“We felt pretty confident
we could change the
footwear industry, and
that made us really
excited to start a company.”
Eve Ackerley, co-founder of Jenzy
Carolyn Horner and Eve Ackerley are the co-founders of Jenzy, a mobile app that takes the guesswork out of shopping for children’s shoes by helping parents quickly and easily find their kids’ proper shoe size. Here they talk about their personal sizing struggles in rural China that served as the seed for their company and the importance of learning to say no.
What was your initial vision for Jenzy?
CAROLYN: Back in 2014, Eve and I graduated from college and moved 5,000 miles away to rural China. Eve had gone to college on the West Coast, I went to school on the East Coast, but we ended up living in the same town together for two years teaching English. The town we were in was super remote and a lot of times going shopping, places didn’t have our size, and so we had to order online a lot. The problem was, we never knew what size to order when shopping online and returns were such a hassle.
So one day after Eve had bought the third pair of tennis shoes that didn’t fit, she remarked that there should be an easier way to size your feet and shop for shoes, and it should probably involve your phone. We graduated from the program in the summer of 2016, came back to the U.S., and then I took my two nieces back-to-school shoe shopping. They were 4 and 6 at the time. I thought I was being a cool aunt by volunteering. I should have known from how quickly my sister was like, “Yeah, totally! Take them!” that it was going to be a nightmare. [Laughs] After that experience, I called Eve and said, “Remember that idea we had about a mobile app for sizing feet? We really should start small—as in, kid’s shoes small.” Soon after, we had a company named Jenzy that’s inspired by the generation of kids that we’re sizing: Gen Z [Generation Z].
So you both met for the first time while teaching in China?
CAROLYN: I remember the first day, I was down the hill and the school where we had training was up the hill. It was pouring rain. Eve had these two huge suitcases that was basically everything you needed to live for a year, and she was just trudging up the hill. I was like, “I’m going to be friends with that girl.”
EVE: I remember the whole first week was so painful. When I showed up, I was like, “We’re basically going to be living in the middle of the jungle. We need to have hiking gear.” So everything I brought was very REI, kind of durable. And then we show up and I meet the teachers, and they’re all in hot pants and stilettos. I was like, “Oh my goodness, I completed misjudged what I needed.”
CAROLYN: Bringing that back to life in a startup, you often hear a startup defined as a resource-limited environment, and we like to say China really was our first resource-limited environment. We had to really learn how to problem solve, manage classrooms of over 50 kids, and do things like learn how to make a cake in a rice cooker. We often say Jenzy is like our new cake that we’re trying to make.
What drew you to your vision for Jenzy on a personal level?
EVE: When we started out, Carolyn came to my parents’ house in California. We didn’t know we were going to start a company. We just thought we would think about this problem and how to solve it. Within two weeks, we had some pretty good ideas about how we could do that. My parents are entrepreneurs and so are Carolyn’s parents. As they saw us working on it, they were really supportive and said, “Hey, if you think you have a good idea, you should go for it.” We then quickly figured out that a lot of women experience it [this problem] on a personal level, as well as with their kids. We felt pretty confident we could change the footwear industry, and that made us really excited to continue and start a company.
Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur?
CAROLYN: When we first got together to talk about this idea, we never really labeled ourselves as entrepreneurs. For us, it was kind of like a school project that we were researching. It was only after a couple months when we decided to put our own money into the company as well as take outside investment and actually start spending that money that I think the worry started to escalate a little bit.
EVE: And the responsibility.
CAROLYN: The responsibility definitely grew. So I think that's when this fear of not knowing what the next step forward was started to keep us up at night. We talked through that pretty quickly and realized that, as an entrepreneur, you're always going to have this monster on the side of your leg that is fear and worry. You can either let that get the best of you or you can try to learn to live with that to make what you're doing more urgent and motivate you. We've become pretty good at not being scared of anything.
EVE: Or at least not showing it.
What has been your greatest struggle in founding Jenzy?
EVE: I think a big struggle of trying to start a company and take an idea and actually turn it into a product, the hardest part is really just staying focused. As you go through this journey, you meet a bunch people and you go through a lot of ideas, so it's easy to get distracted. Something that we just stress from the beginning until now is deciding what's important, what's not important, and when you say no. Beforehand, when we were living abroad, it was really all about saying yes and doing everything and taking every opportunity. That really made our two years there [in China] just such a cool experience. But I think then we got to Jenzy and it was really about finding that balance of when to say yes and when to say no, and learning that it's okay to say no and that's part of something you have to do.
