Spotlight on Mom Entrepreneur: Michelle Staley, founder of Busy Breathers LLC
November 22, 2010
November is Prematurity Awareness month at the March of Dimes, and this organization has made huge strides supporting research and programs that help babies begin healthy lives. Over 1400 babies are born prematurely every day. Premature birth can add many challenges to an already tough job as a parent, including often having to carry an oxygen tank wherever you go with the baby. Michelle Staley, founder of Busy Breathers LLC, went through this when her son was born 3 months early. I am amazed at her drive and determination - Michelle has turned a personal struggle caring for a premature baby into a product that can help millions. The Busy Breathers Oxygen Backpack - a combination oxygen bag, diaper bag and purse - allows you to carry the oxygen tank along with other necessities. This cuts down on the amount of things you need to carry and helps you function better, and every mother will appreciate a lighter load. There is much to learn from Michelle's entrepreneurial tactics - from networking with oxygen providers to researching the best loan programs, from focusing on PR efforts to expanding her target market. Read the full interview below.
You've managed to turn your personal struggle with a premature baby into a smart and useful product. How did it all begin?
When I was 27 weeks pregnant I developed preeclampsia and because of this my adorable little red headed son was born 3 months early. Because Ty was born so early his lungs were not fully developed and we didn’t know if he was going to survive or not. Ty was a fighter and would continue to get stronger and stronger every day. Ty was in the NICU for four months and then needed to be on oxygen for almost two years. I ended going on a leave of absence from work the day Ty was born and haven’t returned since then, nor have I looked back. Ty was not able to be in a daycare setting and I wanted to be home with him, partly because I was scared to death, but also didn’t want too miss out on a single thing that involved my son! We lived on my husband’s income and money was really tight, so I started to think of ideas with my cousin that was also a stay at home Mom that would allow me to bring in some extra money. We both came up with cute ideas but nothing that really stuck! I was putting Ty to bed one night and laid down his oxygen bag beside him and a sense of frustration came across me. I knew the bag that we used wasn’t very functional and it only carried the oxygen cylinder and that was it. It was also meant to be carried over your shoulder and it was very hard trying to carry everything you have to carry when you have a baby on O2 along with him. We also had an incident one time where the bag fell off my arm and smacked him in the head. I started looking on-line for a bag that would fit all of my needs and couldn’t find anything so that’s when the light bulb went on and when this very long process started! I decided to design my own bag. I knew that there had to be others out there that were having the same dilemma and frustration as me and so I was on a mission to help myself out as well as others.
How did you go about design and functionality for the oxygen backpack? Have you made any changes since the original version?
I basically looked at regular backpack designs and other oxygen bags on the market and combined their features. I added features that I wanted myself. I only wanted to have to take one bag with us when we went out and about when our son was on oxygen. So I not only wanted features from a backpack, I wanted features from a diaper bag, purse and oxygen bag. I used my first prototype with our son the last couple of months he was on oxygen. I sold out of the first round of bags this past summer and have since come out with a revised design. The basic structure is the same, but we did make some modifications based off of customers' ideas that had purchased the original design and ideas from my wholesaler. We changed the tank gauge viewing window from a plastic one to a mesh one. This allows people to still see the tank gauge, but allows air circulation which is important when carrying oxygen. Our bag can also be used with some liquid oxygen systems depending on the liter flow that the customer has to be on. We added a sleeve/pocket on the inside of the bag that holds the oxygen, rather than just using Velcro. This seems to stabilize the tank a little bit better. We removed some of the extra pockets on the outside to make the make a little more stream lined and less bulky. But all in all it’s the same concept just an even better bag.
How much start up capital did you need? Did you self-fund it or looked for outside sponsors?
I initially needed about $20,000 but when it was all said and done after the final revisions were done on the first prototype I needed around $30,000. It took me a long time to acquire the initial funding. My husband and I weren’t in the position financially ourselves to fund the manufacturing of the backpacks so it was really difficult to get off the ground and get started. I fortunately had found a financer that truly believed in not only my product but in me and was willing to take a chance with me. This was The Northeastern Colorado Revolving Loan Fund. They allowed a Mom with a Dream and a tremendous amount of passion to see her vision come true. They have been amazing to work with!
