Michele Veldsman is Director of Neuroscience R&D at Cambridge Cognition and Founder and CEO of Playroom, an invitation-only secure social network for families.
Victoria talks to Michele about the premise of Playroom and its goal of giving parents a network, a safe social community where parents are able to know and easily communicate with people associated with their children and also provide specific options to maintain boundaries when it comes to their privacy and safety, the challenges families face in raising kids and maintaining a career, and new features she wants the app to include, such as finding nearby restrooms while out and about.
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VICTORIA: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Victoria Guido. And with me today is Michele Veldsman, Director of Neuroscience R&D at Cambridge Cognition and Founder and CEO of playroom, an invitation-only secure social network for your family. Michele, thank you for joining me.
MICHELE: Thank you for having me.
VICTORIA: Tell me a little bit about your journey. How did all of this get started?
MICHELE: I had some kids, and I realized quite quickly that raising children is really difficult. I don't have family close by to support me. They are a couple of hours away. But trying to manage being a professional working in a fairly intense job, looking after my kids, making sure they have everything that they need and that they can socialize, and that I have a support network around me turned out to be really difficult. And so I wanted to find a way to solve that essentially.
VICTORIA: Right. So you identified a problem from your own life in trying to manage your career, and you're raising your children without that close, immediate support.
MICHELE: Yeah, exactly, yeah. And I realized this is a problem for a lot of people that increasingly, we don't live in these sort of small communities where we're surrounded by friends and family. Increasingly, people are moving to different cities, different countries. And that support network isn't there, but there are still all of the challenges of raising kids and trying to have a career at the same time.
VICTORIA: Right. And like we were talking before we recorded, I just got back from visiting my family in Virginia, and I live in California now. So I'm familiar with some of the challenges my brother and sister-in-law are facing with childcare. Can you tell us some of the things that specifically you found really difficult in this situation?
MICHELE: A lot of the time in my working life, I found there were loads and loads of tech to kind of try and make things easier to organize things. There's just a lot out there just for my working life but not much to support my family life, of which there are actually many, many more challenges because I'm kind of trying to juggle. I'm making sure that my kids their healthcare is all right, that they're getting their vaccinations on time, that I'm applying to school places on time, that I'm making sure that they're meeting other kids their age, and they're having play dates, and organizing birthday parties, all of those things.
And then to try and fit that all into the wider day-to-day life, I found this really difficult. I spoke to other parents, and they also found it really difficult. In fact, I did some research with over 120 parents, and 70% of them found parenting really difficult or extremely difficult.
VICTORIA: That's a lot of cognitive load on a person to manage all of these different things like school, and medical, and all the things you need to buy, [laughs] and what brands are the best.
MICHELE: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. And actually, just trying to build this community around yourself is more difficult than you anticipate. So, for example, my kids went to nursery. And this is the time that they're starting to socialize and making these important connections that are really important to their development. And so as a parent, you're hearing from your three-year-old, oh, they've got this new best friend, but you have no idea how to connect to the parents of that child. And the nurseries daycare can't give out that information because, of course, there are privacy issues.
So it's really difficult to make connections to other parents to be able to do these things like play dates. Organizing a birthday party, I found what you have to do is just take an invitation, give it to the nursery or the daycare center. Hopefully, they put it in the bags of the children that are friends with your kids, and then you kind of hope that they've got it and the right people are coming. You don't know who's coming to your kid's birthday party. And this just all seemed like there could be easy solutions to solve this to really build communities that center around your children.
VICTORIA: And I love that the purpose of playroom is to really build that community of social support that you need for parents. You mentioned you started to do some research on what that would look like. And I'm wondering if there was anything that surprised you as a result of that research.
MICHELE: Yes, I was quite surprised by...I suppose in some ways, it's reassuring actually as well that a lot of parents are going through similar struggles, struggling to connect to other families and not sort of in that way of, like, as you're...it's kind of a strange thing when you have kids because when they're very young, you can still socialize with your friends and people that you meet, maybe work colleagues.
But as they get older, the focus becomes a little more around them and their friends, so making those connections are a little bit more difficult. So a lot of people struggle with that. A lot of people struggled with just keeping on top of everything. As you're saying, that cognitive load is very large; just trying to remember organizing dentist appointments, doctor's appointments, all of those things. It's a large cognitive load. And we've got enough tech now that we shouldn't have to...we should be able to put that load on to technology that can support us.
