In April 2009, Jennifer Wong, then 35, returned from her honeymoon and realized she felt nauseated. At first she chalked it up to job dread. She’d once loved her spot as a marketing director at a music-database company in Emeryville, California, but she started hating the place after it was bought by a giant corporation and the dizzy fun of a start-up turned into a drone of -steering-committee meetings. “I was bored,” she says. “And every month that went by, I got more and more bored.”
But then Wong discovered the true reason for her seasick feeling: She was pregnant. Thrilled by the news, she soon found herself desperate for information. “I wanted it daily, and I wanted it at my fingertips,” she says. “But I was working full time, so it wasn’t like I could carry that huge Mayo Clinic book around with me.” She also wanted access to a community of women, answers to questions she didn’t want to raise with her doctor and a place to journal about her pregnancy. In her downtime, she started poking at her smartphone and realized there was a gap in the online world: Nothing was available that really met her needs.
Wong talked to her husband, a technology engineer, and they decided they should develop a maternity app. Not that Wong had any formal technology training; she’d majored in art history, worked in marketing and gone to culinary school. “But growing up, we couldn’t afford much—the only way to get a computer was tobuild our own, so my brother and I bought the pieces and figured out how to put it together ourselves,” she says. “Until I got my first job, I always built my own computers.”
She approached the launch of an app with the same spirit of DIY creativity. First, she developed a menu of functions that, based on her own experience, seemed desirable. On her list: The app should enable a woman to enter her due date and track her body’s changes as well as her baby’s growth. She needed to be able to pose questions (anonymously, if she preferred) to a huge community of other moms and moms-to-be. She needed a widget that would measure and record her contractions with a built-in stopwatch. Wong provided the ideas; it was up to her husband to turn them into software. But with their own child on the way, neither wanted to put a lot of money into the venture. In the end, they were convinced by one critical aspect of the software market: “You can enter the space and get a lot of traction with a small amount of money,” Wong says.
Ultimately, Wong spent nomoney to start her company (which they called Alt12, because on most computers, holding down the Alt key and typing 1 and 2 makes the female symbol, ♀). She stayed at her job but moonlighted to design the front end of the app, and her husband left his job to design the back end. Wong named the app BabyBump, and in October 2009 it went on sale at iTunes and in the Palm catalog. (Today it is also available at Android Market and alt12.com. There is a free version and paid versions that cost $2.99 to $3.99.) The couple established a series of milestones they decided they had to meet in order to fully commit to Alt12. The first—to be met within three months of the launch—was 2,000 downloads a week. They got nearly 3,000. The next milestone was to earn at least enough to cover their cost of living, about $15,000 per month. Alt12 brought in about $33,000.
In February 2010, they hired their first employee, and in March, they introduced their second product, Pink Pad, a health-tracking app for women. Wong waited until July 2010, six months after her son was born, to join Alt12 full time. After raising venture capital through AngelList, a site for investors in start-ups, the company introduced Kidfolio, a photo-sharing app. Today, Alt12 has five full-time employees and eight moderators for the online community, which numbers more than one million active users. To date, the apps have been downloaded 3.5 million times. “I think there is this misconception that to start your own business, you have to have a lot of money,” says Wong, now pregnant with her second child. “But that’s not true. You can start small and make a big impact.”