“There are only a handful of women founders who have listed on the ASX so that made it even more special more for me,” recalls Sarah-Jane Kurtini. That, and her daughter telling her she thought she was a “badass”.
The company being listed was Tinybeans, a family photo sharing app that helps parents capture and organise their children’s life stories using photos, video, and written messages. For Sarah-Jane, it was also a day of reflection for both herself and her co-founders Stephen O’Young and Eddie Geller. “In the space of five years, we had gone from bootstrapping the business from a desk in [Sydney’s] Ultimo and losing our minds with excitement at getting 100 users in a day, to having a share price, hundreds of investors, millions of users and leading a talented team. It took a while to get my head around it.”
Tinybeans has been called “the happiest space on the internet” by New York Magazine, and given the US was the company’s biggest market, it made sense for the founders to relocated to New York. So in 2017, Sarah-Jane and her family packed their bags and moved countries. “Getting the opportunity to live and work in New York was an amazing adventure,” she says. “Walking into our very own office just off 5th Ave was a thrill every time. I loved the hustle and energy. And I met some incredible people who helped me grow in so many ways. Their positivity was infectious. New Yorkers seem to focus on all the ways you can take risks and succeed, and it was refreshing to be buoyed up and inspired. I’m determined to hold onto that energy and figure out ways to spread it now that we are back.”
In 2019, the family realised that Australia was where they were happiest (take a look at where she lives in Copacabana on the central coast of NSW and you’ll see why) and moved home. Sarah-Jane has since stepped back into a different role in the business.
Here, she shares the highs and lows of building a global app. What she’s learnt, advice she’s been given and how she’s done it all while raising two children. Let’s meet this phenomenal woman!
Go to tinybeans.com
While you're in a different role now, you founded Tiny Beans - Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the app?
The original plan was that I was going to handle the marketing and Stephen would be the techie but being a start-up founder, you end up working across everything from strategy and fundraising, to developing product roadmaps and strategic partnerships, and everything in between. For a while, I was our Australian sales team!
I actually really enjoyed doing the customer service at the beginning and getting feedback on how to make the product better. Stephen and I did it ourselves for the first 2 years and got back to everyone who ever emailed us. Closely listening to what our users wanted, was fundamental in helping us develop our roadmap and grow as quickly as we did.
I also think that the early days of a business, where your product strategy, customer service, and marketing are so closely aligned, is good practice for the later days. For a customer or user, they are just different points along a single journey with your brand and they need to work seamlessly. Often as companies grow, they are too focused on separating out functions and teams, rather than doing the harder work of figuring out how to work together to deliver the best customer experience at all times.
“ We wanted to give parents an easy and safe way to share their everyday moments with the people that meant the most to them and inspire them along the way to create the best memories ”
Did you have any experience with apps prior to launching? What was your career background prior to launching?
I had zero experience in launching apps but very few people did as it was such a new area. When we started Tinybeans I was working for big companies running their social media channels and I had no experience in that when I first started either. I just said yes, jumped in and learnt quickly on the way. It was the same with Tinybeans.
I’d worked in a media agency which gave me good negotiation skills, been part of London’s first content agency working with brands, which was a great basis for partnerships and engaging audiences, and also run a PR company which meant I had learnt to hustle and keep on going when doors were closed in your face. All skills that were incredibly useful.
Through the social strategy work, I’d also been building communities and creating messaging that connected with people on an emotional level and that’s such a large part of what we did with Tinybeans. We had such a positive and joyful message to spread. We wanted to give parents an easy and safe way to share their everyday moments with the people that meant the most to them and inspire them along the way to create the best memories.
I think some of the most valuable skills you can have right now are the ability to learn and adapt, problem solve in smart ways, and keep going when the going gets tough. Whichever way you acquire those skills, having them will always put you in a great position.
In terms of your own parenting journey, your kids are 9 and 12 now so there would have been nothing like Tinybeans when they were little. Did you do baby books for them?
