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Create your own milestones


Rather than pursue conventional milestones, define your own. Babylist’s founder and CEO, Natalie Gordon took baby steps to grow her e-commerce site from a 45-minute-a-day side hustle to a platform used by over 50% of new parents in the U.S. Natalie learned that as Babylist grew, her goals must grow with it. Despite wins and losses along the journey to scale, Natalie continued to play her own game and no one else’s.

“I like to be an example of a company where slower didn’t mean smaller. We’ve gotten to a pretty impressive scale. We’re continuing to grow, but we didn’t need to raise all the money.”

— Natalie Gordon
About the guest:

Natalie Gordon is the founder and CEO of Babylist, the leading vertical marketplace and commerce destination for baby products. Natalie has scaled Babylist as a profitable and sustainable business that’s now the trusted go-to solution for growing families and the gift-givers that support them. With multiple revenue streams across commerce and advertising, Babylist drives hundreds of millions of dollars into the $67 billion baby products economy each year. Before Babylist, Natalie worked as a software engineer at Amazon and founded a language learning platform called Lenguajero.

About the host:

Reid Hoffman is the host of Masters of Scale. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, he’s known for his spot-on insights on how to scale a startup. He’s a partner at Greylock and co-founder of LinkedIn, and co-author of the best-selling Blitzscaling and The Startup of You.

Also featured in this episode:

Rebecca Rialon Berry, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the evaluation and
treatment of children and adults with anxiety disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, …

Ed and Ryan Mitchell are a prolific duo in the North Carolina barbecue scene. Ed is an expert pitmaster, specializing in traditional whole-hog smoking. …

I believe you have to define your own milestones before you adopt any conventional goals. But as your company grows, your goals must grow too.

— Reid Hoffman
Transcript of Masters of Scale: Create your own milestones

Barbecue pitmaster Ed Mitchell on smoking meat

ED MITCHELL: It’s the flavor profile. It’s just hard to beat. There’s no way that you can get that when you cook with gas or electric because there’s nothing there to flavor the meat.

Compared to the real deal when you are allowed to really absorb the true flavor of the smoke that comes from the naturals of wood and charcoal.

REID HOFFMAN: That’s renowned barbecue pitmaster Ed Mitchell. Together, he and his son and business partner, Ryan Mitchell, have accrued decades of experience smoking and selling meat. Here’s Ryan:

MITCHELL: Cooking with just wood requires you to understand the positioning of the animal and what parts of him will get done sooner than others.

How you position the coals to get the animal done is an art form. We call it banking. That’s how you line up the animals to where the inner parts get done without being burnt up. And then the heavier sides of the animal, so the shoulders and the hams also cook all the way through as well.

HOFFMAN: In the 1990s, when most barbecue chefs moved away from traditional wood-smoked barbecue and onto the flexibility of gas and electric, Ed stayed true to his time-honored methods. Even though gas & electric was cheaper and safer, Ed stuck to wood smoke because he thought it was more delicious, and he wanted to preserve the style of barbecue he enjoyed growing up. 

MITCHELL: So coming up as a youngster, that’s the way it was done. I really wanted to let the younger generation, beginning with my son, really taste the difference of what it would taste like if we do it this way. I was solely focused on my own product. I really wasn’t concerned about what the other pitmasters were doing.

HOFFMAN: While moving to gas and electric could’ve created quick scale opportunities for Ed, he stayed committed to his own unique timetable of success. Eventually, foodies from far and wide, including the late Anthony Bourdain, came to experience Ed’s take on history. Ed opened The Pit, North Carolina’s first fine-dining barbecue restaurant — a major turning point in that cuisine’s reputation. Ed’s newfound fame caught the attention of Michael Pollan, who shadowed the pitmaster and featured him in the New York Times-bestselling book and documentary, Cooked

Unlike other pitmasters who rushed ahead with new techniques, Ed hewed to the strengths of wood-fire barbecue and forged his own path, putting both The Pit and the small town of Wilson, North Carolina, on the map. 

That’s why I believe you have to define your own milestones before you adopt any conventional goals. But as your company grows, your goals must grow too. 


Why you need to define your own milestones

HOFFMAN: I’m Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn, partner at Greylock, and your host. And I believe you have to define your own milestones before you adopt any conventional goals. But as your company grows, your goals must grow too. 

