The “Aha! moment” that led to Lyndsay Szymanski’s winning idea in our moms of invention contest came as she tried to solve a vexing challenge in her own life. Pumping breast milk at work for her first daughter, in 2008, she was frustrated that she couldn’t tap away at her laptop during 15-minute breaks from her job as an administrative assistant in pediatric oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Her hands were occupied as she held the pumping equipment. Sure, there were bustiers on the market to make the experience hands-free, but they cost $30 and up and could be uncomfortable.
Soon she came up with a simple prototype for a set of clips that attach the pumping equipment to a woman’s preferred nursing bra. Voilà! Pump-a-Pair was born. The busy mom now juggles running her home based company, Pumping Station, with raising her preschoolers.
At this point, she sells Pump-a-Pair clips for $12.95 from her Amazon.com storefront (YourPumpingStation.com), the shopping site Wayfair and small brick-and-mortar retail stores. With minimal marketing, Lyndsay sold several hundred sets the first year. While she currently makes the product by hand, “I’m ready to manufacture,” says Lyndsay, who left her job when she moved to Minnesota from Boston and has invested just under $5,000 with her husband and brother.
She also answered our call for 500 words or less on how she dreamed up her idea, what problem it would solve, the potential marketplace and a ballpark estimate of what a real launch would cost—and wowed our editor-judges. We picked Lyndsay as our winner and hooked her up with three leading business experts with the know-how to help her grow her company. Then we sat in on her expert sessions so we could share with all of you the smart tips that can benefit any entrepreneur mom.
The Expert Ivy Cohen, founder of Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications in New York City and San Francisco, which has served clients from MGM to Kaplan University. A particular challenge for Lyndsay has been getting customers to understand how the product works when she’s not demonstrating it at, say, an expo—“they tend to overthink it,” she says—and to understand that it actually does what’s promised for a low price.
Veteran marketer Ivy Cohen quickly came up with a prescription: focus her website’s home page more closely on problems facing new nursing mothers and show how Pump-a-Pair solves them, then make it clear how different it is from rival products. For anyone looking to create a successful online marketing pitch for her product, Cohen suggests studying websites of successful consumer products, like Spanx shapewear: “You can tell from the Spanx home page that the company understands the consumer’s desire to look slimmer and aims to show how the product helps her do that better than any other solution.”
Lyndsay is already raising her company’s profile by featuring reviews of her products by mommy bloggers via Facebook and Twitter. Cohen suggests taking this a step further: arrange demos at meet-up groups for moms to build word-of-mouth buzz. “Start and grow from there to organizations for nursing mothers, Ob-Gyns and working moms,” she suggests. And to extend Lyndsay’s media reach, Cohen suggests sending pitch letters to members of the media saying she’s available for interviews not just about her product but also on key topics like breastfeeding.
Prepping for Growth
The Expert Andrew Sherman, an attorney and partner in the Washington, DC, office of Jones Day and author of small-business books including Harvesting Intangible Assets Legal eagle Andrew Sherman showed Lyndsay how to avoid common mistakes that derail small firms, especially those that share her company’s goal of winning distribution deals with big retailers.
As Sherman points out, Lyndsay’s in a perfect position to gather intelligence on how to work with a big retailer because she’s already working with one: Amazon. She participates in Amazon’s storefront program for small businesses, whose fees start at $40 a month for unlimited sales. Building brand recognition on social media to drive sales on Amazon and through other outlets should help attract other big retailers, Sherman says.
“In today’s web 2.0 social-media driven world, you’re a lot better off taking the route Lyndsay is taking and building up critical mass so a larger retailer is contacting you—and you’re not one of fifty-seven people in line.” To build a strong foundation for the business, Sherman stresses the importance of continually fine-tuning the product before taking on contracts with big retailers— something Lyndsay had already begun in response to customer feedback by making the straps of her product a little shorter. “It’s one thing to make 400 to 500 units that function properly,” he says. “It’s another thing to make 500,000 units that do so.”
Once Lyndsay begins producing in a factory, she’ll need to adopt the type of formal quality-control systems any manufacturer would use. As she gets ready to manufacture, Sherman recommends she explore options for financing supplies, because the cost could run into many thousands of dollars if she gets a huge order.
He suggests the Minnesota-based mom contact her alma mater, University of Minnesota, to see if there’s any group of private investors, known as angels, who’d be interested in investing, or she could check out Angel List (angel.co) to find local private investors. He also suggests looking for knowledgeable management talent to add to her team in the future and putting together a volunteer advisory board of businesspeople in her community who are willing to gather each quarter to offer strategic advice.
Partnering with a big retailer isn’t the only way to grow, says Sherman. Considering strategic partnerships or revenue sharing arrangements with other companies, such as maternity clothing or bra makers, or even looking for large employers that might be interested in distributing the product to new moms in their workforce, is another way to go.
The Expert Fabienne Fredrickson, self made millionaire, creator of the fast-growing business-coaching firm client Attraction.com and mom of three young children. To help Lyndsay achieve strong financial growth, entrepreneur mom Fabienne Fredrickson suggests she set concrete monthly revenue goals—something she hadn’t begun doing—to determine how many retailers she needs and how much marketing she must do to reach them, and then focus on achieving these objectives.
“If you keep track on an excel spreadsheet of everything you make each month as it relates to your goal this month, you can say, ‘cool, this month I made my goal,’ ” says Fredrickson. “If this month you didn’t make your goal, you’ll know that next month you need to increase your marketing, presence and visibility to reach it.”
One way for Lyndsay to ramp up marketing without a lot of additional effort, suggests Fredrickson, is to increase the frequency of her once-a-month E-newsletter to twice a month and then, ideally, every week. Clients will value fresh, original content. Adding customer testimonials to her website will also go a long way. “It’s much more powerful than anything you can say about your own product,” explains Fredrickson. “You will never have as much credibility as offered by the end user, the consumer.” If target customers identify closely with the people giving the testimonials, they’re more likely to buy.
Lyndsay mulled over her prize advice and within a few days was ready with a short list of next steps. Based on Cohen’s consulting, she began to revise her website and marketing materials to show more clearly how her product solves customers’ problems.
To follow up on Sherman’s tips, she started reaching out to big companies that might be open to offering an employee discount on her product or providing it as a gift to new moms. “I used the Working Mother 100 Best Companies list,” says Lyndsay, noting that almost all of the firms have lactation programs.
She also plans to set up a volunteer advisory board by recruiting through her existing network. She’s considering tapping people like a customer, a lactation consultant, an attorney friend, a business expert from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, where her brother earned an MBA—and, in an ideal world, a buyer from Target, through a friend who works there. And, to follow up on Fredrickson’s suggestions, she plans to send her newsletter more frequently and also set monthly revenue goals. “That way, I’ll have something to strive for—and to feel I’ve accomplished,” she said. You grow, girl!