I started a couple of photo books for Bella in her first year, but poor Patrick had nothing until Tinybeans came along. The curse of the second child! We’ve had lots of messages over the years from guilt-ridden parents in the same boat, who have thanked us for making it easy to do something for their younger children before they realised they’d been totally neglected.
What has been the most challenging part of building the brand and the business?
There are many ways that parents can share photos with family, so it was a challenge to show why Tinybeans is the best and happiest way!
What parents fall in love with is that they are building a meaningful memory book over time. Tinybeans brings joy every day by connecting family and friends over the everyday moments that mean the most but that you don’t want to overshare on social media. It’s even been called “the happiest space on the internet” by New York Magazine. But it meant we needed to convince busy parents to start a new habit and way of sharing.
Making the experience easy to use for parents was key, as was simple messaging. When you’ve got kids, you don’t have time to figure out complicated processes and instructions.
We also found ways to make parents feel good about themselves. By flashing up old photos and making it easy to scroll back through memories, you could see at a glance what a great life you are giving your kids, and that they’d be able to see how much they were loved when they are old enough to understand.
That is something that was a big focus. We even managed to convince founders of some of the biggest social media networks that Tinybeans was the best way to share photos of their kids! As a natural marketer, it was frustrating not to be able to shout out the names of high-profile users, celebrities, and politicians, but a commitment to privacy guided all our decisions.
Because of the commitment to privacy and safety, families place a huge amount of trust in Tinybeans and so there’s now a focus on building on that trust to recommend the best resources and tools for families, which is really exciting to see.
And what about motherhood - what's been your greatest challenge there?
When we started Tinybeans I was a stay at home mum working during nap times, while my husband worked full-time. Then there was a phase where I was doing Tinybeans part-time and he started up his own bartending business part-time. For the last 3 years, I’ve been working full-time, and my husband was the stay at home parent, making cocktails on the side.
Navigating those transitions was a huge learning curve and it wasn’t always smooth. The grass can often seem greener from both sides of the parenting fence and resentment can creep in if you’re not careful. We had to learn to communicate better and try to appreciate the phase of life we were in for what it was.
At least we had good cocktails to help see us through…
I think we’ve shown our kids that there are plenty of ways to be a good parent and shown other parents that there are plenty of different ways to work.
And the greatest joy of parenting?
Seeing my kids turn into smart, hilarious people who are discovering what drives them and makes them happy gives me the greatest joy. I called my daughter’s phone this morning and her voicemail was, “I am doing something awesome.” That made me laugh out loud. I’m considering doing the same and using it to try to make sure that I think my life is awesome all the time!
They’ve made me so proud recently. We moved to Brooklyn in 2017 to grow Tinybeans in the U.S. and they had to navigate so many big changes. Then we moved back to Australia at the end of 2019 and they had to do it all again. It couldn’t have been easy, but they learnt so much in NY about resilience and adapting, that I think will serve them well in the long run.
Tinybeans is now listed on the ASX - what was that experience like?
It was the biggest leap for us and such a milestone moment. The day we got to ring the bell and gather together everyone who had helped us along the way was very special and not something I’ll ever forget. Many entrepreneurs and leaders dream of that moment so actually getting the chance to do it, isn’t something that I take for granted. There are only a handful of women founders who have listed on the ASX so that made it even more special more for me. Along with my daughter telling me she thought I was a badass.
It was such a day of reflection too. In the space of 5 years, we had gone from bootstrapping the business from a desk in Ultimo and losing our minds with excitement at getting 100 users in a day, to having a share price, hundreds of investors, millions of users and leading a talented team. It took a while to get my head around it.
The U.S. was already our biggest market by then and the capital we generated from the IPO enabled us to grow the business in the U.S. and take it to a whole new level. We made the decision to base all the sales and marketing out of New York and I moved there a couple of months after the listing.
Getting the opportunity to live and work in New York was an amazing adventure. Walking into our very own office just off 5th Ave was a thrill every time. I loved the hustle and energy. And I met some incredible people who helped me grow in so many ways. Their positivity was infectious. New Yorkers seem to focus on all the ways you can take risks and succeed, and it was refreshing to be buoyed up and inspired. I’m determined to hold onto that energy and figure out ways to spread it now that we are back.