Imagine for a moment that you’re a new parent. Hey, congratulations! 

You’re in the pediatrician’s office, holding your newborn while the doctor confidently states, “It’s normal for your child to be speaking by 12 to 18 months,” and “It’s normal for your child to be potty trained by 27 to 36 months.” These projected milestones help you know what to expect. But they can also put pressure on you and your child. What if you reach those time markers, and your child is still silent and gleefully wearing diapers? You might be left with the feeling: Is my child normal? Have we done something wrong? 

Every child’s development is different. And in fact, putting pressure on a child to reach a milestone before they’re ready can be psychologically damaging. 

These rules for growing humans also apply to growing businesses. We often hear stories of businesses growing like wildfire: It starts out in a garage, and quickly scales to a multibillion dollar valuation. But businesses come in all shapes and sizes, and the market realities are highly variable. Almost like, in barbeque, how the cook time for a hog’s shoulder is different than it is for hams.

Each company has different goals. Therefore your milestones and when to hit them will be different too. If you’re focusing too much on the competition, it can pull you off course and cause you to lose sight of your company’s strengths. And, trying to grow too fast can cause you to get out over your skis. So as your company builds the leg strength to reach the next milestone, there are times when the best steps you can take will be baby steps. 

That’s why I wanted to talk to Natalie Gordon, the CEO of Babylist. For over a decade, Babylist has grown from a baby registry site to an e-commerce tentpole, content hub, and healthcare resource for parents. By 2022, over 50% of first-time parents in the U.S. used Babylist for their registry. As the U.S. baby market is set to become an $88 billion industry over the next five years, Babylist is primed to crawl its way to dominance. Throughout her career, Natalie has forged a unique timetable to scale, only maturing onto the next milestone when she felt Babylist was fully ready.

NATALIE GORDON: I don’t have any story about being a 15-year-old kid who had an idea for a business.

I was a software engineer, and I was going through the experience of choosing all of the products I needed when having a baby.

Natalie Gordon on the origin story of Babylist

HOFFMAN: In 2011, Natalie was pregnant with her first child and set out to create her registry for the baby shower. As a former software engineer at Amazon, she expected ease and simplicity. What she found was the opposite: a confusing tangle of retailers and registries, all with their own logins, designs, and formats. She would spend hours researching products, gaining very little confidence that she was making the right decision. And she couldn’t register for services she truly wanted, like frozen meals, diaper deliveries, or someone to walk her German shepherd. 

GORDON: I think I, kind of, accidentally stumbled upon this great idea. I was just building the product that I myself really wanted.

HOFFMAN: At the time, the baby industry was dominated by major retailers like Babies “R” Us and Target. Both were using what Natalie believed to be lazy registry technology, presenting an overwhelming array of baby-related items, while also being too limited in the services that parents might actually want. 

Aside from that, competition in the baby market was limited and stagnant. So Natalie decided to make this idea for a better baby registry her new side project. She envisioned a site that clearly condensed all the must-haves for new parents, and a feature for bespoke services that friends or family could provide. Before long, Natalie found some inspiration to assist her in getting Babylist off the ground.

GORDON: I had recently read The Lean Startup, and so totally had that approach. I’m going to be building this minimal viable product. I think I had a goal to launch it in a week. 

HOFFMAN: Like Natalie, many entrepreneurs have taken inspiration from Eric Ries’ 2011 book about building fast and light. Instead of trying to hit all your product goals at once, he suggests building them in stages, based on user feedback.

GORDON: You can write your list of 50 must-have features. I said, “Well, I’m not going to build that feature until I have one actual user.”

HOFFMAN: Getting one real user was a clear achievable milestone Natalie set right away. But she was also thinking ahead to a second type of user, even if she wasn’t quite ready to serve them. 

GORDON: Babylist serves two groups of people. The first group are people who are having a baby. They’re choosing their products and creating a registry. The second group are the people who actually come to the registry and make purchases. I said, “I’m actually not going to build that till I’ve shown we have actual users, because I know that feature won’t be necessary for a month or two.” 

HOFFMAN: After finishing her first attempt at a registry site, Natalie researched 10 different blogs that centered around the baby industry. She reached out to them, announcing the forthcoming launch of Babylist. 

