This is a follow up story for Pain Care Labs a dba of MMJ Labs. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published almost 5 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
Our story began with Buzzy, a medical device for needle phobia. I’m a pediatric emergency doctor and discovered a frequency of mechanical oscillation that could block injection pain for my kids. When we added ice to the frequency in a palm-sized cute device, we reduced needle pain 80%! To qualify for NIH SBIR research and development funding, I started a company in 2006. After going on Shark Tank and selling Buzzy into Quest Diagnostics and over 5000 hospitals and doctors’ offices for lab draws and injections, we were invited to an AARP Health Pavilion. Weird thinking about seniors for a pediatric device, but ok. It turns out our technology works whether the pain comes from needles or knees - it’s the same pain nerve. At the AARP we discovered the combination worked even better for adults than kids. The seniors began putting Buzzy on their bunions, trick fingers, and joints. We sold out.
Three years ago when a colleague in opioid recovery used Buzzy to completely avoid narcotics after a knee replacement, I decided to leave medical practice to focus on the broader need for drug-free pain relief. Since then we’ve developed a consumer VibraCool line of portable wearables for pain. We have Plantar Fasciitis Foot units, Extended (for knees and ankles), Easy-Fit (for one-handed application to elbows, carpal tunnel, or a tight fit for gout and sore feet), and the Flex with hot OR cold for low back, neck, and shoulder pain.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
With the opioid crisis fueling a need for drug-free alternative pain relief, it’s a great time to have a science-driven technology and a decade of pain relief research. Our new studies show 2-4x better pain relief than TENS units, and only 10 Percocets used after ACL repair! They say that in medicine you can have a cure for dead and it won’t be adopted by doctors for 10 years. Well - ten years later, we are finally getting traction!
Meeting and enjoying people is part of what makes the business worthwhile.
From a target market standpoint, we started with the Buzzy device solving a problem for the most difficult consumer - kids getting vaccinated. Pediatricians don’t give injections much anymore, nurses have grown numb to the fact that the kids AREN’T (numb), kids don’t purchase devices, and it’s a once a year demand. We finally realized that big drug companies using Buzzy to increase adherence with painful injections start thinking about what to do with an extra budget at the end of the year, so now we try to make sure we have inventory for the pharma company buys in the last quarter.
While we’ve finally found our Buzzy market in pharma, VibraCool is a much easier value proposition at the outset. Adults who can’t play golf, type, or sleep because of pain are a much more accessible market. If you’ve invested in a ski, riverboat cruise, or golf vacation, you are happy to pay $90 to get portable pain relief that a) really works and b) is covered with your HSA account. We’re working with some niche distribution channels and getting really good sales from clinics and distributors who want alternative pain relief options.
2018 was a bit rough - we were back-ordered almost ⅓ of the year, our sales were flat, and we spent a huge amount of effort on an IndieGoGo campaign for a low back pain device that was meh. We also learned a really important lesson about disruptive products: it doesn’t matter how low you put the margins, big distributors are really essentially just fulfillment houses until you do direct sales work to build the buzz. They don’t have the bandwidth to get behind new products. VibraCool was picked up almost immediately by the biggest sports distributors and physical therapy groups but was essentially a line on a catalog. Going to CES got us smaller distributors (Relax the Back, Sharper Image) that either had caring humans behind the sales or got us in front of consumer eyeballs. Definitely try to be in Eureka Park if you get the chance.
2019 has been a fantastic year! We had a steady supply chain and started the year with two meta-analyses proving our frequency and scientific platform. This is the highest quality research validation there is. From a sales perspective, we had the opportunity to make an appearance on a national morning show. VibraCool sold $225K after just 3 minutes of air time! One lesson learned is to create coupons for Amazon if you know you’ll be getting a press hit. A limited time offer of a discount can overcome buyer hesitancy. We also leveraged the crowdfunding videos, prototypes, and research for the low back pain device into a 1.7MM NIH HEAL grant to test whether using proven pain relief technology reduces opioid use. While the NIH grant may be the biggest single thing this year, we also hit $1M in revenue by the end of the 3rd quarter for the first time and may hit 200% of last year’s revenue by year’s end.