You're living in the seaside town of Copacabana in NSW - have you always worked remotely or is this a recent move?
Leaving New York was a huge decision, but being there made us realise that Australia is where we are the happiest as a family. We wanted to continue on our family adventure so made the decision not to go back to Bondi and try somewhere new. New York made us crave space, so we ventured up the coast.
We visited Copacabana last year when we were back for a visit to renew our U.S. visas and fell in love with the beach and community straight away. After so many big moves, it’s a good feeling to have found a place to call home.
Before leaving Tinybeans, I was commuting down to Sydney for half the week and working from home the rest, which was a good balance. I thrive when I’m in the company of other people so wouldn’t want to be fully remote, but I got so much done on those days that I worked at home and that balance worked well for family time too.
Obviously life is looking pretty different for everyone at the moment, but can you tell us what a day in your life looks like?
It became clear to Stephen and I at the end of last year that the future of Tinybeans lay in the U.S. and that our futures are in Australia. Leaving something that you’ve built from the ground up that has been such a huge part of your life, was difficult in lots of ways and the plan was to take 6 months off to reset. So I feel incredibly grateful and lucky that we haven’t had our life turned upside down like so many people.
We’re trying to see the silver lining and enjoy this time together as a family. We’re having slow breakfasts together. Then my husband and I go down to the beach for a swim to wake up and get our heads set for the day while we let the kids connect with their friends on technology.
After battling our way through homeschooling we’re cooking together lots, then going down to the beach for a family surf. We’ve been lucky that our beaches have stayed open.
In the evenings we talk to our family who are scattered all over the world and we’ve each been putting family film suggestions in a pot and picking one out at random. Tonight, I finally got one of my choices and the kids are going to get an education in what real family movies are via The Goonies!
I really do think that when isolation ends, times will change. We’ve been forced to slow down, let go of non-essentials and figure out ways to help the people who need it most. Seeing our community come together in many different ways to support each other has been a beautiful thing to see. In the frustration and uncertainty, many families are reconnecting over simple pleasures and rediscovering what makes them the happiest and I think those lessons will guide us way beyond this time.
What has been the best business advice you've ever been given?
I can tell you the WORST advice and how ignoring that became the best advice! I once worked with a coach who told me to stop using whether I liked people as a criterion for hiring them or working with them.
People are the hardest part of building a business so knowingly inviting tension and anxiety into your business made zero sense to me. That doesn’t mean blocking out different opinions and voices, but it doesn’t matter how smart a person is – if they create a toxic atmosphere, it leads to disaster.
Learning to trust my instincts and only choosing to work with smart, fun and trustworthy people has given me the most joy in business and the greatest returns in every sense.
And the best parenting advice?
It’s not your job to make your kids happy all the time! I wish I could find the article where I read that, and it sounds counter-intuitive and harsh, but I’ve found that helping them navigate tough times rather than solving every issue for them, leads to happier, more self-sufficient kids in the long run.
My husband will probably be open-mouthed reading this as he thinks I’m the biggest softie, but I really do try to live it! The tough times build character.
What's next on the cards for you, now that you've stepped back from Tinybeans?
Thinking time! When you’re running at such a fast pace, like I have been for the last 8 years, it can be hard to take the time to understand fully what inspires you. I have never left a job or company with something else to go to and taking the time to step back, think, and put it out to the universe has always led to the next thing.
A great piece of advice I got from my Dad very early on, was always to have a savings fund to give you the resources to step away from things. I started saving as soon as I started working and that’s been the thing that enabled me to take breaks and thinking time in the past. That, and the ability to make a great coffee and pick up barista shifts when I needed to!
I’m already working with a fabulous startup called PepTalkHer which is focused on closing the gender pay gap and helping women appreciate their value. There’s an awesome free app that lets you track your wins and empower yourself during pay negotiations which everyone should download.
And Stephen and I have been messaging each other in quarantine with new ideas and I can’t wait until we can see each other in person to start working through them all!