GORDON: I had curated a registry that was appropriate for each blog’s audience, so they could actually see how with Babylist you can add items from any store. There was an Eco-Baby blog, and I put on a lot of Eco-Baby products from independent retailers. Then I crafted the perfect pitch outreach to that blog.

HOFFMAN: Five of the 10 blogs posted about Babylist and helped encourage the first step toward consumer attention.

GORDON: I think I had a goal to launch it in a week. I think it actually took a month to get to this first version, and then launched it.

HOFFMAN: Motivated and clear-headed, Natalie’s next milestone was uniquely suited to her.    

GORDON: The real launch for me was a Hacker News post. It was kind of at the time of, “Here’s my side project.” The headline was, “I’m a pregnant hacker, please review my side project.” It was number one on Hacker News for 48 hours, and that was also a source of some initial users.

How Natalie Gordon built Babylist as a new mother

HOFFMAN: The unique hook of pregnant engineer-turned-founder got Natalie the right kind of attention and user experience feedback at exactly the right time. And just two weeks before her son was born, Babylist was officially launched into the world.

As a new mother, and a new business owner, Natalie realized she wasn’t going to be doing both jobs full-time. Right away she saw the need to set a pragmatic timetable for Babylist’s growth.

GORDON: I found, actually, that first year very difficult, very isolating, very boring, if I’m allowed to say that. I was very tired. Babylist was this thing where my actual goal was, every day if I could spend 45 minutes on this, that’s a good day. 

I’d always targeted, “I’d really like to be home and really focus on this early motherhood for one year, and then at the year mark that’s when I’ll get a full-time job.”

HOFFMAN: 45 minutes a day is never the right working milestone for a new start-up in a competitive sector. However, if you have a market that takes time to develop, then a more incremental build can be exactly the right strategy. For a new mom with a bootstrapped, solo side hustle in a sector without a lot of competition, 45 minutes turned out to be a great milestone. 

What might be minor to a different entrepreneur might be a massive milestone to your company and help give you the fuel to take further steps. Some lucky parents are blessed with a newborn that sleeps through the night with ease, others might treat an extra 20 minutes of rest as a true miracle. 

Dr. Rebecca Berry on the pressures of development

We spoke to child psychologist Dr. Rebecca Berry to explore some of the pressures that come with growth and development. 

DR. REBECCA BERRY: There’s always something to read, some person giving us a message about what is right or wrong to think about with our kid. And then it always keeps growing because our kids grow. 

So I think because of that natural pressure that parents have, that can come with really putting a lot on the child with regard to growth, development, and certain attainment of various milestones.

HOFFMAN: Dr. Berry specializes in child and adolescent anxiety, and sees first-hand some of the effects from rushing milestones. 

BERRY: Especially when we are new parents, we’re forced to be in a lot of groups because of our children. And so then naturally, there is this comparison that we do to others who seem to be typically developing.

We naturally compare up in order to make sure that our child is also doing that thing that’s considered typical. But what that can often lead to is a lot of stress and pressure and anxiety for both the parent and the child to keep up, to make sure that they’re always meeting those markers, which many times are not necessarily really there. Comparisons can really be harmful.

It could lead to just a lot of development of some insecurities. There could be just a dampening of self-esteem and really sometimes a lowering of motivation.

HOFFMAN: So what can parents do to be as present as possible in their child’s life but not rush their development? Dr. Berry has some reassurance.

BERRY: Sometimes children can feel more confident if they know that a small gain is actually very relevant, and sometimes even a lateral gain. But that you can build upon that skill attainment, and that’s still meaningful. And that that’s still indicative of good growth.

It’s never linear for any particular child.

There are going to naturally be some various attainments of these milestones, and people will still do well. They will still be very successful people.

HOFFMAN: As a child may suffer from anxiety from being rushed towards a milestone, so may your team if you rush them. You’ll look around the office and see a lack of confidence with a feeling of “I don’t think we can handle this…” starting to bubble up. Every start-up is a Frankenstein’s monster of success. If you’ve reached that next exciting milestone, it doesn’t matter how you got there or how long it took you to reach it — you did it!

The milestone that led Natalie Gordon to go all-in on Babylist

For Natalie, working on Babylist as a side project for 45 minutes a day was leading to growth. The site was steadily attracting more users. In need of a clear barometer to measure how worthy Babylist was of her commitment, Natalie created a simple litmus test. 

