From online parenting diaries, to parenting knowledge, to actual early-education kits/products, Babytree’s got it all—everything a young mother needs in China.
Back in 2007, Allen Wang, who had just left Google, decided to start Babytree, a site dedicated to the community of young mothers. It was a dubious career decision for the former Google executive–other than the fact that he was a father, Allen has basically no connection nor background in the parenting field.. But to Allen, what seemed an illogical choice to most was something that he really liked, and what he liked, he could usually make sense of.
And today, it doesn’t look like such a bad choice after all. According to Allen, more than 200,000 photos are uploaded to Babytree every day, and the number of blogs posted on Babytree is similar to that at the largest general-purpose blogging site, Sina. With 9.2 million registered users, the site has 22 million unique visitors each month.
Unlike most founders of internet startups, Allen is not a technologist. After graduating from Tsinghua University with an Electrical Engineering degree, Allen studied overseas and held consulting and marketing jobs at McKinsey, P&G, Yahoo and Google. So he was not out to create a Web 2.0 site, or a social network, or “the Facebook for Chinese parents”, as some have called Babytree. His motivation was simply to create solutions to users’ problems.
And the solutions that Allen had in mind were three-pronged from day one. First, he wants to make it easy for parents to record and savor the development and growth of their children. Easy-to-use functions such as Blogs, photos, videos, slideshows with baby themes are at parents’ disposal, including a nifty tool to quickly upload 500 photos at a time. Second, with the Chinese reality of mostly sibling-less parents raising their own single child, he sees the need for community features such as forums to serve as a place where parents can congregate and create comfort and companionship for one another.
And he pushed his team to add these functions in rapid-fire succession. As long as a function is useful and user friendly, and “can fire a sparkle in users’ eyes,” Allen would release it even though it may not be all that innovative.
One example is blogging. This somewhat passé activity is still a main offering on Babytree. In the age of one-line tweets, blogging remains popular on Babytree—for mothers wanting to record their children’s growth, microblogging Twitter style is simply not enough.
So from the very beginning, Babytree has done a good job catering to the first two needs that Allen identified. But for the third need—providing parenting knowledge—Allen gave the early days of Babytree a failing grade. The utter lack of parenting knowledge became so glaring that it could no longer be ignored.
As a brand-new site started by an outsider, Babytree does not have its own team of parenting or medical experts. But early on, Allen Wang realized that what he lacked in expert advice, he could make up for with the collective wisdom of his mom users.
So the solution: A Q&A service for parents, similar in format to Yahoo Answers. Based on his own parenting experience, Allen believes that, even though a question such as “how do I make my baby sleep through the night?” has been asked and answered hundreds of times, most moms would still want to ask their own specific questions and get specific answers.
From early pregnancy through the infancy stage of their children, mothers are the most vulnerable, and their needs for knowledge and peer support are the greatest. What’s more, during this period, mothers start to make choices about mother- and baby-care products, and these decisions, once made, will not be easily changed by marketing efforts down the road.
Therefore, for Babytree, where advertising still makes up 80% of total revenue, the quality of its Q&A service is directly correlated with the quality of its users, which, in turn, dictates the quality and quantity of its advertising clients.
The Q&A service took shape in 2008. As a product, it’s little different from those commonly seen on portals or vertical community sites. But for Babytree, this is not just some auxiliary service; the proper upkeep of the quantity and quality of the questions and answers is crucial to its long-term viability.
From the moment that the product was ready, Allen gradually opened it up for user testing, starting from a few hundred users. The gradual rolling-out process allowed the team to fine-tune the product through user feedback and usage patterns.
For example, to make the “ask a question” process as simple as possible, Babytree chose to forgo the usual process of having users categorize their questions. Instead, the task is consigned to back end servers which automatically categorize questions based on keyword analysis.
