Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! I’m Ivan Fatovic, the founder and CEO of Modamily. Modamily connects people who are ready to start a family and educates them on all the different ways they can create one. We help match up men and women mostly aged 25-45, both straight and LGBTQ and connect them with likeminded people who are looking for either a romantic relationship leading to family, a platonic co-parent (usually a gay man and straight woman), a known sperm donor, or an egg donor/surrogate.
Modamily has an app that works a lot like a dating app where people can search and like people, they’re interested in and communicate with them.
We also have Modamily Concierge, where our team of matchmaker caseworkers do the searching for you and act as a guide through the process and vet potential matches for you. Modamily app subscriptions range from monthly($30/mo) to annual ($120/yr), while Concierge can be anywhere from $2K-$10K depending on the length of service. Modamily currently brings in around $13K/mo and has been featured in media all over the world including, The NY Times, WSJ, NY Post, BBC, The Atlantic, ABC News, and Good Morning America.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I had spent my whole adult life after college living in Los Angeles working in the entertainment industry, first as an actor, then in production (Greenstreet Films) and talent representation (Endeavor and 3 Arts). After years in the business, I got frustrated with how long it took to get movies made and wanted a change.
A friend of mine was working in wealth management at UBS in Beverly Hills and got me an interview. I was always trading stocks since college and envisioned myself as Bud Fox from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, where I would one day grab some whale clients and make millions managing money for them. My salary tripled overnight from my Hollywood assistant salary and I quickly aced my Series 7 and was on my way.
The year was 2008, the beginning of the financial crisis. I remember being sent to UBS headquarters in Weehawken, NJ for training in the same week that Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were on the verge of bankruptcy. It wasn’t a good sign. They ended up laying off all the young advisors and towards the end of 2009, I was unemployed and jobless. I moved back to NYC to try and find a job on the institutional side of Wall St.
Anyone who’s tried to go from the retail to institutional side of Wall St. is probably laughing right now because it’s pretty much impossible. After a bunch of failed interviews, I decided to try and do something on my own.
The story of Modamily started back in early 2011 when I was out to dinner with some friends who were mostly single women in their mid-30’s. We were all commiserating about the frustrating short term casual relationships we were finding on the mainstream dating sites of the day like OkCupid and Match.com. Many of my friends were ready to find someone they can start a family with and they didn’t have time to waste as the biological clock was ticking.
One girlfriend, in particular, was considering adoption or using a sperm donor, but she didn’t want to be a single mom by choice, she wanted to have a partner that she can raise her child with and she didn’t care as much if she were married to him. She would go out on blind dates with people she met online, and after a few drinks at the bar say something to the effect of, “I want to have 3 kids in the next 5 years,” not something the average guy wants to hear on a 1st date.
She looked me dead in the eye and said, “Ivan, I’m going to find someone that feels the same way that I do.” I joked with her and said she should be on a new kind of dating site called, DateToInseminate.com (a joke I made up). After some laughs, a few of the women asked if something like this existed and that they would consider joining a platform like that because they need to start investigating alternate options because the clock was ticking. That was the lightbulb moment.
I started researching alternate parenting and came across the concept of co-parenting. I came across an early version of co-parents.com, a competitor based in France, which back then was a poorly designed message board for people looking for sperm donors. I thought I could create a platform that is more like a mainstream dating app for people ready to start a family. Something that had some of the things people liked about the mainstream sites, profiles with big pictures, compatibility questions, and an algorithm that does more than just show you who lives close to you.
I knew in my gut that there were millions of people around the world who have delayed having children and starting a family because they were focused on making money, traveling, and other individual experiences, but eventually, most of those people will want to start a family and need to find someone that’s of a similar mindset and life experience. I had no coding, design, or relevant start-up experience and the only projects I started from scratch were film and theater productions, so I knew about telling a story, planning a production schedule, and coming in within budget. I just followed my gut and knew that I was on to something. I started going to various coffee shops around Manhattan and Brooklyn and just spent hours doing more research and figuring out how to start this company.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
One of the first people I started talking to was one of my best friends, Francis Fallon. He came from entertainment as well but then decided to quit and go to a business school in Leuven, Belgium. He recently got married and they moved to Brooklyn after he got his MBA in Europe. Francis was someone that I could bounce ideas off and also had the time to spend with me brainstorming and all he asked for in return was 1% of the company.
Even though I started the company 9 years ago, I feel there is still a huge untapped opportunity in the modern family space. There are hundreds of millions of people in our target market globally.
I arranged some startup capital from my parents and also my credit cards had plenty of available credit if needed. I convinced my parents that since they helped my sister put down the down payment for her apartment years before that, that I would use the money they promised me for my down payment to start my new business and they agreed. God Bless them because I now had $100K to start a company.
The next step was looking for a web designer (this was right before apps got huge) and developer and coming up with a company name. Ideally, I wanted to find a technical co-founder who could build the MVP for free in exchange for equity. I placed ads on Craigslist and job sites, but everyone I spoke to needed to get paid. I started asking some of my contacts for full stack developer referrals and came across a shop in the NY/NJ area. I knew I had limited funds so I made sure to secure a deal where we can guarantee the website would be designed and built for a fixed amount of $25,000. I later realized that the guys I was meeting with were designing the site UX/UI locally, but the main development team was based in Ukraine, which is how I was able to get a relatively good deal.
The 1st version of the web design went relatively smoothly, where I would give them examples from other sites of the look and functionality that I wanted and they understood what I was going for. It took us about 4-5 months to design and build the 1st version of the site. Looking back, one of the missteps I made was that we built the site using PHP/Smarty Framework which is a slightly archaic coding language. I assumed it was close enough to PHP, what Facebook and many other sites were built on, but in later years, it was always a challenge to find new developers that used that framework.
Describe the process of launching the business.
During that whole time my 1st version of the site was being built, I kept going out in NYC and talking to everyone I could find about my new idea and company and how we’re revolutionizing the way families are built. I needed to come up with a great name that encapsulated everything we were about. After much trial and error, I came up with the words Modern Family and put them together. The word ModFamily was already taken by a midwestern family that at the time just used the site to post family pictures. I took out the ‘f’ and Modamily was born as soon as I bought the domain on GoDaddy for around $9.99.
The next step was creating a logo. I ended up using a site called 99 Designs which essentially is like an audition of graphic designers who all compete to design your logo. The more money you offered, the more submissions you would receive. I chose the top tier prize of $500, gave them some references and color preferences, and said I like the idea of incorporating a ‘Gerber’ baby face somewhere in the logo, and the initial logo, which is still pretty similar to the current logo was created.
As we were getting to the end of the website MVP (which wasn’t an MVP, I was trying to include as much stuff in there as possible, something else I recommend you DON’T DO!!), it was time to figure out how the heck were we going to attract users and get some attention.
One of the other people I started talking about my new venture to was someone I met on OkCupid and later started dating. She worked in corporate PR and became as excited about the idea as I was and was a great head to also bounce ideas off of. As the design/development of the 1st version of the website product was nearing completion, she was able to get an article written in a trends website called PSFK that talked about ‘what’s a successful spouse-less person to do who wants a baby, but has a biological clock that’s running out?? There’s a new trend that’s becoming a societal force to be reckoned with called co-parenting.’ Sounds exciting right?? Well, a bunch of journalists and bloggers of the day though so as well and before you know it, we were getting calls from the media all over the world. Except there was one problem...we only had around 50 users, mostly friends and a few others scattered around the world.
The biggest lesson I would say I learned is don’t try to start a global dating site from your parent’s basement with virtually no funding. There’s a reason why companies like Facebook, Tinder, and Bumble started small in one place before they would expand to other places, don’t try to reinvent the wheel, study what other successful companies in your industry have done and done that.
Screenshot of 1st homepage prototype June 2011:
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Modamily officially launched in December 2011 and we started getting worldwide press almost immediately. The problem was we were still just starting with few non-paying members and I was a solo founder who was the only full-time person working on this, everyone else had a real job and other responsibilities.
Customers started coming in thanks to media exposure and word of mouth. I decided to start charging to weed out some of the less serious users. I also shortened our signup process so people can get to browsing and enter their information later. The problem is, most people don’t do that. A full Modamily profile would be pretty comprehensive and would include all kinds of data and questions about each person and what they’re looking for. People loved looking at full beautiful profiles but were too lazy to upload pictures and answer questions unless we required them to.
I tested all sorts of ways to increase awareness including advertising on FB and running google ads. I quickly learned that spending thousands of dollars in these places doesn’t necessarily translate into thousands of dollars back. It’s something that needs to happen in tandem with media, SEO, and other marketing. In later years, I would use FB ads for Modamily Concierge to help locate harder to find donors that my clients were looking for.