GORDON: “Okay, what’s the milestone? If this is making $3,000 a month, there’s probably a there, there. I’ll go to this full-time because it’s obvious there’s something really working here. But if it doesn’t hit that, then this’ll stay a side project and I’ll go and I’ll get a full-time job.” 

HOFFMAN: Note that the milestone Natalie set for herself was achievable, measurable, and appropriately sized for her sector. In scale terms, Babylist was a child that’s just learned to walk. But you wouldn’t ask a baby that’s just learned to walk to come on a full day hike with you. No! You might start with the journey from the kitchen to the living room. When setting milestones for your company, it’s important not to do it in a vacuum — analyze your size and the state of the field of play first. Profit may not even be the metric you need to determine success. For instance, for many tech platforms, success is better measured by the user growth rate than immediate liquidity, because the game you’re playing is who can claim the first-mover-to-scale advantage. 

But that wasn’t the contest that Babylist were engaging in. Just a month shy of the 12 month deadline, Babylist finally hit that $3,000 revenue mark, and Natalie stayed true to her word. 

GORDON: “Okay, this is going to be my full-time thing. This is what I do now for work.” I had no idea what I was doing. I was making the decision between it being a lifestyle business, which to me means, “This is just me. I don’t have employees. I’m going to come into work, I’m going to build this, this site, in the way I had been that whole year, or this is going to turn into something bigger, and I’m going to be actually doing 100 things I have absolutely no idea how to do. I am not good at any of them. It all feels so fraught and difficult.”

HOFFMAN: Despite feeling unprepared, Natalie decided against the solo lifestyle business route and instead chose to turn Babylist from a side project into a legitimate company. With that, the next milestone was reached. 

Natalie and her family moved from Vancouver to the Bay Area to lay the foundation for Babylist to grow. In 2012, Natalie took Babylist through the 500 Startups Accelerator. When she came out of the program, she had the initial $600,000 in seed funding needed to hire Babylist’s first employees. Just like a baby goes from crawling one day to walking the next, to sprinting away from their parents in the supermarket, milestones are not always evenly spaced. And when you level-up from one to the next, you need to make some adjustments. 

GORDON: The thing I actually needed to do at that time was to transition to being the leader of a team. That involves being able to evaluate and hire the right people, get the right people to join the company, and then point us all in the same direction, like at that really small scale. I think that’s something that actually took me a couple years to figure out.

HOFFMAN: Natalie managed to avoid becoming disillusioned about how ready to be a CEO she was or wasn’t. She was clear-eyed about what she didn’t know, and the places where Babylist wasn’t actually ready to progress in its development. 

GORDON: I just was not clear on what success of a team that size looked like. I was just figuring out everything myself.

HOFFMAN: In fact, when Natalie looks back, the growing pains seem painfully obvious. 

GORDON: I was reading back on investor updates that I was sending that first year, and they’re really tragic. They’re like, “Next month we’re going to be launching the app. Nope, next month we’re going to be launching the app. No, next month we’re going to be launching the app.”

HOFFMAN: Note: When we talk about milestones, there are external milestones for your company — whether it be hiring a certain number of employees, or reaching a higher funding round. But there are also personal milestones in your own skills as a leader. What Natalie is talking about here is the latter.

Unsure of how much you’ve truly developed in your own unique leadership growth? Take a page out of Natalie’s book, and read through your early email correspondence. You, too, might be embarrassed by what you see. And that’s a good thing! It shows you’ve taken many steps toward becoming the leader you want to be. 

One aspect of this early correspondence that now makes Natalie wince was the way she used to approach culture.

What Natalie Gordon’s learned about culture

GORDON: There was a period of time, might have been, actually, the full first five years of Babylist, if you wanted to talk to me about culture, I had no patience for it. It was like, “Do your job. Let’s do the work together.” 

HOFFMAN: You might be listening to this and thinking “Oh gosh, that’s all wrong!” But for Natalie, she had to make that discovery — and hit that maturity milestone as a leader — for herself. 

At some point, she realized she was struggling to thrive as a CEO. So she decided that she needed some extra help to improve her people management. 

GORDON: We actually brought in an external coach. She interviewed me for a couple of hours; she interviewed the people at the company who I worked with. We were maybe like 10 or 15 people. She compiled everything into a seven-page PDF. It kind of starts with strengths. Then it really goes into like, “here are the gaps.” I was, like, emotionally devastated. Like everyone was seeing what I was seeing. That I wasn’t a good manager.

