Driven by a deep passion for improving the lives of nursing mothers, Native American entrepreneur Stephanie Conduff founded Leche Lounge, one of Tulsa's most well-known startups. The company's portable lactation suites can be found around the country, including in the Nike (yes, that Nike) Headquarters. And while she's received wild support for the concept, Stephanie has also faced discrimination in investor meetings, leading her to fund the whole business herself. Listen as Stephanie talks about keeping up with demand, learning where to compromise and setting big goals.
Stephanie: It is certain that you will fail.
Lauren: This week on The F Word...
Stephanie: What you realize is as you grow, money doesn't actually solve the problems that you thought you had.
Lauren: Stephanie Conduff, the founder of Leche Lounge.
Stephanie: You start to think, “Am I good enough? Is this going to work? What if we put it up and they tell us to take it down? This is insane. It's Nike.”
Lauren: New mothers have to navigate so many new and unknown situations, one of which is breastfeeding. While there's a big movement to normalize breastfeeding a baby in public, for most people it's just not comfortable to pump using a machine in a public place. Most women want some privacy for that. For listeners who haven't experienced it, a breastfeeding mother who's away from her baby usually has to pump every two to three hours or so, making travel and going back to work really difficult, but today's guest is trying to make that easier. Stephanie Conduff is the founder and CEO of Leche Lounge. It's a portable lactation suite for nursing mothers equipped with a comfy chair and a nice pump, USB charger, fan, mirror. It gives moms a really comfortable, private space to pump as opposed to a bathroom stall. You can find Leche Lounges in airports, stadiums and corporate offices around the country now, including the Nike headquarters, which is so cool. It's been a really successful startup, receiving lots of national support and press coverage. However, Stephanie has faced many hurdles along the way as she's got her startup off the ground and specifically with no investor money. She's been bootstrapping the whole thing. Can't wait to talk about that. Stephanie, thanks for coming in to share your story.
Stephanie: Thank you so much for providing a space to discuss failure and success and the rise of entrepreneurism in our community.
Lauren: Absolutely. We love it. We love Tulsa entrepreneurs, man. I love how your story started. You're in law school at the University of Oklahoma, just had your first baby, and you were having a really difficult time finding a place to pump.
Stephanie: Yeah. I knew that I wanted to breastfeed. For me, it's a way that I dealt with mom guilt of being away from my daughter. I thought to myself, you know, I'm going to meet that one-year standard of providing breast milk, and like everything else, I just started to schedule it into my day. I would need to go to class. I would need to pump. I had my mom, who actually moved into an apartment in Norman with a Craigslist roommate and I to help with the baby three days a week so I could finish law school. My husband was still living in Tulsa. Whenever I would be away from the baby, I would just take my pump and look for a place. Well, as a student you don't have any real legal rights to pump. As employees, you usually do, but I didn't even know any of this. I had my pump out. It was actually during a law school exam, and I was losing time that I needed to try to wax eloquent about wills and trusts at that time. I had the pump hooked up, and I was sitting there thinking. I was in a bathroom, and at that time a janitor walked in. I mean, I couldn't believe it. I just lost my mind. I was embarrassed. I dove down, and the milk started spilling everywhere. I'm trying to cover myself up and I'm screaming.
Lauren: Oh my gosh.
Stephanie: I'm just thinking, I can't believe I'm going into debt to be an attorney, to pay the school to not even have a place to pump. I personally experienced a problem, but at that point I wasn't really thinking of a solution. I was more just kind of living in my mom shame and mom guilt and really trying to figure out, how do people do this? I don't really understand. Where am I supposed to go?
Lauren: So at what point did you decide, I'm going to do something about this?