We also threw mixer events in Los Angeles and New York that drew around 50 current members and professionals in fertility. Some people were using the events to meet people they were talking to online and others used them to ask questions to the expert IVF doctors, family attorneys, and family therapists on the panel. The events were fairly inexpensive to run and members appreciated them, but I’m not sure how much they increased sales.
Google Analytics Chart of Modamily Website in 1st two years 2012-2013:
Animated Tour Video that was seen all over the world:
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Modamily is doing better than it ever has before. 2020 has seen us featured in the Wall St. Journal and NY Post among other places, with more major media to come. We consulted on the Fox “bachelorette for babies” show called Labor of Love. Our web traffic has doubled since the pandemic and our app downloads have gone up 10x.
I’m putting all the revenue and more into further developing the platform. We currently have a fulltime development team, freelance content/ SEO team, and a freelance matchmaker to help with Modamily Concierge. We have built a team of advisors that have worked at places like Tinder, Coffee Meets Bagel, Facebook, and Microsoft.
We are still a bootstrapped company and exploring a major seed raise so we can build out the team, perfect the product, and market it to the world. I’ve never been able to be nimble with the product, grow the brand, and have paid marketing all at the same time. We are now closer to that than ever before. Even though I started the company 9 years ago, I feel there is still a huge untapped opportunity in the modern family space. There are hundreds of millions of people in our target market globally. I see Modamily as a company that bridges the dating and fertility industries and I’m slowly convincing others of this as well.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Yes, learn as much about your industry as possible, reach out to people you admire and think can help, and always be the dumbest person on your team. By that I mean, as a founder/CEO you can’t do everything, you should know a little bit about everything but not be an expert at everything. Find people that are experienced in their field and give them the freedom to show that.
I also learned that just because your brand or product has been in major media, that doesn’t always translate into millions of dollars in revenue. I have been very fortunate in this regard where all of our press has been incoming phone calls from the media. The few times I tried to reach out to a journalist about our story, I would never hear back.
Most recently, the biggest mistake I made was trying to hire a team of computer science students to build our new app and website from scratch because it was significantly cheaper. They did some great things but ultimately didn’t have the experience to tackle a project of this size and scope on their own.
I had a project manager that flaked on me and it became a disaster. I made a poor decision to go live with the new app and website with only doing a basic QA. It seemed to work when I reviewed it and my student developer was growing tired of building an app and website by himself, so we decided to go live. After thousands of our customers started using it, it became apparent that there was a lot more work to do.
The lesson is you get what you pay for. I ended up having to pay professionals to fix the platform, which took many months and $$$. If I committed to spending the money upfront with a professional team, we could’ve finished in less time. It’s a mistake that I’m still paying for.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We have a pretty basic stack.
- Hosted on AWS
- React Native
- Payment processor is Stripe
- Slack is a great communication tool for your various teams
- Hubspot is great for marketing, sales, customer support (but it’s fairly expensive)
- Monday (content management)
- Firebase (analytic for the apps)
- Slidebean for deck presentations
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. Amazing stories and experiences from a veteran entrepreneur about starting a company and running one in the long term.
Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger. Talks about the importance of story and why some ideas go viral
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. An amazing take on the life of a genius who changed the world.
Get Backed by Evan Baehr. Good info on building a good deck and how to raise money.
Zero to One by Peter Thiel. Peter tells you to shoot for the stars and do something that can have an impact and change the world for the better.
Great Business Media Brands To Keep Current:
Fast Company, focused on stories about innovation in technology, leadership, and design, Bloomberg, NY Times, Techcrunch, Crunchbase, WSJ, Barrons, Fast Money on CNBC, AngelList, LinkedIn.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
When someone offers you $250K and you have 0, find a way to make the deal. I’m not saying get ripped off by someone, but find a way to work with an entrepreneur who has experience instead of haggling for a higher valuation. You can’t do everything yourself, don’t be afraid to share your company with others that can help you grow it. Eventually, the person that offered $250K initially ended up putting in $30K and bringing a friend to match (a few years after the initial offer).
Hire people with experience and passion for your idea and not just there for a paycheck. Bring inexperienced players for each department but know a little bit yourself about everything. If you can’t express yourself, how are other people supposed to know what to do?
Sometimes you need to spend more than you want. Believe in yourself, but also don’t be reckless and max out your credit cards.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I’m always looking for amazing talent, particularly designers, technical leads, products, data scientists, growth hackers, and of course matchmakers for Concierge. I see Modamily as a billion-dollar brand that’s a bridge between the dating industry and the fertility industry.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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