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 over 4 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
We’re Pain Care Labs, a 7 woman scale-up in the medical device industry. Our mission is to eliminate unnecessary pain, and we’ve been preparing for this pandemic for 15 years.
The backstory: As a pediatric emergency doctor, I knew needle pain mattered to patients, if not necessarily doctors. I invented a vibrating ice pack bee called Buzzy(r) to block the pain from my kids’ vaccinations, and it worked. As I got more disturbed by kids’ unnecessary pain and the fear that comes from a bad medical experience, I decided to go part-time to develop the device and see if it worked for other kids besides mine. To qualify for a $1.1 million NIH small business grant for R&D, I had to start a company, so that’s how all this started.
The first shiny object research distraction: We launched Buzzy in 2009, and as part of the research I discovered needle fear had skyrocketed 252%. I published why and did a TEDx and TEDMED.
Talk about how our lack of needle empathy was causing a preventable noncompliance tsunami. “This will be an issue if there were ever a pandemic.” I went on Shark Tank to raise awareness of needle fear (and get a deal with Barbara, but she and Lori turned me down).
The pivot: By 2015, our Diabetes, IVF, and arthritis patients were using Buzzy on other painful body parts in addition to their shots. When a colleague in opioid recovery used Buzzy successfully to avoid drugs after a total knee replacement, I became a full-time CEO. My goal was to focus on opioid reduction and figuring out why the M-Stim(™) mechanical stimulation frequency worked. We now make VibraCool for knees, elbows, and plantar fasciitis, (Brag: 3.4 times more effective than TENS…) and we discovered the science behind WHY.
So, long story with many pivots. Our goal is to have our technology in every medicine cabinet within 10 years.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
Business is up 50% year on year, and we’re in the running for a new NIH grant to adapt DuoTherm for endometriosis, bladder, and other pelvic pain. Our regulatory specialist Val Staffey got us ISO Certification, a new Authorized Representative in the EU and UK, and (drumroll) Clearance by Health Canada! We’re indicated to control pain and fear from needles and for physical therapy pain and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Very big deals! It sure didn’t start that way due to wobbly focus on my part. We did learn some cool effective marketing tactics, though, and are now all aligned on our vaccination focus for year’s end.
Finding people who can sniff out opportunities and create processes with a disruptive platform are rare.
Pre-pandemic, our focus had turned to chronic pain and opioid reduction. Some of our pandemic shifts were great, some were shiny distractions. From the product/research side, we got another NIH SBIR 1.7M Fast Track for our hot/cold/acupressure/vibration low back pain DuoTherm(™) device, but the pandemic put the DuoTherm opioid reduction study on hold. We knew people stuck inside with chronic pain normally controlled with physical therapy, exercise or massage were in trouble. Our VibraCool was named a Top 10 pain product of 2020 and was recommended by a big deal magazine for home physical therapy, so we thought, OK - let’s partner with other things that work for pain for people stuck at home. Shiny object number one was trying to help by creating a subscription Pain Care Package.
Lesson learned: stick with your business model. We called small businesses that made aromatherapy, mindfulness apps, physical devices, and tea and supplement companies. While our “What Works for Pain” collateral is great for the surgical center work we’re doing now, making a subscription kit and getting partners is INSANELY time consuming and hard. The marketing channel, production, and planning for a subscription kit are very different from our normal e-commerce and B2B channels. In retrospect, not a great use of time - we should have stuck to our business model and marketed more to physical therapy or surgical centers rather than trying B2C.
Lesson learned: even shiny objects can be good for the team. The second shiny object was wanting to distill COVID doctor-speak into usable evidence. I did a Facebook live about making a cloth mask out of a bra that caused an NIH acquaintance on LinkedIn to (publicly!) chastise me with “We love ya, Amy, but masks need to be N95 or they’re no good.” So in researching in March 2020 to tell him, “Um…” I went deep into the rabbit hole of COVID science. I started advocating masks, nasal irrigation, melatonin, and air circulation in April on a biweekly “Power over pain” Facebook live. I explored ivermectin, explained why hydroxychloroquine’s mechanism didn’t work for COVID, and how zinc/vitamin C, etc., probably did. In a major distraction, I also hypothesized that rinsing out the nose where COVID infects people would reduce the severity. It seemed important, so I raised money, got donations of nasal irrigation kits... and submitted the manuscript as a preprint in August. Because it may save lives, and it kept our staff and families COVID-free, our team doesn’t regret this big-time shiny object. Using science to relieve suffering is one of our Company Values, so we discussed doing this and agreed it was worthwhile.
