Most mornings begin the same way for Lindsay Fairman, pouring orange juice with one hand, tapping code into her iPad with the other. They are a carefully choreographed dance of getting breakfast in bellies, backpacks packed and the day’s coding started. It’s been the State College software developer’s routine for about the past four years.
Four years ago, soon after the birth of her first child, Fairman encountered a problem not uncommon to working mothers: finding time to shop for groceries. Both she and her husband were working full time, and previously foreign items — things like diapers and baby food — now couldn’t wait.
“It became almost every day that we were having to swing by the store on our way to pick him up from day care,” she said. “It’s delaying 20 minutes here, 30 minutes here, and I finally said there’s got to be something better and more convenient.”
So the new mom, equipped with an engineer’s mind, decided to build her own solution. She founded FairTech Labs and its platform Shelf Scouter, a digital pantry geared toward helping moms manage the morass of grocery shopping. After getting a tip from her hairdresser, the former Raytheon systems engineer got involved with Ben Franklin Technology Partners, enrolling in the accelerator’s boot camp and earning her then 9-month-old company a $2,500 check as part of the experience.
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In the eyes of the judges, the State College company’s brand filled a need.
“At the time the digital services and conveniences of grocery shopping, they just weren’t coming about yet — it was the old-fashioned style of traditional grocery shopping,” Fairman said. “So that’s what I was looking at, and I thought going directly to the consumer was the first way to get started.”
But since then the company, and Fairman’s family, has continued to grow. She welcomed her third child in June, about the same time when Shelf Scouter pivoted from a direct-to-consumer model to working with the grocery stores themselves.
Once again, Fairman was experiencing deja vu: a new baby, a new business decision, a new bundle of diapers and development.
“I became the woman in here with the baby stroller,” she said, laughing. “You don’t have a maternity leave when you’re running your own company, so fortunately I’m able to work from home. But then you are also working at home in the evening after they go to bed.”
Now the SAS, or software as a service, platform helps local, independent grocers provide eCommerce options to their customers. It will help them compete with the big chains, she said, while still providing the neighborhood service that sets them apart. According to a 2015 National Grocers Association consumer survey, almost nine out of 10 shoppers said it was “very” or “somewhat important” to them to buy local from their primary supermarket.
“The small grocery stores do not have the manpower to build these technologies on their own like the large ones do,” she said. “But more consumers now want to shop at their local store and have the great level of customer service that you don’t find at the larger ones.”
This fall, the company launched pilots in two stores and is working with partners in Cincinnati, home to big retailers and developers such as Kroger, Nielsen and Proctor and Gamble. In December, Shelf Scouter received a $100,000 investment from Ben Franklin Technology Partners to facilitate the shift in focus.
Improvising has been a challenge, Fairman said, but being a mom and running your own company tend to make dealing with the unknown routine.
“Every day you have to figure out where am I needed most,” she said. “There have been days where I’ve had a day filled up with meetings and the night before the kids get sick.”
So which is harder — being Mom or being the boss?
“There’s no question — by the minute, there’s the mom’s guilt,” she said, laughing. “No matter what you’re doing, you feel like you need to be in the other place.
“But it really just highlights what’s most important. There’s no bigger reward than my kids.”
Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy