My favorite businesses are those that look a problem in the face, find a novel solution, and grow like crazy! These types of businesses involve extra challenges, uncharted territory, and a whole lot of innovation! If you're a bit crazy like me, all of that sounds rather fun!
Julie Bombacino is the perfect example of a mom entrepreneur who solved a problem in her own life and then set out to solve it for thousands of others. She partnered with food scientists, researched the market, sought funding, worked with consultants, and so much more.
You'll learn a ton about the world of start-ups as a mompreneur from this episode. Julie's company, Real Food Blends, has had incredible growth while improving the lives of others. Could our interview with Julie be just the inspiration you need to go for your own big idea?
Press Play on the Podcast Player below to hear the full story.
On the Podcast
01:14 – From Special Needs Mom to Entrepreneur
06:01 – The First Steps for Forming an Innovative Business
08:14 – Working with Manufacturers
09:11 – Getting Investors + Crowdfunding for Growth
11:21 – 2 Key Strategies for Marketing the Biz
12:49 – Getting Insurance Approval for Medical Product
13:42 – Why Empathy is Good for Business
16:51 – 5 Key Methods for Reaching Healthcare Providers
18:46 – How to Get Your Foot in the Door
20:50 – Offering Nutrition All Over the World
24:47 – 7 Tips for Staying Sane
27:38 – Business Books for Every Woman Entrepreneur
28:29 – Julie's 5 year-old Marketing Genius!
From Special Needs Mom to Entrepreneur
When Julie's second child, AJ, was 6 months old, he had a severe seizure due to epilepsy. After that seizure, he would aspirate breast milk and formula when eating. Fluid got into his lungs and caused health problems, so a feeding tube was necessary to keep him safe and healthy.
As Julie says, the feeding tube kind of defined their lives for the last three and a half years. He was put on a regimen of synthetic formula to be fed through his tube. He threw up every single day and was constipated every single day. He wasn't growing like he needed to, and he was miserable.
By the time AJ was 1 year old, he had gone through 8 different formulas with little success. Julie turned to Dr. Google for a solution, and discovered an incredible online community of people who had loved ones on feeding tubes. Many of them asked her if she had tried giving AJ real food through his tube.
She started blending food for AJ and saw great results. He was keeping his food down and was finally growing and gaining weight. Not long after AJ began his real food diet, the Bombacino family took a trip to Disney World. Providing food for AJ that week was quite a challenge. She lugged along their VitaMix blender and traded a hotel for a condo with a kitchenette so she could blend his meals. She looked for a ready-made option for AJ, but it simply didn't exist. She wasn't willing to go back to formula, but she wanted an easier way to give AJ the nutrition he needed.
Julie put her MBA hat back on, and Real Food Blends was founded not long after!
The First Steps for Forming an Innovative Business
Before she dug into creating the solution to her problem, Julie researched the market to make sure her business would actually have enough customers and fill a true need in the marketplace. Once she realized that formula for feeding tubes is a 4 billion dollar market in just the US alone, Julie knew it was time to take the next step.
Knowing she wasn't an expert in food science, Julie got in touch with researchers at a Big 10 University to see if her idea was possible. Shelf stability for her product was key, because she needed a way to ship Real Food Blends economically throughout the country, and even the world. Refrigerated trucks and extra storage requirements would have cost too much to make them a viable option.
Julie had an inkling that her idea could be accomplished because the market was halfway there with the invention of baby food. However, baby food is designed to simply teach babies how to eat rather than be their entire source of nutrition. Someone who uses a G-tube needs the equivalent of an entire meal in blended form.
After spending the first 6 months just researching and partnering with food scientists, Julie then reached out to food manufacturers who might be willing to work with her. Julie mentioned something that I hadn't considered before: food manufacturers don't often like to talk to entrepreneurs because they tend to think that their barbecue sauce or new spin on an old food is simply the best, and they plead with a manufacturer to just make a small amount. These kinds of small ventures don't interest a large manufacturer very much.
Working with Manufacturers
So how did Julie get the manufacturers to listen to her?
- The Industry. She led with the fact that formula for tube-feeding is a 4 billion dollar industry!
