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Jeremy Au in 2018 on Cofounding a Series A Early Education Marketplace, Personal Loss and Paying It Forward

· Podcast Transcripts

"How do we come together and solve the problem at the root cause issue? That's where we decided to focus on childcare. From there, CozyKin began as first steps towards solving the childcare problem." - Jeremy Au

Jeremy Au: [00:00:00] Welcome to Brave Dynamics. This is your host, Jeremy Au. Leadership is harder than it looks. As a proven founder and Harvard MBA, I interview courageous entrepreneurs, executives and investors every week. I also share my frontline experiences, coaching insights and own professional development journey. If you're stepping up as a new leader, founding a startup, or venturing into the great unknown, this is the podcast for you.

Successful founders and investors have shared their reflections in other episodes. This podcast is a time capsule from 2018 where I shared my personal journey with GroundBreakers on tackling America's childcare shortage and founding CozyKin, an early education platform for new and expecting parents. We grew rapidly across Boston and New York and raised $8 million of venture capital funding from pre-seed to Series A. CozyKin was eventually acquired by Higher Ground, a global education leader that runs Montessori-inspired education services across USA, Europe, and China.

Sebastian De Beurs: [00:01:15] This is GroundBreakers, a show about social entrepreneurs and the innovation they lead. Hey there, welcome to another episode of GroundBreakers podcast. I'm your host, Sebastian De Beurs. On the show today, we have the CEO and founder of CozyKin, Jeremy Au.

Jeremy Au: [00:01:42] Good to see you all.

Sebastian De Beurs: [00:01:43] Welcome, Jeremy. Our listeners are very curious to hear what the story is behind CozyKin as a social enterprise.

Jeremy Au: [00:01:50] I'm glad to be here and to share our journey with everyone who's out there so that we all get to learn together.

Sebastian De Beurs: [00:01:59] And so how was CozyKin founded? How did this go from an idea to a company?

Jeremy Au: [00:02:03] We were actually a healthcare team that was looking to lower the stress for new moms and lower the incidence of postpartum depression. So, Tatyana, who has published pediatric care practices at local hospitals as well as worked on labor epidurals, teamed up with me. I've done a lot of family social services work and education work came together to look at how we can make the overall experience less stressful for new moms. We interviewed 107 new moms. As part of that journey, what we came to understand was that that was a really stressful part, and that everyone realized in hindsight, was really the childcare search and the return to work associated with it. That just turned out to be a recurrent problem that we saw and heard over and over again. That's where our team came together and said, "How do we come together and solve the problem at the root cause issue?" And that's where we decided to focus on childcare. From there, CozyKin began as first steps towards solving the childcare problem.

Sebastian De Beurs: [00:03:06] Yeah so it really was a listening campaign that you guys did by interviewing 107.

Jeremy Au: [00:03:11] Yeah. 107 new moms. We talked to pediatricians, social workers, doctors, and I think part of it was really coming to understand that there's a huge shortage of quality early childcare in America. This shortage is just unbelievably real for so many families. The worst part about it is that it's taken so much for granted as something that cannot be changed. Parents will often share and say, "Hey, finding great care is hard." And so, you have to make that compromise between the care that you want or returning back to work and having the career that you need to have in order for you to raise a family in today's America. It's such a shame to hear that tradeoff over and over again, and to hear that tone of resignation and acceptance of it is such a quiet defeat for so many parents that we're talking to. And so, for us, that pushed us to say, "What do we need to do differently at a systems level, and what needs to come into existence for us to really solve and make this better for every family?"

Sebastian De Beurs: [00:04:16] And so at a systems level, you're speaking of how CozyKin can transform or at least ease some of the burdens on mothers and families. How does it do this? What is CozyKin's mission?

Jeremy Au: [00:04:28] Our mission is to solve America's early childcare shortage. What we want to do, what we are doing on a day-to-day basis, is to help children to flourish, to support new parents and their return to work. For us, it's really about what do we need to do differently today?

And so, what we are doing today is that we provide a platform for parents to match up as well as get quality infant childcare from our childcare providers. What that means is that parents start out by signing up with us, and then we understand their care preferences and requirements. And then we match them with a local family who is also expecting a child. And then the two parents will decide to match. When they decide to match, they will also be matched with a CozyKin nanny who has been trained in Montessori best practices around safe sleep and care. And the nanny will travel to home to take care of both kids at home. This is great, because this provides much better quality care that's much more personal in a smaller group setting that's at home.