What has been the greatest triumph in your founder's journey so far?
CAROLYN: We normally would define them as certain milestones we've reached, so when we had our largest beta test in October 2017 or when we launched in July of 2018—those were really big steps for us. Even getting our first investor was huge. But one experience that really stands out is, we had a customer who—we didn't know who she was, but she was from Philadelphia. When she bought shoes a couple of weeks after we launched, we actually went to hand-deliver them to her because it would save on shipping. We ended up establishing a really good friendship with her—her name is Bene—and she is a really loyal Jenzy customer who gives us a lot of feedback about the product. And, when she learned that we were fundraising, she decided to invest. So not only did we have a customer and someone who believed in our product, but also someone who believed in us as entrepreneurs and wanted to help us get to that next level.
EVE: The first time a stranger buys shoes, you're like, "Wow! It's not just friends and family anymore! This is legit!" I don't think we'll ever forget her name.
“Having to really think
critically about what's
the best way to tell the
story is really fun.”
Carolyn Horner, co-founder of Jenzy
What has been your biggest personal sacrifice in becoming an entrepreneur?
CAROLYN: I think it's twofold. One is what Eve touched upon before, saying no. That sometimes is like saying no to a family vacation or saying no to going to a friend's birthday party just because you have something to do for the company or you have something to do for your personal and mental health that you need to learn to prioritize.
Maybe something on a personal note that's been hard is actually dating. We're both single and interested in dating and finding someone that's not your business partner to really share your life with, and I think that's really hard because it's a time commitment. You're really cautious of how you're using your time. You go on coffee dates or dinner dates and then you're like, "Oh my God I just spent three hours with this person that I never really want to see again."
EVE: I remember my first year [into founding Jenzy], my sister was getting married and so there were so many family commitments. Just trying to balance everything for Jenzy as well as showing up for all of the things related to the wedding and all of that was really tough. I remember feeling shitty sometimes that I couldn't be there for three more extra days and it was like, "This is tough, and this is just for my family. It's not even a husband or my own kids. This is my sister making me feel bad!"
Did anyone in your life try to dissuade you from becoming an entrepreneur?
CAROLYN: Eve's parents were always super supportive from day one. Eve's dad is our really close advisor. Meanwhile, it took my dad about two years to wrap his head around this idea that we were starting a company. I think it's twofold: Eve’s dad really understood the benefits of what entrepreneurship could give you and also—because we had no commitments—it was the perfect time in our lives to start it, whereas my dad saw entrepreneurship as something that could be really tough and could end in failure. As a dad who wants a really stable life for their child, I can see where he was coming from. He's on board now.
EVE: He's come around. The more nieces and the more grandkids he has, he comes around.
CAROLYN: Gets a little bit softer.
EVE: Sees how many shoes they go through.
Has anyone in your personal life been a constant source of support?
EVE: Carolyn and I moved to Philadelphia and we had her parents and her nieces and nephews, but we actually didn't really know many people our age. Very quickly, we got to know the startup community here and a really tight-knit group of founders who have been a lot of our constant support: introducing us to new team members or answering questions about fundraising. We really depend on them a lot.
Our siblings and all of their kids have been really awesome, too. There are nine nieces and nephews, so they've been very helpful in the initial phases of testing and supporting us.
Tell me about your work-life balance.
EVE: I think with entrepreneurs there's no one real definition of work-life balance, especially in the initial phases of starting the business. It's really the founders who are the driving force, so I think it's super important to kind of be 10x in everything you do and sometimes that just means working six or seven days a week. But the two of us have always made sure to prioritize health and sleep and hanging out with friends and family on the weekend. I think for us, work-life balance is our own definition and we’re comfortable with that. There's no one definition.
Did you ever come close to giving up your entrepreneurial dream?
CAROLYN: No. Maybe you think for a second, like, ‘Why did I start this? I could be doing something where there was an end to my work.’ Like, when I finish this project or when it's Friday at 5 p.m., I'm done. With what we're doing, there's never really something that says, ‘Oh, you're done; there's nothing else to do.’ There's always something to do. But I don't think we ever thought about or even have come close to saying, "We shouldn't be doing this."
I think one thing that we do every day that keeps us really positive is—even if we're not together—we'll text to each other three things that we're really thankful for every day. That reminds us of what we are proud of or what we've accomplished so far or what we're about to accomplish, which keeps us moving forward. So even if we have a really sucky, terrible day and the world collapses, there's always going to be the chance to do a little bit better tomorrow.
