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 about 5 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
As a pediatric emergency doctor, I invented a device to block needle pain, with the goal being to improve the home self-injecting experience and make vaccinations easier. In 2006 I filed for the patents and started trying to get grant money to do the R&D. (As an academic, I figured if the NIH thought it was worth funding, that was a good indicator that the idea was solid.) We started selling Buzzy in 2009 to patients and healthcare centers and went on Shark Tank in 2014. I turned down their offers of investment because I felt the valuation was worth more than the 2.5M for 20% they were offering.
By 2015 Buzzy had been used for over 30 million needle procedures worldwide. More importantly, one of my colleagues had successfully used the device to completely avoid opioids after a total knee replacement. The opioid crisis was hitting home personally, so I decided to stop practicing medicine and focus on opioid reduction and musculoskeletal pain relief full time. Our VibraCool ice/compression/mechanical stimulation devices and Buzzy are HSA/FSA eligible, so we primarily sell directly to patients, but with COVID19 the business is heating up.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
The initial months of COVID19 were hard. For one thing, we pivoted almost immediately to creating materials for people stuck at home or unable to get physical therapy or elective surgeries. Pain relief with opioids is fast and easy, and we were worried there would be a huge uptick in opioid use. There aren’t many FDA cleared devices that are easy to use to reduce pain, and most doctors aren’t educated about supplements, physical solutions, and mind-body approaches. We reconfigured the website and tried to be good citizens regarding pain relief.
If someone doesn’t bother finding out why what you do matters, you may not want to bring them into the uncertainty and intensity that is a small business.
While we made some great materials, trying to find pain management partners for a Pain Care Package was harder than we expected. We wanted to include teas, aromatherapy, topical anesthetics, and meditation connections in addition to a cool newly boxed VibraCool with cold or heat and pain relief worksheets. While we partnered with a few companies, the variety and reach we wanted wasn’t there, so we shelved the idea for now.
In the last few months, however, a few things have happened. It used to be that physical therapists, orthopedists, and hospitals only wanted to prescribe home pain relief like TENS units (electrical stimulation). Even though they didn’t work for intense pain, doctors had a chance to get reimbursed, and it was something that people could do themselves. Our devices use mechanical stimulation, which is more comfortable, 2-3.4x more effective, and safe for pacemakers. Having superior products doesn’t matter, though, if no one knows about you - and now pain doctors are starting to. During COVID, Practical Pain Management recommended VibraCool for home physical therapy. In August, they called VibraCool one of the Top Pain Products of 2020, although we didn’t even find the article until September! Since lots of people have leftover money in their HSA/FSA accounts, our VibraCool sales through this channel have exploded with this exposure.
We’ve used the time not traveling to focus on our overarching brand - Pain Care Labs - instead of the separate Buzzy and VibraCool lines. We have a new website under construction while live (go check it out!) and began a YouTube channel to dissect the new COVID19 data, discuss home pain relief, and how to not freak out for shots using Buzzy and mental techniques.
Last year we grew by 64%. We were expecting midyear to be flat due to the pandemic, but the sales in the last 2 months may put us back in growth territory. People are buying Buzzy for flu shots, VibraCool for home physical therapy and chronic pain, and VibraCool to reduce opioid use.
We are experimenting with “Launch It”, a television commercial for VibraCool that will play in 4 cities after the election is over. For Buzzy, several painful weekly injections used to be given in the office but now aren’t being taken at all. We’re working with a few companies to make a patient journey plan to improve the home injection experience. (To this end, we’re also about to hire a new medical device salesperson.)
I’ve done a LOT of education around fainting, needle phobia, and Buzzy for injections for the Immunoglobulin Nursing Society (IgNS) and the Association for Vascular Access, and will be doing more education about new physical modalities to reduce opioids after surgery for groups in November and December. Probably the most exciting thing is that Pain Care Labs was chosen to be one of 25 “emerging technology” companies to be featured at the National Institutes of Health Life Sciences Summit on November 17 & 18. This is a HUGE way to meet partners and investors, so we’re extremely pumped about that.
Finally, over the last few months, we have had some incredible testimonials, for everything from Buzzy for dialysis in the Netherlands to a program at the University Hospital in Geneva, to a little girl able to do her spinal tap WIDE AWAKE. Our customers are rallying around us and sharing the information and science we share. It’s a really nice community feeling. The impact of sharing videos on Facebook Live and then putting it on YouTube has been satisfying as well. We have learned to post at almost the same time on YouTube.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
The biggest lesson learned over the past year is to understand your channel before you attack it. We tried to make our VibraCool as inexpensive as possible compared to the $125-$225 TENS units, but it was still more than “wellness” gadgets without data or FDA clearance. Rather than threading the cost needle with a “just right” price, it didn’t fit either channel. What we learned is that the healthcare system is so used to asking “is it covered” that even if the difference is $10 of reimbursement for a $200 device, the unreimbursed product loses every time. By focusing on opioid reduction research, proving the device worked better than the covered prices, and finding the right consultant we’re now attempting to talk to the right players to demonstrate how mechanical stimulation is its own category. This is accompanied by a new product and a new patent for 2021, and hopefully will allow us to get pain relief in the hands of the people who need it.
One of the other lessons learned in the past is that the end of the year is often accompanied by budget surpluses, at least for those with HSA/FSA accounts and marketing budgets. With both, if you don’t spend it you lose it, so in other years we’d get random requests for 1000 Buzzy units, but only if we could ship in December. This year we heavily over-bought inventory, anticipating the same. Sure enough, one vendor who normally buys $40K/month put in an order for $160K out of the blue last week. We also got a random call “just wanting to know how much 500 - 1000 units would be”- and this year, we have the inventory ready to go!
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
With COVID everyone is more concerned about being able to decontaminate items, so we have reconfigured VibraCool to be able to use it for multiple patients and clean in between. We’ll be introducing this “VibraCool Pro” in 2021.
Likewise, we’ve discovered that using multiple sources of vibration aimed at a joint is more effective than a single source. This concept we’re calling “Mechanical Oscillatory Stimulation Therapy” (MOST) and have created two kits for upper and lower extremities. The intensity of these are particularly appropriate for post-op pain and opioid reduction; we’re conducting NIH R&D on a MOST Low Back device, with multiple therapy cycles, but are talking to orthopedists interested in reducing opioids about studying MOST for knee surgeries.
Our goal for 2021 is to get VibraCool into wide retail distribution, and (fingers crossed) ship our first container of 100% PCL products.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
Traction is a re-read, but definitely a hugely impactful one for entrepreneurs. Knowing how to tell if people fit your values, and getting the right people in the right seat is part of why we grew 64% last year.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
This is the year we finally quit using our network to hire and put out actual job searches. It’s astounding the quality of some of our hires, and the clarity that looking for a specific set of abilities brings. Often we have found a great person and tried to fit them into a job, but this year we have been more choosy and gotten great results.
That said, I’ve only had two resumes in the 10 years of doing perfect business. One of the no-brainer hires was a person who not only sent a perfect resume with references attached but had done research into our business and wrote why what we do matters. It was such a breath of fresh air. If someone doesn’t bother finding out why what you do matters, you may not want to bring them into the uncertainty and intensity that is a small business.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We just hired a customer service inside salesperson and a full-time CFO, but stay tuned!
Where can we go to learn more?
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