Serial entrepreneur Gabby Slome ’15 has always been driven by her ability to identify and solve pain points.
She co-founded the natural pet food company Ollie in 2015 after her rescue dog began having trouble digesting regular store-bought pet food.
And her newest venture is Cooper, a parenting education and community platform that aims to guide its members “through the experience of parenthood, with the goal of helping them become more reflective, responsive, intentional, and informed in their everyday interactions with their child.”
Slome recently joined us to answer a few questions about her experiences launching two companies, the important lessons she learned in business school, and key insights from her journey as a female serial entrepreneur and mother.
Q: Do you consider yourself to be a serial entrepreneur?
Gabby Slome: I would definitely say I’m a startup junkie in that all my jobs have been in startups. I never went the corporate career route. There are some things that you probably gain from those roles that I haven't gained. I love the work of building and the growth phase of starting a company, taking it from an idea to seeing it come alive. And then, you know, the best part of it is having customers tell you it has made their lives better — and really feeling that sense of accomplishment. It’s why I keep doing it. And another part is I’m just not employable at this point. I don't have an alternative. It’s either start another company or I don't know what.
Each company startup takes a lot out of you, and it's a long journey. I know I'll be involved in the startup ecosystem no matter what, whether that's a new company, whether that's advising, whether that's investing. I’m part of X Factor Ventures now, where I’m an investor in female founded companies, and I’ve enjoyed being on that side of things as well and being able to invest in companies that really excite me without having to do the grind day in and day out. So, as I get older, maybe that's my path? I definitely want to stay in the startup ecosystem.
Q: When you’re thinking of starting a business, what inspires you?
Slome: People have lots of different approaches to how they think of ideas. For me, it's definitely about finding my inspiration through things like personal pain points. When I started Ollie, it was because my dog was having a lot health issues, and that led me down a rabbit hole, looking at what's in dog food and realizing how bad traditional dog food is. I felt there had to be a better alternative.
And then similarly with Cooper, I looked at my personal struggles in parenthood. I asked, “How do I know what resources to trust?” I barely had time to research which book I should be reading let alone read the book. There are so many out there! And I just felt alone in my parenting journey, and I needed support on multiple levels, both from experts and from a community. And so that really inspired me. My co-founder had a baby right around the same time as my first two, and so we met very serendipitously at a local parent get-together and shared really similar journeys on that feeling of needing the support. And so that was the inspiration: If I'm struggling with this problem, who else is? And then I began to research that question, and that sort of sparked like the idea. It was initially personal, but then built into a business. It was, “Here's a problem, but how do you solve that problem and what makes sense as a solution?” That's where the research, talking to people, and iteration comes into play.
Q: Is starting a business easier the second time around?
Slome: Certain things get easier. You're able to weather and have more perspective on the lows, I think. While the lows still feel bad when you're there, you have a little bit more perspective. You know you can get through it. You will get through it. Or maybe this venture won't make it, but that doesn't mean you can't start again. So, I think that perspective makes it somewhat easier. And you can take some of the learnings from previous businesses and apply them to your current one. You're not starting from scratch again. You are starting at a higher rung on the ladder, if you will, the second time. So, I think all that perspective makes it easier. But it's still a grind. There will be different problems that you haven't seen, so it’s not smooth sailing no matter how many times you do it.
Q: Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a big topic now in business and in small businesses, too. How do you approach DEI today versus a few years ago?
Slome: I don't think building a company or the culture is necessarily different. I think potentially the outward manifestation is different. You’re probably even more careful and inclusive outside of your company, perhaps in ways that you might not have thought about before, making sure that when you are marketing, you’re showing representation across multiple cultures. And when you’re trying to reach communities and audiences, you’re not just working within an echo chamber of people that look like you.
We're very careful, too, about speaking to parents from all walks of life. There's a big giveback component of Cooper where we are working with nonprofits that serve families who are struggling to make sure basic needs are met for families.
So, when people talk about diversity, we think about it on multiple spectrums: the more visible aspects of diversity as well as making sure that we are making everyone feel included, and we're speaking to them and making sure we can help based on those differences.
Q: What's the best advice you've received, and what advice do you give to female founders today?
Slome: One of the best pieces of advice I have received is to never stop asking questions. Don’t rest on your laurels, even if things are going well. There’s always going to be the next mountain to climb.
And keep checking yourself — your biases in business and in life. I would say that is good advice, too, because you never know what's going to come around the corner. I think we’ve never seen so many changes as during this pandemic. Something can happen, and when you think your business is doing well, that can change overnight. Supply chains, for example, can change. We can't always do it the way we've been doing it. So, I think always being curious about your business is important. You do need that plan B in your back pocket.
Q: You’ve discussed the challenge of managing several people and building a company at the same time. What advice do you have for others in similar situations? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Slome: People need to feel supported. As a manager, and in life, it’s not all about output and how you’re doing with KPIs. People want to feel supported as a person. And that’s hard because it takes a lot of time to do that. So, I would say, as much as possible, try not to have too many direct reports. Try to figure out how you can leverage and train managers underneath you to manage the people most effectively under them. Time is one of those finite resources. You only have so much of it, and so to give people the time they need and deserve, managing people and attending one-on-one meetings can easily become your entire job.
So figure out ways that you can support others and be more methodical. If people need to understand more about what’s happening in the business or outside their department, if that helps them feel more supported, figure out how can you create systems and scale that so that that isn't just one-on-ones and you are doing it on a company-wide level. And if you need to do more one-on-ones, try to make sure they are as impactful as possible as well.
Q: What’s one important lesson you’ve learned from all your time in the startup space?
Slome: Not all businesses should be venture-backed businesses. There are lots of amazing businesses out there that don’t get venture funding or get funding at a much later stage in their lives; perhaps they are boot-strapped early on and get private equity funding later.
I think it's easy to get locked into the hype of raising a bunch of money early on and have that be a signal of success (myself included), and that’s not always true.
It’s worth looking at your business and asking if it’s the type of business that should be more organic in the early stages; if you can find ways to grow without raising a bunch of money so you don’t have to give away a lot of the company. I would urge founders to look at multiple paths through which they can get their businesses off the ground before they jump into sourcing venture capital and all that entails.