But she discovered a market need so great and so personal she decided to build a company to meet it, thus adding entrepreneur to her resume as well.
Through her experiences caring for breast cancer patients, nursing her mother through the disease and undergoing a prophylactic mastectomy herself, Elizabeth found that surgical bras were sorely outdated and other very logical garments were non-existent. Designed in the 1970s, they pinched and pulled in areas that needed healing. Patients were also ill prepared as to what to bring to the hospital and what supplies they would need after surgery.
So Elizabeth designed a stylish line of BFFL (Best Friends for Life)–bags, bras, surgical accessories and radiation garments for today’s procedures–and founded BFFL Co. in 2011. BFFL donates 15 percent each sale to affiliated charities.
How did you finance your company?
I’m fortunate enough to bootstrap partially because my husband believes in what I’ve done. We made a huge financial commitment. Now the BFFLBag is making enough money to cover all three lines.
You structured BFFL Co.’s three product lines—the BBFLBag, the Masthead comfort bra collection and Chabner XRT radiation garments – as three distinct companies. Why did you separate them?
They are all LLCs, subsidiaries of BFFL Co. and all follow the same mission. Ultimately we wanted to protect one from the others so if one was much more profitable or could be sold, we could keep it separate from the others. It’s a way of keeping the books very clean.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced with your company?
Distributing to hospitals. (BFFL Co. sells direct to consumers as well as wholesale for retailers and hospitals.)
Hospitals purchase $2,000 sheets of Alloderm to use during breast reconstruction and perform incredible and complicated tissue transfers to reconstruct women. Yet hospitals balk at sending the patient home in a state-of-the-art surgical bra. It’s because the supply chain officers (who negotiate with manufactures for groups of hospitals) are colluding with “their friends” rather than looking out for the best interest of the patient.
What other challenges have you faced along the way?
When I tell people what I’m doing, physicians, in particular, look at it as nonsense, as not being a doctor. “What? You’re not practicing everyday?”
There have been times I’ve been embarrassed to tell people what I do. But I know my efforts are worth it when I hear from customers who say, “I’ve had four surgeries and this is the first time my bra doesn’t hurt me more than the incision itself.”
How do you balance a large family with the demands of creating a new company?
There really isn’t a great formula. You have to be able to tolerate putting out fires. Being organized helps.
If I fall short in other aspects of my life, I can go to sleep saying, my parenting isn’t perfect everyday and my clothes don’t always look great but my kids and husband know that I love them and my orders are shipped.
What have you learned from starting your company that might be useful to would-be entrepreneurs?
1. Pick one thing and try to do it really well. I didn’t do that. I basically threw the spaghetti on the wall right away. It’s challenging because there are no lulls.
2. Don’t be afraid to take a lot of chances. If something is not hard, you’re not learning.
3. You need to budget about three times what you think your business will cost. Things always come up that you don’t anticipate in production, shipping, legal fees and accounting.
4. When you’re hiring, if the chemistry is not there, be able to say it’s not working–right away.
5. Don’t be afraid to negotiate for services. I was very hesitant to say to my lawyers, “It’s not going to work if you keep charging me $800 every time you consult with your partner.” The lawyers who wanted to hang in there with me allowed me to negotiate.
6. In terms of joint ventures, you’ve got to be really careful whom you “go to bed with”. It’s a very female instinct to want to trust people but it’s only you who has your best interest at heart.
7. Pay people. Well-meaning people may say they are going to help you out, but it’s very hard to find people who will follow through if you don’t pay them.
If you knew back at the beginning of your company what you know now, what would you have done differently?
I would have been even more frugal. Everyone said you need a PR person right away. If I had just been patient I would have been able to do it myself, maybe a little slower but the messaging would have been a lot more focused.
What is the best piece of financial advice you’ve ever received?
Write out a budget and keep really good records. Only spend money if you absolutely have to. Make decisions carefully and slowly. Marketing, PR, and advertising are areas that you can spend a lot of money on without any guarantee of results. Lastly, if investors come to you and offer you money for a chunk of your company–take your time in making a decision. There will be other opportunities down the road.
Are there any other nuggets of business wisdom you could share?
Nothing happens overnight even if you have the greatest product and the greatest idea and you pour your heart and soul into it. You have to have financial patience. The capital you put into it is not going to show up in profits for a long time.