VICTORIA: And so you feel like it was reassuring almost that this was a common problem [laughs], and it wasn't just you.
MICHELE: Yeah, it's reassuring. It's always reassuring when you connect with other people to realize that they're going through similar things. It's not just you that's, you know, somehow not able to manage it all.
But the other thing I found interesting is that there's a very large spectrum of how people feel about images and media associated with their children. So you've got a really wide spectrum of people who...some parents are very happy to share a lot about their children's lives, and their photos, and things that they're proud of on the major social media platforms.
And other parents are a lot more guarded, and they don't want to share those pictures or have other people share them on platforms. So there's a massive spectrum of how people feel about the use of images and media associated with their children and also related to that of data associated with their children.
VICTORIA: Yes, and I wanted to ask you about how privacy played into your planning on how you built the application.
MICHELE: This was important to me because I had both that experience, and also, I started to become more aware of the darker sides of the major platforms where there's perhaps not as much protection for children and that, of course, children can't consent. So I found...having spoken to all of these parents, the spectrum was very wide on what people were willing to share, and how much they knew about how their data was used, and how much privacy they had on these platforms. I really wanted to ensure that that spectrum was reflected.
In playroom, within the app, it's built so that you have control over how much privacy, how openly your images, for example, of your child, can be shared. So it can be from having any images to be shared with anybody. You know, maybe we're at a birthday party, and there are a lot of children there. So there are lots of pictures where your child is in there; some people are very happy for those to be shared. Others are not wanting that shared anywhere.
So within the app, you have control over how far those sorts of pictures can be shared and with whom. But the premise of playroom is that you're essentially in a network, a community where you know everybody associated with your children. So it's not that sort of massively open network. It's very much closed and associated with just the people you know are surrounding your children.
VICTORIA: That's great, and it's very relevant for me. I just got a new camera, and I offered to take pictures for my niece's birthday party last weekend. And now I have all these photos that, I'm not sure how to share them with the parents and in a way that would be secure and provide those options. So I can understand the value of what you've built here.
MICHELE: Within playroom, there are bubbles. So if your child, for example, goes to nursery or daycare, they usually are in a room with children of a similar age, a playroom, that forms a bubble. So the nursery gives you a secure code that connects you to the other parents in that playroom. So that forms this bubble of parents associated with your children.
So if you're taking photos at an event, so let's say you have a birthday party, you take photos. There are lots of other children in those photos. You can share those photos with the people in that bubble and in that bubble alone. And then, you can set your own personal media sharing settings so that you can make it clear to other parents that I don't want you to share this to wider social media. Watermark everything, very strongly watermarked or not downloadable. Or I'm happy for you to share it within playroom itself with other people that I know. So those settings are sort of adjustable depending on your preferences.
VICTORIA: Were there any obstacles that you faced from maybe a technology or a process perspective with implementing or building the app?
MICHELE: Yeah, so there are a couple of challenges. The biggest one is data and privacy. So, of course, security is a huge priority. That's going to be the center of priorities, really, so that everything is very, very secure. Parents, of course, are conscious of security surrounding their children. To be honest, as I was saying before, with sharing of media, it's quite on the spectrum, but either way, the priority is security and then privacy.
So the use of data is an interesting one because a lot of traditional social networks, social media rely on the monetization of data. And again, this works on a spectrum where some parents flat out don't want any data associated with their children used or monetized in any way. Others are a lot more liberal about that.
My personal view and from having spoken to a lot of parents, I think there's a good middle ground in which data is used in a responsible way for the purposes of actually benefiting parents in some way. So maybe it's the use of data rather than constant targeted ads, the use of data for the provision of services. Maybe within an area, you've got a high proportion of children there, and there needs to be better childcare provisions or play activity provisions.
VICTORIA: That makes sense. So make the data more relevant in the way that it's used to provide better services to parents, right?
MICHELE: Exactly, yeah, rather than that strict sort of targeted advertising.
VICTORIA: That makes sense. And so you've had to adjust your plan for monetization based on the needs of your users regarding privacy and security, and we love to hear that founders really care about privacy and security at thoughtbot, so...
