Marissa Evans Alden, co-founder and CEO, Sawyer

She created a solution for scheduling your kids' educational adventures

As a home base, says Alden, Brooklyn was a “perfect beginning for this business” (Photo courtesy of Sawyer)

“Sawyer is for pretty much anyone that has children,” co-founder Marissa Evans Alden told us of her Brooklyn-based tech startup, Sawyer. “We’ve built an online marketplace where parents can come and discover the best education opportunities for their kids.” Sawyer, named after Mark Twain’s adventurous character, is streamlining the complicated process of finding and scheduling children’s activities, “anything from a drop-in class to a semester class to a camp.” Alden says the company, launched in 2015 with co-founder Stephanie Choi, was “inspired by this idea that access to education should be easy, it should be simple, it should be fun.”  

Before launching Sawyer, Alden founded two businesses including Go Try It On, a mobile social-media platform where users could share photos of themselves and get feedback on their outfits. The company was acquired by Rent the Runway in 2013, where Alden became general manager. It was at Rent the Runway that Alden met Choi, who happened to be expecting. By the time Choi’s child was a young toddler, the business idea for Sawyer struck them. “I was itching to try something again,” Alden recalls in our podcast. “When I left Rent the Runway, I was managing a cross-functional team of about 15 people, and so I was managing, I wasn’t building.”


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When starting a business, Alden says testing your hypothesis is an important first step. “We very quickly think about how to prove ourselves wrong,” she says. Alden and Choi reached out to a local listserv for parents to see if the customer demand was there; 100 parents responded right away. Next were the educators. “We started calling providers here in the city and asking what they thought, and if they could meet us for coffee and take ten minutes and talk to us about this idea.” Alden recalls the founders of Treasure Trunk Theatre and Smith Street Workshop as some of the most enthusiastic early supporters. “Both of them specifically were so into this and kind of felt like ‘Oh, wow, I’d love to help you guys,’” Alden recalls. “That was a great sign.”

After confirming the initial interest, it was on to fundraising and getting started. Along the way, however, the founders realized that they needed to pivot their strategy. At first, they had envisioned their business as a kind of ClassPass for kids, but realized that the educators were so fragmented in their scheduling systems that the better approach was to build a software platform, similar to OpenTable, which could be sold to providers. Having built the system, “where we’re at right now, is really building out that supply side,” Alden says. “It’s selling software, it’s perfecting the product and what the capabilities are.” Sawyer took on the organization of a whole diverse set of children’s education industries, which has proven a challenging feat. “I think one of the reasons nobody’s really done this before is there’s actually a ton of nuance in scheduling software for educators. It’s not simple.”  

Working with the providers has given Alden a lot of respect for local entrepreneurs. “They’re the ones that are building businesses and educating children, which is pretty incredible and draining in a lot of ways, and they’re the ones that are creating livelihoods for themselves and their families.” She has found that the entrepreneurs they work with are “very willing to try new things and to change.” That said, she points out “you have to have your ducks in a row when you’re selling to them, you have to have a product that is gonna actually do what they want it to do.”

Sawyer is now in more than 35 cities across the U.S., powered by a team of 24 working in the Dumbo neighborhood. Alden says Brooklyn was a “perfect beginning for this business.” Because they’re working with kids, the company “has to feel safe and it has to feel local to some degree,” and Brooklyn has been that for them, says Alden. Diverse and ever-changing, the borough is “this perfect compilation of different attributes that felt right for the brand we wanted to build.”–By Kora Feder