As the parent of a kindergartener her father and I are swimming in mountains of ideas of things for our daughter to do after school. There are a lot of programs out there but not one central website to go to where we can check out everything. We’re just getting started and have a good 10-12 years more to plan for.
Parents in the Washington DC metro area won’t have to worry about this problem, especially going forward in 2013. Washington area startup Activity Rocket wants to be the Urban Spoon, or Flixter for after school activities.
Two ex-attorney’s and frustrated moms in Washington DC, Lisa Friedlander and Ilene Miller have created Activity Rocket to serve as a portal to the after school world for busy parents. Between the two women they have five children between the ages of 6-11 and before Activity Rocket, they had no place to start.
Now, their startup is filled with activity and program recommendations, referrals, expert written blogs, parent ratings and even calendar tools. Friedlander and Miller have made their system extremely easy to use. A parent searching for activities can go to their website and search as wide or narrow as they would like for the activities they want their child enrolled in.
Whether parents are looking for soccer, baseball, ballet, math club, computer clubs, cub scouts, girl scouts, or tutoring classes, Activity Rocket is the place to search. Right now they are solely focused on the DC metro area, but we’re willing to bet that demand will mean expansion in the coming years.
In between code revisions, meetings, car pooling, and holiday decorating we got a chance to talk with Miller about Activity Rocket, the DC startup scene and what it’s like for busy women to launch a new startup. Check out the interview below.
What is ActivityRocket?
activityrocket.com is a new, free first-of-its-kind searchable website that helps DC metro region parents of children ages 0-18 search and compare children’s afterschool activities. Expert written blogs; parent driven ratings and reviews; activity sharing, planning, and calendaring tools; hard to find special needs classes; and coupons make The Rocket the one stop destination for all of a families’ activity needs.
In layman’s terms, how does it work? (In other words how would you explain it to your grandmother)
Using activityrocket.com is search, share, simple and the best news yet is we will be launching Activity Rocket 2.0. in the spring of 2013. Moms, dads, nannies, and even grandmas will have access to even more tools for finding and booking classes, camps and sports for kids. Meanwhile, searching and browsing really is a piece of cake. When users visit activityrocket.com, they will see a blue search box where they can enter as few or as many fields as they like. If you know exactly what you want, you might enter Sports & Fitness (category), basketball (activity/camp type), 7 years (age), 20817 (zip) and all of the basketball classes and camps for 7 year olds in and around your zip code would be returned. You could then filter your results by a start date, gender, day of the week and even price.
If you are not sure what you are looking for, you can just type in your zip code or kids age and see all of the amazing classes, camps and sports that are returned. Another easy to use feature are our browse buttons at the top of the page. There you can click on “Activity,” “Providers” or “Location” and a list of all the activities and camps that meet those criteria will be returned. Parents love to browse activities to get ideas for new classes and camps their kids might want to try – like gaga, first aid, lacrosse, American Sign Language, cartooning, clay animation, djing, football and so much more. The “Provider” tab is a great way to confirm your favorite businesses – like Adventure Theatre MTC, My Gym, Friends of the National Zoo, Montgomery County Recreation Department, Brit-Am soccer – are on the website. We even have a browse button for finding those hard to find “Special Needs” classes, as well as “Activities @ School” which are businesses that will bring their activities to local public and private schools in the afterschool hours. Because the site is 100% FREE for parents and businesses – we a truly a one stop.
Who are the founders and what are their backgrounds?
activityrocket.com was founded by Lisa Friedlander and Ilene Miller – two ex attorneys and frustrated moms. Between us we have five active children ages 6-11. Lisa’s kids love sports and art and three active kids means she’s on the go 7 days a week. My two boys are currently taking basketball, tae kwon do, lego robotics, guitar and drums. Lisa and I could not understand why we could find our restaurant reservations in seconds using Open Table – Chinese food on Tuesday five miles from home at 6 pm – Done! And similarly we could book air travel from DC to CA in minutes using Expedia and find the best route, dates, time and price so that we the consumer make an informed purchase based on the criteria most important to us. Yet, when Lisa tried to find an activity – any activity – on Tuesdays at 1pm close to home for her then 3 year old, she spent hours searching the web and making phone calls to no avail.
Moreover, our kids love to take classes together and we frequently carpool. But there were no easy tools for sharing, planning, or calendaring our kids classes. We knew that the class, camp, sport finding, planning, calendaring, sharing process was ripe for disruption. We did our due diligence – talking to the moms, activity businesses, and developers and launched the beta site in Fall 2011. A year later, 50,000 plus parents attest this is their one stop for all of their activity needs. We will expand Activity Rocket to other metro areas in 2013.
Where are you based?
We are based in Bethesda, MD and serve metro Washington, DC which includes Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, MD. We have been fielding calls from Howard County, Prince George’s County, and Loudon County locally to bring Activity Rocket to those locals. We also have heard from parents in Chicago, San Diego, Denver, NY, Charlotte that they are ready and waiting for blast off!
What’s the startup scene/culture like where you’re based?