- Investors on Board. From there, she let them know that she had already raised money from investors. She wasn't just scraping by and asking for a tiny run to get started.
As it turns out, after talking with numerous food manufacturers, Julie ended up partnering with the first one they talked to!
Getting Investors + Crowdfunding for Growth
The prospect of securing investors sounds overwhelming. Sarah and I have no idea how one would even start this process. Julie shared a few tips that helped.
- Connections. Julie had worked in financial services in Chicago, where there happens to be a robust start-up community. Through she and her husband's contacts, they were able to get in touch with angel investing groups in the Chicago area.
- A Story to Rally Around. Having a unique story, a product she believed in, and potential investors who knew and trusted her made a world of difference.
- It Only Takes One. Julie shares that the first investor is much harder to secure than the fifth. Once you have a backer to get the ball rolling, securing new investors gets much easier. It only takes one to get started!
With so many investors on board, why a Crowdfunding Campaign?
When Real Food Blends launched a campaign on Indiegogo, the point wasn't to raise a ton of money to develop the product, the point was to use it as a proof of concept, as well as take advantage of the viral nature of crowd-funding. (Spoken like a true marketer!)
There are a few things we can learn from Real Food Blends' Indiegogo Campaign
- People are much more likely to share a touching video and a campaign with limits, incentives, and a story versus just sharing, “hey, here's this new product.”
- A Crowd-funding campaign proves that people want a product. Essentially, their first customers pre-bought meals through the crowd-funding campaign. Even though Real Food Blends is something that insurance would usually pay for, people were so excited about the product that they paid out-of-pocket to get it first.
- Incentives for a Campaign don't have to be complex. Real Food Blends kept things really simple and just sold their meals in varying quantities depending on the amount someone gave.
- For backers who don't need Real Food Blends but simply loved their story and product, they had an option to donate your meal to a child at St. Jude's or another hospital who needed it.
- Create a video that focuses on your story, who you are, and why you're doing what you're doing. You can see Julie's incredible video here.
2 Key Strategies for Marketing the Biz
- Facebook. The tube-fed community was already hanging out on Facebook, so Julie's connections to that community helped them to grow more quickly. They relied on those networks and word of mouth to spread. As Julie says, “Right now we have 17,000 Facebook fans, and those are 17,000 people who are going into their doctor or dietician and saying, hey, I read about this, what do you think?” So at the grassroots level, patients and their families are letting their medical providers know about this new option for nutrition.
- Insurance Coding Approval. After Real Food Blends received their coding approval, the business accelerated quickly. A lot of their business today is through working with medical distributors or home health care companies who buy their products and bill insurance for them.
Getting Insurance Approval for Medical Product
Getting insurance approval for a new product sounds like a daunting task. How did Julie accomplish this?
Once again, she was smart enough to know what she didn't know! She reached out to a consultant for help. This consultant had a long history in medical affairs, so she knew what to do.
The process involved a lot of paperwork filing, dotting i's and crossing t's.
Once you receive a HCPC code for your product, then anyone who bills to insurance can use that code to see if it's a covered benefit for their patient.
Why Empathy is Good for Business
One of the strengths of Real Food Blends is that Julie is her own ideal customer. She's a mom who still remembers being scared to death when she first had to
handle AJ's feeding tube. She laughs now when she thinks about how nervous she was when she took the leap and gave him his first 10 mL of applesauce via his tube.
Because of this empathy, Julie easily puts herself into the position of those new parents and caregivers who are looking for as much education, information and support as they can get. Her website, Real Food Blends, isn't just a place to buy her product, it's a place to receive that extra reassurance and education.
In addition, the Real Food Blends Facebook Community is a vibrant place full of families who share their stories. Julie knows first-hand how isolating it can be to live in the world of tube-feeding. “You can't go down to your local Starbucks and see people with feeding tubes,” Julie says, so the online community fills that void and makes you feel less alone.
5 Key Methods for Reaching Healthcare Providers
In addition to creating material that reaches the families, caregivers, and individuals with feeding tubes, Real Food Blends has to provide education to dieticians as well, because they're the individuals making decisions about what people with feeding tubes should receive for their nutrition. Reaching healthcare professionals, and dieticians in particular, is a key component to the company's growth. So how does Julie do it?