And so, children flourish by being able to grow up in a cozy environment that has the full time and personal attention of a caregiver that comes to understand the children's desires and unique personality. At the same time, it's also so much better for families, because the convenience of having care at your own home or your neighbor's home allows parents to have a much better schedule around work, as well as to also appreciate and have the flexibility of babysitting and other care that they may have because of today's requirements of work.

Sebastian De Beurs: [00:06:12] So how does CozyKin work? How can I enroll my toddler?

Jeremy Au: [00:06:15] What we do is that you sign up with us as an expecting parent. You tell us when you need care to start, you tell us your aspirations as a parent, and you tell us what you need to see happen in order for your aspirations to come true. Based on this data that you provide us, we're able to match you with a local family who shares those same aspirations and dreams and goals, such that both of you can meet together and make a decision about where the both of you would like to raise your babies together. If you decide to do so, that's great. And if you decide not to do so, CozyKin can help match you with another local family until you're able to find another family that you're comfortable setting off on the adventure and building community with. As a result, with the two families that have agreed to have these two babies together in the same home, we are able to match in a nanny who will be the top 5% of America's nannies.

Basically, what we do is that we train them, we personalize, we make sure that they understand your dreams and aspirations and preferences. Then you get to meet a nanny, make a choice. If you say, "Yes, that's great." That's fine, we will match in another nanny for both families to make a choice around. Then when childcare starts You have incredible care at home, because the nanny's coming to your home to take care of both babies at once. The children are happy, because they have the socialization of growing up with another baby, which is so key to cognitive development at this stage. Your family finds it easy because at the end of the day, you don't need to rush off to drop off your kid at a daycare, or to rush off from work in the middle of the day to pick up your kid from daycare again. You don't need to deal with the hassle of the travel. More importantly, you don't need to handle all of the rigidity of the schedule that's by the daycares, as well as be able to delegate of the taxes and paperwork and everything that is necessary for it to be a fair working environment for these nannies as well.

So, all in all, what you get is that you get 10X better quality care in the form of more personalization, lower ratios, and more socialization. It's 10 times faster, because you no longer have a 6 to 12 month wait list at a daycare, but guaranteed care instantly. Not only that, you have a much better schedule and flexibility around your work and family requirements. Lastly, all of it is for the same price as daycare.

Sebastian De Beurs: [00:08:50] It sounds like the affordability and the flexibility and the quality of CozyKin's care is really transformative. Do you have any stories to share of people who have already been impacted by CozyKin?

Jeremy Au: [00:09:00] Everyday, we're just hearing experiences by families about what they enjoy about CozyKin, and more importantly, about how they see their children flourish under care. We have multiple testimonials flowing in every day sharing about the joy that a child has with playing with their new best friend. It's such a joy to have friends and be part of a community as human people. And we understand that as adults. And to see that in the children, as they intuitively just grasp the fact that there is a new friend that they love being around and to play with and to learn from is such an incredible memory for both parents and as well as caregivers. Everyone at CozyKin is working hard to make sure that every day is a seamless, perfect experience for everyone. Really appreciates that joy of knowing that we're doing something that's so incredible for so many children, for so many families. And for parents asking about whether to sign up for CozyKin, let them know I'm available to talk with them, because I'm happy to help people understand that the binary choice between terrible childcare and your career no longer exists because CozyKin is here.

Sebastian De Beurs: [00:10:15] So tell us a little bit about who's been impacted by CozyKin. What are the stories of children that have been thriving under CozyKin?

Jeremy Au: [00:10:22] There's so many stories. We as a team are so privileged to hear the joy in parents as they share how their children are growing and flourishing with their new best friends. And one of the stories that I distinctly remember is, a story about how this toddler is so excited every weekend for Monday to come by so that she can spend time with her new best friend. It's such a joy to hear that story, because it really reminds, especially myself, about that joy, about finding that kindred spirit, of what it means to really play, and what it really means to be present with someone else. And that's the best part about being a parent, is that you see who you were reflected in someone that you hold dear. And it's such a joy for our team as well to be stewards for all of these families.

Sebastian De Beurs: [00:11:15] So Jeremy, it doesn't sound like a coincidence that you went into this care industry. What in your life shaped you to align yourself with this mission?

Jeremy Au: [00:11:25] That's something I ask myself often, because it's sometimes hard to see the pattern when you're in the middle of it. Yet, when you look back, it becomes so much clearer. For me, I think very much about three stories that really mean a lot to me, very much helped me shape, and has served as an anchor for me during both the good days and the tough days. Growing up, I often heard a story from my own mom about what it took to raise me. She had grown up in Malaysia without the benefit of any education. Elementary or middle school or high school or university. And she had made her own way in the world to care for the people in the family around her. She'll work multiple jobs. And she did what she had to do to not just survive, but also to care for the other people in her family.

