We are exploring the world of parenting technology with business owner and entrepreneur, Margaret Zablocka. The rise of super-apps and digital tools that support the modern family has created a whole genre of family-centric apps that aim to serve working parents and blended, multi-carer family structures.
Real Business interviewed Zablocka on her market-leading app, Onoco, which blends AI technology and child development research to help families establish healthy routines.
Let’s dive in.
From my understanding, the inspiration for Onoco was your own parenting experience and frustration with existing parenting apps; what was the moment that made you decide you were going to design and build your own?
“There wasn’t necessarily this “eureka” moment. I was frustrated because I couldn’t find a solution that would work for my family. Baby tracking apps are a fairly established category but most of them aren’t designed for collaboration or family sharing. Many of the top products available didn’t have a great design or had an outdated user experience that I thought could and should be updated. I had to use multiple platforms and apps to track the various aspects of my family’s life, which was over-complicated and reduced the amount of time I could simply spend with my daughter, without having to catch up on the day and log her routine. When she started nursery, I found out about the EYFS framework, which is used by all nurseries and childcare practitioners in the UK. It’s such a big resource for knowledge on early child development, created by experts and published by the Ministry of Education, but parents who choose not to send their child to nursery don’t always find out about this critical resource.”
“The framework provides information on routines, milestones, and education that could be a massive asset for any parent, but I couldn’t find materials online that helped breakdown this huge amount of information in a way that was accessible or easy to implement. I had ten years of experience in different tech businesses, building complex digital products, so I decided to combine my professional experience with my passions. Onoco became the solution I was looking for. We incorporated a lot of the information from EYFS into Onoco, focusing specifically on providing families the resources to plan schedules and build healthy routines while their children are young, alongside our tracking tools.”
You mention you had to use a variety of applications to manage your family routine and track your child’s development. Do you think people are looking for tech that consolidates their needs into as few apps as possible?
“I think consumers are tired of having so many apps that only serve a single purpose. We only use a small percentage of them regularly, so I do think the future belongs to super-apps, a trend we are already seeing in fintech. I struggled to sync all of the relevant, necessary information across the different platforms I was using; there was always some data lost in the intersection of planning, logistics, health, development, and learning, so I could see a huge space in the market for an app that incorporated all of these elements of parenting on to a single dashboard.”
What were the initial challenges in creating Onoco? You launched into a saturated market, so how did Onoco stand out amongst other, well-established parenting apps?
“I founded Onoco two months before lockdown started in 2020, so our first viable product was developed by a fully remote team. Building our technology required a lot of time, research, and hard work, but I had a huge amount of faith in my team, so I never doubted that we would build a brilliant platform. I think overcoming those initial challenges in collaboration and overcoming technical issues created a strong foundation for success.”
“On standing out, something I was regularly seeing in my research were questions on parent forums about what apps would allow parents to host two profiles, for both parents, or more for family members. Many of our competitors were designed around a single primary caregiver function, with more profiles being an additional feature that required a subscription. The family landscape has changed significantly, with the new standard of both parents working and the introduction of additional caregivers. Having a platform that everyone can access with health, diet, and routine information right there helps to prevent miscommunication and makes organisation more efficient – meaning everyone can enjoy their time together without the stress of passing written notes or half-remembered events from the day. I think people adopted the app into their lifestyles quickly because we made it possible to have multiple carer profiles on the basic version of the app as standard.”
“Another initial challenge after creating the actual platform was communicating to our target market that we were more than a baby tracking app. We launched into a changing landscape with the rise of hybrid working; it was probably released at the perfect moment because people were on the hunt for collaborative solutions that suited the sudden changes in working structures. We very quickly rose in the App Store thanks to positive reviews and started trending in Google Play, which drove significant organic traffic to our page. I think it was a matter of fulfilling our users’ needs and launching at just the right time that allowed us to break into the market successfully.”
The most unique feature of Onoco is the innovative AI technology that your team has developed during the early stages of the app. Could you expand more on how your data and algorithm help parents process their child’s learning and development?
“Our AI Nap Assistant and Routine Management feature is unique to Onoco, developed with the data from our early adopters. To start, we collected more than 700,000 naps logged from our early users that were then used for training our machine learning algorithm to be able to reliably suggest an optimal sleep schedule for young children. Our driver behind this is that, when you are a new parent, the advice on setting a sleep schedule is subjective and confusing and rarely takes individual circumstances or behaviours into account. Our hope for this feature is, therefore, to give parents more concrete advice and structure based on their child’s unique data, removing some of the guesswork and allowing both baby and parents to achieve better sleep health.”
What success or moment in the Onoco journey so far has made you most proud?
“We were named as one of the best apps for new mamas in 2022 at the beginning of the year alongside some of the most popular parenting apps, so that was an exciting start for us. We have been reviewed and recommended by some massive names in the online parent space, and the support from blogs, publications, and influencers – not to mention our users – has been overwhelming. We’re so proud of how much our Onoco families are enjoying and benefitting from the platform.”
“The other standout moment for us was securing our first round of investment from Jenson Funding Partners at the end of 2021, which demonstrated the value proposition we’re offering. Interestingly, 18% of businesses funded by Jenson have a female founder, which is far more than the 2.3% of VC funding that women in the wider market received, so that in itself was encouraging. Crucially, Jeffrey and the team really understood our vision to support all families and caregivers, regardless of their structure. On top of the Jenson backing, we’ve just closed our Seedrs crowdfunding campaign, which saw us raise in total a £325,000 – surpassing our £250,000 target. The response has really been incredible!”
What advice would you pass on to a young or new entrepreneur?
“Cherish the journey, and remember that it isn’t only about the end goal. Start-ups move very, very quickly; there will be high-pressure moments, and there will be amazing memories, so it’s important to cherish the smaller successes along the way.”