MICHELE: Yes, exactly. Yeah, I think it's really, really important, and even more so now. There's really this acknowledgment of the very large open networks that they were never really built around children, of course. I mean, why would they be? But there's been a lot of controversy recently over parents having images and their children featured in videos and things online. The child accounts run by parents have millions of followers and videos, images, and things get saved thousands of times and commented in ways that are a little uncomfortable.
So there is this sort of growing feeling that these large open networks...mostly parents just don't really know. And they do...when you become a parent, you're really excited, and you're proud, and you want to share these things with the world. And you perhaps don't think about those kinds of darker sides of things. That's really coming into the forefront now. So I think a sort of more closed community-based network is important.
VICTORIA: I agree. I've spent some time volunteering for organizations that work with children and privacy and human trafficking situations. And when you start to understand really how dark it can get for children, maybe too dark for this podcast, but security and privacy becomes the penultimate goal.
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VICTORIA: You mentioned learning all of this as part of your journey on building the app. I'm curious what you brought from your background in neuroscience into the creation of the app and maybe how that played into how you built certain behaviors and things into the features.
MICHELE: Yeah, it's kind of interesting. So my neuroscience background, I guess, has really informed how I think about child development and brain development and the importance of the developmental stages of socializing with children. It was always at the front of my mind, and one of the things that really spurred me on to create this is really knowing that as children are developing, they are learning these really important social skills, and I just wanted to foster that as much as possible. And I thought, you know, it's actually really difficult to foster that social side of things if you don't have a community naturally around you.
So I guess that's the main way that it's fed into my thinking about playroom. Other than that, I'm not too sure, actually. I think it's early stages, but I think it will probably influence some of the UX decisions, which is a big part of what I do in my day job, not the UX itself but the kind of psychology and neuroscience behind certain behaviors and how we interact with technology.
VICTORIA: I love to see founders and people who find their way into technology roles that usually come from a wide variety of backgrounds. And for me, neuroscience makes a lot of sense when you're doing these studies. Because you really are even, you know, from a scientific perspective, setting up a study and experiment to see how people will react to it. And you're proving your theory of is this how people will actually relate and connect inside the application?
MICHELE: Yes, absolutely, yeah. A lot of my job is data science. So I'm really excited to just get data in that I can really make decisions based on. I'm very much a kind of evidence-based person from my science background definitely.
VICTORIA: Yes, excellent. And maybe you could tell me more about a decision you had to make maybe early on in the development of the app that was challenging for you or you had to put a lot of time and thought into.
MICHELE: One of the things I found tricky, I suppose, is kind of being a solo founder, actually. Early on, I spent a lot of time trying to find a co-founder, and I really wanted somebody like a technical co-founder that could kind of fill the gap that I have. I don't have any formal experience in app development or anything like that, although a lot of my job involves coding and the data science side of things.
Yeah, I spent a lot of time trying to find a technical co-founder and just really struggled to find somebody that had interest, and passion, and vision that would work for playroom. And so, after a while and after speaking to a couple of mentors, I decided to save that energy of trying to find somebody and just go at it alone for now. So, you know, open to finding somebody who has a similar vision for it, but yeah, that was really a difficult thing; it always is being a solo founder. But I just am really passionate about it and kind of filled the gaps with mentors and with advisors who can help me along the way.
VICTORIA: That's so interesting. I think deciding about who you're going to bring into your inner circle when you're passionate about an idea sounds like a very difficult decision.
MICHELE: Yeah, it is, yeah, and it's a strange sort of space as well because by no means does it need somebody who has children or has an interest there. But I think it does help with the passion because it's a really specific problem. And yeah, I just haven't found anyone yet.
VICTORIA: But you have found several mentors. That sounds like it's meeting your needs in that way for now. How did you go about finding the right people to give you advice in that way?
MICHELE: A combination really of just kind of stalking through LinkedIn and connecting to people, and just chatting to people, and then also through networks of other founders, and going through accelerators, things like that where I'm kind of formally introduced to mentors. They've maybe given me warm introductions, amazing women's network where people have either given warm introductions or volunteered themselves to give advice. That's been really, really great. You sort of feel like you've got a community there already.
VICTORIA: That's great. And did you focus on local groups in the UK, or did you go just online virtual groups? Which was easier for you?
