When faced with obstacles, Jennifer Beall Saxton used hustle and hard work to get Tot Squad off the ground.
Cleaning baby stuff was hardly a lifelong goal for Jennifer Beall Saxton. But fate intervened.
While attending Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Saxton began searching for viable ideas to start a company of her own. The hard part was finding the perfect business idea.
It was during a class that compared Baby Boomers and Millennials that Saxton began contemplating one of the biggest issues facing her generation—work-life balance. She spent her first year of business school seeking ideas designed to achieve just that—particularly for working moms. By the end of the year, Saxton had compiled a spreadsheet with about 50 ideas. As it turns out, the best one came from a conversation she had with someone during her MBA summer internship at a Chicago retail start-up. Saxton told her about the idea to start a business to improve work-life balance. The mom’s response was this: “I would pay any amount of money for someone to clean my baby’s car seat. It’s disgusting. And there’s no service out there that exists.”
That’s the simple story of how Tot Squad was born, a mobile service that provides baby gear services like cleaning, repairs, and safety education for car seats and strollers. Within the first four months, her brand was already cash-flow positive. By 2015, Saxton had established partnerships with major stroller brands and national retailers like Nordstrom and Babies R Us, and she was ready to take the next step—growing her blossoming business by way of franchising. Today, Tot Squad has served more than 20,000 parents and caregivers—including celebrities like Sarah Michelle Gellar and Giuliana Rancic. But getting to this point wasn’t easy. That’s because as a young, female entrepreneur in a male-dominated industry, it took a lot of extra hustle just to get noticed.
“From the beginning, the issue had to do with where MBAs from Kellogg were going—the majority of them had their sights set on high-tech startups. But when I explained how I wanted to scale Tot Squad, maybe one in ten investors would be interested. It was frustrating. There's so much money out there being funneled into start-ups, and it seemed like there was a really big gap between that and what I wanted to do,” Saxton said.
To get there, Saxton leveraged every available Kellogg resource. She refined her business plan in the Entrepreneurship and New Venture Formulation class, immersed herself into the fundraising process as a VC intern in the Venture Lab program, and learned valuable lessons about keeping customers happy in the Services Marketing course. She even studied franchising under Burton Cohen, the former CFO of McDonald’s under Ray Kroc.
She ate, slept and breathed her idea, winning the prestigious Kellogg Cup in 2010 (the year Saxton graduated with her MBA), a business plan competition that ultimately helped give her the “street cred” she needed to move forward. Then, with the help of family and friends, she was able to officially launch Tot Squad—all while working full-time in strategy consulting for almost two years to begin paying down her student loans.
To help get her business off the ground, Saxton applied and was accepted to SoFi’s (a finance company) Entrepreneurship Program in 2013. To date, at least 50 entrepreneurs have built successful businesses through the help of SoFi’s program, launched in 2013 to spur small-business growth by helping to ease the debt burden of those trying to launch a start-up. At SoFi’s “pitch day,” Saxton had to make the case for her idea to potential investors—and it worked. Saxton’s business was named by the program as the “Startup of the Year.” With that, Saxton was able to raise $500,000—about half of which was due to contacts she made through SoFi.
Today, it’s clear that hustle and hard work has paid off. In 2016, Saxton celebrated a huge milestone in June as the brand expanded into Washington D.C. with its first franchisee. On top of expanding into D.C., Saxton was selected as one of 10 finalists in the Women Founders Network competition and was also a finalist at Hera Fast Pitch in San Diego. Both are events where Saxton pitched Tot Squad to other female entrepreneurs. Saxton says that participating in these events and continuously networking with people in the industry has been key for growth and success.
“I definitely had to overcompensate for the fact that I was coming to market with a very different concept that people weren’t used to. When potential investors saw my story on paper, they simply weren’t interested in the business,” Saxton said. “But then, when I had the chance to get in front of them and sell them my story, they listened. It’s about adding a human element to what you’re doing. Finding a mentor is crucial, too. There are people out there who will believe in you. And there are people willing to take a chance on you. I realized that I can’t be afraid to put myself out there.”