Founder & Women In Business Features
Anne-Laure La Cunff
Founder, Ness Labs
May 8, 2020 | Interview by Jennifer George
Sometimes you start down a path only to end up in a completely different place than you intended to go when you first set out. And so is entrepreneurship. After Anne-Laure Le Cunff left Google’s Digital Health team in San Francisco, she set out to help solve a problem that could help diabetics eat better, something very personal to her family. But when that didn’t pan out, she went back to school for neuroscience and went on to found a company focused on helping people reach their highest potential.
Tell us about Ness Labs.
There is a burnout epidemic. Our world uses speed as a measure of performance. While there are many productivity tools and frameworks, there is a paucity of mindful productivity content. Ness Labs provides neuroscience-based content, coaching, and community to founders, creatives, and knowledge workers who want to make the most of their mind.
What an amazing idea. So to put it more simply, Ness Labs is designed to help highly creative and driven people like myself and our PBD community, be more productive while being more mindful. Actually, one of my favorite (FREE!) articles on your platform is “Mindful Productivity: A sustainable way to work and think”
In addition to the free content that you offer, Ness also offers workshops and paid memberships. Can you talk more about your business model?
Free content is what helps people discover my work. Then, depending on how curious they are about these topics, some convert to the membership to get more content and get the opportunity to connect with fellow curious minds. My biggest source of revenue is still workshops and consulting work, but I very much hope to tip the balance this year.
This is definitely a space that’s getting more and more attention. Can you talk about your growth thus far?
Ness Labs was bootstrapped in a few days with a simple newsletter and blog. It has grown from 0 to 10,000 subscribers in 8 months. We have 6-figures annual revenue, profitable from day 1.
WOW. That is pretty incredible. And one of your strategies for growth has actually been a philosophy of yours which is to “work in public.” Can you describe that approach for our readers?
I’m a massive proponent of learning, working, and building in public. Thinking out loud helps you not only refine your ideas, but also build an audience before your product is ready. Every new idea, new feature, new product gets brainstormed in the open. It may feel daunting to work in such an open way, but people finding out about Ness Labs through one of these musings is my #1 growth channel. I mainly use Twitter as it’s a platform where raw ideas are welcome, but I also encourage people to work in semi-public in Slack channels or WhatsApp groups with fellow creators.
I think that is so unique. And of course you then found a way to monetize. Have you tested any growth strategies that you realized weren’t working?
Live events have been hit and miss. It’s much harder to collect people’s email addresses in person. While it started as a pivot because of the current world situation, I will keep on focusing on virtual events in the future—much more scalable, and easier to convert people to subscribers.
If Ness Labs was a superhero, who would it be?
Jessica Cruz, a member of the Green Lantern. She suffers from anxiety, and her powers are only limited by her willpower and imagination. She’s the embodiment of what Ness Labs is about: a space where both vulnerability and ambition have a place.
What advice do you have for other businesses in the PBD community?
Whatever you’re thinking about building, start now! Don’t fall prey to the planning fallacy. The best way to learn is by building. Do it in public, and you will learn even faster.
Check out Ness Labs to make the most of your mind: https://nesslabs.com
Founder, Bare Society
May 5, 2020 | Interview by Jennifer George
T-minus 46 days ‘til summer and whether or not we’re still quarantining, warmer weather means bathing suit time. (Even if it is sitting on a balcony, putting our feet into a pot of cold water, closing our eyes and envisioning it’s a pool overflowing with people.) And as if it’s not already hard enough to feel confident in that swimsuit of yours, finding the right fit can sometimes make it even worse. Well Bare Society is helping the full-busted women among us find the perfect fit.
Eileen, as the founder of Bare Society, talk to us about the problem you wanted to solve.
Ever since I was 13, I have struggled to find a swimsuit that I loved. I could find them in my size at specialty boutiques, but they were always too constructed and often had outdated prints. The alternative was an XL, on trend bikini top; however, it would always be too big in the band and too small in the cup. I sought to make on-trend designs that held you in without compromising style.
I think a lot of women can relate to this and it can be extremely frustrating and discouraging, especially for full-busted women.
