Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! My name is Whitney Bowen, and I’m the founder of Fem ‘n STEM, a company focused on encouragement and equality in the science fields. I was born and raised outside of Washington D.C., and I just wrapped up my first year of college at Yale University.
Fem ‘n STEM sells STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) themed boxes with all of the necessary materials to carry out four science experiments per box. Our first box, Get Crazy with Chemistry, has been widely successful and includes the components of magnetic slime, homemade lava lamps, self-inflating balloons and DIY bouncy balls. Our products are generally aimed at 8-12-year-olds, though in my opinion, they can appeal to all ages.
Though $1.5k in monthly revenue might be low in comparison to many of the other case studies on Starter Story, it’s serving me well as an 18-year old college student and hopefully will continue to grow as the company expands.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
With three months left of my freshman year of college, the campus was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The transition was smooth and somber: my dorm was replaced by my childhood bedroom, late nights chatting with friends became FaceTimes and lectures began to take place on my pixelated computer screen. However, as someone who volunteered each week in the pediatric oncology unit of the Yale-New Haven Hospital, I noticed that extracurriculars didn’t manage the virtual transition quite as effortlessly.
In high school, I spent two years on an all-girls robotics team, taught computer science camps in the summers, and co-founded Fem ‘n STEM: a then school club with the mission of encouraging all genders equally to pursue their passions in the sciences. We met monthly and carried out a variety of interactive experiments for 4th-6th grade students, led by upperclassmen. Clubs and activities were just as influential as time spent in the classroom -- and the specific extracurriculars which I chose to partake in gave me a strong interest in ending the gender gap in the sciences.
In the first few weeks of quarantine, despite supposedly being “self-sufficient adults,” my older sisters and I constantly pestered our parents and each other for entertainment between classes; I imagined the need for a distraction was even stronger in the younger generations. Upon hearing that many students had minimal or no online learning due to technological and age restraints, I began brainstorming ways to bring educational extracurricular activities into students’ homes.
My idea for Fem ‘n STEM, this time around, was to create science-themed boxes containing absolutely all of the necessary components to carry out four experiments, with each box following a specific subject. In addition to raw materials, each box would include an engineering journal (with template pages following the scientific process), detailed written instructions, and explanations of the science behind each process.
The current world needs scientists more than ever -- what better a time to encourage kids to pursue their passions than now. My overall goal is to show students that science is fun, engaging, and understandable: a lot more appealing than the overwhelming tangles of incomprehensible words in the media. In doing so, and catering specifically to underrepresented populations in the fields, I hope to discourage stereotypes, educate students and bring a bit of fun to the boredom of quarantine.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Once I had my idea in mind, I faced the difficult task of building my first product -- a challenging feat in the pandemic-induced statewide lockdown. I relied predominantly on deliveries, seeking out bulk companies that weren’t facing long backorders due to employment cuts. I coordinated shipments and triple checked each category to make sure I missed no bottle caps, labels, or packaging supplies: it wasn’t as though I could run out to the store if one aspect was accidentally left out. The components for my first 100 boxes (to be sold at $50 apiece) summed to roughly $2,000.
After hours of printing, measuring, and labeling, and with the contents of my first box finally complete, I excitedly carried the product upstairs and lay it out on a white backdrop for a photoshoot -- the photos being the final website touch needed before launch. I spent the first twenty minutes crouched on the floor with a camera, filming the lava lamp bubbling without a hitch.
Moving confidently to the self-inflating balloon, I situated the camera, filled the balloon with baking soda, the bottle with vinegar, and then excitedly tipped the balloon upwards to watch the two combine. I was met with an enthusiastic explosion, leaving my hair matted with baking soda and the stench of vinegar clinging to my camera. Needless to say, there is a clear distinction between my intended two teaspoons of baking soda and my measured two tablespoons.
While the prototyping and design of my first box were definitively frustrating at times, the subject matter was a reprieve; I had a lot of fun experimenting with magnetic slime and hypothesizing about the bounciest combination of cornstarch and glue.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Given Fem ‘n STEM is all e-commerce (at least for the time being), I spent a lot of time and energy designing my website. I had some experience with the website development and computer science, which proved quite useful in the creation process. I used WIX, starting from a blank template, and was thankfully able to secure a premium plan at no cost from my university.
