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.
I am Amy Baxter, MD, the CEO, and founder of Pain Care Labs.
In 2002 I didn’t intend to start a business. Certainly, the solutions we target now - low back pain relief and post-surgical opioid alternatives - were NOT on my mind twenty years ago when the inspiration to block needle pain came.
After making the Buzzy device to stop the pain of vaccination and injections, we realized needle fear contributed heavily to pain. Thinking, “what if there’s a pandemic and a quarter of people don’t want to get vaccinated!” I went on Shark Tank to raise needle fear awareness.
Flash forward, Buzzy spread to 5000 hospitals and clinics internationally and has been used for over 45 million procedures. Then a friend used Buzzy to get a knee replacement without opioids.
In 2016, we changed our name to Pain Care Labs and embarked on a wider mission of joint pain relief and post-surgical opioid alternatives.
Our injection pain expertise contributed to big company growth during COVID for the Buzzy line - consumer marketing is SO different compared to healthcare channels!
I’ve learned so much they never taught in medical school, and we’re about to spin off a new business with the expertise we’ve gained - and because of the devastating understanding, we learned of a flaw in the design of US healthcare this year.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to. Has the business been growing?
We finally reached 2.5M in revenue year on year! We’re much better situated for double-digit growth next year as well because this is the year we learned to focus on key growth strategies.
As the visionary (read: I distract my team with new shiny ideas), implementing the Entrepreneur Operating System imposed a helpful structure. We set quarterly goals and have achieved them by keeping them front of mind in biweekly meetings.
The biggest goal of the last two years was getting our products into BIG BOX – and ta-da! Our VibraCool line of sports/recovery/pain products is having a successful trial in one set of stores, and our Buzzy needle pain relief device is in health hubs in almost 800 stores nationwide and through their online channel.
The promise of wide distribution also led us to market on a much larger scale. One of our core values is scientific integrity, so it didn’t seem right to pay people to buy VibraCool in the test stores (the ubiquitous practice for launching retail products in test mode).
Instead, we tested video ads on local TV (nope), geofencing the stores with Facebook (yep!) and Device ID, as well as targeted Google ads in specific locations when people searched “pain.” (Big win).
Now that our VibraCool Facebook has exploded, we’re trying to learn how to turn that into sales. At a conference, someone said, “why haven’t I heard of this?
I’d buy the knee “Extended” one for my grandmother as a gift.” After this lightbulb moment, we made the purchasing process as easy as possible via VibraCool-Pro.com. To enhance the “I’d buy one” gift concept, we added a velour bag and hot packs into a bundle with a GORGEOUS piece of thumbnail art.
The biggest hassle was figuring out on Shopify how to make sure every purchase with hot packs triggered the right SKU to add a bag without making our new fulfillment center add four new SKUs. These details are the things that change a quick idea into a full workweek of alterations.
This year we were fortunate enough to hire a full-time social media person, Raven. Can you guess when she started?
Having someone keeping a consistent voice with our customers helps. Since our devices last for years (two more company values: sustainability and good stewards of resources), we don’t benefit from repeat sales. Instead, we’re working to extend our brand trust to the other pain devices.
With a needle pain product like Buzzy, marketing to be in front of people at the precise moment needed was trickly: getting diagnosed with diabetes, starting IVF, or remembering your kid has shots the next day is tough to “persona” and market around.
Being picked up by Kinney Drugs to help with their vaccines increased awareness in the right context. We learned that for Buzzy, the important thing is either to start in the pharmacy for prescribed injections and THEN go on shelves or be part of a health program.
Our low back pain device reduced pain by 57% in a pilot.
Finally, a huge step in growth was moving to a local fulfillment center, 3PL. Our old center was amazingly flexible, which was critical as we experimented with new products.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t do the “first in first out” FIFO, which resulted in big losses when we discovered inventory had expired while newer items were used.
Any big move impacts productivity, so the fact that we are still growing is a win. One huge takeaway: always visit your 3PL in person at least once a year, just to get to know each other, if nothing else. You’ll see your inventory differently after seeing it on warehouse pallets.