Stephanie: At that point I just thought, I need to finish this exam and get back home to Emerson, but I started researching, as an attorney does. I have a master's in public policy, and so I'm constantly looking at just community-based solutions to problems. I had worked with the Cherokee Nation in economic development before, and I had thought a lot about how could we create jobs here in northeastern Oklahoma that had meaning and value. But really, I just started to think of all of the companies that my friends and family worked for, and I had a cousin who was working for a large company in Arkansas. She didn't have a place to pump. She didn't have an office door to close, and so she had to make a different decision for her baby than I did. That was because of her employer, nothing because of her own free will or choice.
Lauren: So she had to choose not to breastfeed because she just didn't have a location to do that?
Stephanie: Correct. I mean, it's either economic security for her family and to be able to pay for childcare, which is very expensive, or it was to be able to continue to breastfeed and pump. I started to look at all of these companies who are not providing a place, and so I started to do Freedom of Information Act requests and just started to geek out and start sending out these nicely worded letters. It came down to really trying to figure out, is this something I just want to litigate? Is this something that I could be the world's best class action lawsuit attorney for breastfeeding rights? But that really wasn't going to fix anything. I thought it could make some good money, which I wanted and needed at the time, but I was working for a good firm and dry icing milk across the country. I drove to a TERO, a tribally certified manufacturer in Muskogee, told them what I wanted, and they built something that showed up on a shipping dock. They told me I had to pick it up by 4:00 six months later. I went, and it was so ugly and so terrible that it ended up at the Broken Arrow dump. My husband just took it on free dump day and dropped it off.
Lauren: No way.
Stephanie: I thought that was the end of Leche Lounge.
Lauren: What was so bad about it?
Stephanie: I mean, it was pretty much a deathtrap. The ventilation was wrong. There's no way that a wheelchair could access it. But when I looked at it, I have pictures of myself smiling in it. I was so proud of it, but no one would tell me how ugly it was except for my husband. He's a very honest man, and the former chief of the Cherokee Nation said it was "cold and sterile looking." I realized that maybe product development was not for me, but instead of quitting I just went to another manufacturer and tried to figure out how the next version could be better.
Lauren: Because I think a lot of people have ideas. They're like, "Oh, I have this idea." For you it was have this idea, create a little room that's really comfy that a mom can pump in. How did you go from an idea to finding a manufacturer? In my mind it's like, did you sketch it out on notebook paper at home and then just knock on doors or what does that process look like?
Stephanie: Yeah. Now when you want to build something, people are like, "We'll just 3-D print it." But you're right, I'm building these portable rooms. It's kind of like furniture. I went to one of the smartest women that I know. Her name's Cheryl Hill with Hill Manufacturing, and I described it to her. She listened, and she's like, "Well, I can't build that here, but I'm really close with a lot of people at the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance. Let's ask them." But what was uncomfortable is that Cheryl Hill was the only woman that I really knew in manufacturing, and she's really one of the only women around here in manufacturing. So whenever we would describe what we were building, we would sometimes just call it a phone booth because the guys would call it a lactorium or a boob pod or all types of things.
Lauren: No, they didn't.
Stephanie: I mean, they would and they wouldn't want to take the meeting because they wouldn't understand its purpose, and so we had code names for trying to get it done. But I found an excellent Native-owned business out of Chelsea, Oklahoma, who finally took a chance and said, "Okay. Let's do it."We built... Well, actually, I sold three of them before we had any of them built, which is like the largest vaporware sell ever around here. Because the customer really wanted them, and we didn't even know exactly how we were going to do it. We knew what we weren't going to do that time but not exactly how we would, so we almost failed then too.
Lauren: Man. How did you keep from failing?
Stephanie: I mean, I prayed a lot. I really was just hoping that if there was a solution to be had, I'd find the right people to solve it. Because while I have a lot of good experience in managing expectations and project management and talking with people, I can't tangibly build these by myself, and so it takes a lot of trust. You're relying on your entire dream and vision on other people to perform it. I think that that's what's challenging and what I think inevitably is a limitation. If you aren't self-performing these builds, then you can't prioritize yourself to your subcontractors. If they have a couple hundred thousand dollars of orders ahead of you that have higher margins of production, then you might be pushed to the end of the line. You could breach your contract, and you might not be able to fulfill. That's what the biggest pain point has been on scaling is to be able to control growth and really figure out how to survive even whenever you have more orders coming in.