The purpose of the Northeastern Colorado Revolving Loan Fund is to create new employment and expand the economic base through the provision of investment capital to new and expanding businesses within the Northeastern Colorado area. There are two (2) loan programs - Community Development Block Grant loan program (loans range between $50,000 and $250,000 with a term not to exceed 7 years) and the Direct loan program (range in size from $1,000 to $50,000).
Who are your customers besides moms of preemies? What is the audience you focus your marketing on?
My oxygen backpack works for all ages. I have parents that have babies, toddlers, and kids all the way up to adults that are on oxygen that can benefit from using my backpack. The statistics of the National Lung association put over a million people on oxygen any given day in the United States. That means that theoretically, my Busy Breather Backpack could be in millions of homes. My marketing has varied throughout the past couple of years but primarily my focus has been on the baby market. When I pitch on the baby, toddler side my bag is pitched as an Oxygen Carrying Diaper Bag. Because our son was a preemie that required being on oxygen for the first two years of his life, the baby market is closest to my heart. I do have several different markets depending on the audience I’m dealing with. I have presented my product at Children’s Hospital, COPD conferences as well at Health fairs, so it just depends on who is my target audience at the time. I also have a wholesaler that distributes my bag across the country to Oxygen Providers as well as Direct Medical Equipment Providers.
Which marketing tactics do you feel are most successful for you?
I would say the most successful tactic that has worked for me and created the most sales has been dealing directly with the Oxygen Providers and DME companies. I went directly to the Oxygen Provider that serviced our son because I already had a trusting relationship with them. This in return opened up other doors and got me connected with the fabulous wholesaler I work with now. I’ve most recently have been trying to build up the retail side of my business better by using my grant winnings and trying quite a few different marketing strategies. Getting in front of PR people with nationally known magazines, television shows newspapers…etc.
Congratulations on winning a Huggies MomInspired grant! What do you think made your product a winner?
I think one of the most important things that made my product stand out, is the story behind it. We were a family that had a baby with a medical need and we just wanted to help with that need in making our daily lives easier. I also think that fact that my product can be pitched as an oxygen carrying diaper bag made it a perfect fit for Huggies.
What do you like and dislike about working from home?
I love being able to work from home. It works perfect for our family, because I’m able to be at home with our son. This was very important to us because of Ty’s health issues. He wasn’t in a position to be in a daycare setting because he was on oxygen and we had to be very careful with him being around others that were sick. A simple cold could send him back into the hospital. I got used to being at home with him and having the freedom and flexibility. One of the hardest things is walking away from your desk. You never truly get away from your work. You could work 24-7 because your office is just down the hall. It’s also hard to be able to focus like you would if you were at an actual office. My five year old doesn’t always understand when Mommy has deadlines she has to meet. There is always laundry, house cleaning, grocery buying to be done and it’s easy to put things on the backburner in your office when things are staring you in the face around your house.
What one piece of advice would you give to moms wishing work from home?
It’s difficult working from home sometimes because not everyone respects your time, like they would if you were actually at an office outside of the home. You definitely have to set your boundaries.
What's next for you? Do you have any new products in the works?
By using my own successful experience bringing products, ideas and services to the marketplace, I am proud to say I have signed on board to become one of Kim Lavine's First Mommy Millionaire Business Coaches. By becoming a Coach with Kim Lavine and Mommy Millionaire I will be able to offer advice, learned at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars, this will allow me to be able to save clients both time and money through one-on-one consulting services, membership resources, and signature courses. I am so honored to be able to help others achieve their dreams and goals by starting their own businesses! I don’t have any new products in the works at this time, but you never know what the future may hold. One of my other dreams is to be able offer my Busy Breathers Oxygen Backpack in different colors and designs, making the bag even more appealing.
Would you like to share anything else with other moms of preemies?
Remember your little one is very unique and not like your average baby. Appreciate that uniqueness and all of the special things that come along with it. Even though it can be very scary at times it can be so rewarding as well. They may appear to be tremendously fragile, but they truly are very strong babies with a huge will to survive. And one last note always remember you’re the expert when it comes to your baby, you’re their parent.
If I asked your son, what kind of mom are you, what would he say?
Well I just asked him and this is what he said. Remember he is only 5. He said I was cute, funny, made him laugh, liked to cuddle and loved him this much (he was holding out his arms as wide as he could). What more could I ask for from my little red head!
Learn more about Michelle Staley and Busy Breathers LLC at busybreathersllc.com.