What have been your biggest challenges in the last year?
One of the clips that landed on the Shark Tank cutting room floor was a certain female shark saying, “Do you know how much it costs to sell to consumers? Consumer healthcare is a fool’s errand, and for that reason, I am OUT!” She wasn’t wrong, but right for the wrong reasons.
The NIH (taxpayers) paid for Buzzy’s development and initial research, so we wanted to make the products as affordable as possible. We turned down investors who wanted to make our pain bee a subscription service or disposable. To be scientific and ethical, we decided to register and pursue the FDA route rather than calling our devices “wellness” tools with no data. This qualified us for HSA/FSA funds, but we knew the impact should be bigger: a pilot found we reduced opioids after ACL reconstruction… a physical therapist found our devices were 3x better than TENS for joint and spine pain. What happened next still blows me away.
We tried to get medical device reps and orthopedists aware of the products. Still, unless devices are “durable medical equipment” covered by Medicaid, reps don’t make enough commissions to take up room in their bag to show products. “No problem,” we thought. “VibraCool uses mechanical stimulation (vibration) instead of electrical to optimally activate pain-canceling nerves.
Our devices are roughly the size of TENS electrical patch units, just more effective. We should be able to use the same Medicaid payment codes”. After two years on that path, we were denied. “It doesn’t matter if you’re more effective, you’re not electrical stim.”
We had applied for Medicaid coverage for Buzzy twice when we first started, but products must be useful for senior citizens FIRST to be covered.
It’s the mission of Medicare, so everything starts with older adults regardless of how important it may be for young people’s health. Since VibraCool is particularly appropriate for smaller bones and older tight or restricted muscles, and since the vibration frequency targets the nerves most often found in joints, AARP-types, tennis elbow, and golf pain - these are almost our perfect use cases in this age range.
For the last two years, we’ve been applying for new DME codes for the M-stim VibraCool Pro devices. After applying just in time for the January 4th deadline, we got our products and packaging ready and waited. “We’re more effective than drugs! We’re safer! We’re reusable!
The pain relief is better! We’re NIH-funded! There’s an addiction crisis - we can help!” We contacted Key Opinion Leaders and got ready. In October, we found out that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) have a specific rule book - and suddenly, the cost of healthcare in our country made so much sense.
The number one reason people go to a doctor is for pain. The CMS rulebook explicitly forbids paying for “comfort devices” - to reduce pain. Consumer healthcare is a fool’s errand, but not for the reasons we thought. Hence our next 5-year plan.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
For consumer products to land, we’ve learned a few big things:
Different channels, and different packaging
When you present your devices to a big box chain, make sure you’re in the packaging you intend to go on the shelf.
We have built over a million dollars in sales on Amazon (Personal Striped Buzzy box below), and packaging there benefits from being small. Anyone buying needle pain relief on Amazon knows what they want, and Amazon doesn’t let you show packaging (in theory).
While Consumer Packaged Goods should have a small footprint to work on a planogram in a store, once a retailer decides to stock you, they go with the design you show them.
Our Buzzy boxes are great for Amazon and point of purchase at the pharmacy, but when they’re all alone out on the big shelves if you don’t know they’re for needle pain, our packaging doesn’t guide well enough.
At one point, we had cardboard boxes that told and showed what they did, but having different packaging for different markets becomes a fulfillment SKU issue.
For those who don’t want even a bee shape and for professionals, we changed the box entirely to a smooth iPhone concept. Sure enough, Buzzy Pro sells in yet a third channel to clinicians.
There’s no such thing as a quick new product
At a Shark Tank reunion, we met Josh. He makes Phoozy, a super-insulated carrying bag for electronics for people in hardcore sports, the military, or just hot or cold places.
We were delighted and thought it would be great to adapt his technology to carry the ice wings that are part of the Buzzy secret sauce! Getting the design, prototypes, revisions, and final products took over a year, even with the benefit of sharing manufacturing resources.
Understand how to sell your first products before new ones arrive
I meet many inventors who like inventing and adding new products before they understand the channel for their current products.
