A few years ago while teaching at Stanford d.school I met designer Gabrielle Guthrie. She had been working on her master’s thesis to reinvent the breast pump, bringing a valuable beginner’s mindset to a product that’s remained largely unchanged since the 1980’s.
Gabrielle was committed to solving a real problem for new mothers returning to work, and when her thesis project was over, she partnered with Cara Delzer and Santhi Analytis, two world-class founders with complementary skillsets. Moxxly was born.
Software is challenging on its own. Add hardware, and there’s a lot to think about: manufacturing, supply chain, and in this case, FDA approvals. But we knew the Moxxly team was up for it. And because Designer Fund looks for companies that tackle low-NPS and low-loyalty products, we all saw a big opportunity to revamp an ‘80s technology that no one was happy with.
This summer, we celebrated the acquisition of Moxxly by Olle Larsson Holding, a dominant player in the breast pump market and parent company of the Medela pump. Medela has relationships with insurance providers and retail outlets, and has been the trusted standard for decades. In return, Moxxly will bring them a talented team and innovative product IP. This was a positive outcome for everyone involved, and through the acquisition, they have a greater chance of fully realizing their original mission.
I sat down with Gabrielle to discuss design’s role in creating Moxxly, her advice for designer entrepreneurs-to-be, and more.
How did you decide to redesign the breast pump?
I began redesigning the breast pump for my Stanford master’s thesis, not because of my expertise in that field, but out of a desire to work on something that had impact on the world.
I had just come from working in a jewelry studio in New York. I’d been making beautiful objects, but lacked that larger impact. It taught me how important it is that I align my personal values with my work.
So at Stanford, my project partner and I started by asking, “What are our values? What’s worth spending time on?” We made a big list and noticed that we overlapped on women’s issues. Women’s issues became our broad starting point.
Then we began to narrow down the possibilities. We made a timeline of a woman’s life from conception to death and marked the major milestones. We started interviewing women in those different slices of life in a broad, exploratory way to gain an understanding of what their world is like, how they frame it, what problems they deal with, and what tools and products they use.
In that process, we interviewed this woman who had just returned to work from maternity leave. She pulled out her breast pump, and it was just awful. It was the first time I’d seen one up close. She kept pulling out all these parts. It was like a cross between a medical device and a baby toy, not designed for her real environment at all. That breast pump is a huge part of a woman’s life after she returns from maternity leave, and it’s failing her hugely. We thought, this is it. This is the product.
It was a choice with broader significance for me. Coming into design from a liberal arts background, I’ve always been fascinated with objects; they each have meaning and demonstrate what the culture cares about. Everything around us tells a story about these people. When you look at a tool like a breast pump from an alien’s point of view, what does that tell you about how we value women, especially women in the workplace? It says that we don’t value their bodies or their time. We don’t think mothers should be at work.
Designing within that context completely changes the designs and the brand. It immediately aligned us around a shared thought: “This isn’t just a breast pump. This is a much bigger thing.”
How did Moxxly the company come about?
My master’s partner and I had our product idea, but we didn’t know any moms. We started putting up flyers to attract women we could interview, and started making prototypes and feedback.
As the project evolved and I continued to work on it beyond class, I learned about PCH’s Highway1 accelerator for hardware companies, and attended their hackathon. On a whim I decided to get onstage, pull out a breast pump in front of a bunch of guys, and pitch them on my idea. We formed a team of 7 — which included Santhi, who became Moxxly’s founding engineer — and took judges’ favorite.
Cara Delzer, who would become our founding CEO, reached out to me because she’d seen the interview flyers around. She’d just quit her job to solve the same breast pump issue after returning from maternity leave. After several meetings, she, Santhi, and I agreed to form a company and officially apply to Highway1.
Why have breast pumps traditionally sucked from a design perspective?
Breast pumps have been around since at least the 1800’s. There are actually some very beautiful glass antique models.
The modern standard is the double-electric breast pump, which has been around since the late 1980’s, and came with the rise of women returning to the workplace after childbirth. They were designed by male engineers to meet priorities that weren’t really user-centric.
For instance, the double-electric pump was an efficient device to extract milk from any breast, despite the enormous variety in sizes and shapes. If that kind of efficiency is the model for a successful product, then it does a good job. But for an individual woman using it, the experience is unwieldy, sometimes can be painful, requires getting partially undressed at work … the list goes on.
Why hasn’t the ‘80’s model been challenged until now?
You need capital to innovate in hardware, but the market, which is $829 million, isn’t big enough for many investors to get excited about the size of the payoff. And the FDA is a big barrier because the process to create a sellable product is long, expensive, and daunting. Combined with the low cash payoff incentive, it doesn’t incentivize entrepreneurship.
Were there are any challenges you faced designing products for women?