Exactly. We provide coverage, comfort, and style to active, full-busted women. With on-trend designs in cups DD-H, Bare Society rethinks traditional fashion standards while helping women of all ages feel confident and supported in bikinis that fit and flatter.
We always ask our founders how being a woman has affected their journey. And with you being in a female market with a product that can really reach a personal, vulnerable aspect of women’s lives, this must be especially so.
I think the most obvious thing is the fact that I am a full-bust woman designing swimwear for other full-busted women. I am my own customer in a lot of ways. I understand the struggle, the self-esteem issues a lot of full-busted women deal with growing up and I can relate to my customers. I care about how they feel when they put on my suit and I think it has impacted my customer service the most. I want to talk to my customers, listen to their feedback and design the next collection based on their reviews. This company started as me seeking a sexy bikini that I loved and it has really turned into me designing for my customer. I listen to their needs and I adapt accordingly.
I love that. When did you decide to really take matters into your own hands and work towards turning this into an actual business?
I won $3,000 in a business plan competition in my senior year of college (2014) and when I decided to incorporate this idea into an actual business, I raised money through friends and family. With that funding, I secured manufacturing and I have been bootstrapping ever since. After graduation from Syracuse University, I worked odd jobs to pay the bills, but I knew I wanted to pursue Bare Society full-time. I had double-majored in finance & entrepreneurship – zero background in fashion.
I think that happens a lot and can actually prevent future founders from pursuing their ideas. They have relatable experience in some areas, like in your case finance & entrepreneurship, but no direct industry experience. How were you able to overcome that?
I quite literally threw myself into it. A year after graduating I worked with a design professor at SU, and she taught me about pattern making, sewing, etc. I couldn’t speak the language and that made it difficult to talk to manufacturers or anyone in the industry. So I read as many books as I could. Finally, I decided to go to my first trade show.
I knew nothing about fabrics when I started. I had no idea the difference between a knit or woven fabric or the different types of stretch fabric for swimwear. My lack of knowledge is what really pushed me to go to a show in NYC; however, I couldn’t get in without an EIN. So, even though I wasn’t ready to make a product yet, I registered my business and went to this fabric show. I learned a lot more in those few hours by immersing myself into that world. I met the Director of imports and exports out of Colombia who educated me about the free trade agreement between the US and Colombia. We developed a relationship and that is how I ended up manufacturing in Colombia. However, this season, I will be manufacturing here in the US!
So you’ve had this idea and you’re so excited to get it out to the world. After two years, you finally launch. What was your strategy?
This was probably the easiest part if I’m being honest. I reached out to dozens upon dozens of women at Syracuse that had the same problem. Almost all of them were larger than a standard “DD” and they were always online looking for solutions. Summer was around the corner and my early adopters were on the hunt for swimwear that was stylish and in their size.
So somewhat along the lines of influencers. I think a lot of new brands can learn difficult lessons early on about working with influencers. What have you learned since?
Influencers are great and I highly encourage every company to find ones that fit your brand; however, I found out a few months in that I was collaborating with people that didn’t fall in line with my brand 100%. Find people that LOVE your brand, what you stand for, and use REAL customers that have purchased your products. They are the best people to promote your business because it’s an honest and genuine relationship.
I think that’s really valuable advice. Since then what’s the most “outside-the-box” tactic you’ve used to find growth?
Still trying to figure this one out but I managed to land a large retailer after they consigned my product at their store. From the information we learned from customers/employees, we were able to design a new style solely off feedback from customers and the retailers’ decades of knowledge. The new style is launching this season and I have a feeling it will be our best seller to date.
What other advice would you give to the PBD Community?
We were all beginners once – never let fear paralyze you from following your dreams. If I knew as much as I know now about fashion, I probably would not have started my business. If it’s your dream, pursue it with everything you’ve got! And don’t let other people’s doubts and opinions stop you!
And of course…. if Bare Society was a superhero which would it be?
Does Sofía Vergara count? She’s basically Wonder Woman.