HOFFMAN: This is a great example of goals shifting as the company grows. When Natalie was busy building the first features for Babylist, knowing how to manage a large team would not have been on her radar. So, she approached this the way she had approached building Babylist — through baby steps. 

Rather than try and tackle all of her leadership struggles overnight, Natalie devised a plan to improve her executive skills on a clear, individualized timetable. 

GORDON: We came up with three goals where after 12 sessions together if we could achieve these, that’s what success would look like. One of them was around, “I can give thoughtful, constructive feedback in a light way in the moment.”

HOFFMAN: Natalie found herself communicating far better with the Babylist team. Oh, and remember when Natalie told us that she thought discussing a company’s culture was a waste of time? Over the course of the coaching experience, and with the feedback from her team, her perception completely changed. 

GORDON: There was an absolute flip for me, and now I’m on the other side of the spectrum where every issue, every people issue, every decision, everything is the culture. 

And I will talk about culture with people 40 hours a week because that is truly the only thing that’s going to define us being successful versus failing.

HOFFMAN: Natalie’s mindshift became the catalyst for a whole new culture at Babylist. A structure was put in place to encourage employees to work an average of 40-45 hours a week, and never on evenings or weekends. Not only was this great for burnout-proofing, it also yielded some unexpected benefits.

GORDON: We actually started to be able to attract amazingly talented and experienced people. And they said, “Right now at this stage of life, I have a young child or a couple young kids. I do not want to work somewhere where at 8:00 PM, my manager is Slacking me, and I’m back online. I want to make it to dinner.” So we started being able to actually attract people. This was completely a side effect and unexpected, but I would say that really up-leveled our performance, where this was the core reason why they would choose working at Babylist rather than another company where they’d probably have a senior title, more money. 

HOFFMAN: As Natalie met her milestone of becoming a better CEO, the adjoining culture shift made Babylist more competitive in the hunt for talent. That talent would in turn allow the business to tackle their major growth milestones to come. 


HOFFMAN: We’re back with Natalie Gordon of Babylist, on defining your own milestones. To hear my complete interview with Natalie, become a Masters of Scale member at Or, you can join through the Masters of Scale Courses app, found in the app store of your choice. There are so many moments we didn’t have time for in this episode, like Natalie’s creation of her first business while traveling around Latin America. And, you’ll hear what she learned from her time at the 500 Startups Accelerator. You don’t want to miss it.

Before the break, we heard about Natalie’s journey to become a better CEO and how that led to a cultural change within Babylist, and an opportunity to acquire more talent. This innovation was infectious and impacted every aspect of the business and its new milestones now in reach. 

How Babylist evolved its business model from the affiliate structure

Since Babylist’s creation, it’s functioned using an affiliate model. For years, it performed very well, but Natalie had her doubts about its longevity. 

GORDON: So what affiliate is, is you send a sale to an e-commerce retailer, and they give you a kickback on that sale. That was a great time to build an affiliate business. 

It was like we sold a thousand-dollar stroller, and we would get 10% of that sale back and really scaled revenue. We were at a point where the business was growing quite well, but most of our revenue was concentrated with one specific retailer, both because they were popular and because they had really good affiliate rates. And it just felt so risky to make the decision to continue scaling the team knowing that with that concentration of one single partner if that went away, the business would just be devastated. 

HOFFMAN: This affiliate structure was conducive to viral growth. If soon-to-be parents sign up on the site and create a registry, many friends and family might use the site to buy gifts and services. Chances are, those new customers might also have babies of their own in the future. The business has the potential to grow organically in the long term.

However, relying on a single affiliate left Babylist tied to that one affiliate’s success. This vulnerability also created a ceiling to the milestones Babylist was capable of reaching. To define its own milestones and forge a new timetable, it would need to blaze its own trail. For extra security and to grow opportunity, Babylist expanded into two more business lines. 

GORDON: We do ad sales to our audience. That looks like sending an email about life insurance to expecting and new parents. The third is we’re a retailer ourselves.

When we decided to pick up those two other business lines, it wasn’t because there was a problem yet, but it was like, “Actually, if we’re going to scale this as an independent resilient business, we have to figure out these other business lines.” So that’s when we started scaling up our own ecommerce store, and that’s also when we started really building out content and editorial.