MICHELE: A combination. So I went through an accelerator that was based in London, and so that introduced me to a few people more locally and quite a wide network, actually. I also joined a women of color network called Founderland, and they're based in Berlin. And they are a really amazing support network that has quite a wide international reach but really gives you a lot of support and guidance and is completely free and just really feels like a nice, supportive community.
VICTORIA: Sounds like building a community of founders is as important as building a community for people raising children, right? [laughs]
MICHELE: Yeah, definitely. [laughs] Yeah, I think so. I think any aspect of your life that is difficult benefits from a community really because, in almost all areas, there are people who have gone through something before that want to make it easy for you or who are going through something at the same time and want somebody to talk to or to support each other.
VICTORIA: The most important thing we can be doing is building community. You have your full-time position, and then you also have your children that you're raising, and you are founding this company. How do you make time for yourself and for your own peace of mind in the week?
MICHELE: With great difficulty, yeah, [laughter] and a very supportive partner. It's a real struggle, and things sometimes have to be slower than I would like. I've got an amazing team of app developers who are absolutely brilliant and are usually chasing me rather than me chasing them, which is always really great. Again, a fantastic support network, a big community of other parent founders who know how difficult it all is. And then it's just like a lot of working evenings, taking a day off to focus on things.
VICTORIA: Yes, we're learning a technique at thoughtbot with energy coaching and coaching people on when to take breaks and how to make sure you have time for lunch and take vacations, and all of that, which I think is important for your long-term ability to maintain your momentum.
MICHELE: Yes, definitely.
VICTORIA: But I've heard from many founders, you know, the support network is one of the most important things to be able to balance everything.
MICHELE: Yes, it really is, yeah. I am susceptible to burnout, and I know it now. And I should know better because I know the kind of neuroscience of it as well. And so I do have to be really careful. I don't push myself too much. One of the good things actually, you know, my kids are school age now. So they have these half-term breaks. They have regular breaks from school, and then summer holidays, of course, Christmas, all of that, and that sort of forces a time for you to break and then spend really quality time with the kids. So it's really, really good in that way.
VICTORIA: I appreciate kind of enforced time off. [laughs]
MICHELE: Yeah, I know. [laughs]
VICTORIA: And really committing to it. It makes sense, yeah. [laughter]
MICHELE: I just realized that.
VICTORIA: UK people are better at that than I think in the U.S. generally, but it's certainly something I strive for. Sometimes even just going to a place where there's no internet access, [laughs] so good luck trying to reach me.
MICHELE: Oh yes, yeah.
VICTORIA: Well, tell me more about your interaction with your developers' team. And you mentioned how wonderful they are. What is your communication patterns with them? Do you have regular meetings set up, or what is that like?
MICHELE: So it's a company that I met through YC summer school program, got sort of chatting to them. They're really, really great with communication. So we communicate on Slack every day, get updates, have little videos of updates, and work through any issues, and then kind of weekly meetings. And yeah, it's been a really, really positive experience.
I also have recently...on top of working full-time, and doing this, and having two kids I recently had...my husband was very ill and in hospital for two months just over Christmas. And then he came out of hospital for three days over Christmas, but then I was ill and in hospital for a month. So it's been absolutely crazy just trying to look after the kids and get work going, all of this. And they've been really consistent throughout. They've just kept everything ticking away. So that's been really, really great to have that, knowing that that continues on when I've had lots of life things going on.
VICTORIA: That ability for the team to manage themselves and be proactive in their communication is something I would always advise founders to look for in a development partner. You want to see that activity on a daily basis and see the product fairly often as well. You don't want to be surprised three months later with what they built and have it not be correct, what you're looking for.
MICHELE: Yeah, it's literally been back and forth of details that need ironing out. There's always a list that I can get to in my time, and there's the acknowledgment that I'm kind of working around a full-time job.
VICTORIA: Well, what are you most excited about in your features roadmap that you could share with us?
MICHELE: I'm so excited by all of it. I have two things that I'm really excited about. The first is the bubble, so that's just the ability to immediately connect to parents in different contexts. So I can immediately connect to all the parents in my child's nursery. It makes it really easy to organize birthday parties, play dates in other contexts as well. Say, for example, my daughter started a gymnastics course. We pay for the whole gymnastics course. She then didn't really want to do it because she didn't know anybody there.