Founder & CEO, Neolth
April 21, 2020 | Interview by Jennifer George
One could say we’re learning now more than ever that we need access to healthcare from anywhere. And for those of us in California who’ve just hit 30 days of quarantine, mental healthcare could be at the top of the list. Well, meet Neolth, a company that’s revolutionizing stress management that’s not only personalized to the individual based on precision neuroscience but available anytime, anywhere.
Can you talk about the current problem with stress management?
Current programs offer standardized tracks based on a person’s health issue or diagnosis. This approach is flawed. We’re all different, and those differences are reflected in how our brains are built. You can have 10 individuals with the same health issue who need 10 different treatment plans due to differences in their brains. Neurodiversity explains why you might manage stress with yoga but your friend likes to paint and your mom likes to go hiking.
Mental health has definitely been a more open conversation in our culture these past few years. Can you explain how Neolth is unique in its approach? How does the actual platform work?
Each patient starts with a 10-minute survey about their stress and health. Then they get a personalized plan that they can follow on our platform. Each month they get a set of 5 behavioral practices in audio or written format and they get alerts when they have a practice scheduled for that day. Practices can include guided imagery, mindful movement, breathing exercises, meditation, CBT, creative art, or journaling. Patients give us feedback each month, which is then used to update their practices.
That’s pretty amazing. How did you come up with this type of care?
As a scientist, I spent years analyzing brain imaging research from thousands of patients to learn (1) how the brain looks different in someone who worries vs. someone who procrastinates vs. someone who dissociates, etc.; (2) what parts of the brain are strengthened with different behavioral treatments: ie. mindfulness vs. guided imagery vs. creative art and etc. From there we were able to choose behavioral treatments that were most likely to reverse maladaptive brain activity related to different coping behaviors. Precision neuroscience is a radical new approach to behavioral health that we’re making a standard practice.
Stress management can apply to almost everyone. Figuring out who to help first could be a challenge I’d think. How did you find the right go-to-market strategy to launch?
Finding the right product-market fit took some time. There was a lot of interest from healthcare professionals (HCPs) who want to recommend Neolth to their patients. But as digital health (DH) companies are learning, HCPs can be slow to adopt. We spent a lot of time since launch doing customer discovery. What we found is that Neolth is a need-to-have service for universities and high schools, as student stress is one of their biggest problems.
So your earliest adopters, schools, weren’t the initial target?
No, they weren’t. They showed the most interest and had the biggest need. So our early adopters ended up turning into our target market. Which makes sense as there is a student stress epidemic in America. 91% of students felt overwhelmed or stressed in the past month, 37% require mental health care, and 20% consider suicide. Despite this clear issue, many universities do not have stress management programs. Neolth can address this.
Where are you at in regards to proving out your product?
Since we launched in September 2019, we piloted our solution with students in California. In the past few months, our real-word data assets have grown to over 32 diagnoses and 7 behavioral treatments. This means we’re learning about how diverse stress management techniques influence diverse groups of students. Initial findings show Neolth is particularly suited to identify students with sub-clinical symptoms who are at high risk of developing mental health conditions.
That’s pretty powerful. Are you exploring any other avenues regarding your technology?
We have providers that prescribe Neolth to their patients and research underway to assess using Neolth within hospital clinics. In addition to supporting students, Neolth is actively conducting clinical research. We’re working on a handful of research studies, including investigating the feasibility and acceptability of the platform and the use of Neolth as a supportive cancer care service.
While most industries have been negatively affected by COVID-19, I imagine you might be able to actually help the situation.
With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, schools have switched to online programming for the foreseeable future. Their health centers are closed and there is no way for them to provide in-person health services to students. We are one of those companies seeing increased demand for our service due to the COVID-19 crisis. We’re fortunate that we have a timely product and expect increased growth in 2020. The campus closures in particular have helped shift university perspectives to see the real value of having a digital health service.
How has being a female-founded company impacted Neolth from a product perspective?