The idea of simplifying the process of asking and answering questions extends beyond the desktop. In a world of smart phones, Babytree has also released Q&A apps for iOS and Android platforms. But even this is not enough for moms. So, to cover moms without the latest smart phones, which in China means 80% of moms, Babytree made its Q&A service available through SMS texting. A question can be asked, and answers delivered, via SMS.
Today, mobile apps account for some 15% of the questions asked on Babytree, while 1 in 10 questions come through SMS.
During the year-long initial user test period, as the product was fine-tuned for ease for use, Allen also tried to maintain a healthy answer/question ratio. To warm up the site from a cold start, Allen’s operations team hand-picked the most promising users, directed questions their way, and oftentimes engaged with them one-on-one.
And over time, these users became the first batch of opinion leaders for the Q&A community. “These moms felt respected, and developed a strong sense of accomplishment in the process. So much so that, coming to the site to help other moms became an important part of their lives.“ Allen believes that the culture thus formed by these first batch of users was crucial, “The 20/80 principle applies equally well in a community.”
Furthermore, Allen decreed a hard requirement that each question on average receive ten answers. Upon any dip in the answer-to-question ratio, he would have the team shut some of the “ask-a-question” entry points, to reduce the flow of new questions so that the question answerers in the community can catch up.
It wasn’t until the end of 2009, when the daily number of questions consistently exceeded 300, and the answer-to-question ratio was predictably satisfactory, that Babytree fully opened up and promoted this service.
And today, two years later, the service attracts anywhere between 10- to 30-thousand questions and about 100- to 150-thousand answers every day. Most questions would receive the first answer within 30 seconds. And in less than 10 minutes, a questioner can usually have 7 to 8 answers from which to seek the truth. And thanks to stats like these, pregnant women and mothers with infants—the demographics most sought after by advertisers—flock to the site and now make up about 30% of Babytree users.
These stats even amazed Allen himself. After all, a similar service such as Baidu Knows, which is open to all internet users in China, and covers all imaginable categories, produce just 220- to 250-thousand answers a day, across categories far wider than parenting.
The large volume of questions and answers posed a monitoring problem for the operations team. To overcome this, Babytree engineers created a monitoring system that, through keyword extraction and other algorithmic means, automatically detects and flags spam and spammers.
If a user answers too many questions for the purpose of collecting point awards, for example, or indiscriminately answer questions with spam info, an administrator would intervene and take appropriate action. Though there’re administrators on duty round-the-clock, the installation of the monitoring system greatly reduced human efforts.
In order to fix problems as quickly as possible, Babytree instituted a problem-resolution mechanism for its engineers. A “responder team” of up to ten engineers take turns to stand by as on-duty responders. As soon as the operations team receives a user problem report and confirms it to be a bug, it goes into a prioritized queue for the responder engineers. And as soon as a problem has been fixed, Babytree would report it back to the user who reported the problem. “When you see that a problem you reported got fixed so quickly, it’s a great feeling,” says Allen.
So, after two years, Allen felt that he’s got Babytree on the right track. At the end of 2009, he started to build his first sales team. Now that the site had passed muster from a product perspective, it was time to think about revenue.
Through pure word-of mouth, having spent next-to-nothing on promoting itself, Babytree reached an inflection point in user growth in Q1 of 2010. That same year, it began to turn a profit. In 2011, Babytree saw its revenue climb by over 300%.
But that was not all that Allen was after. Beyond community, knowledge and Q&A, he knew he could do more for young Chinese moms.
On a cold winter morning in January, 2008, less than one year after the launch of the website, Babytree’s offline experimental early education center was born in a 600 squared-meter facility not far from the Babytree office.
Thanks to the communal effects of the website, the early ed center was well-received. Large number of users turned into customers, forking over annual class charges of over ten thousand RMB, providing a significant cash flow boost to Babytree. Then, eight months later, Allen decided to shut it down, “It was the wrong business model for us to get into.”
