A Q&A with Ittavi co-founder and CEO Sheri Atwood. The Santa Clara-based startup, which offers SupportPay—software that allows former spouses with children to manage child support and other shared expenses, launched at the DEMO Fall show in Silicon Valley in mid-October. It was founded in 2011 by Atwood and CTO Lorena Chiu.
SUB: Please describe Ittavi and your primary innovation.
Atwood: SupportPay by Ittavi—an acronym for ‘it takes a village’—was launched to completely transform the complex, time-consuming, stressful process that impacts nearly 300 million parents exchanging more than $900 billion in child support payments worldwide. It’s the first-ever online payment platform that makes it easy for former spouses to organize, pay, and track support payments and share other child-related expenses directly with each other.
SUB: Who are your target markets and users?
Atwood: SupportPay is for a largely ignored population of single, divorced, or separated parents, as well as blended families who are currently exchanging child support. When the term ‘child support’ is heard, most people immediately jump to the conclusion that no one pays child support. This is primarily due to the continued press coverage of ‘dead beat dads.’ Our customers do exchange child support. The person paying wants to ensure the money is going directly to the child and the person receiving can demonstrate the true cost of raising a child. While SupportPay can be used by one parent to simply track payments made or received, our target market is parents who have agreed to share child expenses and exchange child support, and they need a platform that provides transparency for both sides.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition, and what differentiates Ittavi from the competition?
Atwood: There is no other solution that handles child support payments along with all of the other expenses associated with raising a child, such as extracurricular activities, doctors’ visits, etc. Some state governments offer an online tool to pay child support only—the once-a-month required payment. These are typically very antiquated, if they exist at all, and again don’t cover the myriad of other shared expenses that parents living apart need to coordinate each month. In addition, there are other solutions on the market that focus on other aspects of divorce—such as communication, visitation, and custody issues—but the financial aspect has been largely unaddressed until now. Most parents use spreadsheets, arguments, phone calls, emails, etc., to try and track and discuss this very sensitive topic. SupportPay is the first online service to help deal with these shared expenses and manage the complex financial interactions between parents raising a child apart.
SUB: You just had your official launch at the DEMO Fall show. What was the experience of launching in that forum like, overall?
Atwood: DEMO was a great venue for several reasons. First, they were very selective in the companies that they chose to participate. They provided a platform to not only announce a product, but also to demonstrate the functionality of the product and the value it brings to the marketplace.
SUB: Why did you decide to apply to DEMO as the platform for your launch?
Atwood: The DEMO series of conferences are among the most well-known and respected of IT startup showcases, especially for those looking to get recognized by venture capitalists and industry experts. We, like many of the other companies who’ve launched products at DEMO, wanted to go on to be highly successful as well.
SUB: What was the inspiration behind the idea for Ittavi? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?
Atwood: My parents divorced when I was five-years-old and they defined what it means to have a ‘dysfunctional divorce.’ It seemed, as a young child, the only thing that mattered to either one of them was money, or lack thereof, and this caused a lot of fighting and a lot of conflict. Many years later, when I faced a divorce of my own, I swore I would do everything in my power to make it as amicable as possible. Our divorce was so amicable I did the entire thing myself. Yet I found that divorce doesn’t just end it—there still needs to be communication with the ex to divvy up incremental expenses such as healthcare and education. It’s the irony of divorce. Relationship experts agree that the top two reasons for divorce are money and communication, yet when you divorce with children you have to communicate about money. Between tracking expenses, calculating who owed what to whom, and managing getting bills paid, the entire process was very overwhelming and complicated.
I had my ‘aha’ moment a few years ago. I was a vice president at Symantec, traveling the world and juggling being a single parent. I needed an easy solution to communicate and share expenses with my ex-husband. I looked high-and-low for a solution, and to my surprise, found that there was no standard process or system to enable parents to manage this emotional and conflict-ridden process directly between each other. In addition, I found that all the talk, when it came to child support, was around the people who didn’t pay, despite the fact that 39 million parents in the U.S. alone do exchange child support. I wondered why there weren’t more positive representations of parents willing and able to co-parent for the benefit of the child. So, I created a solution myself that would save me time, money, and would help to eliminate this financial conflict so I could focus on raising a happy and healthy child.
SUB: What were the first steps you took in establishing the company?
Atwood: The first step was to validate there really was a market and a need for the product, mainly because I was so surprised there was nothing out there yet. I found most solutions, tools, and conversations focused on the divorce, yet when it comes to managing life after divorce, the offerings become very limited. Even for those solutions, none of them addressed the financial aspects of life after divorce. I spent an incredible amount of time investigating and learning everything I could about the state of child support across the world, the government offerings, and the divorce and child support process. I spoke to mothers and fathers, mediators, lawyers, and judges, and continually heard: “I could really use something like that.” I really knew I was onto something when, during the first week of posting the product on LinkedIn, I received over 20 unsolicited emails from parents in the situation, or children who have lived through the situation, saying how much a solution like this was [needed] on the market. So, after lot of time spent on market size and market validation, I made the full commitment to delivering SupportPay to the market.
SUB: How did you come up with the name? What is the story or meaning behind it?
Atwood: I came up with the name ‘SupportPay’ as it relates directly to the key words that people search for: ‘child support payments.’ It also represents how the product sounds—easy to pay, manage, and track both parties’ child support payments. Ittavi, the parent company, is an acronym for ‘it takes a village.’ We want to deliver technology solutions for this vastly underserved market by addressing the unique financial issues that middle-aged people face in the new modern family. It seems that technology is simply ignoring people in my age group looking for solutions to solve day-to-day problems, and when it comes to finances, providing solutions to solve problems that span households is vastly ignored. The best chance we can give our children to lead healthy and productive lives is to leverage the entire community in the best way we can. No one can raise a child alone, and a child needs their parents, family, and community. We know it takes a village to raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted children, and we want to be part of just that.
SUB: Have you raised outside funding to this point?
Atwood: Yes, we have and continue to welcome fundraising from any outside sources. Currently, the company has raised $300,000 of a planned Seed round of $750,000 from Angel investors, friends, and family. This funding will drive customer adoption and growth.
SUB: What have the most significant challenges been so far to building the company?
Atwood: As with any advance in technology, funding is an ongoing challenge. We have self-funded and only recently began active fundraising efforts. Although nothing is ever guaranteed, I wanted to feel confident that we could provide an innovative solution to a modern dilemma that will forever change the face of child support management before bringing in outside investors. Since our beta launch earlier this year, and even following our recent public launch, we have received tremendous positive feedback, and have won several awards further providing the proof we needed before asking others to invest in our vision. We are confident investors will recognize that Ittavi SupportPay is the timeliest and [most] comprehensive solution to date, and the company is led by a team of seasoned business professionals who know how to develop and grow a business.
SUB: How do you generate revenue or plan to generate revenue?
Atwood: The way SupportPay generates revenue is through a monthly subscription model for its full-featured desktop app, and a paid model for its mobile apps, though a free ‘lite’ version is also available.
SUB: What are your goals for Ittavi over the next year or so?
Atwood: Ittavi envisions being the platform of choice for modern family finances as well as building a community and partnerships that directly address the unique challenges that divorced spouses face. Aside from our growth, we are looking at offering other solutions, in addition to SupportPay, to address the unique needs of single, divorced, separated, and blended families.
Ittavi/SupportPay – www.supportpay.com