Hello Baby and Building a Best of the Year App
When was the last time you flipped through a physical photo album? Unless you’re a photographer or stubbornly old school (more power to you), chances are it’s been awhile since you printed photos for a physical photo album. That’s too bad, as photo albums can curate and house a wealth of memories and stories that can be passed down for generations.
Enter Hello Baby, an ecosystem of apps designed to help parents and future parents collect, save, and share memories of their families. In this month’s Founders in Mobile, we talked to Tim Raiter, co-founder of Hello Baby, about how he and his co-founder transitioned from building an app in Russia to Silicon Valley. Read the Q&A ahead to learn about the many challenges (and successes!) they experienced along the way.
What is Hello Baby?
Hello Baby is a smart ecosystem of parental apps, including services for future parents, such as Hello Belly, the cutest pregnancy app. We also support current parents with Hello Baby, Baby Tips, and Baby Snap.
Our goal is to provide the best parental assistant on the market for parents and future parents. We are subscription-based, and we do not rely on advertising.
One of our core concepts is to make our customers smile each time they receive a push notification from our apps. We write and design with this in mind and it’s an essential part of the Hello Baby DNA.
While other services often focus on supporting soon-to-be moms, we’re starting to focus on future dads as well. Future dads have even more questions, but there aren’t a lot of books or services for them.
We design our apps to be supportive and help with mental health, family memories, and private communication.
What was it like starting out building Hello Baby?
Hello Baby is our first service in the ecosystem. When my co-founder and I had the idea to create a digital interactive baby album around 2012, we started exploring the market to figure out if this would be a solution that parents wanted.
It was interesting being one of the first to build something fresh in this space. Even though we didn’t have a large brand behind us, we found that earlier on, it wasn’t a great place for larger, more established brands to launch. People expected larger brands to just try to sell them something and didn’t really trust the digital or app products they saw from brands.
Most of the solutions on the market were web, not mobile-first. They were difficult to use and honestly, most of them were very clunky. So we decided to build an essential mobile-first ecosystem for the “Snapchat generation” of parents.
We tried to rethink how families can save and share their baby memories in a private family circle, along with instant sharing and convenient services around it, like video stories, physical scrapbooks, other baby goods — all in one place with a simple tap.
Then we launched other services, including an app for future parents.
What was tough when you were starting out?
There are so many stories. For example, we started out building a website/desktop-first experience. We worked on it for 12 months, it was really tough. Our development team were very small.
On top of that, we had a developer who would sometimes just disappear in the middle of the day without explanation, but never wanted to talk about where he went. To this day, I don’t know where he would go. I vividly remember that he missed the day when we were planning to launch our web version. We had a poster in the office with the July 15 launch date. The day before, when almost everything was ready, he disappeared again.
That is why the web version never went out from the beta to public release. But it allowed us to focus on the mobile solution, which was the right decision. That worked out better for us. Our mobile developers were able to work quicker and more efficiently, and were more open-minded.
However, we were starting out as a subscription service. This was when the Apple App Store actually didn’t support subscription apps for anything other than music. We received the Best of the Year by Apple in 2015. So we decided to make the app absolutely free to use with the hope of going viral.
How did this lead to the next part of your business?
Because we couldn’t build a subscription app in 2015-2017, we decided to build a free version and try to raise more funding to support us. We had already been successful raising funding in Russia, where we were based. But we decided to try expanding in Silicon Valley, so that’s why we moved there. (That and, of course, for the great weather!)
Here in the US, we tested dozens of different hypotheses. We tried to include a lot of useful features into a single app. For example, we added a “Nearby” feature, which showed the best activities for babies on an interactive map. We added a “Market” section with baby goods, with a unique interface similar to Tinder showing you only relevant baby goods.
Basically, we tried to build a super app before it became a trend. When we launched all those features, they were popular, and it was a highlight for us. But the reality is that building this kind of network requires a much bigger team and a much greater financial investment in the order of millions and millions to succeed. We had only few hundreds of thousands of registered families at this time. That wasn’t enough to build a successful business with a single super app.
So we decided to split it into smaller apps and instead build an ecosystem of apps, connected together with a single account and backend.
Was there anything surprising about building a technology business in Silicon Valley versus Russia?
To be honest, we were very naive when we came to Silicon Valley and tried to raise funding. In just a few months, we realized how important connections are here. We started sending cold emails to VCs and doing a lot of name-dropping. That finally led to some interest and about 20 in-person meetings with top funds. Each time, we’d hear something from them like, “This is the best keynote that I’ve seen in my entire life.”
But after all of those meetings, we realized just how different our vision was from the investors’ vision here. We had built a super effective and cost-effective team based in Russia, and we were proud of our low burn rate. But the investors here couldn’t trust or understand the value of that. I understand now that investors wanted to see local teams and feel assured that the founders they invested in would be able to grow and hire locally. We needed to build their trust first.
After all of that, we decided not to raise funding here, we weren’t ready for it. Most of the VCs here are trying to find and invest in the next Unicorn. It’s all about growth, promise, and dream teams. If your idea can be “just” a $10-100M business — it’s just not interesting for them. Dream Big is a core concept in Silicon Valley. On the other hand, Russian VCs and business angels are ready to support teams even for smaller endeavors.
What was the impact of being named an App Store Best of the Year? Did it change or not change anything with your marketing, business, or product strategy?
It was a big honor for us. Getting proof and credibility from one of the greatest companies in the world that you’re doing something right is a big deal. It didn’t help us a lot with user acquisition, but I believe it helped us with all other aspects, such as hiring, fundraising, strategy development, etc.
Being named Best App of the Year also helped catapult us to the next level by helping us build trust with the Apple team. We always use this recognition to be one of the first to implement their newest technologies. For example, we were the first independent team in Russia that implemented Apple Pay for our scrapbooking service and we were even featured on the Apple website.
Do you have any fun stories from the Hello Baby community?
Earlier on, we created a baby album feature where we curated the best baby goods we could find. Users could swipe on the products they liked, and order them directly from the app. Most people just used the feature to like things, add them to the wish list, but not buy them.
However, we noticed that one user kept ordering a lot of baby products. We wanted to know why he was doing this, and we found out that he lived in a small city in northern Russia that didn’t have a baby store nearby. He was using our app to find and buy toys and diapers and everything. Our app was the only way he could access baby products.