A message to OpenAI’s Sam Altman was an AI startup founder’s last ditch effort to help save her company — and it worked
Originally posted by Business Insider, August 21, 2023
- Milo is an AI assistant to help busy working parents manage their kids’ schedules.
- Milo’s founder, Avni Patel Thompson almost shut down the company before reaching out to Sam Altman.
- The AI startup was recently named by VCs as one of 2023’s most promising startups.
At the end of last summer, Avni Patel Thompson was nearing her breaking point.
The former Starbucks and Reebok brand strategist had spent the last two years working to build an automated personal assistant to help manage her young children’s schedules. “I know what it feels like to be a parent that has forgotten pajama day, pizza day, that disappointment,” she said.
The dream was to create a virtual secretary, or “co-pilot,” that could clear her of all of the mental static that comes with parenting, like daily reminders to sign permission slips, for birthday party invites or doctor’s appointments, without the heavy lift of making spreadsheets and calendars on top of her demanding job.
Thompson named her startup Milo, an acronym for “my important loved ones,” and raised some early funding from the accelerator Y Combinator in 2020.
But each iteration of the product kept glitching and her funding was drying up. She was no longer able to pay her employees, and had to let them all go. “I started to think, maybe there isn’t a ‘’there’ there,” she told Insider.
But as she thought back to why she wanted to start Milo, she just couldn’t give up on her mission to use technology to solve this all-too-common problem for parents like herself.
“The thing that kept me going was that it was something that I needed to exist,” she said.
Her Hail Mary pass was to reach out to Sam Altman, the OpenAI CEO and former Y Combinator head with whom she had connected with during her time there. She had followed his work with large language models like GPT-4 and asked him if this was the missing piece that could make Milo work. He quickly responded and told her she was on the right track, and put her in touch with his team.
This connection led her to a new hire, her cofounder and CTO Archa Jain, who went through Y Combinator with her startup Insight Browser in 2019. It also led to a fresh infusion of cash from OpenAI to keep building Milo. She then had access to OpenAI’s models as the foundation to build Milo on top of.
Typically, AI assistants are associated with how they can enhance people’s work, but for OpenAI, they saw the potential beyond that realm.
“You never hear someone talk about the power of these models to help families,” said Brad Lightcap, OpenAI’s chief operating officer.”The idea that OpenAI’s models could be powering that experience is what really sold us,” he said.
On Milo, parents can send text messages of grocery lists, photos of permission slips or sign-up-sheets for school activities to the Milo chatbot. Milo then scans the documents and predicts the next command for an action item, whether it’s to add a reminder to a digital calendar or a personalized text reminder the morning of the event.
The broader market for “parent tech,” or tools to help parents had its moment in the spotlight during the pandemic venture boom, and reached $1.4 billion in 2021, according to PitchBook. But some of the most notable startups in the space, like the Greylock-backed parenting coach Cleo or the childcare marketplace Otter, don’t offer the same assistant-like features as Milo’s.
Other AI tools have started popping up that cater to parents, though. The AI tool marketplace YouAI, for example, features many tools for parents, including a bedtime story generator. But Milo’s focus as a personal organizer specifically for parents sets it apart from both categories, because of its specific focus, Thompson said.
Milo is only in its beta testing phase right now, Thompson explained, so that she and her team can figure out the bugs with a highly engaged customer base. For beta testers, the service costs $40 a month for a subscription. One of her beta testers includes Sara Ittelson, a partner at the venture capital firm Accel, who nominated the startup to Insider’s list of the most promising startups of 2023.
To date, Milo has raised an undisclosed amount of pre-seed and seed capital from Y Combinator, OpenAI, Magnify Ventures, Bronze Ventures, and several angel investors. The company’s first real test will come in the following weeks with back-to-school season, said Thompson, but she wants to make sure all of the bugs are ironed out before she opens it to the general public.
“I’m finally excited because we’re at the starting line,” she said. “We know what exactly it is we’re building — I’m trying to get parents off their phones and onto the floor to play with their kids.”