How a shiny object brought us full circle: Our final shiny object was probably worth pulling us away from our VibraCool pain devices, existentially and for our company. As vaccines got closer to being a reality, in July 2020 I wrote about how needle fear could contribute to vaccine hesitancy. Sales of Buzzy started growing last September, but we were trying to spread the word about the jump in adult needle fear, and how the science behind fixing fear was more related to fainting and shame than pain.
I was thrilled to testify to the Department of Health and Human Services about adult needle fear in February 2021, then disappointed when Canada, Australia, and the UK began interventions, but the US did nothing. We surveyed in April of 600 unvaccinated adults which were illuminating.
After trying to give away the information on effective needle pain interventions and the numbers of unvaccinated who had fainting or needle issues, we held vaccine clinics. We vaccinated 10 people with needle hesitancy in the time it took to try to reason with one person with vaccine hesitancy (who didn’t get vaccinated).
Cool TIP: Donations rather than straight sponsorship may be better The local World Affairs Council was hosting a health panel. They asked us to sponsor them, but sponsorship had a lot of specific rules. Instead, we opted to make a $1000 donation, and they let us put a vaccination PSA up. We made a high-quality video about the vaccine clinic that was shown before and after the event and was hosted on the website.
It got shown to the head of the CDC and all the health dignitaries who were invited - access that we would never have been able to afford or do for a straight sponsorship. Lesson learned - donating carries lots of benefits! Whenever someone asks you for a donation, it’s worth it.
Traction: In addition to Kinney Drugs in the northeast, two pharmacy chains are planning to use Buzzy nationwide to give their COVID-19 vaccines. Several new pharmaceutical companies with painful injections for home are now using Buzzy to keep patients on the medicine they need, and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health commissioned IGenerationYouth to do a piece for every school kid on needle fear.
The week of 10/25 we’re launching corporate vaccine mandate support and pediatric Pfizer vaccine materials and consulting - charging per employee who uses our materials to get vaccinated. We’re giving the info and support away to nonprofits and health centers, but we now know we can get 20-30% of mandated employees vaccinated. It will still be less than public health agencies were spending on bribes, hospital costs, and more effective than free beer to get people vaccinated.
From a marketing standpoint, we know we need to put the pressure on during COVID-19 mandates and the Pfizer EUA to let people know we’re here. With the small team and marketing budget, we feel a little like the Whos in Horton Hears a Who - Vaccination? WE ARE HERE! So we’ve taken this approach:
We’ve saved up a lot of news, so we can run one EIN Newswire Press release each week from now until the end of the year, not counting holidays. We’re matching the topics with a weekly newsletter because we’ve realized that should be a minimum. Because Elizabeth Holmes started a needle fear company with NO data, we are emphasizing that there are 75 studies with our technology. It looks like this:
Week 1 - 75 studies (Press Release); Top 10 Staff Picks of Studies, 10/10 (obviously related); LinkedIn: push both and share our team’s picks.
Week 2- NIH low back pain Grant; #9 of 10 studies (related to the pain stuff on the grant); Linkedin and Facebook, related testimonials about back pain. Etc.
When we get our (delayed) boxes in to ship items to Canada, we’ll run.
Week (?) - Canada access press release, Newsletter: Canadian article we like; LinkedIn: cool Buzzy Canada picture.
TIP: Focus ⅕ of our PR and ad spend on the last quarter; Be thematic and in multiple places. We’ve also realized that the open rate on newsletters is much higher when it comes from me, the CEO, than a “Buzzy information” or generic label.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
The big lessons after a decade are don’t try to change the way your channels work, hire connections you know when your company is small, and implement an Entrepreneur Operating System early.
One BIG lesson was not understanding the drivers to market in our various channels. By making our devices reusable and under $100, medical device reps had no incentive to sell them: no ongoing revenue. In addition, some hospitals wouldn’t use them BECAUSE their model is disposing of anything that touches a patient. because We have a new Buzzy Pro and VibraCool Pro that we’re introducing in December. It has a more adult look, and will finally be the product with disposable ice packs that our distributors have been asking for. We didn’t want to make Buzzy disposable because so many people with cancer, home injections, or diabetes need it every day. For dialysis and hospital medical procedures, though, Buzzy Pro will be perfect. The addition of the VibraCool Pro to the existing knee unit will be much more effective for post-surgical pain. Fingers crossed for reimbursement!
We made a mistake with hires we got through advertising and using a headhunter. With a small startup with lots of pivots, while building, roles grow organically. This means that team members’ characteristics and values may matter more than previous business experience. Head hunters know people who do one prescribed job but finding people who can sniff out opportunities and create processes with a disruptive platform are rare. I now think the first ten hires need to be personal connections. That said, we have been doing a much better job with making written processes ourselves, which makes it much easier to bring people in successfully.
At the end of last year, we made one of the BIGGEST mistakes we have made. With two different product lines having vastly different channels, marketing materials, and sales cycles, we had initially kept Buzzy and VibraCool separate. As with needle pain, people think “Oh, distraction relevant only to kids” and don’t get the technological platform. Buzzy kept getting bigger, though, and VibraCool was competing in a crowded market with people conflating TENS units with our Mechanical Stimulation platform. So, we decided to go with the “branded house” concept of Pain Care Labs as our main brand rather than the individual products. Huge mistake, which we compounded by taking our BuzzyHelps.com website and VibraCool.com websites into an omnibus Pain Care Labs site. The web designer was delighted with our products and envisioned us being the next J&J. We spent a lot of time making an amazing logo (more later) but I capitulated on trying to look “Professional” without a buy button and our Buzzy front and center. Our sales PLUMMETED. Amazon stayed strong, but we went from $20K/month on our eCommerce to less than $2. OUCH. We’ve made changes with the site, but by not having Buzzy in our URL, we are now in the situation that our New Zealand distributor is getting the leads from people trying to find “who makes Buzzy?”. Double ouch! At least he is lovely about referring to us.
Lesson: Make sure your brand is part of your URL. Keep the buy button. Don’t use Wordpress if you're in eCommerce, stick with Shopify.
The logo, though, is art! The designer took our Buzzy shape and pivoted it like an old spirograph. We think it represents taking our energy medicine platform and applying it to pain relief throughout the body, evocative of a bit of a DaVinci anatomic circle.
The biggest lesson was that we have been trying to hire people that have the expertise we don’t have. After 12 years of this business, we now realize that WE know our business best, and need to make it easy for people we hire or consult with to absorb the lessons we’ve learned so that they can contribute what they know to take us further.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
Next year we’ll be launching the low back pain DuoTherm device, and pushing for reimbursement for our post-surgical VibraCool Pro devices. We have a better understanding of the kind of sales rep we need, and how to structure a contract. We also are better prepared to make our goals fit the timeline of our 5 and 10-year plan.
We’ll be partnering with at least two companies for our in-hospital VibraCool Pro devices - licensing makes more sense than us trying to sell directly.
For the Buzzy devices, the new Buzzy Pro will have the disposable option reps want, while we maintain a completely reusable device for children and people with chronic conditions at home. Good Karma.
If DuoTherm does indeed reduce opioid use, our trajectory will go a whole new way. Shiny in the best way!
Have you read any good books in the last year?
I highly recommend the book Traction and the Entrepreneur Operating System. Keeping track of the big yearly goals for the first time is happening - it seems obvious, but so are many things we didn’t do. I feel we’re finally doing things in a way to get traction.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
The Traction book has you figure out what your mission is, what your company values are, and then make sure that all the team is in line with the values. Then you make sure people are doing the jobs that are in their sweet spot - they get the job, they have the skills, and they want to do it well. THEN figure out the factors that determine your success, figure out numbers that represent them (Number of orders/meetings/delivery errors/social media stats, etc.), and make each one the responsibility of one of your team. It’s a lot to put together but simplifies things. Hopefully, we’ll be less distracted with shiny objects after we’re flowing with this.
In more granular advice, we’ve been really happy with Knowza, an Amazon managing group. We were THRILLED to find a Shopify return aggregator, “ReturnGo'' for our site. And we have only recently installed an upsell app for Shopify that suggests “you might also like” with a one-click, but it seems to be worth it.
We integrated Gorgias for customer service aggregation - a LOT of work but a good move.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We know we’ll need to hire about three more positions in the first quarter of 2022, but there are a lot of moving parts currently that could take us in different directions. Once we make our 2022 goals, we’ll be aligning the positions accordingly.
We are looking for a part-time social media marketing manager who has a bead on analytics, can make TikToks and social posts, and can help us untangle performance-based graphs into directions for future emails:
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Pain Care Labs a dba of MMJ Labs has provided an update on their business!
About 3 years ago, we followed up with Pain Care Labs a dba of MMJ Labs to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
About 2 years ago, we followed up with Pain Care Labs a dba of MMJ Labs to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
About 2 months ago, we followed up with Pain Care Labs a dba of MMJ Labs to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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