Most investors weren’t familiar with the problem space. The most common reaction we’d get from male investors was, “let me talk to my wife about this.” We’ve even had people ask, “Do you really think this is an issue?” If you’ve been through the breast pumping process or talked to anyone who has, it feels like an absurd question.
I understand an investor’s desire to feel comfortable and confident about an issue and its proposed solution. On the other hand, it’s an unfortunate part of a larger instance of devaluing women’s health issues. A lot less funding goes into women’s health compared to men’s, and less is known about it.
Moxxly was recently acquired. How did design impact the success of the business?
Since design in context of the modern woman has been missing in this field, our design-forward approach has been an easy differentiator. We met with hundreds of women to understand their world and to design for their context. They’ve been part of our process from day one. Every part of the company has undergone a considered design process, from our branding, to our packaging, to the product itself.
How did you uniquely contribute as a designer and founder?
I’m still the only designer on the team, so I have the huge privilege and responsibility of orchestrating the entire experience, every touchpoint — from shopping online to receiving the product in the mail.
Another big part of my role is to design the systems to do our user research and help the rest of the team understand a customer’s context, since not all teammates can sit in on every interview. User feedback can be so disparate, No two breasts are the same, no two pumping sessions are the same. So how do we prioritize features, create a hierarchy of needs, and identify non-negotiables?
We translate insights into requirements for product design — for a breast pump to work for a certain context, it needs to be easily cleaned, discreet, hands-free, etc. Then that’s translated into engineering specs.
In terms of the overall industrial design, we’re working to create a product that people aren’t ashamed of. Today, there’s a minimalism trend (especially among millennial women) of having fewer, better things. If you’re going to bring Moxxly’s pump into your home or purse, it has to beautiful, functional, and provide value in your life. You want to be proud of it, not embarrassed.
What were some of the challenges of designing a smart hardware device specifically?
Here are a few:
Wait time: With hardware, you design something and have to wait weeks before you can hold it. This is improving with 3D printing, but most hardware mass production is still old school.
Delays: You can’t foresee all manufacturing delays, no matter how much you plan. We heard the craziest stories, like when a shipping container was refused at customs because they opened it and a bunch of butterflies came out. There’s always something.
FDA: It takes a really long time to get FDA approval. Submission requires a sample of the physical parts, made with the same material and process that the final product will be made with. So you have to design your product and go through the design for manufacturing stage. Then your vendor designs the tools that’ll make the parts, then they cut the tools (which takes 8 weeks), then you have to buy the materials which can have long lead times, and then you make the parts themselves. They never come out perfect the first time , so there are additional weeks of dialing in the process until you have something ready to submit to the FDA. And once you do, approval can take up to 6 months. Thankfully, we’ve received FDA certification this summer.
Capital: You’re spending a lot of money on R&D, design, manufacturing, and tools that cost tens of thousands of dollars — all before you can take money from customers.
Can you talk about ways the design community was helpful along the way?
Entrepreneurship can be lonely, so spaces to connect with designer founders and peers, like Designer Fund’s Designer Founders Guild, have been so valuable. As the only designer on my team, I needed that network to give and take feedback, grow professionally as a designer, and just have a place to talk about issues that come up. It’s so important to promote companies and communities that not only think about how design adds value to a single business, but how design can be embraced throughout our entire culture.
Can you offer any tips for navigating the acquisition process?
During the acquisition negotiation, we had very personal and honest conversations as a team about what success looks like, taking into account our professional and personal goals. A helpful exercise was to try to qualify our opportunity cost: the time and risk involved with spending three years developing this startup.
One thing we could’ve done better was to decide what our exit would look like way earlier. We should have thought more about our potential partners in this space and identify who would potentially be interested in acquiring us, but we didn’t have those conversations in earnest for about two years into the company.
Another thing we could have done was to bring in a professional broker to handle negotiations. We were negotiating for ourselves with people who are now our co-workers, and I wish we’d created a barrier there. And acquisition is a grueling process. A buffer would have softened the ups and downs, the excitement and crashes.
What’s next for Moxxly? What do you hope for?
What’s most important for us is to get the product into the hands of women who need it. So we’re excited to partner with sister companies that have distribution and expertise, while we keep the Moxxly brand and the founding team intact. We’re excited to have the stability a parent company provides so we can focus on products — we’re already in development for the next product, a smart sensor for tracking milk flow and volume.
Any advice you might give to designers who are considering becoming founders?
Choose uncertainty over regret every time. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started, but I knew that if I didn’t, I would regret it forever.
And be thoughtful about what’s important to you. What are your values? Why are you starting this? Understand the strengths you can bring to a team, then assemble the people around you who can help you be successful, whether they’re co-founders, team members, VC’s coaches, mentors, or design peers.
So go for it, and find the structures that’ll help you make it happen.