When you have an established product, adding new accessories is great. Having many accessories for a product people don’t know about yet isn’t helpful.
Partnerships can be amazing
Apolla Performance is another Shark Tank company that had a huge win with their compression socks. They sell a lot to dancers. One of the first groups to get excited about our Easy Fit and Plantar VibraCools were also dancers - squeezing ice and vibration on a hurting foot is pretty amazing.
After years of meh attempts to work with influencers or affiliates, we got together with Apolla. We’re learning so much from how they connect with their fans, and our products are chocolate and peanut butter together. (In this situation, we are the peanut butter.)
Listen to your typical users
Even before we went on Shark Tank in 2014, people using Buzzy for their Enbrel or Humira shots also told us they liked it for their hip pain or wrists.
“That’s nice,” we responded, but we had fallen in love with our needle solution. It wasn’t until YEARS later we launched VibraCool.
A few years ago, people began buying VibraCool for their pets - arthritic dog hips were small enough for the Extended with a pocket Flex to put on both sides at once.
When a distributor in Cyprus sent us a picture of her dog Louie sporting our tech, we mentioned it to someone in the veterinarian rehab community, and Voila - now we’re looking at collaborating in a whole new space.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
Our initial mission was “to eliminate unnecessary pain.” We now know elimination is less important than giving people power over pain and a path to comfort.
We also know that without insurance coverage, those who could most benefit from preventing opioid use won’t get access.
To conquer that (drumroll), we’re planning to split our company into the consumer health device (which is doing better than Madame Shark would have thought!) and raise money for the multiple modes and motor devices for low back, pelvic, and post-surgical pain. Thanks to being in the trenches for a decade, we now know the regulatory steps needed to prove and change how mechanical stimulation devices are considered.
Our low back pain device reduced pain by 57% in a pilot; the technology we pioneered has led to a $166M raise in the sports pain channel, and the access to new scientific results of the HEAL program is opening entirely new methods for solving the problem of pain. We’re going there.
What’s the best thing you read in the last year?
Sorry - I know you guys are looking for wisdom, but beyond the Traction book by Gino Wickman, that is the starting place of the Entrepreneur Operating System, when I get time to read anything non-medical, it’s for pleasure.
Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward and the ensuing YA novels delighted me, they let me bond with both my daughter and husband and another Shark Tank Pal, Matt (shown here at the Brandon Sanderson Con), and I can’t recommend them highly enough!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
First, before you launch, spend more time doing customer discovery than is comfortable. It’s much easier to ask people who love you what they think about products.
It’s harder to go to a store and stand in front with a clipboard and an idea, much less a prototype you’ve put time and effort into. Be sure you know who your target customer is, how and where, and when they buy things like yours, and what would stop them from buying something new.
Second, once you have a product, spend time thinking about each customer that comes to your awareness. There’s a lesson every time. For example, we have a VibraCool Gift Bundle with a bag and heat packs (as previously mentioned. You should go get one already!). We sent out an email about it, and someone almost immediately purchased a VibraCool Pro - NOT part of the gift bundle.
The timing was too much to be a coincidence, and I wondered if this person MEANT to get the home version instead of the Pro. I reached out, and he had wanted something for his wife, so he bought the most expensive thing we had, figuring it must be better. We were able to stop the wrong item from shipping and save him money. Understanding how we needed to change the language on our sales page improved the service we give others.
Third: don’t do testing-the-waters marketing. Have a plan. While it’s too late for this year, plan to spend ⅓ to ½ of your marketing dollars in the last quarter of the year if you target consumers.
Make a very deliberate plan, and don’t be swayed by the HUGE number of marketing attempts that come to your inbox. My current rule of thumb is if any email starts with “quick question,” it’s deleted immediately. And if someone in PR says they can get you in an article for $5000 or three articles for $15,000, they’re not articles you want to be in anyhow.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re not currently looking for a position - finally fully staffed for our current needs - at least for a few months!
Where can we go to learn more?
- Buzzy Facebook
- Buzzy Instagram
- Buzzy Twitter
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