And so I think we managed about two lessons before she just really didn't want to do it anymore. And, again, I had this sort of feeling that if we were able to talk to the other parents and encourage some friendships and things, that would be really helpful for her. And just as things go along, the kids do become friends, and it's nice to be able to connect to the other parents in those contexts as well. Same thing for summer camps, any kind of setting where your kids are making new friends. And you want to get to know the parents of those friends and be able to connect to other families.
And then the other feature that I'm really excited about is just being able to with one click find things nearby, toilets, cafes, supermarkets really easily. Usually, you have, one, holding a baby, pushing a pram, toddler has to suddenly use the toilet, no idea where to find one. So just being able to one click of a button find that really near me, I think, will be really, really useful. So I'm really excited about that feature and just seeing it working nicely.
VICTORIA: Great. And then you'll get to use it in real life. [laughs]
MICHELE: Yeah, exactly.
VICTORIA: Build the change you want to see in the world. I love it. And then, if you could go back in time and give yourself some advice when this all started now that you have this hindsight, what would you tell yourself?
MICHELE: I probably would tell myself to just keep at it. Maybe don't waste time trying to fill perceived gaps in your own abilities because I can learn stuff, and I can find support, and advisors, and mentors. So probably, that's what I would focus on. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to find a co-founder that would fill these gaps that I felt like I had.
I'd come from an academic and a neuroscience background, less commercial experience, so I worried about needing somebody who would have that business side, needing somebody to have that technical side. But, in fact, I've got a lot of those skills from my career and from my jobs anyway. I can learn a lot. I managed to get myself a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Cambridge University, so I can probably pick things up. [laughs] And I also can fill in any gaps with really great mentors and advisors.
VICTORIA: I love that. And I love that this problem that you had drove you to find the solution and to push forward even if you didn't know all the answers.
MICHELE: Yeah. Exactly, yeah.
VICTORIA: Wonderful. What does success look like for playroom in the next six months or five years?
MICHELE: Six months is having the app in some of the nurseries that we've been working with so out with parents and making those communities. In five years, it's having hundreds of thousands of parents in communities and having them supported, connected to other parents, feeling like they have a safe space for themselves and their kids.
VICTORIA: I love it. And maybe you can mention even more about what the impact that can have on a parent who might be struggling to keep it all together.
MICHELE: Oh, a huge impact. So I know this personally because my husband was ill, and then I was ill. So we had three months, you know, a five-year-old and a two-year-old, each of us solo parenting and each of us with quite serious illnesses. And it was incredibly difficult. I was lucky enough that my next-door neighbor her kids are the same age and go to the same school. And actually, that's when I met them. So even though we were neighbors, we hadn't even met.
But when she found out that my husband was unwell and I was looking after the kids on my own, really stepped up and helped look after my daughter, take some of the burden off of doing all the parenting on my own, plus visiting my husband in the hospital. And then reached out to a wider community within the area, like her friends that she knows from the school, and these parents really stepped up and helped me so much, like bringing food around and being that community that everybody wants and needs.
And I feel like a lot of it came about sort of accidentally because I was in this really difficult situation, but it helped me so much. I can't even describe how much. And I just think if I can do that for lots of other parents, it will make a huge impact because it is really difficult for some people, for a lot of people.
VICTORIA: I think the impact can't be underestimated enough. I know recently I signed up for Big Sisters and Big Brothers San Diego, so it's mentorship for children in the local county. And taking some of the training courses, they say in the U.S. alone, there are 3 million children who are just neglected or abused every year. Neglect could come from not having that social support network and not being able to look after your kids or not having other ways to connect with parents to get the support you need. So I think it's a really amazing product that you're building.
MICHELE: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I completely agree that there are so many ways that it can help and actually in just bringing together communities just, sort of locally centered around your children. And yeah, as you're saying, that neglect when there are situations where people actually...parents can't cope or need help and won't reach out. It's a sort of more natural way to have a community around you.
VICTORIA: Are there any other final takeaways you'd like to leave for listeners?
MICHELE: Well, I guess for the parents, parenting is hard, and it can be lonely, and that's okay. Just try and reach out to people as much as you can and go join playroom.
VICTORIA: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Michele.
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