Hi everyone, I’m Max, the CEO, and Co-Founder of Caribu, an interactive video-calling app that helps kids ages 0-7 read and draw with their parents and grandparents no matter how far apart they may be.
Caribu is using tech to rapidly scale and innovate a solution for the hundreds of millions of families, across the globe, that are separated by distance and want to make memories together with their (grand)children through mobile and tablet devices. Caribu allows you to call the toddler in your life, pick out a book, and read or draw together in real-time through a shared screen video-call. An in-app library has 1000+ books from leading children’s publishers (including Highlights, Sesame Street, Mattel, Usborne, Baby Einstein, and many others) in eight languages, and coloring activities that you can draw on together. The result is an engaging experience in a carefully designed, curated, and secure platform. As our users say, “It’s FaceTime that kids don’t run away from!” Caribu has users in 164 countries and is available in the Apple App and Google Play Stores.
We saw a picture of a soldier trying to read a children’s book to his daughter through a webcam and realized we could build something better. Today, many families are separated by distance because a parent travels for work, a grandparent lives in a different state or country, a parent is deployed or the family is one of the 50% of divorced couples. Caribu’s platform opens up opportunities for children to connect with adults who can engage with them in real-time by reading and drawing together. Caribu is also partnered with Blue Star Families, a non-profit that touches more than 1.5 million military family members every year, to donate free subscriptions of Caribu to all currently serving US military.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
My Co-Founder and I met on Founder Dating in 2016. I was a White House Fellow in DC who was looking to join an ed-tech company after the fellowship. We started talking in May of 2016 and officially started working together in August of 2016.
If you’re building something with an inspiring vision that’s going to change the world or create solutions to real-world challenges, that will keep you motivated
I was born and raised in Miami, and even though I’ve lived all over the US at one point or another, Miami is always calling me home. Luckily, my co-founder just happened to be living in Miami when we met and since the ecosystem was still young we could be a “big dolphin in a small pond”.
We validated our idea, while bootstrapped, by being the finalist or winner in over 30 pitch competitions, winning over $100K in cash and prizes from organizations such as the 1776 Global Pitch Competition (with an investment from Steve Case), SXSW EDU, InterAmerican Development Bank, The Pitch Podcast on Gimlet Media, Teach For America, and Babson College. As we pitched our traction grew and we quickly acquired customers and revenue wherever we went.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
I’ve worked at almost every level of education from being a public school teacher, Gates Foundation consultant, Executive Director of Teach For America, and as a city, state, and district-level education staffer. As a first-generation American and college student and especially during my time teaching at a Title I high school, I came to the sobering reality that when it comes to building a strong foundation for literacy, the focus must be on 0-7-year-olds. Caribu was the next step in my entrepreneurial journey to reach all kids where they are.
After bootstrapping through pitch competitions, we raised $1.3M in Q2 2018 to do three things: grow our team (my co-founder and I are rockstars but couldn’t fulfill our plan for global domination by ourselves!), refresh the platform with React Native (so we’d have both an Android and iOS app, sharing the same code), and grow our content partnerships. We grew the team to 5 rockstars, were on iOS and Android, and brought on amazing content partners like Mattel, Highlights, and Sesame Street.
This is when we did a Product Market Fit survey by following Rahul Vohra’s journey with Superhuman and found that we had PMF in Glammas! A Glamma is a glamorous grandma. She’s 50-70 years old, active, professional, and a “silver” mine. She is tech-savvy, stays in touch with family on an iPad, and just like a significant portion of grandparents, controls the majority of disposable income spend in the US., makes 4x what a millennial mom makes (median net worth of ~$200K), and wants to spoil her grandchildren silly! She’s trying to build a relationship with them long-distance but FaceTime isn’t cross-platform and Skype and WhatsApp calls are, well… not a great experience with young kids. The 72M grandparents, just in the U.S., spend an average of $1,200 a year entertaining their grandkids, adding up to an $86B TAM and $39B serviceable addressable market.
Knowing that we’d have to raise more money over the summer, and knowing that raising another round of venture funding over the summer while investors were on vacation would be virtually impossible, we turned to Equity Crowdfunding. We were looking to raise only $500K. But the campaign took off, Glammas invested, and we had to shut our campaign down early when we raised $1.7M (to complete a $3M Seed Round) which made me the first Latinx founder to raise $1M in Equity Crowdfunding. Through the campaign, we not only got more users but also ended up with two NFL Players and the first female NFL Coach as investors. They immediately understood the pain point we were trying to solve.