We are very lucky to be in the DC metro area where the start up scene is really exploding. We have many growing incubators and accelerators like The Fort, Dingman Center, Springboard, Revolution etc.. that are helping to cultivate companies and community. We also have events like DC Tech Week run by dynamic firms like istrategylabs that are bringing thought leaders together to dialogue. Also, our VC community including NEA, TEDCo, Grotech, New Atlantic Ventures, and many others are engaged and accessible – the benefit of a small but tightly connected community. We have thrived as a company in this environment. We have had extensive press including features on Fox 5 evening news and several articles in the Washington Post/Capital Business. Activity Rocket was recognized as one of five Hottest Start Ups at the Northern VA Technology Council’s Hot Ticket Awards earlier this year. Lisa was invited to participate in Mindshare – an exclusive, invitation-only organization for CEOs of the most promising, high tech, emerging growth companies. Also, we have been selected to pitch several local events including: Cooley Capital Call, Capital Connection/TechBuzz, Distilled Intelligence2.0, Startup Maryland which is part of StartUP America and others. Local tech press like Tech Bisnow, TechCocktail, Capital Business, and Potomac Techwire are also very start up friendly and do a great job of keeping exciting local businesses front of mind.
How did you come up with the idea for ActivityRocket?
When Lisa couldn’t find an activity on a Tuesday at 1 pm for her 3 year old and I was able to schedule travel from DC to NY in seconds, we had our aha moment at a Starbucks and created our venture on the back of a napkin. Wonder how many companies are launched over coffee. We could not believe that no one else had tackled this frustrating challenge which has been around forever. Kids love activities and parents need more faster and more efficient ways of finding them. But even once they are found, kids love taking classes and camps with friends and Activity Rocket promotes the viral sharing of classes. It also makes ratings and reviews transparent so parents can make informed decisions. And calendaring tennis on Tuesdays in the Spring becomes the push of a button with the Rocket’s cool planning tools – no more typing into your calendar all of your kids activities. We save parents time.
Meanwhile, we ensure that businesses connect with registration ready parents increasing their bottom line and reducing the time and money they need to spend marketing their great offerings. Activity Rocket is a win for parents and businesses. And research shows that its also a win for the local community – happier kids mean less kids getting into trouble and less work missed by parents. And it is a win for the economy – kids doing activities means more families purchasing equipment, supplies, uniforms – helping many businesses in the local ecosystem. We will take on global warming and world peace next.
How did you come up with the name?
We knew that we wanted the name to convey speed because we were going to be making everything faster for parents and businesses and we also wanted the name to communicate who we were and what we did. ActivityRocket was a lot better than class and camp booker, finder, searcher, planner, calendarer, reviewer! Kids and adults alike love the Rocket imagery and our new site will have some fun with this theme.
What problem does ActivityRocket solve?
Connecting busy parent with camps and classes quickly and efficiently and connecting businesses with registration ready parents.
What’s your secret sauce?
Unlike other websites that are simply advertiser funded directories with just contact information for different types of classes and camps, Activity Rocket offers parents the ability to search on key fields that they prioritize. If you care about soccer classes and will travel for them – you can find soccer classes throughout the metro region. If you never want to schlep more than 5 miles from home for your kids’ classes and camps, you can search by zip code and distance. If you only want to know what’s available for 6 year olds – you can find that too. If your budget is tight, you can find activities within a certain price range. Or you can search on all of the above. When we launch Activity Rocket 2.0, two new amazing features will be added: the opportunity to check out for all of your classes shopping cart style – so pay for your daughter’s soccer and your son’s gaming class in one transaction. No more writing multiple checks for multiple activities for multiple kids – a huge time saver. And parents will be able to save each of their kid’s registration information and use it again and again avoiding the process of filling out redundant registration forms.
Possibly our most favorite tool is how families with special needs kids can use activityrocket.com to find classes for their kids. Lisa and I are very committed to ensuring all kids have access to enrichment and this is another feature that will be even more improved in the relaunched site.
Are you bootstrapped or funded?
Our first year we were bootstrapped. We just closed our first friends, family and angel round of funding. We are thrilled to have the support of our friends and family and also several experienced angels who bring “smart money” to the table too.
What is your goto market strategy?
We have relied on many strategic marketing tactics – but earned media, social media, word of mouth, family events and strategic partnerships with local, regional and national brands like Honest Tea, Great Beginnings, What To Expect, afterschool.com and others have helped drive parents and businesses to the site. Once you try it – you keep coming back because it makes this otherwise cumbersome process so easy.
What’s one challenge you’ve overcome in the startup process?
Technology! As two technologically challenged ex attorneys, we have surrounded ourselves with a very smart tech team. We are also working with very smart teams – istrategy labs is designing Activity Rocket 2.0 and the consumer marketing experts at Kaleidescope are supporting our marketing tactics.
Who are some of your mentors and business role models?
As female entrepreneurs, we often find ourselves as the only or two of a few women in any given room/event. Luckily, we have been blessed with a network of exceptional female (and male) mentors who are advising us as we forge a path for Activity Rocket and for more women entrepreneurs. We are especially grateful to women like Elana Fine, Julia Spicer, Bobbie Kilberg, Amy Millman, Janet Van Pelt, and Mary Naylor – each trailblazers in their respective specialties. We aspire to the Lean Start Up model and read everything written by Jason Fried. And we are so fortunate to have a very long list of advisors – technology, business, finance, legal, start up, marketing, social media – who have generously donated their time and talent to our success. We also pay it forward every chance we get and take time to talk to new entrepreneurs – we are very much appreciate how hard it is to get started and how much the early support and advice of others meant to us.
What’s next for ActivityRocket?
2013 is going to be very busy. Activity Rocket will launch site 2.0 adding many enhanced features for our parents and businesses; including a brand new design and key functionalities like shopping cart purchasing and common activity registration forms for parents and premium listing and subscription services for businesses. We are thrilled to roll out our new product to the entire DC Metro area. Last year was our beta year where we learned many valuable lessons on how to best create this valuable marketplace for both parents and activity businesses; 2013 will be our execution year and we are truly excited about our future.
Do you have your ticket for the largest startup conference in the U.S.?