There's a ton of research about co-founders versus solo founders, and there's benefits to both sides. But, especially as a first time founder, when you're just constantly being second-guessed by everyone, to know that someone always has your back is really important. And it's more fun doing it with Eve.
EVE: To me, there are three things: We know the problem was super real from day one. Yesterday I received an email from a customer who was like, "This app was made for me. I hate kid’s shoe shopping." These messages reaffirm that. Then just knowing Carolyn and I are very capable and having an awesome team that we work with. And then third, if you reflect on progress you made, it's pretty cool to see that you can focus or do things really quickly. Those three things together—if you had a bad day, just remind yourself that they're all still in place and think on that tomorrow when you start.
What would make you feel as though you accomplished what you set out to do with Jenzy?
EVE: For the two of us, when we think about what we want to achieve, it’s really capturing that first walker footwear market. When a kid is just starting to take their first steps and a mom is wondering where to buy shoes, if she asks her friends, they're going to say Jenzy. We're really excited by that because there are a lot of kids in the U.S. and there are a lot of moms without a lot of time, and so being able to provide a really easy shoe shopping experience gets us excited every day.
CAROLYN: Like, global kid’s shoe domination.
EVE: Next we'll go back to China. Once we know product is really solid, we'll go serve the 1.3 billion feet over there.
What has been your favorite thing about your entrepreneurial experience so far?
EVE: Having studied architecture and then working in the field for a year, what I quickly realized is that the profession I had chosen was super introverted. It was a lot of time spent behind a computer and not a ton of interaction, especially being in an office with engineers. That’s when I decided to go teach in China and really look for an opportunity to be more sociable and interact with different types of people. Being at Jenzy and being an entrepreneur, I think the best thing about my job is that every day I get to work with developers, I get to work with people in retail, talk to customers, talk to little kids. That part makes it really fun because you learn from each of these experiences and really keeps it—no one day is the same.
CAROLYN: I think our two answers relate with what we would say our strengths are. Like your strength is definitely interacting with people, creating a framework from your architecture background and applying that to the company. And I think my strength is storytelling and creativity, and how to frame things in a way that's going to capture investors' attention. Or when I have a marketing hat on, how can we draw a new type of customer in? Having to really think critically about what's the best way to tell the story is really fun. That's the part I enjoy most about our day-to-day life.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
EVE: I still go back to like, time is your most precious resource. Sometimes it's really annoying to be like, "Wait, is this important?" And always going through that exercise to make sure you're spending your time appropriately. It's tough, but I think it's a good thing to do every day.
CAROLYN: I always go back to listening—even though we just talked for the past 30 minutes. I don't want to say this in a way that is negative toward other people that we meet, but you find that, through talking to so many people, there are some people who listen really well and some who don't. I always think the only way you learn and can really decide a direction, decide if someone could be a really great advisor to you, and learn what trends are happening in the industry— whatever it is, that all comes with just listening.
Do you have any advice for female entrepreneurs in a similar space or the tech space in general?
EVE: Two things that we've done that I've really enjoyed: Early on, a couple companies in the same stage [as Jenzy] just started doing a founders' dinner. It's both male and female, but I think that's been really beneficial to have some peers in a similar space and be able to meet with them and really have a support group that understands you. More female-specific, there's actually an event put on by Comcast LIFT Labs as well as a few other local women investors in Philly. It’s a meet-up once a month on Friday mornings where both female investors and female founders come and meet. I think that's been really great because, especially in fundraising, it's tough being a female company. They're just not represented as well.
CAROLYN: We've had a hard time when fundraising because the two of us aren't categorized as tech founders, or we're “non-tech founders,” they would say. And so oftentimes, the first question we get is: Who developed your technology? Who's your CTO? Who's making your tech roadmap? Kind of implying that we're not capable of that. We've been doing it for two years and now we definitely handed it off someone who's more experienced, but we still work with them [that person]. I think as a female tech founder, you're just going to get questioned a lot more on what you're building and what the numbers are surrounding that. They often say that guys can get funded on just an idea, whereas females get funded only when they have the idea supported by metrics. I think finding female mentors has been really invaluable, and so I would just encourage any female entrepreneur to find a female mentor who will be your champion in the room.
This interview has been lightly edited from an in-person conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.