HOFFMAN: In 2018, Babylist introduced itself as a retailer by releasing the bottle box — an instantly popular, curated selection of various baby bottles that new parents could test out before adding their favorite bottle onto the registry list. 

The same year, Babies “R” Us folded, putting Babylist in third place among registry rankings only behind Amazon and Target. This sparked a Series A round, in which Babylist secured $7 million in funding. Despite all of the sudden positive milestones being achieved, this chapter posed a significant existential question for Natalie and her team. 

GORDON: “Are we a tool in technology? We’re a registry, and so the obvious next stage should be creating a wedding registry. Or are we a company, and we’re going to continue doing things for this audience of expecting parents, new parents, new grandmothers, new godparents?” 

The strategy behind going deep, as opposed to going broad

HOFFMAN: While Babylist’s registry technology was its trademark, its audience is most important for longevity. Expanding the technology is one thing, but it would take big leaps to appeal to new audiences in new markets. With the amount of buzz surrounding Babylist, other companies would jump at the opportunity to expand into alternate markets, but Natalie didn’t feel like it was the right milestone that Babylist should be striving for. 

GORDON: I made the decision pretty much based on: which company would I rather run? I’m obsessed with these new parents. I want to do more for them. Having this trust with this audience feels like a really defensible core asset compared to technology. So we really decided we’re all about families around babies.

HOFFMAN: This is one of the things that too often business people miss. “Well, what’s the market need? What’s the organization of the company and also individuals?” Your passion, your commitment is part of what makes the entrepreneurship thing. So you say, “Well, abstractly it should be a registry. There are many more registries.” But like, “No, no, no. I am passionate about these people and expanding among them.” And you can of course make the business argument which is like, “Well, we have these wonderful loyal customers who love us. We can give them more things.”

GORDON: I always call it strategy by spreadsheet. It’s like, “Oh, and I build this out in the spreadsheet. There are this many people getting married and therefore…” It just doesn’t feel like it actually translates to user experience.

HOFFMAN: This point in a company’s journey — where you have to stop and ask “who are we going to be?” is a massive one. Just because your child loved astronauts when they were young doesn’t mean they will want you decorating their college dorm with stickers of the solar system. As your business grows, you’ll go through many iterations. Who you are this month certainly isn’t who you were this time three years ago. 

As Babylist grew, Natalie and her team were still committed to setting more and more ambitious milestones. But instead of going broad, they chose to go deep, doubling down on the parent demographic that had come to trust the brand. 

HOFFMAN: Having babies is not only deeply personal but also relates within your culture and where you are. So, how have been the efforts to go global, go international? 

GORDON: We have this core value of focus, and the way we deal with the 100 great ideas people have: we say, “Oh, that’s a great idea. It’s a ‘not yet’ idea. It’s not yet. It’s not yet. It’s not yet.” For us, truly going international, for us it’s a ‘not yet.’ We think we have a lot more we need to prove out or really big opportunities available for us within the United States.

HOFFMAN: I really like this concept of the ‘not yet’ idea. You might expect a show called Masters of Scale to be encouraging you to “always be scaling!,” but in fact, it’s not always the right time to scale. If things are going well and you don’t see any competition or disruption on the horizon, it’s not irrational to say, “this works and we’re going to actively continue with where our strengths lie.”

How Babylist responded to Covid-19

As she set her sights on expanding Babylist into physical retail, Natalie’s spirits were high going into 2020. 

GORDON: I had been running this business for a decade, and I felt like I understood baby showers, and baby registries, and gift giving in this life stage better than maybe anyone else in the world. 

HOFFMAN: As COVID struck in March, Natalie quickly began to question everything she thought she knew about the growth milestones she’d set for her business. She thought, “If people stop throwing baby showers, will baby registries follow suit?” 

GORDON: I was like, “I have no idea what people are going to do. It’s an in-person gathering where you’ve got a vulnerable population. You have a hundred people all getting in a room. That’s how we make money, and that’s going to go away, and it’s going to go away the longest.”

I had no idea if our business was actually going to overnight kind of completely contract. 

HOFFMAN: Natalie decided to shelve some of the more ambitious milestones the team had set for 2020 and instead use their energy elsewhere. The majority of the year was spent diving deeper into research and development, taking small, measured steps towards focusing on their core customers.  