For my launch, I focused first on social media to spread the world. I shared posts on my own Facebook and Instagram and asked friends to do the same. I also looked to organizations that might promote the business on social media, such as my sorority at school and feminist influencers or bloggers.
I reached out to a few contacts who wrote for Yale’s newspaper and other websites and asked if they’d consider featuring Fem ‘n STEM. I ended up with an article in the Yale Daily News (First-year designs STEM kits for girls in quarantine), as well as upcoming features in the Politic and the magazine The Arrow.
My biggest takeaway from the launch was that building a business isn’t immediate: as I anxiously waited for my first sale, I feared I’d done something wrong. After the countless hours I’d spent prototyping, designing websites, building and photographing, it seemed that this should be the easy part. And while sales did come, it wasn’t all at once and it definitely wasn’t immediate.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Trying to keep my advertising budget as low as possible, I’ve looked for the most cost-effective ways to promote Fem ‘n STEM. My audience (parents of elementary to middle school children, especially daughters) is a pretty specific one.
I continued to use social media to my advantage. I asked customers who wrote to me with compliments to share the product with their friends and saw success from a few pleased moms who posted on parent forums for school districts. Facebook proved especially effective. Where it was allowed, I advertised in Facebook groups suggesting ideas for activities with children, quarantine entertainment, or at-home education. I paid for a few promoted posts and advertisements through Facebook as well, which were successful in their directness to target a specific audience based on interests.
I worked on my SEO, asking anyone who reported on or the company to backlink the website, and constantly updating keywords. I claimed my business on Google My Business and answered questions on Quora and Reddit of parents hoping to entertain their little ones. My newest strategy is still a work in progress, reaching out to renowned entertainment bloggers and parent-influencers on Instagram and Facebook, asking if they’d consider posting a review of a Fem ‘n STEM box if I sent them one.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Fem ‘n STEM became a profitable company after the first month. All of my sales are through my online store, though I’ve started to look into the possibility of selling on Amazon in the future. The gross margin is 60%, and my return on the ad spent is roughly 200%. I’ve attempted to keep my monthly spending on advertising to less than $200 (until I get better insights on what tactics are working), and don’t have enough data yet to do customer lifetime value.
I recently began promoting Fem ‘n STEM birthday parties, a product I’m hoping to expand. The birthday party boxes include customized birthday-themed lab notebooks and party hats and include between one and four of our experiments. They can either be shipped in a bulk shipment to one location or (for a socially distant option during the pandemic) to be shipped to individual participants.
I’m planning to release my second box in the coming months, most likely following a space theme.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
As this was my first time diving seriously into the business world, I’ve learned a lot throughout the process. I made a handful of mistakes along the way and had to surmount obstacles, especially given the global pandemic, which complicated and delayed a lot of my processes.
In terms of marketing, I think my focus on social media has served me well; social networks’ wide and varied reach, coupled with the generally free or low-cost nature made it a perfect method to advertise my products, especially in the first few weeks/months.
I was lucky to have a past in graphic design and computer programming/web design, which enabled me to create my own website, logos, and branding from scratch, saving a lot of money in the startup phase. My past in the science fields aided me in creating and perfecting my products, and the added free time I was lucky to have given the pandemic helped me persevere through the more time-consuming aspects of doing the setup essentially on my own.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
WIX has been one of the most useful tools for my business. I used WIX to build my website and then used their built-in shop features to create my online store. I also monitor my revenue and keep a growing list of contacts for my newsletter through WIX.
In terms of fulfillment, I use stamps.com to purchase and print shipping labels and simplify the shipping process, especially in the time of COVID-19. To monitor analytics about my company, I use Google Analytics.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The world will likely be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic for years. With the effects on foreign relations, lives, the economy, and schools, it’s easy to assume that now is not a time for innovation or creation, but rather a period to focus on repair. I encourage anyone thinking about starting (or in the early stages of beginning a company) to persevere despite the challenging circumstances of the modern world.
While 2020 has definitely had its downsides, the current world also provides opportunities in social media, internet outreach, and technology that enable us to share ideas and products in a way that has never before been available. I encourage everyone to look to social media and other online platforms or resources to garner support for ideas and businesses, especially in the coming months or years when the world has turned predominantly virtual.
Where can we go to learn more?
- First-year designs STEM kits for girls in quarantine (Yale Daily News article)
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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