What Allen realized was that, even with communal effects, an offline early education center system consisting of even 300 centers could touch at most 100 thousand toddlers. And no one on the team has any offline experience such as franchising and training required for scaling up the business one center at a time. For a young startup, such heavy investments in brick-and-mortar centers that could in the end serve only a small fraction of its users just didn’t make sense.
A failed experiment did not deter Allen from his desire to go beyond the website. He kept looking. And he found it.
A concept popular in Asia is a so called “at-home early education subscription product”—a monthly package delivered to subscriber homes containing DVDs, books, toys, etc. The leading player in this market in China is an offering from the largest Japanese education conglomerate Benesse Corporation. Named Qiaohu (Smart Tiger by meaning), it has about 600 thousand paying subscribers. There are, as usual, plenty of Chinese imitators, but none too good. Allen decided to get into this market.
So in 2009, Allen started to assemble his early education product team to research and develop his own product. Early on, the product development process was anything but smooth sailing. As a matter of fact, Babytree fell into the old trap of conventional wisdom.
To develop such a product, conventional wisdom would dictate, required an experienced team steeped in early education training. So Allen hired a bunch of people from the early-education field. But six months later, Allen realized his mistake, “There have been plenty of imitators who have tried and failed, and it’s all because conventional wisdom is simply wrong.”
As Allen came to see it, in order for such a product to work, its educational value should not be the primary concern. First and foremost, it needs to be interesting and enjoyable to the little ones.
To accomplish this, to make an educational product interesting, requires talents that go far beyond formally trained early educators. Realizing this, Allen went out and recruited people from fields such as animation, television production, literature, and design. He let these creative types take charge of product development, and have the education-oriented folks help and guide them in their work.
This adjustment process reinforced the importance of proper team member composition in Allen’s mind. He started to examine and adjust other aspects of the team’s makeup: besides the creative team, he paid attention to the ratio of moms vs. non-moms. Non-moms may have little experience with children, but they have a more intuitive sense about new media.
Just as his being a non-technologist made him focus on product and user needs for the website, Allen credits his lack of formal background in early education for insights like these. It allowed him to think out of the box. On the torturous road of startup life, Allen figures, mistakes are to be expected. But what’s key is to make mistakes early, detect them early, and make timely adjustments. To this end, Allen likes to step out of his role as developer and observe his products as an “outsider.” This process of continual development, observation, and correction traces back to the founding of Babytree, where each and every product has had to pass the “I like it” test. If a product can move him, he figures, it must be right.
After two years of development, the early education product, named Mika, was officially launched in September, 2011.
Delivered monthly to subscribers’ homes, Mika is, in a sense, a multimedia version of a monthly magazine. Each monthly kit contains everything parents need to engage their children: toys, picture story books, parents’ pamphlet, DVD.
Allen views the launch of Mika as a major, game-changing, milestone for Babytree. For 2012, he expects Mika to not just become the clear number two product on the market, after Qiaohu, but also contribute 40% of the revenue for the company. That would overhaul the company’s revenue composition into one where advertising would not be so dominant.
It also marks a foray into e-commerce. While Babytree has met the needs of parents for knowledge and community, it has left the huge consumption needs of this group largely untouched. Once Mika becomes more mature and well-known, he intends to turn the Mika website into an open platform for mother- and child-care products. Merchants will be allowed to participate only after they have passed through a strict verification process. As they purchase a 1000RMB subscription for an early education product, Allen believes, parents may also pick up some other items as well.
In these early days of Mika sales, in order to establish and publicize the brand, Allen finally decides it’s time to spend some money on advertising.
“For 2012, even former TV centric advertising giant such as P&G plans to spend 30% of its marketing budget on internet advertising. That compares to a mere under7% a year ago,” Allen explains. To Babytree, this means sustained hyper growth in advertising revenue. That would, in turn, boost his budget for Mika promotion.
(published in China Business News Weekly, China’s Premier Financial Publication)
文｜CBN记者 文姝琪 图｜范永恒