Lauren: Tell me about the name. I love the name. I think Leche Lounge, it's like you were saying, the other names it could be, that might be a little uncomfortable. That's easy to say. It's fun. It's an alliteration. How'd you get to that name?
Stephanie: I mean, we toyed with some other names. Even when we were in The Forge here in Tulsa, we were thinking Leche Express for the double entendre of expressing breast milk. Just when I would go to pitch it, it would never come out right, and so that was the test to me. It looked good when it was mocked up. I like to be able to talk about milk in another language to make it less awkward when dealing with facilities folks who are mostly men that you're talking to about the space. Then lounge gave it that residential, cool, good feel that it was like this dedicated space that you could go into. Some people pushed back and said that lounge isn't what they want their employees to be doing, but ultimately we decided that since it was for a more intimate purpose, it just felt right. I thought there's a lot that we could do with the branding and with the design, and I felt comfortable saying it thousands of times in pitches.
Lauren: That's awesome. You mentioned The Forge. For those who are listening and don't know, the Forge is an incubator program in town under the Tulsa Regional Chamber. What was your experience working with them and what did you learn about your business as you were going through that process?
Stephanie: I mean, they're instrumental for us even today. I may actually end up moving back into The Forge. We ended up moving out just because we got a surprise second child during this whole process, and there was no place for me to pump in The Forge. It's all glass.
Lauren: Oh, the irony.
Stephanie: I know. It's all glass. We'd have contractors come in, and the only place was a bathroom. And I just felt like I was living the best version of myself right then when I didn't have a place for people to pump. No, we moved out because of my son, Guthrie, coming, but we learned so much. They had a really great bullpen of advisors that are there. There are state income tax opportunities, which like our company, I mean right now we're at 100% exporting out of Oklahoma, which in one way doesn't make a lot of sense. There are so many places here that need accommodations where moms and people contact us constantly, but we really ended up with a lot of national traction and even international traction. We're meeting with a Canadian delegation tomorrow, which is a really cool opportunity. They want to do work with tribal businesses, and so they identified us to talk with. The Forge really gave us a private space to be able to go into, to put up our whiteboards and to really sit down, think through things, host people there. I think it brought a lot of legitimacy to the business that we didn't have when we were just working out of the house and random coffee shops throughout town.
Lauren: I know The Forge is when you were going through the iteration process with different designs and manufacturers and everything like that. Clearly, you've come a long way with the design since that first one that everyone thought was ugly and didn't work. I've seen it personally go through lots of different iterations of design. Talk about the process of landing on a design and tweaking a design. What's been hard? What's been good? I know there are a few design elements that you have felt passionate about that have led to some issues. Can you talk about that?
Stephanie: Absolutely. The thing that I've learned in building this business is you want your product to be perfect. If you spend the time to get it perfect, you'll be out of money, and you won't be able to grow your business. So, sometimes you have to just take what you have and learn from it. Whether that's doing that through an unpaid pilot or doing that through a paid pilot but you're still taking a loss on it, to learn from is so important. For us, we've continued to really seek experts that are defining how we want to use spaces that are at the cutting edge like Nike. I mean, Nike's a cultural icon. For a startup in Tulsa, Oklahoma to be able to take and place our tangible space in their World Headquarters, in the Jerry Rice Center, in the Tiger Woods Convention Center, I mean you can't even mentally prepare for that. When you show up and you're loading things into that Penske truck to drive it across the country, you start to think, “Am I good enough? Is this going to work? What if we put it up and they tell us to take it down? This is insane, it's Nike.” Luckily for us, we've learned so much in that partnership with their designers, with the choices that they made and finishes that I never would've been so bold to take. They've really elevated our brand, but it's been a challenge. I probably inappropriately have an analogy to Tesla, and I'm obviously no Elon Musk here, but he has a real affinity for the Falcon doors on the Model X. And it's causes a lot-
Lauren: Which are awesome.
