Better Product Community
Interview by Ellie McCandless | June 2020
Gabrielle Guthrie was the co-founder and head of product at Moxxly, a hands-free, easy to use breast pump for women on the go. Moxxly was founded in 2014 and acquired in 2017.
This is Gabrielle’s startup story.
BACKGROUND: THE IDEA
Gabrielle Guthrie didn’t dream about living the entrepreneurial lifestyle when she set out to complete her grad school thesis for a master’s in design at Stanford. Gabrielle knew that her thesis would center around designing products for women but without a clear vision of what that product would be. So, in the true spirit of user-centered design, Gabrielle and her team interviewed women around the most common life milestones: pre-teen, college, marriage, pregnancy, returning to work, and more.
In one of these research sessions they spoke to Laura, an engineer just returning from maternity leave, and she raised a problem that hadn’t been on Gabrielle and her team’s radar: breastfeeding. Despite the increasing number of women returning to the workforce, breastfeeding technology had not kept up. Breastfeeding products were cumbersome and time consuming and were not made for women on the move. After talking to Laura, they sought out other new moms and asked similar questions about their experiences. The research led Gabrielle and her team to a vastly underserved market, and they set out to build a product to address the problem of breastfeeding.
Ellie: Tell me the “startup story” — what were the first 6 months like?
Gabrielle: Despite having a different job lined up, a week before graduation I knew this was something I had to continue. So, the day after graduation, I was hard at work on Moxxly.
I found two co-founders through my Stanford network, and we applied to Highway 1, a hardware accelerator. This helped make the whole process feel that much more real and took us out of the grad school mindset. In this accelerator, we met every day to make prototypes, find our product MVP, and obsessively gather feedback from women every week. In parallel we were fundraising, honing our product vision with pitch decks, presentations, and rejection.
Ellie: How did you know you were onto something?
I would conduct research sessions with women — in kitchens, living rooms, nurseries, playrooms, or sitting on the floor of their office’s tiny “pump rooms” — and they could easily talk for 45 minutes about how awful the existing products were in this space. This was a woefully underserved market, but nobody wanted to venture into that space, which told me that we were in the exactly right spot.
I got into product design because the things that we buy, make or sell say a lot about our culture and a lot about what we as a culture care about. And despite the fact that millions of women breastfeed, and the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding your child for up to a year if you’re able, the products in this space were not made with the user in mind.
Existing breast pumps look like a cross between a medical device and a toy. You have to use both hands and take your shirt off, which is a significant hurtle for women who are returning to work weeks after giving birth. We heard all these concerns early in our research, and from then on we knew we were onto something.
Ellie: The Moxxly brand was bold and didn’t shy away from the “taboo” topic of breastfeeding. What inspired you to make the bold brand decisions?
Gabrielle: The answer to this question really goes back to my grad school days. My team and I got mocked for our project, and got some pretty demeaning nicknames, so we had to reconcile the fact that it wasn’t the sexy, popular project to work on.
I also got asked all the time if I had kids, as if I could only work on a project that directly affected my life. But the fact is, it was personal to me without being a mother myself because it was such a glaring problem that nobody was addressing.
This all contributed to the bold brand decisions, because we wanted to channel the strength and independence of the women we were talking to every week. All of our competitors in the space were using pastel colors, baby ducks and bunnies to talk about anything having to do with motherhood.
We knew from talking to so many millennial women, and being millennial women ourselves, that they didn’t see themselves or motherhood that way. They didn’t all of a sudden turn into a soft woman after they had a kid — if anything it made them tougher, more efficient, and better at work because they had to become professional multitaskers. We wanted to make bold brand decisions and speak confidently and unapologetically because we believed that was how these women should feel — unapologetic.
Ellie: What advice do you have for aspiring founders? People just starting out?
Gabrielle: Be clear with yourself on your intentions, your motivations, and your idea of success – both personal and professional. Align on how you will know when it’s time to walk away. If you have co-founders, have open conversations with them about these topics.
At the end of the day, you are not your startup. That idea can be very damaging to potential and current entrepreneurs. I really bought in as a first time, female entrepreneur — the idea that I have to prove myself, that I had a feminine, “unsexy product” so I had to prove it was important. Everything you read says that to be a successful founder you have to give everything to your startup, but that culture will only change when people change it.
Rest and play are a crucial and important part of work. Being an entrepreneur is a marathon, not a sprint, so it’s important to establish clear boundaries. Question your motivations — are you doing something because you want to and you think it’s the right thing, or because it makes you look good? Invest in activities or rituals and relationships with people who will remind you of that either directly or indirectly.
Ellie: What do you think is the key to startup success?
Gabrielle: Questioning the very notion of success. Where are you getting your ideas of success from? What really does success look like to you? Does it align with the people you’re taking money from? If you are taking money from a VC, ask yourself (or ask them!) what does success look like to my investors? How would I have to operate my business in order to make them successful?
Take those inputs and compare those to your idea of success. How would I operate my business in order to achieve that goal? Are they different? Is there tension between the expectations? If so, how will you make decisions when tradeoffs need to be made? Whose success are you working towards, and at what cost?
As I mentioned earlier, being an entrepreneur is a marathon. Other people with skin in the game will want you to grow as fast as possible, and as soon as you hit one number, you’ll be on to the next. But at the end of the day, you need to make your own destiny and set yourself up for what success means to you.
This interview originally appeared on The Better Product Community.