- Grassroots Effort. Their customers take the product to the dietician to ask about including it in their nutrition regimen.
- Trade Shows. Real Food Blends attends several dietician-related trade shows to get the word out about their product.
- Advertising. The company buys advertising in dietician-related publications.
- Lunch & Learns. Real Food Blends has a dietician on staff who does a presentation on blenderized diets. She takes her show on the road to various hospitals, and the dieticians who attend not only learn about Real Food Blends but get a continuing education credit as well.
- Webinars. This has become one of the most effective ways to reach dieticians. Rather than travel all over the country, they can connect with dieticians online to educate them, provide them with that same continuing education credit, and let them know about Real Food Blends.
Sarah brings up a great point during the interview. If you can come up with a great business idea that fits into a profession's continuing education requirements, go for it! There are so many professions with these types of yearly requirements, so you'll have a captive audience to educate and share your product or company with.
How to Get Your Foot in the Door
Real Food Blends now works with many medical supply companies. To get those partnerships started, Julie needed not just a HCPC code, but the flexibility to get in the door.
They were more than willing to work with a company on terms and pricing, because they just wanted to get in the door. A lower price was acceptable in the beginning, because they were confident that once their customers tried the product, they would love it and be back time and time again. (They were right!)
Julie brings up a key point for new businesses. If you know you have a great product, and it has a recurring revenue stream built into it, it's ok to set a lower price to get your foot in the door.
However, if your product is generally a one-time purchase for someone, a lower price that kills your profit margin is not going to work out!
Offering Nutrition All Over the World
Julie's commitment to offering Real Food Blends to everyone with feeding tubes means that they found an effective way to ship their product internationally. Since they're technically exporting food, the process is not as simple as a customs declaration. Each country has its own rules about accepting food from America.
Real Food Blends partnered with MyUS.com to ship food worldwide. Essentially, if an international customer wants to purchase Real Food Blends, they sign up directly with MyUS.com to set up shipments. The company's main focus is shipping things from the US to other countries – so they're experts at it. Julie and her team don't need to worry about the regulations and all the steps involved, and their customers are able to get the products they want. Win-Win!
7 Tips for Staying Sane
- Find Great Childcare. Julie has a fantastic nanny so she's knows the homefront is covered while she's working on the business.
- Phone Reminders. Julie stays on top of tasks with reminders and notes in her phone.
- Be Ruthless with Your Calendar. Julie schedules in everything. She's at the point in her life where she doesn't get up and do something unless it's in her calendar. Every task both big and small has a spot in her calendar, otherwise, it doesn't get done.
- Daily Workout. Julie spends an hour on her workout each day to blow off steam. It's the hour each day that's just for her.
- Coffee & Wine. Julie loves coffee to keep her going and a good glass of wine at night to relax!
- Good friends. Julie has great girlfriends that help her stay sane.
- Office Space. Julie left her home office and got a separate office space a few years ago. Just having other people around was a great move. She took for granted all of the opportunities to interact with colleagues, go out for lunch, and attend work parties when she worked in the corporate world.
Business Books for Every Woman Entrepreneur
- Julie loves everything by Seth Godin. (We do too!)
- She also recommends Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. She says that every working woman should read it to hear her perspective, whether they agree or not. Plus, it's great to read stories from other women to be inspired and motivated. Their stories are so much more relatable than that of a man doing the same thing. (We couldn't agree more!)
Julie's 5 year-old Marketing Genius
We LOVED hearing about Julie's 5 year-old daughter Luca and her genius marketing idea for Real Food Blends. Tune in to hear the full story!
Learn More About Julie!
The Facebook page is very active for Real Food Blends. Their customers take photos of their first shipment of the product because they're just so excited. They share stories of children who have gained weight or are healthier. They share pictures and really, just share their lives with Real Food Blends. Julie encourages everyone to dig into their story and the stories of their customers.
What do you think? Are you ready to finally go for it with your brilliant business idea? I hope Julie's story convinced you that no matter how big or daunting your dream, if you take things step by step, seek the right help, and keep going, you can make that vision a reality!
~ Beth Anne