I have certainly encountered some of the obstacles that female founders face – like inappropriate sexual advances or sexist behaviors. I’ve actually had people tell me I don’t “look smart.” What they mean by this is they don’t expect a young woman to be a neuroscientist and CEO of a startup company. It’s frustrating, but we’re not going to let it stop us. Having a female-founded company has affected our culture by enabling us to think hard about diversity and inclusion. We think a lot about how to build a product with this in mind. This includes working with psychologists and therapists with diverse cultural backgrounds to make content for our platform as well as inclusive product design. Gender identity is definitely something students think about differently than they did 10 years ago, so as a company we need to be aware of that.
If Neolth was a superhero, who would it be?
Dr. Strange from the Avengers. He sees the world in a different way than most. That’s true of Neolth. Our platform is a behavioral health solution, but it’s actually based more on neuroscience than psychology. Our overarching vision is to propel the field of behavioral health so that all treatment decisions are guided by neuroscience.
What advice do you have for other businesses in the PBD community?
Prioritize self-care. It’s so important because if you’re not healthy, you can’t be at the top of your game. So take care of yourself. Take breaks. Take advantage of the weekend. And don’t compare yourself to other companies obsessively.
Founder & CEO, Rowan
April 17, 2020 | Interview by Jennifer George
Rowan – to celebrate and improve upon the milestone of ear piercing.
Chances are if you’re a woman, you remember the experience of getting your ears pierced. And for most, it marks this monumental moment as a young girl. Well, Louisa Schneider not only recognized that, she also saw a market that needed a revamp. Schneider is changing the game by focusing on improving the experience and marking the occasion in a whole new way.
I’m actually really excited to chat with you because, at first glance, your industry seems very unique. But on the other hand, it’s centered around an experience that so many people have gone through. Can you tell us about Rowan?
Yes! Rowan brings together a needed service (ear piercing as safe as it is fun)performed by a contractor-base of Rowan nurses, with hypoallergenic Rowan-branded earrings sold individually or as a subscription. Rowan is the only company pursuing ear-piercing exclusively with trained medical professionals who are also trained and experienced ear artists.
Can you tell us about your background?
My prior jobs were all in finance in various capacities including most recently working at a hedge fund where I researched malls, and specifically Claire’s stores. My background was in distressed debt/research and looking at companies that were troubled. What amazed me about Claire’s was that, in spite of having been levered with $3BN of debt, and being starved of capital investment by its private equity owners, the company still managed to grow foot traffic and raise prices every year. I ran the value investing program at Columbia Business School which is based on the material that Warren Buffett studied at Columbia when he was a student there. In reading about his investments and thinking about value investing, it is clear that a business that grows traffic and has the power to raise prices year over year is an interesting business.
Is that what kickstarted the idea?
As a woman in finance, I had always struggled to be taken as seriously as my male counterparts. I was once told that if I wanted to be promoted I needed to swear more loudly! What I knew is that men typically control capital allocation, and that, in their eyes, a business largely focused on a young female clientele wouldn’t be an obvious place to invest. In fact, I doubt that most men took the business of ear piercing seriously or contemplated how much the industry merited an upgrade. Therein lies the opportunity. Only in contemplating my own daughter’s piercing and in taking my teenage nieces to a mall for their second piercings did I appreciate how tired and uninspired the mall-based options are. However, because there are no other prominent options, malls still do the lionshare of the business! Given my finance background, I was able to study Claire’s 10k, understand how profitable they could be, look into other players like Piercing Pagoda and realize the significant opportunity that existed to improve a milestone that almost every single woman and more and more men experience in their lifetimes, often as a moment they remember forever.
You were in finance previously. What was it about your previous hedge fund and research on malls and Claire’s that sparked this idea?
This is a great question. My background was in distressed debt/research and looking at companies that were troubled. What amazed me about Claire’s was that, in spite of having been levered with $3BN of debt, and being starved of capital investment by its private equity owners, the company still managed to grow foot traffic and raise prices every year. I ran the value investing program at Columbia Business School which is based on the material that Warren Buffett studied at Columbia when he was a student there. In reading about his investments and thinking about value investing, it is clear that a business that grows traffic and has the power to raise prices year over year is an interesting business.
A $3.9m seed round is a HUGE accomplishment! Congrats! And in an area that most men probably know little about. Can you tell us a little more how you were successful in closing that? Was it mostly your background in knowing the market?