Since then we’ve been selected for many prestigious awards such Caribu being listed as a World Changing Idea by Fast Company, I was named a Toyota Mother of Invention and one of the Top 100 Female Founders by Inc. Magazine, and Caribu was named one of TIME Magazine’s Top 100 inventions of 2019. Caribu has been featured in Forbes for three years in a row and has had over 90 international and national earned media mentions.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, we’ve got a runway, an even bigger team, and because of our recent funding and awards, partners coming to us who want to work with our brand. We had 135% revenue growth between 2018 and 2019 and improved our conversion rates dramatically. We have some big product features and marketing campaigns coming up as we keep heading towards our goal of global domination.
Caribu’s mission today is to bring families together and our future vision is that we’re the world’s premier communications tool that people use, to collaboratively learn, get entertained, and connect. Society is becoming more isolated and we rely on smartphones and tablets to keep us educated, entertained, and connected. We will change the world by creating the best and most engaging alternative for people to learn and bond with their families even when they can’t all be there in person.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
As a non-profit executive director, I learned that culture eats strategy for breakfast and brought that belief over to Caribu. As a globally distributed team, I work hard to build a culture in a remote team. All meetings are done on video-call and salaries are ranges where the employee chooses their own compensation and equity to ensure fairness between genders. The team is 50% female and 50%+ Hispanic.
There are two in-person retreats a year and throughout the rest of the year, there is a virtual happy hour every other week where everyone gets on a Google Hangout to play trivia games together. We’ve built a culture of hard work, trust, inclusion & equity, and fun as we attempt to bring families together in a more meaningful way across the globe.
I also learned that you need to get comfortable with failure. As a Type A ENTJ, failure has never been an option. I shifted my perspective and realized I wasn’t failing… I was testing a lot of hypotheses and some of those tests didn’t pan out and some did. You need to recognize what works and doesn’t work and keep moving. I co-founded a foodie startup after business school that had two significant challenges. One was that my co-founder and I had very similar skill sets. This time around I chose a co-founder that had skills that I didn’t have so we could both focus on different parts of the company and complement each other.
If it’s a smooth road it’s not worth traveling. I believe you only truly learn by making mistakes, stumbling, and having your experiments turn out differently than you expected (I don’t see those as failures). I’ve also only gotten stronger from all of the people that underestimate me. We had as much against us as we did going for us by being a female-founded startup based in Miami. For every one that found one of those things as a drawback, someone else found it to be a benefit. We never stopped hitting the pavement and beating our drum.
As a startup founder, you have to be crazy enough to think you can be an expert in everything but humble enough to know that you can’t get an A+ in everything. Mentors help fill in the gaps and can serve to give you a holistic or landscape view of your industry. Just like any relationship, a mentor should make you and your company better and help you grow your business and grow as a person. Gayle DePoli, became my mentor when we worked together at MTV and is still my mentor today. She believed in me and not only opened doors for me but pushed me through them when I didn’t believe I deserved to cross the threshold.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Help A Reporter Out for PR
- PR for TV Spots
- Facebook Ads Manager
- Pitch Competitions (you’ve got to find them online, on twitter, on f6s, and on Eventbrite)
- Braze for email campaigns
- Growth Hackers at Endrock
- Google Analytics
- Apple Connect
- Google Drive
- Superhuman for email
- Branch for deep linking
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I have to admit, I don’t follow any specific content sources, and I personally hate listening to podcasts (I’m more of a Cardi B, J Lo, Pitbull listener) but here are a few resources that are amazing and you should have them bookmarked.
Growth Supply - Great free resources. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
Eventbrite- Every time I visit a new city, personally or professionally, I attend tech events and apply to pitch in competitions so I can expand Caribu’s reach.
A great business book: Think Outside The Building- by Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If you’re building a tech platform, get a CTO as your co-founder. Make sure they can explain things to you like a six-year-old, that they have patience and don’t get frustrated doing that, and that they realize the value of having you understand their world. Also, have a BHAV (Big Hairy Audacious Vision) and keep your eyes on the prize. If you’re building something with an inspiring vision that’s going to change the world or create solutions to real-world challenges, that will keep you motivated. Also, keep track of the small wins. You will have them. Lots of them. Remind yourself that those will add up to big wins one day.
My mantra is “Have the confidence of a mediocre white man”. As a Latina, this reminds me that there are a ton of examples of mediocre white men that have accomplished a lot, and they’ve done it by exuding confidence that made other people confident in them. We women, and especially women of color, are socialized to have more self-doubt, share undeserved credit and we can become more self-deprecating privately and publicly. Ditch that, fast. If you exude that lack of confidence, you and others will very quickly believe it.
As a great philosopher once said, “the best revenge is your paper”. Channel Beyonce, and remember that the research shows that female-led companies have better financial returns.
Remember this during the down days. On the good days, remind yourself that you’re building for a more inclusive community. Women tend to build for families, other women, and the underserved. Let that fuel your passion and hunger for making your business a resounding success. There is so much noise telling women it’s hard to be a female in tech, but focus on all of the people and organizations that see it as a benefit, grow your business, and don’t sweat the haters and naysayers.
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