For this piece we interviewed Dr. Stella Dao, the visionary and first named inventor of Freemie, the hands free and concealable pumping system. Freemie allows you to pump “anytime, anywhere and around anyone”. Stella was a working FemInEM when she first developed the product. We asked Stella (and her husband Dan) a few questions about inventing a product that filled a need in the market.
What is your background in design and entrepreneurship? (And if none, how did they get the expertise they needed to launch Freemie?
I don’t have a background in design at all and neither does my husband. But my husband has extensive experience in entrepreneurship, manufacturing, sales and consulting. I am fortunate that he has been my partner in all the aspects of our lives, from parenting to business. Additionally my husband by nature likes to network and he is very good at building and managing a team. As we worked on the Freemie, he recruited the talent we needed piece by piece, first in patent law, then business law, medical plastics engineering, computer design engineering, and later, sales, marketing, social media, etc….
Were there skills or strengths acquired practicing medicine that lent themselves well to developing a successful business? (If so, which?)
Interestingly, many of the attending physicians at my Stanford residency had quite a bit of business experience. I suspect that the personalities that are attracted to Emergency Medicine or perhaps the training and experience produces physicians who are flexible, adaptable and open to improvisation whether in the ED or in life. So I was lucky to have mentors such as Drs. Paul Auerbach, Ricardo Martinez, Eric Alan Weiss, and Rebecca Smith Coggins. These accomplished Emergency Physicians were willing to share their experiences, opinions and perspectives with me and they were very supportive.
My medical training also helped me in learning about and thinking through the biological needs and scientific basis for the Freemie system. Breastfeeding was a new field for me and I wanted to learn from the experts. I joined the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine where I could learn the latest research from leaders in the field.
What got you over the hump from “This is a good idea.” to “I am going to do this”?
There never really was a hump for me going from “This is a good idea.” to “I am going to do this.” When our twins were born two months premature, I was pumping around the clock for months. The realization struck me that as their mother, I was the one person who could and would do everything in my power, including pumping day and night to help them. At three and a half pounds each, their vulnerability was terrifying. So I pumped, and pumped and pumped. I had 4 months maternity leave and then I was trying to pump in the ED during my shifts. It was nearly impossible. I would tell myself that as soon as I got this person stabilized, or as soon as I check this study or call a consultant, I would pump. But the free moment would never come until the shift was over.
So the Freemie idea came directly out of my needs as an Emergency Physician. I simply wanted to pump hands free and with my clothes on. At least I could chart or make a call and still talk to a nurse while I was pumping.
After I could see the solution for me, it was something I felt compelled to move forward with. I knew that women all over the world in all kinds of work and home situations were struggling with the same limited pumping equipment (or even less). Knowing how important it was for me to be able to feed our children the absolute best nutrition, and feeling in my gut that this was something that would help mothers everywhere, I don’t think I could have chosen to do otherwise.
What have the biggest barriers been?
One of my personal barriers was that I was an ED doc. In the ED, everyone is focused on the same goal and the pace is fast. When building a business, you are putting together a team from lots of different styles, expertise, agendas, motives and so on… When things weren’t happening the way I wanted, I couldn’t write an order, move on to the next problem and expect it to all get done. I had a lot to learn about what it takes to build and run and grow a business. Everyone you engage in business has their own needs, and you have to respect that. If people have expertise or talents or time that you don’t, you have to figure out how you can work with them. Some people you meet are great at what they do, but their personal needs may not fit in with your goals and priorities. Another issue was money. You can hire a lot of talented people very fast and spend a lot of money to get your product and ideas out very fast. But if you need to raise a lot of money to do all this, you have to give up some control. The more money you raise, the more control you lose over your idea. So this was something that we chose to approach very purposefully. The issue of how you are going to fund your business is something that everyone who is looking at starting a business must consider carefully.
Any take-aways for other women considering branching out into something new and scary?
I think it is important to take things carefully, one step at a time. We did not start working on this idea until we had researched the market. When we knew that there wasn’t anything out there that offered the solutions of the Freemie, then we started to research the logistics of forming a business, such as how to structure a business; how to form and administer a business. Then we worked on recruiting the talent we did not have, and so on…
What’s next up for you & Freemie? Other products or wider reach?
We have plans both for other products and a wider reach. The Freemie cups are just the beginning. Over the years that we have been working on the Freemie system, our understanding of the depth and breadth of the need has steadily grown. With each new design, we learn and grow and improve a little more. We have full time R&D engineers who apply the practical knowledge we are gathering from our customer base to the development of other projects. Our goal is to transform this industry and make a huge impact on public health by enabling mothers with tools to successfully breastfeed.
For more information on Freemie, please go to www.freemie.com.