To combat the pregnancy factor, I had to work very hard in the room to project the image of a competent, experienced CEO. I had to be as on-point and energetic (but calm) as I have ever been in my life.
Most meetings had several investors in them, each taking it in turns to ask me questions. I’d finish the meeting feeling totally spent, and have a couple of minutes to visit the loo and give myself a pep talk before it was back to the Tube(more walking, more stairs) and the next meeting. At the end of the day I’d go home, do the followup work and also my normal job, not sleep very long or very well, then do it all again the next day.
When you are about to have a baby you have a basic choice about how to manage your schedule. You can guess when the baby might come, and block out time, say, 2-4 weeks before this date. This will mean you’re probably not double-booking yourself, but it also means you can’t take meetings for a month. If you do that in the middle of a fundraise it will greatly affect your outcome as people will half-remember that you were raising before and assume you failed to raise because why would you do half a fundraise? That rumour will then make it even harder to raise when you decide to re-start the process. Alternatively, you can stride forward in a confident state of denial, ignoring the birth entirely and filling your calendar with meetings. No one will mind if you cancel a meeting at the last minute because you have gone into labour.
Obviously, I chose denial.
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The baby came on a Sunday. I woke up at 5.30am with contractions already fairly advanced, we scrambled to get to the hospital, Alexander arrived at 6.36am, and we went home later that day. The next morning at 9am, I had a phone call booked in with an investor I hadn’t spoken to before. The call wasn’t that hard to do, as my husband Dave could hold Alexander, who was very sleepy as babies normally are straight after birth. I did my usual pitch, with one small variation.“So,while I was running my previous company, I had a baby and noticed how difficult it was to find great childcare. Actually – well, I don’t want to freak you out, but I had another baby yesterday.’
I did two more one hour calls with investors that day. One of the calls was great. We chatted about the birth, then got to business. The other one was annoying. It was initially scheduled to be an in-person meeting, and since Alexander had arrived the previous day I’d asked if we could do a call instead. When I got on the call – the investor suggested that we postpone until an unspecified ‘later date’, as I had just had a baby.What? But we’re talking now, and it’s fine!I tried to push it, but he really didn’t want to talk and we ended up finishing after 10 minutes without achieving anything.
This happened a few times, people suggesting we delay meetings or calls ‘because there’s no hurry on our side’ and even deciding to do so without discussing with me. While they always seemed to have my best interests at heart, the effect was exactly the same as if they’d said,“I don’t agree with new mums doing fundraising, so I refuse to meet with you.” In a fundraise, scheduling is really important. It was frustrating that other people were not letting me make my own decisions.
I did my first in-person meeting 2 days after the birth. I pumped breastmilk for Alexander in case he got hungry, left him with Dave, zipped into town, spent an hour talking to an investor, and zipped back home. Aside from that we mostly did calls that week. It worked pretty well.
Some days were harder than others. Often, Alexander would be asleep when we wanted him to be awake, and vice versa.‘Come on,’ I would find myself begging him.‘Please feed, please feed!’ Feeding in public was itself tricky. I couldn’t cover up with a scarf, as Alexander hadn’t learned yet how to feed reliably and I needed to be able to see what we were doing. At one point I was in a 1:1 meeting with a male investor, feeding Alexander, trying to talk about customer lifetime value, the investor and I both trying to ignore my nipple, which was making regular appearances.
At that stage I was probably sleeping 3-4 hours during the night, broken into 2-3 chunks. I worked until about 1am every evening for several months. I suspect that there is something about natural birth and/or breastfeeding that releases hormones to help with sleeplessness. Also, the fundraise process gave me a lot of adrenalin and that probably helped get us through. I certainly wasn’t as sharp as usual, but by this stage most of the questions I was getting were ones I’d answered many times before anyway.
In the end, the investment round went really well, far exceeding our expectations. We originally intended to raise £1.5m, but ended up raising £3.5m. We had a large number of great investors who wanted to support the business—in fact, so many that we were able to choose who got to invest at the same time as substantially increasing the amount of the raise. My team in the office performed like total superstars, and Alexander and his big sister are doing really well too.
I am a person who takes on big challenges. I did a full cross country ski marathon four days after I learned how to cross country ski. I’m not scared of trying hard things. But what I’ve just described was the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted in my life. Koru Kids needs to exist, that’s what kept me going.
I don’t want to put any women off trying to fundraise while pregnant, or put anyone off starting a business while maybe wanting kids. And I DEFINITELY don’t want to send a message to investors that female entrepreneurs are going to struggle if they get pregnant. It’s fully possible to do both jobs—just difficult, that’s all.
The reality is, we all have multiple things going on in our life. Some entrepreneurs might be facing mental health challenges. Others might have family problems. You’ll never know just by looking at them. It’s never easy to create something out of nothing, no matter who you are.
And now you know what it’s like when your particular challenge is a baby.