Blog, NewsBy Tribeca Venture Partners
Charles Bonello is co-founder and CEO of Vivvi, and its very proud “First Dad”. Prior to starting Vivvi, he co-founded Grand Central Tech and helped build it to NY’s largest, most selective and most inclusive tech ecosystem, with over 100,000 sq ft and 100 companies under its purview. Most recently, he was a Venture Partner at RTP Ventures, where he focused on fintech, healthcare and Industrial IoT companies. He started his career in finance as a buyside research associate at Fred Alger Management and River Twice Capital, and is a lifelong New Yorker who graduated from Tufts University and Regis High School.
He has contributed research and writing for a number of books, including: Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy, Sustainable Excellence, and The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule the World.
Tell us about Vivvi and why you started the company?
Vivvi provides employer-sponsored on and near-site childcare for companies of all sizes, including both full time and backup care. Childcare is the single biggest pain point for working families, who spend more on childcare than they do on housing, healthcare, food, and college. While I’m a new dad, the story of Vivvi started during my time at my last company, where I saw first hand the impact that childcare had on working parents.
In particular, we saw that the early childhood education system is totally broken and misaligned with parents’ needs and it comes down to three things: Cost/Accessibility, Availability, and Quality.
First, there’s a structural supply/demand imbalance (in Manhattan alone, there are 12x more children than available spaces for them, and in Brooklyn, it’s worse, though it’s a national issue), and it’s incredibly expensive.
Perhaps as importantly, though, most childcare centers and preschools are only open 150ish days per year and have hours that don’t work with careers (a couple of days a week, a few hours at a time, usually start around 2 or 3 years old). Because the costs are so high and hours misaligned, it’s not surprising that the average parent misses 24 days of work per year due to childcare issues, and between 43-50% of women never go back to work after they have their first child.
Last, quality is one of the biggest issues for both parents and their children. The average childcare worker or preschool teacher is paid basically minimum wage — that means that there’s tremendous turnover, variable quality and children suffer.
For us, the answer was always at the intersection of providing a world-class program that was aligned with parents’ needs at a fraction of the cost to any other option. And the single best way to do that is to work with employers to help subsidize child care — largely because they have nearly as much to gain or lose by supporting their people on whom they depend so much.
Vivvi states that “50% of full-time women leave the workforce after the birth of their first child.” What’s your vision for how Vivvi can help to create social impact?
I think a big part of what keeps us going is the mission to honor the potential of working families by reducing the burden of childcare costs on them. And while it’s a problem that mothers disproportionately bear, it affects all parents. So I think that if we’re able to provide that world-class program and work with employers to reduce the cost to parents, we’ll be making a major impact by not only giving young children the best education possible — but also allowing their parents to fulfill their potential.
What’s been the most important milestone for you and the Vivvi team?
Really great question. I think there are two really big ones: first, getting our license and opening was a HUGE milestone for us. Childcare is one of the most regulated industries in the world (outside of pharma and nuclear energy), and our world-class team pushed themselves and the process to the hilt and executed it flawlessly to open on time and serve families.
Second, we’ve announced a few of our corporate partners, and seeing the response from the employers and their employees has just been a constant reaffirmation of why we do what we do.
What do you need to know before becoming an entrepreneur?
I’m often reminded of this scene from Band of Brothers. It’s a little bleak, and of course, there are awesome parts about being an entrepreneur. But starting a company is one of the hardest, loneliest journeys someone can take. When you are in, you are in 1000% and in order to have a chance at being successful, you need to be committed to pushing yourself and your team as far as humanly possible. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t “have a backup plan” or be thoughtful about business decisions — to do otherwise is reckless. What it does mean is that if you are to lead others and ship product, you had better be all in yourself. Because if you’re not the biggest evangelist, everyone else is going to smell that right away.
We recently saw you on Cheddar (great segment) with your Co-founder Ben Newton, COO at Vivvi. How did you meet your Co-founder and what’s your advice for finding the right Co-founder?
Thanks! Ben and I met through a mutual friend who is also an entrepreneur and had heard us both talking about our vision for the next big thing. Ben has quickly become one of my closest friends and my most trusted colleague, and brings with him pretty unparalleled experience — he was a teacher in post-Katrina New Orleans for TFA, he was on the Founding team of the most successful school launch in the history of western civilization (Avenues: the World School), and has helped open or turn around over 3 dozen early childhood programs in NYC. And he has a Master’s from Oxford and a heck of a smile.
I say all that not only because I’m so proud to work with him, but also because it’s a pretty great template, I think for finding a co-founder. He’s someone with complementary skills and experiences that are not only critical to our company but unimpeachable in breadth and quality, is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met and someone I really like. We spend more time together than we do with our families — and in order to have a successful co-founder relationship, you need to not only respect each other but actually like each other.
Our TVP Founders tell us there are so many lessons in entrepreneurship. What’s the biggest lesson from your Vivvi journey?
Starting a company is one of the hardest, craziest things a person can do. There’s a lot of temptation to try to control everything, even though that’s impossible. One of the biggest learnings I’ve had is to really only focus on what you can control — anything else is a waste of time. That also means that you need to trust the people you bring in to do their jobs and allow them to blossom. I think that’s important for everyone’s mental health, not just the CEO.
What’s your advice on what an entrepreneur should look for in an investor?
Fundraising is a profoundly inorganic process and one I’ve been fortunate to experience from both sides of the table. When you take on investors, you’re taking on legal and moral duties and quite literally married for the duration of your company. Choose wisely — find people who you respect, you trust and with whom you have a relationship. The first time you talk to them probably shouldn’t be when you’re asking for money. Take the time because it’s an important step.
I was lucky: I knew Zander for nearly a decade through our previous work by the time I pitched him, and I think that laid a lot of the baseline “must-haves” of mutual respect personally and professionally. And in fact, most of our investors are people that we’ve known for years and worked with in the past who not only believed in Vivvi but who brought a wide range of experiences across HR, education and real estate to the table. What impressed me most about TVP, though, was that they mirrored a lot of my philosophies of investing — high conviction, fast movement, and deep engagement.
How do you deal with failure or setbacks as you build a startup?
Setbacks and failures happen — you can only control how you react to them and how you learn from them. It’s ok to make mistakes; it’s not ok to make the same mistake twice. And you’d better own up to it early and often if you want to have a shred of credibility with your team or your investors.
How do you balance being a CEO with everything else in your life? (We heard that you’re a new Dad. Congrats!)
Thanks! Grace is the sweetest little girl and the light of my life. I’m lucky that I get to take her to work every day. But honestly, I don’t really have any hobbies, and I think that being a dad has made me a better CEO and vice versa. I try to get home every night to put her to bed and have dinner with my wife by like 7/730, but that just means that I have to relentlessly prioritize what I spend my time on when I’m in the office or in the center. That means when I’m in, I’m on, and I think it helps the team, too, because there aren’t a ton of wasted motions here. I tend to spend a lot of my Saturday working, but I’ve made a conscious decision to not really do anything on Sundays to maintain my sanity.
Words to live by…
Life’s too short to spend time on things that don’t matter.