'We Built This Company List By List,' Says the Co-Founder of This At-Home Fertility Testing Startup
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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.
When Afton Vechery set out to understand her own fertility, it was a complicated, pricey process. Lab tests to predict fertility were hard to access and prohibitively expensive, and it was impossible to understand her results without consulting multiple physicians.
“I knew there had to be a better way,” she says. So she started researching the industry, and saw a massive opportunity: Fertility tends to be addressed once women encounter difficulty when they're trying to get pregnant -- but what if we take an educational approach and empower women of every age to take control of their fertility and its impact on their lives?
Vechery became an expert on the subject among her friends, and after meeting Carly Leahy -- who’d worked in branding at such companies as Uber and Google -- set out to solve the problem for more than her own social circle. Together, Vechery and Leahy started to build Modern Fertility, a startup that hopes to make fertility education and testing an accessible and affordable option for women across the country.
“Afton was super steeped in this space, and I was one of those women who didn’t think I needed to be bothered with fertility info at all,” Leahy says. “But when I looked into fertility science, I couldn’t believe how much I didn’t know and how easily I could have become a statistic.”
Now their startup has VC backing, a passionate community of women turning to them for advice and access and support from physicians and medical experts.
Here’s how they laid the (very complicated) groundwork.
1. Talk to your future customers -- all of them.
The co-founders knew they had hit on an area of concern for many women, but they wanted to make sure that the approach they took would actually resonate with all women. “I grew up in a small town in Maryland, so it was very important to me that if I was going to start a company in Silicon Valley, I wasn’t going to solve just a Silicon Valley problem,” says Vechery.
She and Leahy dove deep into research, sent out surveys on Google to collect opinions and eventually even held events to both educate potential future customers and gauge their understanding of their own fertility. “It was fertility 101,” Vechery says. “Most women haven’t looked at an ovary since sex ed in high school.”
They also realized that ease of use for their tests was even more important than they had originally realized. “Our customers are busy, career-oriented women who get home from work at 9 or 10 p.m. and want to do their own blood draw then,” Vechery says. “Of course, in healthcare, you can’t cut corners, so we had to learn how to make this happen while following all regulations and certification requirements.”
2. Focus on the work, and only the work.
Modern Fertility was part of Y Combinator’s summer 2017 seed accelerator program, which gave them time and space to focus solely on building the business.
“We did nothing but work on the company for three months,” Vechery says. “We had a list called AC -- a running list of everything going on in the company, things that Afton was doing, things Carly was doing. We built this company list by list.”
Because of the visibility and reputation of Y Combinator, the co-founders spoke to a couple of reporters who were interested in learning more about Modern Fertility. “When we announced the company at the end of Y Combinator, all those reporters wrote about us. We saw this insane outpouring of support, and when we opened up pre-orders, we got $70,000 worth.”
3. Get the industry’s support.
As the founders worked toward launch, they knew input and support from doctors would be integral to the success and trustworthiness of Modern Fertility. Vechery had connections to fertility clinics thanks to a project she worked on during her days in private equity, but still found it difficult to chase down busy physicians and explain that she was trying to turn their industry on its head.
“I was spending a ton of time trying to reach out, going to conferences, getting on planes and just showing up,” she says. “I didn’t have a secret sauce to get physicians on board, but we had to make it happen. It was hundreds of hours on the phone.”
4. Ask talented friends for help.
Both Vechery and Leahy had already enjoyed career success when they decided to go all in on Modern Fertility -- and their networks proved invaluable. “Starting a company in your late 20s or early 30s is different than doing it when you’re 22, because you have all these former colleagues,” Vechery says. “We were pinging everyone, saying, ‘Wanna moonlight with us? We promise we’ll pay you after we raise money.’”
As they called in those favors, they saw the brand come to life -- something that was deeply important to both women. “For women to do this, we knew we had to create a beautiful experience, and invested in brand a lot earlier than most companies do. Y Combinator even advises against that.”
5. Make your product easy to understand.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle was taking super-complicated medical information and making it digestible for the average consumer. Leahy’s brand-building expertise led her to push for conversational language on Modern Fertility’s materials, while Vechery was focused on detailed medical accuracy.
“We wanted it to sound like you were talking to your ob-gyn who just happens to be your best friend,” Vechery says. “But as we worked on the language, we got into what we call the Google Doc Wars.” Explains Leahy: “I kept saying, let’s talk like humans. Use contractions!”
The pair finally found a balance, and with every edit consulted their network of physicians to make sure the info was still clinically correct. “It was thousands and thousands of hours of back and forth,” Vechery says.
6. Make it affordable.
When Vechery had explored her own fertility, it cost her $1,500. Modern Fertility had to make these tests accessible. “Historically, the only people that got these tests were women who were having issues and showed up to the clinics for testing as part of treatment,” she says.
She and Leahy realized they could provide these kinds of tests at a much lower cost by focusing on fertility education rather than simply treatment, which would require larger amounts of tests that would help them shave dollars off the cost. “By opening testing up, we can get economies of scale and efficiencies and pass along all those savings.”
When a customer purchases a test, it costs them just $199. She can perform the test at home and send for her results in the mail, or, if she’s more comfortable, visit a Quest Diagnostics lab in 47 states. “At-home-testing technology has been around for 40 years, but it’s never been applied to women’s health,” Vechery says.
7. Get investors’ attention.
From the beginning, the founders knew they would need outside funding to be able to grow the company and achieve maximum impact. “I had a set amount of dollars in my bank account before I would go into credit card debt, and I had a timeline of how long I could take to get something up and running,” Vechery says. “The further you get something along, it can impact how much you could raise and your valuation.”
When Vechery and Leahy started meeting with investors, they knew they had their work cut out for them. “When you’re raising for a product and the majority of investors won’t ever be users, it’s tough—a lot of people we met with said they wanted to ask their wife or girlfriend.” But they held out for folks who understood their mission -- and it paid off, eventually raising $7 million. “We wanted investors to be in the room and intuitively understand what we were doing,” says Vechery.