There are a few other contributing factors to our growth, the most important being building out the team. We finally hired a salesperson and new COO to focus on the business decisions. We’ll be in the Delta Sky Magazine in a small business feature in November, on Univision and another national morning show in a few weeks, and have hired our first PR company to leverage the research on VibraCool V. TENS and my work in opioid reduction. We’re starting to amass testimonials from people not using opioids, getting their lives back…
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
This year we’re still learning about the strategy and importance of branding. When I named my company I was thinking more like an academic mom than a CEO, and used my kids’ initials - Max, Miles, and Jill. To make it sound sciency, I added “Labs” at the end. Little did I know that “MMJ LABS” would soon mean medical marijuana! We got tired of answering cannabis calls, so we rebranded as Pain Care Labs. People underestimated Buzzy as a toy, so we wanted VibraCool to be totally different. It’s twice as much work, so we’re gradually transitioning to one Pain Care Labs website. A branded house, as it were, rather than a house of brands.
I also realized after 10 years of making a device with vibration and ice NOT to use the word ‘vibration’. In the past 3 years, research has been published about the specific nerve receptor and the frequency that blocks pain. That specific mechanical frequency is why our devices work. Vibration has the connotations of bogus weight loss machines from the 50’s or hippie vibes in the ’60s or sex toys in the ’70s. The reality is that the reason our devices block pain is a complex mixture of frequency, amplitude, and secret sauce applying mechanical energy in a precise way. I am trying now to gradually remove the word vibration and use “Mechanical Oscillatory Strain Therapy”, and have trademarked Oscillice(r). It’s a word that (while perhaps not intuitive) at least has no competition and describes what we do. We even have a cool symbol so we can try to be like Bluetooth as we license.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
One of the best concepts to focus our strategy this year came from “Time to Get Tough” by Michael Coles. He turned Caribou Coffee around by asking not, “why aren’t people buying our product?”, but “Why would ANYONE buy our product?” In looking at VibraCool, our earliest adopters were marathon runners who wanted it for recovery for their feet and IT bands. Then we had weekend warriors who liked it for injured knees and one woman who liked it for her occipital neuralgia. Going after all these disparate channels weren’t very fruitful. One of our team came to work wearing a VibraCool on her knee - she’d dislocated the kneecap falling over a ball her child had moved. We started thinking about why would ANYONE buy our product, and who really really really needed it most. Severe pain. Debilitating pain. Pain isn’t just an annoyance, it keeps you from doing something or drives you to opioids. Once we realized that, it became clear that we needed to focus on channels with real pain, which is usually hospitals.
Our long term plan is to get Medicaid coverage (and hopefully insurance coverage) for our VibraCool units. We started applying for the same situations where TENS are used now but will go straight for novel coverage for post-operative pain, spine pain, and overuse syndromes where the highest concentration of the nerve we target is. We are solid with 170% of last year’s sales this year, then plan for 3.2M next year, or 5M if we get the HCPCS (Medicaid) codes.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
An entrepreneur book that possibly changed my life is Time Get Tough Cookies Business by Michael Coles. He has a great, gritty story, and happens to be in Atlanta so I was able to connect with him in person.
There is an Atlanta CEO group that has been invaluable to me, and he came to speak for us. His advice to take risks early in your career was a bit late for me, but guidance like the only associate with people of integrity, know what you don’t know, focus on the personal touch, Product + Environment + Service = Experience factor… many of these have changed how I do business.
I also loved Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast Thinking Slow, but who doesn’t?
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
I had the fantastic opportunity to go with VentureWell on a State Department mission to spur entrepreneurship in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia to give a keynote. These are the pieces of advice that I gave that still resonate with me.
Make relationships before you need them.
Fall in love with the problem, not your solution.
Everything you say yes to is something else you say no to, you just may not know what yet.
It’s easier to find someone looking for your solution than to explain to everyone WHY they need your solution.
Apart from these pretty self-explanatory pieces, I think that the real thing I’ve learned this year is how much keeping up relationships over the years matters. It’s easy to move on to the next thing, but one of the biggest deals we made was one that I thought had been a wasted trip. It may sound trite, but meeting and enjoying people is part of what makes the business worthwhile. And when you enjoy people, the business prospers as well. Personality disorders can hide in corporations, but if you want to have a successful small business it really helps to be nice.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Since we just hired a COO (accepted the job a few hours ago!) we’re not looking to hire right now. I’m balanced between sales and marketing hire next, though, I will say that.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Pain Care Labs
- Buzzyhelps Instagram
- Vibracool Instagram
- Pain Care Labs Blog
- Buzzyhelps Facebook
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
Get our 5-minute email newsletter packed with business ideas and money-making opportunities, backed by real-life case studies.
- 4,818 founder case studies
- Access to our founder directory
- Live events, courses and recordings
- 8,628 business ideas
- $1M in software savings