'All Moms Are Right' Says the CEO of This Portable Breast Pump Startup
Naomi Kelman is the CEO of Willow, a sleek breast pump that launched earlier this year. To get it just right, she and her team surveyed moms across the country.
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality—and the first steps they took to make it happen.
Naomi Kelman knows a thing or two about bringing a product to market. She spent the bulk of her career at large multinational corporations like Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson, with a special focus on products for women.
When a casual meeting with a friend of a friend led to an opportunity to become the founding CEO of Willow -- a cord-free, attachment-free breast pump that discreetly fits in a woman’s bra -- she couldn’t resist, and moved her family across the country to bring the innovation to the market.
Here’s how she did it.
1. Get excited.
A mutual friend introduced Kelman to one of the inventors of Willow, and the two had breakfast one Saturday morning in Washington, D.C. “I think it was supposed to be more a social meeting, but we had this amazing connection,” Kelman says.
As the two talked, she knew she could help bring this product to market, really disrupting the space and improving women’s experience with breastfeeding.
“We talked for three hours, and I decided I was totally in,” she says. “The restaurant asked us to leave because we’d been there for so long and hadn’t ordered enough food. Two days later, I moved my family to San Francisco.”
2. Survey your audience.
Kelman arrived to Willow as the founding CEO and fourth employee. The brilliant inventors she was joining had a great idea and what she calls “very, very crude prototypes.” To perfect the prototype, they spent countless hours surveying moms and talking to women.
“We asked, ‘What does your dream pump look like? If you could design anything to make this a better experience, what would it be?’” she says.
The team made sure they looked beyond their networks, as well. “Typically you approach women in your own network, and we certainly did that,” she says. “But we live and work in Silicon Valley, and that’s its own unique ecosystem. It would have been risky to only talk to people who live in that environment.”
So they made sure they were connecting with women in the Midwest, and on the East Coast. And it’s a good thing they did: “We found that women in different geographies care about different things,” Kelman says. “The East Coast was a little more focused on style and finishes and color. Women in San Francisco were into the app and the tech. But the answer for us is, all moms are right.”
3. Iterate, iterate, iterate.
Armed with plenty of early feedback from moms, the team would develop a prototype and share it with their audience. And then they’d do it again.
“It took us a year to get to a prototype that we felt was ready for primetime,” Kelman says. “We wanted to first prove the technology, then make it beautiful. Inventors can often get very caught up in the technology and forget that real people need a product to be functional and beautiful.”
Once the tech was in order, the focused on and iterated colors, finishes, and materials.
4. Look for (necessary) approval.
Willow wanted to have FDA approval, and they wanted it early on. Because their team is quite experienced, they were able to move through the process fairly quickly.
“We knew how this went,” Kelman said. “There’s a series of tests you need to go to, materials you need to put together to show efficacy, safety, very standard protocols.”
They didn’t hit any major speedbumps, which just made Kelman appreciate her veteran team even more. “I have so much admiration for people who are creating startups when they’re just graduating from school,” she says. “We’re the opposite: We’ve got a lot of people who’ve done it before, and it’s made our path pretty smooth.”
5. Look to the future.
The product hit the market this January, and the team has been working tirelessly to get their solution in front of more women. They just launched an Android app, and have been constantly adding features that their audience asks for. What’s next? Additional products that are all about mom.
“When a woman becomes a mom, it’s really all about baby,” Kelman says. “What the mother needs is not always on the forefront. So we’re trying to be a mom-first company, and we want to create things that are beautiful and help her live her life as she wishes.”