Pree Walia, Co-Founder of Preemadonna, wants her company to disrupt the beauty industry. She’s taken her experience in political organizing and connected hardware, along with her passion for gender equality, to launch Preemadonna’s first product, the Nailbot. Pree tells us about her early role models, her inspiration for the Nailbot, and what it’s been like fundraising for a beauty tech company in male-dominated Silicon Valley.
What is your business, and what problem are you solving?
Preemadonna is a technology company built with and for the next generation of girls. We exist to build smart hardware products and power mobile platforms to inspire creative expression. First up, we are changing the way you do your nails and disrupting the $15 billion nail care industry with the Nailbot.
How does the Nailbot work?
The Nailbot is essentially a robotic manicurist. It automates the nail decoration process. We’re turning your smartphone into a nail salon. Step one is you prep your nails. We recommend a light-colored base coat to make the design pop. Then you pair your mobile device to the Nailbot, choose what you want to print, tap print, and in five seconds that image will appear on your nail.
What inspired you to start Preemadonna?
Pree: Candidly, I never dreamed I would start a company that builds robots, printers, and connected hardware. So the inspiration behind the Nailbot and our company, Preemadonna, came from the experiences I had throughout my life. It combined my professional passion for connected hardware, my personal passion as a community organizer, and my academic passion for gender studies.
"Preemadonna is a technology company built with and for the next generation of girls."
It started with an aha moment. Back in the summer of 2012, I was trying to get a manicure in Europe on vacation. It cost me a lot of money and I had to make an appointment days in advance. When I tried to do it myself, it looked awful. Around the same time, I saw all those LED dryers hit the consumer market in kits. I started putting things together over time and wanted to find a better way to decorate your nails using your smartphone. From there, we invented so many ways to decorate your nails with the Nailbot.
Who is your target user?
Anyone that has nails. Anyone that’s a creative or maker. I think for the first generation Nailbot, our target user will be a teen or pre-teen girl from Gen Z. 2.1 million Gen Z girls in the US decorate their nails at least once a day. But a lot of moms want a Nailbot for themselves, and millennials, too.
Who is your core team? How did your team come together?
We are a female-led founding team. I met Casey Schulz, a co-founder and an early member of our team, a few years ago when she was teaching kids Arduino and Robotics at Techshop. There was an instant connection and comradery. Together we set out for Hax Hardware accelerator in Shenzhen, China to work on Nailbot.
There is an old saying that the first ten people that believe in your venture define your culture, company or movement. For Preemadonna, those people happened to be women, and most are under the age of 25. They are coders, hackers, engineers, artists, product managers, marketers, and MakerGirls. These girls also recruit their friends to work at Preemadonna, so it has been organic recruiting. One of our unique advantages is that our consumers are our creators.
I think one of the really cool things about being a female founder and CEO and lead inventor is that I understand this problem, I know how to build the solution and build a team to bring this to life. If I weren’t the target consumer, product development would take so much longer. Simple questions like what’s the average width of a nail? become much easier with our team. We just have everyone in the office put their finger in to the Nailbot. In the early days of a company, you need that kind of access.
Why Republic? Why equity crowdfunding?
We are building products that democratize creative expression for the next generation of girls and women. We also believe that democratizing access to the companies that are building the innovative products you buy is equally important. These girls and women are not only our customers. They can share in Preemadonna’s long-term success AND reserve a product with a 30,000 person waitlist.
At our core, Preemadonna is a community, so we want to bring the Nailbot to market together as a team.
What’s it been like raising money for Preemadonna?
So if you can imagine Pree Walia in the Bay Area trying to get a typical VC to invest in Preemadonna, that VC is typically an older white man. Clearly, it’s easy to demo the product for girls, but it’s been a challenge to educate male VCs on the need and the product. They need to try the product out. So I’ve painted a lot of male investors’ nails. I used to bring around a fake hand in my purse with me. If you didn’t want your nails painted, I’d use the fake hand. I had to stop carrying it around because my co-founder said it was creepy.
Technically, I’m the original “preemadonna,” and those are all my hands in the original Preemadonna pictures. So I definitely have to have my nails nice most of the time, which is tough.
Do you have any early inspirations?
My parents—they are a great hacker and hustler duo. My dad is an electrical engineer. He’s the immigrant dream. He’s extremely inventive, thoughtful, precise, and process oriented. My mom has very high emotional IQ. She knows how to sell and how to lead teams.
My parents always wanted to own small businesses. Small businesses can be such an engine of growth for a family. When I was born, we owned a donut shop. We also owned a video store—a VHS store, this was before there were DVDs. We owned a jewelry store, Rings and Things. And we owned two Baskin-Robbins in New Orleans. My mom managed and worked to keep those stores afloat, and I grew up scooping and selling ice cream. Instead of a lemonade stand, I had an ice cream stand.
What did working at those stores teach you?
It teaches you a lot. It taught me to hustle, number one. My mom worked some crazy hours. She opened the stores, and we closed around eleven. I was never afraid to get my hands dirty. Scooping ice cream is as hands-on as you get. Icecream was a seasonal business, there were tropical storms that hit, so I learned about inventory management and seasonal sales. I learned how to manage a team, too. My mom hired a lot of high school and college kids to work at our stores for the summer. For a lot of these kids, it was their first job. I saw how she managed them and helped them grow and develop over time.
Shoutouts or plugs for tools, people, anything else?
Shout out to all of our early crowdfunding backers across platforms (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Republic), all the early investors and Ambassadors that have helped us build this company. There are some key community partners that really went above and beyond for a girl with a big idea including MakerGirl (a grassroots college-led nonprofit that teaches younger girls STEM modules) and Girls Scouts of the USA (we were sponsors of GIRL 2017—Girl Scout Convention).