She would share with me about how she chose to have me, and at the same time, also for the first time go to university. That was an unimaginably tough challenge for her. From the time when I was a kid, I don't think I really understood what it must have been to raise a kid and go to school without the benefit of any of the previous schooling. She really struggled to get good care, and she actually shared with me about how she built a community around the people around her, so that she was able to pool care with her friends and family, such that she was able to go back to school. She was fighting to have and deliver on both dreams, having a family as well as having education. When I was a kid, I don't think I really understood how much it cost her and how tough it must have been for her. Yet, when I think about myself, what if it had been me to make that sort of decision? I find it incredibly daunting, and I'm not sure if I could have risen up to the same challenge. That's something that I really respect about her.

Another thing is that years down the road, I think one thing that started me down the journey of giving back to the community was, having been the recipient of such care.

In high school, my first love passed away from a sudden illness, and it was really unexpected for our family and for myself. During that experience, there was grief and loss. In that experience, I really hit rock bottom in terms of my personal emotions, as well as my academics, as well as my hope for the future. During that time, so many people stepped forward to help me out. Counselors, social service organizations, a local church pastor as well. During that period of time, they provided me a kindness from strangers that was shocking to me, because they didn't really know me. That kindness very much came without conditions and came without expectations. And that was a true source of comfort during that time.

That is how I can imagine how a drowning man must feel with a life buoy in the middle of the ocean. And he just had to cling on to the nearest thing. And for them, they provided that support. It took me time to do what I needed to do. I took me time to volunteer for the military, took me time to get my life back together. It took me time to make a decision to even try and study my SATs, to even make a decision to apply for a university. And during that time, I think I developed a growing sense of gratitude for the people that helped me, and what help can a teenager do to some extent. But I think in many ways, I really tried to instead pay it forward, to help people that need help around me.

So during my time, and when I finally was able to basically cobble together the applications and do I need to do get into university, one of my core goals was being very focused on what it meant to deliver the same kindness that had been shown to me to other people around me. Similarly, without the same preconditions, and similarly without the same conditions. And so that was just something that I aspired to be and do more of. That's something that's tough to hold on to, I think, because in this day and age, you can feel as if that, if you are trying to pay it forward, if you're trying to help people, then you're being a sucker.

I try not to think about it that way. I hear it. Sometimes I do fear it. Yet, what I'm trying to do every day is live up to the same incredible help that other people had provided to me. And so that's something that I often see. As I developed and started working many years in the social sector and working with hundreds of different nonprofits, especially social enterprises scale and grow services and increase that quality of care. I found myself seeing the patterns across these organizations, and people often say something along the lines of like, "Hey, we have 20 organizations that's solving 20 different problems." Yeah, they're actually the same person. And so to some extent, the same person who is having a health issue and as a result is struggling to make the bills and doesn't want to look for a job because of his health condition is preventing him to do so, often very much might also struggle socially and in terms of the community as well. That's suddenly the job for 20 organizations working on different parts of his life.

We really started to see that trend, and the social sector would say, "What does it take to put all these services to get under the same roof?" For example, we look at how we start housing homeless, such that multiple services can tackle the same person and help them across the whole 360. What I got to see as a steward and a capability builder for so many different organizations, was that I started coming to understand that all these individuals were part of families. They were once a child, they were once someone that was beloved, and they were all once someone who had that beautiful dream and future ahead of them. And so, I came to realize that so much of it is not just problems being bundled up as individuals but understanding the fabric of family and individuals within those families.

That's something that I often think about it. And that's part of why I've increasingly focused on not just education, but the idea of what it means to be a family. That's why for CozyKin, we're really privileged to be stewards for families in this incredibly complex time of so many emotions. Fear, hope, anticipation, anxiety, nervousness, dreams, gratitude, reflection, insight, honesty. Every single emotion that can suddenly exist, because you know that you're bringing someone into the world. For us, it's something that we talk about, and something that we think about, and something that we really consider as a team day in and day out. What it means to not just have a heart for the children, but to also empower families to really be the best families that they want to be, and they aspire to be, because there are so few people in the world today thinking about that from a deep and personal level. And I think that's something that I feel so deeply privileged and honored, to be serving a team that surprising me of how much they care and how much they are present. And we have an incredible group of people. I'm really honored to serve them.

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