Thank you. I was able to raise the seed in two rounds. I started the business and was able to build an initial cohort of Rowan box members (hypoallergenic earrings and mindfulness content delivered each month – ideal for newly pierced ears!), and I was able to bring on a nurse and a pediatrician to work with me to do concierge style clinical ear piercings out of people’s homes. I worked for over a year, building a business, before I raised any outside capital. My relationships from my prior work were helpful in building an initial investor base, and ultimately, I do think that my ability to think critically and analytically about the business and to think about profitability and unit level economics of the business helped me to raise.
Like any entrepreneur I know, the capital raising process was and continues to be extremely challenging. For me, having a personal reason to persist (my daughter) and knowing that the option that I want for her did not exist before Rowan, compelled me to continue on, even when prospective investors said no. I was lucky to meet smart, thoughtful investors who have backed other fantastic ventures, and who appreciate that women founders often bring a different perspective. Also, raising two tranches rather than one enabled me to prove out initial hypotheses and effectively grow the round. Overall, we have been extremely fortunate to work with smart and supportive investors and partners. Our mission has resonated with many and the Rowan team continues to grow from our amazing base of Rowan nurses to our team at HQ. We are having fun every day, feeling inspired to continue improving milestones for girls all over the country!
Rowan kind of has a two-sided marketplace. Can you talk about that?
Rowan’s mission is to celebrate milestones and to improve a milestone that most women and more and more men experience throughout their lives. Additionally, Rowan is creating valuable and meaningful employment opportunities for registered nurses across the country, many of whom are working parents who want additional and more flexible work options.
Who were your early adopters? Were they your initial target?
Early adopters were local moms and girls, and word of mouth/friends, actively looking for a better option than the ones that existed. Moms did not want to take their daughters to a mall, nor did they want to have to go to their pediatrician’s office (if their pediatrician pierces ears), as the experience there is akin to getting a vaccination, which is not fun! Also, typically ear piercing at a pediatrician’s office is expensive relative to Rowan’s fee.
Since what you do is so unique are there any “outside-the-box” tactics you’ve used to find growth?
We actually have been partnering with OBYGN’s offices as many expecting parents hope to have their babies’ ears pierced, and they deserve a safe and celebratory experience!
That’s a great idea! Have there been growth opportunities you’ve chased that didn’t work out?
Yes – paid marketing on social media (Facebook and Instagram) is exceptionally expensive and hasn’t returned what we had hoped; and it has become more difficult to pursue.
Talking about that struggle is important because I think when founders are asked how they hope to get the word out, paid social marketing is usually their response. Can you describe an “insurmountable” hurdle the company has overcome?
We leaned on an investor’s recommendation and hired a senior team member who did not work out. Fortunately, it resolved itself quickly, but a poor senior hire early on is very challenging. Fit and can-do/ownership mentality is critical for the early team that is literally creating the culture.
How has being a female-founded company impacted your journey and company culture?
I think being female-founded allowed me to see a hole in the market and appreciate the magnitude of the milestone that was being significantly underserved for decades. Women have been largely ignored in many ways when it comes to medical testing and similarly with ear piercing. It had been relegated to a mall to be performed by hourly employees with zero medical background.
How has COVID-19 and its likely impact on the economy shifted your thinking on marketing and near-term growth?
We have been able to focus on aspects of the business that were being obviated given how busy we have been in the field. We are receiving more proactive/inbound feedback that both our products and service are in higher demand as COVID-19 is imprinting on us all the importance of proactively taking precaution and prioritizing safety and sterility. In the case of ear piercing, having a registered medical professional perform the procedure is the best possible choice from a standpoint of safety and sterility.
Second to last question, and one we love to ask founders: if your brand was a superhero, who would it be?
Wonder Woman! We are a female founded and led company spreading the word about safe piercings and hypoallergenic accessories and products! Wonder Woman is a “protector” and Rowan is all about safety and trust.
What advice do you have for other businesses in the PBD community?
Believe in yourself and in your ideas. Stay positive. And be grateful to those who help you along the way!