How We Built A Baby Gear Rental Marketplace While Still In School

Published: October 8th, 2023
Natalie Poston
Founder, JoyLet
from Washington D.C., DC, USA
started May 2021
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Hi guys! Natalie and Alli are here. We’re the founders of JoyLet - a marketplace for monthly baby gear and toddler toy rentals. Parents can use and swap gear and toys as their babies grow from birth to kindergarten. We started the company in 2021 while we were in business school, to help parents gain flexibility while saving time, money, space, waste, and stress.

If you’re already a parent, I’m sure you’ll immediately get the problem that we’re solving. But if not, here’s the lowdown. The process of acquiring baby gear and toys is expensive, overwhelming, inefficient, and wasteful. Parents are wasting their precious time and many thousands of dollars for gear and toys that kids quickly grow out of or never even use.

Then, getting rid of this stuff is a pain, and a majority of items can’t be donated. Plus, our generation (Millennials and Gen Z parents) are dealing with a lot of anxiety and overwhelm in making sure babies have the right developmental gear as they move to new stages every 3 to 6 months.

Parents can rent one or more items to add to their existing gear at home or rent for travel or seasonal use. Alternatively, they can subscribe to a stage-based or activity-based bundle. Most notably, we have a Newborn Bundle of Joy that includes 9 pieces of gear that we deliver at various points in your baby’s first year. This package is designed to meet the baby’s current stage of development and we pick up the items as the baby grows out of them.

It’s crazy how quickly babies move through developmental milestones and how quickly the bulky baby gear stacks up. The parents who rent our Newborn Bundle love that they don’t have to think about what they’ll need next or deal with sourcing, storage, or reselling. We’ve curated the selection for them and then we get this stuff out of their house once their baby outgrows it.

Things have been ramping up quite a bit this year. Monthly revenue has close to tripled since the beginning of the year. Super exciting, but has certainly come with its share of growing pains!


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Alli here - starting JoyLet was a culmination of several intersections in my life. A few years ago, I was living in a small rural town without a curbside recycling program and no nearby donation centers. That meant everything I was consuming, whether it was a can of soup or an old shirt, was ending up in the trash.

I became hyper-aware of how much I was consuming and the amount of waste I was producing. It was shocking! This set me off on my journey toward minimalism and a zero-waste lifestyle.

Shortly after, I started working for United Rentals, which is a rental company for construction equipment. I had just gotten married and was starting to think about what this sustainable lifestyle looked like when you brought kids into the mix. So I started learning more.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that early parenthood is one of the most hyperconsumptive periods of our lives. I thought there had to be a better way to access this gear that’s only been used for a few months, and started questioning - why is there no United Rentals model for baby gear.

Jump forward a couple of years, I started business school at Georgetown, where I met Natalie who was becoming a stepmom herself, and at that point, everyone in our lives seemed to be having babies. Natalie had been working in marketing for 10 years before business school so our skillsets were complementary and we started to work on JoyLet as a class project.

Throughout the class, we interviewed and surveyed hundreds of parents and we saw there was a market opportunity. Afterward, we knew it was time to start exploring this to see if we could make a real business out of it in the Washington DC Metro area. Fast forward, we’ve been welcomed by so many amazing parents and are renting gear and toys all over the Mid-Atlantic.

Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.

We built our first website as a true MVP - emphasis on the “minimum” - to test initial demand. We used the customer discovery interviews to help develop our copy and worked with a web design firm to build the creative. Everything was manual at this stage because we had a test-and-learn mindset.

We were trying to test demand (did parents want to rent their gear and toys?), test our ability to manage the rental refurbishment and logistics process (can we ensure this gear looks as good as new when we’re done cleaning and inspecting it?), as well as build important partnerships (do others in this industry want to work with us?).

At first, we put out one Instagram ad and immediately got a few customers. Anyone who wanted to rent from us had to request a rental from our Squarespace site and then have a consultation call with Alli. From there, the customer would get a custom invoice from Stripe and we’d coordinate delivery and pickup via email. We even delivered the first 200 rentals personally.

Because we had such a high touch with our customers we learned a lot during this time. We realized what parents were struggling with and how we could offer convenient solutions. For example, we might get an email in the middle of the night from a parent hoping to swap bassinets because their baby wasn’t sleeping. Then, we’d head out in the morning to swap bassinets in hopes of a better night's sleep. But the lack of automation caused a ton of growing pains once things started to take off for us.