As the team hunkered-down, the volatile climate that posed immeasurable trouble for Babylist actually brought an immense surprise. 

GORDON: What we actually saw was, there is this enormous shift to e-commerce. Babylist actually works better in a virtual world because it’s all online. We actually understand our business well enough to say we’re going to actually be putting more money into advertising and marketing.

And so for us, it was actually a large sustained tailwind. We actually saw in user behavior, “There’s a pandemic, and you’re having a baby? I want to help you even more.”

HOFFMAN: Don’t mistake Babylist’s success out of the pandemic as sheer luck. Because Babylist gradually hit its own milestones, baking in from the beginning the idea that it would pay close attention to the users’ needs and try not to race beyond that, it was in a good position to respond organically to new information and an unpredictable landscape. 

Slower doesn’t mean smaller when it comes to scale

Despite this exciting moment of gifted runway, Natalie didn’t regret the timetable that got them there. 

GORDON: It felt like there was this real dichotomy between “you’re venture backed,” “you’re venture scale,” “this is how you’re going to grow,” or, “oh, you’re a cute little lifestyle business, this is something that you’re doing that’s small.” I think the reason I like to actually do things like this is I like to be an example of a company where slower didn’t mean smaller. We’ve gotten to a pretty impressive scale. We’re continuing to grow, but we didn’t need to raise all the money. We were able to be this example, maybe, for other founders of this third way.

HOFFMAN: One of the reasons I’ve been excited about this episode is to say, “Look, there isn’t just one path to scale entrepreneurship.” There are multiple, and depends on who you are, what your market is, what your competition looks like. There’s a bunch of different things that lead to that, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t tell everyone to blitzscale, because it’s like, “No, no, no. That’s a tool, not a goal.”

Experimenting with in-person pop-up showrooms

HOFFMAN: Until now, Babylist was moving slowly from milestone to milestone. But after the business really took off during the pandemic, the timing was right for Natalie to pick up the pace. Babylist was in a market that was taking time to develop, and their competitors were primarily older, established brick and mortar retailers that weren’t adapting in the same ways that Babylist was. It was finally time to pounce. 

Babylist had long dreamed of graduating from its e-commerce outfit to a physical footprint.

GORDON: Physical retail is fascinating in this space. Babies “R” Us shut down. They had 500 stores. Your local baby store, one in two, have closed in the last less than 10 years. And so what that feels like is when you’re going through this life stage and you’re having a baby, you can’t actually go and see products. 

HOFFMAN: While many retailers across markets were shifting to online from physical retail, Natalie saw an opportunity to move in the opposite direction. She believed that for certain products, new parents would appreciate the opportunity to test them out in person. So, in 2022, Babylist experimented with a series of in-person pop-up showrooms.

GORDON: We called it Babylist Cribs; you could see all of the products as you’d actually use them. There was the best stroller track that has ever existed where the one in California had a beach and then it had cobblestone. You could actually try out the strollers.

I think for me, it really showed we could translate our brand to work in the real world. Vendors were crazy about this opportunity to get in front of consumers. 

HOFFMAN: Babylist Cribs was a great example of the Lean Startup’s testing as a form of risk management. After years of risk mitigation, Babylist is kicking its milestones up a notch. It recently launched Babylist Health, a much-needed resource for mothers to access breast pumps through health insurance. And, in an expansion of its media arm, Babylist acquired Expectful, an app that guides parents through the reproductive journey, from hypnobirthing to newborn sleep courses. 

While milestones may have felt hard to come by for a long time, you’ll reach an age where they come thick and fast. If you stay true to your own unique timetable, then you’ll certainly be equipped to handle the milestones that await you. 

In business, there’s always going to be a start-up that’s learning to walk. There’s equally always another start-up across the street that’s graduating college. What matters is what’s going on in your office. 

I’m Reid Hoffman. Thank you for listening.

Masters of Scale’s mission is to democratize entrepreneurship. Launched in 2017 as a weekly podcast featuring Reid Hoffman, we’re now two weekly podcasts — Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, and Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, hosted by Bob Safian — as well as an award-winning daily learning app, a best-selling book, virtual and live events, and more, serving a global community of founders, funders, and leaders looking to innovate at scale.
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