All-male startup Kiki apologises for girls only club in New York - Women's Agenda

All-male startup Kiki apologises for girls only club in New York

Toby Thomas-Smith

Toby Thomas-Smith, the co-founder of the all-male founded startup Kiki, said he was “extremely naive” when he announced Kiki’s controversial “girls club” in New York City.

The startup, formerly known as EasyRent, provided subletting options in New Zealand and Sydney, before pivoting the business to expand in New York City.

Earlier this year, Kiki announced it would be launching a “girls only” club in the US city in an Instagram post, a decision that received significant backlash.

On Wednesday, Toby Thomas-Smith spoke in an Instagram video posted on Kiki’s account, addressing the situation from last month.

“I have a lot to own and apologise for, since putting out that post four weeks ago,” Thomas-Smith said.

The co-founder first apologised to the people who found the decision “offensive and disrespectful”.

“I was extremely naive referring to Kiki as the first girls club in NYC and for not articulating the true reasons behind this direction,” he said.

When it was first announced, the Kiki co-founders cited the hire of its first female worker as the reason behind the decision, who “enlightened” the all-male founding team on the supposed problem of women meeting women in NYC.

“It was incredibly offensive to all the women founders who’ve been working and researching to improve the safe environments for women to live in,” Thomas-Smith said in his apology.

According to Kiki and Blackbird, the venture capital fund that invested in Kiki, women comprised 70 per cent of Kiki users. Thomas-Smith said it is women who engages with the subletting company the most, which encouraged the group to pursue the “girls only” club.

However, Thomas-Smith said the startup’s time in NYC so far has “lacked the special feeling” and the “strong level of connection in the community” that they had in Sydney.

“We’re still ultimately committed to subletting and our mission of changing how the world lives, but because we’ve been missing the connection piece, this has required our full focus the past few weeks,” he said.

“Again, I’m deeply sorry for how I went about communicating this focus in such a poor way. I won’t make these same mistakes again in the future.”

Blackbird’s response

Venture capital funds have a significant gender problem. In 2023, just four per cent of startup funding went to all-female teams in 2023, with all-male teams continuing to dominate across all deals done.

At the time of Kiki’s announcement, a lot of backlash was directed at Blackbird, Australia’s largest venture capital fund. Blackbird invested a 16 per cent stake in the all-male founded startup when it was based in Sydney and known as EasyRent.

Many commentators criticised Blackbird’s lack of response since the saga. But four weeks later, General Partner at Blackbird Ventures Samantha Wong released a statement on behalf of the company.

Her statement addressed the criticism surrounding the gender issue in Kiki and in VC funding in general, one Blackbird is “committed to improving”.

“As a former female founder who struggled to raise venture funding for her startup, and as a female general partner who has raised $160M over two separate funds for the New Zealand Blackbird funds that I run, I am empathetic to the challenge of fundraising as a woman,” Wong said.

“I can fully appreciate the frustration at inequity in funding for female founders that I saw in commentary on this story.”

Wong firstly clarified “a few facts” in relation to Kiki’s girls only club.

“Despite what you may have read, Blackbird did not back a women’s club, nor did Kiki ‘fail’ in Sydney,” Wong said. 

“We, along with numerous other investors, invested in Kiki to expand its subletting platform, off the back of its strong traction in Sydney, where it was known as ‘EasyRent’.

“At the time of our investment of 16%, EasyRent had been live in Sydney for 12 months, was essentially bootstrapped and was profitable.”

Kiki then made the “bold and risky” move to expand its business in NYC and “own the subletting category globally”, which Wong said has a “logical basis”.

“Women made up 70% of Kiki users in Sydney, but when they moved to New York, they experienced an imbalance of supply and demand, and didn’t have the ‘community magic’,” Wong said.

“As we all know, startup founders experiment and learn and sometimes adjust as they go. They do not always get everything 100% right. We see it as our role to provide support to them through the learning, shifting, ups and downs of the startup journey. 

“So that’s where our focus has been working with Kiki over the last few weeks.”

In 2022, Blackbird invested in 22 companies; 23 per cent of those companies had at least one woman founder in the founding team.

“While this is broadly in line with industry standards, it’s nowhere near where we want it to be,” Wong said. 

“We are committed to continuing to provide transparent reporting about our progress, acknowledging that we need to do better.”

Blackbird has several programs designed to mentor, coach and develop more women startup founders.

“There is much more work to do, and we’re committed to doing it,” Wong said. “We will continue doing our part to build an ecosystem we can all be proud of.”


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