We quickly realized that no CMS could perfectly suit our needs because of our unique transaction structures. Most ecommerce solutions are not set up for rentals and the rental solutions on the market weren’t flexible enough for our needs.

As a result, we had to build our rental management system that was unique to us. Thankfully, the years Alli spent in rental management helped us anticipate exactly what we’d need. The insights we gained during the manual process of our MVP set us up to launch version 2.0 of our website this summer.

Go get the nos. Part of sharing your idea and building new relationships is getting turned down. And that’s okay.

Describe the process of launching the business.

We launched the business while pursuing our MBA graduate degrees at Georgetown’s business school. While some can feel intimidated by starting a business in school or think they need to get experience outside of school before pursuing their idea, we’d argue that there is no better place to start a business than a university. By waiting, would be-entrepreneurs lose the super valuable support that can be found within the university ecosystem.

JoyLet started in a class called Lean Startup Principles. After that initial class where we got a lot of customer feedback and had an initial business plan, we used the rest of the MBA curriculum to build our business. Essentially, any class where we could make JoyLet the group project, we. This was great because we were able to pull in help from other MBA students, professors, and alumni to push various areas of the business forward.

For example, we used one class about digital marketing to build our first market test. We built a landing page, set up experiments to test various marketing channels, and got our first customers. In another class, we learned about fundraising from both an investor and founder perspective and were able to build an initial capital-raising plan for the business.

In another class, we were able to evaluate the most environmentally sustainable and cost-effective ways to fulfill our service. We were also able to analyze the sustainability impacts of our circular business model for use in marketing and make real business decisions about how to best distribute our products to customers.

While we built the business during the program, we also had access to student pitch competitions, which gave us the initial non-dilutive capital to get going. When it came time to raise our first round of investment capital, we had already built a strong network within the Georgetown ecosystem. Tapping the alumni angel investor networks was a natural place to start and we found great support to be able to start building JoyLet full-time after the program.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Natalie here - our marketing has been super scrappy so far. I used to do public relations and integrated marketing consulting before business school so I’m used to working with multi-million dollar client budgets - but at a startup every dollar counts! So we are focused on prioritizing organic growth and being efficient in our marketing spend.

We’ve tried to be intentional about our brand voice and building relationships from the start. We want JoyLet to be a trusted source of information for parents who can face overwhelmed, decision fatigue, and mixed messaging when it comes to researching and selecting gear. We know that when you’re an expecting parent every little decision feels so consequential.

As parents ourselves we know time is a mom’s most important asset. That’s why we hope to give time back by taking the research off of her plate. Because Alli and I do all the sourcing ourselves, and because we use the gear in our homes, we’ve developed a strong POV on everything from bassinets to jogging strollers. We’ve been able to leverage this expertise on our owned channels (social media) and earned channels (earned media).

So far we’ve been quoted in top press like Parents, Scary Mommy, Yahoo!, Forbes, and others which helped us establish credibility and is great for SEO. Plus, sharing this perspective in our organic social media content allows us to build strong relationships with our community, educate on the benefits of rentals, and answer questions. One of the hardest parts of bringing a new service to market is educating customers - you have to keep explaining how it works.

We’re a market-by-market rental business so our marketing is going to look different than a traditional DTC national brand. Part of that means being active in the community you serve, which is a great way to attract initial customers.

Naturally, we’ve plugged ourselves into the parenting ecosystem and have taken every opportunity to add value when local parents have questions, we sponsor events and build community. Taking the time to invest in our local community has driven word-of-mouth awareness and organic referrals since parents know and trust us.

Of course, we’ve done paid social and paid search ads too. Right now we’re testing and evaluating these paid efforts before investing more heavily. We’re focused on measurement at the moment so we can make data-driven decisions.

Your initial customers are going to be those who are desperate for your product/service and will overcome bad marketing.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Things are going well and we’re at an inflection point where we’re ready for our next stage of growth. This summer we emerged from what we’d call our “pilot” phase and have been focused on building a tech platform and operations infrastructure that can scale, based on our pilot learnings. We’re so glad we didn’t over-invest before having more clarity about what our customers wanted us to build.

In mid-June, we relaunched our website on Shopify which has been a lifesaver. It better streamlines our operations and is a huge improvement for user experience. We’ve seen increased traffic, revenue, and AOVs since making the switch.

Looking forward, we’re focused on growing with our customers. We want to serve our families with all their big gear and toy needs from the time their baby is born until they go off to kindergarten. Therefore, we are focused on unit economics to make sure we expand our product offering and operations in a profitable way to maximize LTV.

In the long run, we envision a world where renting gear and toys is the first choice. Not only does it make life easier for young families, but it’s so much better for the planet.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Networking is everything. Some entrepreneurs are scared to talk about their idea for fear someone will take it. Anyone can have an idea. Many of our initial customers told us they had our idea. However, execution is everything, and most people aren’t going to execute on building a new business from scratch, let alone have the competitive advantage you do.

We feel the risk of talking about your idea is very low, but the upside is unlimited. When starting out it was uncomfortable to put ourselves out there and start building relationships with others in your industry. We were just starting to build a business and here we were trying to build relationships and partnerships with well-established businesses.

However, we found that most people, whether they were potential channel partners, suppliers, industry veterans, or connectors, were super helpful in catapulting us forward. We’ve found networking to be a hack for moving the business forward more quickly than trying to build it on our own.

Go get the nos. Part of sharing your idea and building new relationships is getting turned down. And that’s okay. You have to get over the fear of rejection because rejection happens a lot when building a company. Not everyone is going to be a great partner for you, not everyone will believe in your vision, and not everyone wants to invest. To find the people you want in your corner you’ll have to weed through those you don’t.

When we started raising money from investors a friend told us - it might take 50 nos to get a yes. And we think about that often because it’s so true. I also heard a story about a sales manager who incentivized salespeople to go get the nos - the more nos they go the better.

The salesforce transformed and became more successful than ever because the team was no longer afraid of the nos. This enabled them to get more yesses. Once you change your perspective to go get the nos, you will put yourself out there and eventually end up with the right yeses.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

E-commerce: Shopify

Email: Klaviyo

Automation workflows: Make

Task management: ToDoIst

Internal & External Comms: Slack

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Instead of focusing on books and resources, we tend to get the most value out of talking to other entrepreneurs who are in the trenches with us or a few steps ahead of us. Having the space to ask specific questions and have candid conversations has been so important.

On that note, the book, The Mom Test, by Rob Fitzgerald was a really helpful guide for how to talk to customers to maximize learning. The premise is that you should never ask your mom (or anyone else) if your business is a good idea. They’ll always say yes! The book teaches you how to validate whether you have a good idea without talking about your idea,

One of Natalie’s favorite podcasts is Reset with Liz Tran. She’s an executive coach for startup founders and offers lessons from Buddhism, mindfulness, and the spiritual world alongside her professional coaching advice.

We built the initial business plan for JoyLet in the Lean Canvas framework so we can’t forget that. The framework is a 1-page business model that is easy to read and helps you think through the big questions.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Just get started. When just starting, it can be tempting to do a lot of strategy planning, and desktop research, and focus on branding, design, and product development. It can feel comforting to work on these parts of the business, but at the end of the day, these things can be procrastination disguised as productivity. The real progress is going to come from putting yourself out there and starting to execute, which can be scary.

We highly recommend using the Lean Canvas and MVP frameworks to just get going. By engaging with customers, they are going to tell you what they want you to build. As we mentioned earlier, our MVP website had a form that customers would fill out to request to rent something. We’d then literally pick up the phone and call them to process their order.

We’d talk to them about how they found us, why they were interested in renting, problems they were struggling with, etc. We then processed their payments over the phone and figured out how to serve the order from there. This kind of stuff does not scale, but that wasn’t our focus at the time. We were able to have a 30-minute conversation with each of our initial customers and learn so much more about their struggles, needs, and wants to build a better product going forward.

This also applies to branding and marketing. You don’t need the best content when you’re starting out. Your initial customers are going to be those who are desperate for your product/service and will overcome bad marketing. We look back at our initial branding, social media posts, etc., and cringe!!! It’s all part of the process.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are not currently hiring any full-time positions but you can follow JoyLet on Linkedin to get notified when new positions open up. We will likely have some part-time or full-time roles open up in the new year and would love to meet candidates.

We also love working with college interns who are interested in gaining startup experience.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

Natalie Poston, Founder of JoyLet
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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