Stephanie: Which are the best. I mean, that's all I can think about when getting a new car is that it could be electric and I could go to pick up and drop off the kids and just have those Falcon doors come up.
Lauren: The doors just swoosh and everything.
Stephanie: Yeah. I mean, I just always wanted to be the cool mom, and those Falcon doors would do it. We decided to stay committed to a sliding door. So when you walk up to a Leche Lounge, you don't pull the door open, you slide it like you would a pocket door or a residential door. To me it has a really nice look. The Air Force has said that they like them the most because they don't take up any additional room. You can put them in a busy terminal or concourse, and you're never going to throw the door open and hit someone walking by. But it has been the number one issue that has just haunted us in manufacturing. It's the main issue if we have any warranty issues. It's the main issue in finding locks that will continue to work. I mean, there just isn't as much innovation in sliding door electronic technology as there is in standard doors. With Elon Musk and his door affinity, I mean they've lost time in manufacturing. They have blown through cash that they didn't have to try to keep those doors. They've had a lot of recall issues, and they actually now are releasing a new Model X that doesn't have the Falcon doors, which is proving that that has been a huge headache that has really detracted from the growth of the company. But we've continued to stay true to it, and I feel that while that is distinguishing us, I wonder if in the future we will either fail to exist or change the door entirely. I think that it's really hard whenever your own... I mean, our life is tied into this business. This is a family-owned business, and so to change something that you've held onto is really challenging. I think you see that with decision makers like Elon Musk all the way down to here in that product development is really painful.
Lauren: And you've done all this with no investor money. You haven't taken any VC money, correct? Is that right?
Lauren: And so you're bootstrapping it all. What have been the pros and cons of funding yourself? I'm sure that to some extent it gives you the freedom you want, but also it shortens your runway a little bit.
Stephanie: Yeah. To me it was really hard to go and fundraise eight or nine months pregnant. We thought we were just going to have one child, and Leche Lounge was our second child. Then I got pregnant with our son, and I had a very complicated pregnancy. I was on insulin shots five times a day, and I just thought to myself, I can't imagine now having investors who are hazing me on top all of the stress of raising a toddler, being pregnant with a second trying to build this company. Right now if something goes wrong, I have to go and face my family, and I have to say, "Hey, I gave it my best. This may or may not work." But that's who's going to define my success and failure as a person. A lot of my very good friends who have taken outside capital have a different everyday lived experience, and they've been able to scale a lot faster, which is a major pro. They don't deal with the same cashflow management decisions that we do, but I feel like for this stage in my life as a mom with two kids and trying to build this in northeastern Oklahoma and to keep manufacturing here, it's been the right decision for us. A lot of investors have wanted to offshore production to scale faster, and to me part of our success is that it's a community solution to a community problem. I feel really good about the job creation that we've seen here and just the pride of exporting something from Chelsea, Oklahoma to Beaverton, Oregon to serve the Nikes of the world. I mean, just the innovation and creativity that we have here in the Cherokee Nation and that we have here in northeastern Oklahoma is so special to me that I don't feel like we are Leche Lounge unless we are performing it here.
Lauren: Do you think at any point as you scale you would continue looking for an investor that shares that same vision as you?
Stephanie: Yes. I always have this dream that 20 female angels are going to call me and all throw in 20, 30, $50,000 a piece, and then we're just not going to have these problems. But when I was starting, I thought if we could just get five orders, we're going to make it. Then it's if we could just get 10 orders, we'll have made it. Then you're like, "If we can just get 100 orders, then we'll make it." What you realize is as you grow, money doesn't actually solve the problems that you thought you had. Whenever you're first starting out, you just want it so bad to keep going, but then you just start to have bigger problems or different problems. I think that taking outside capital's incredible if you need the rocket fuel. I haven't wanted to take off and miss the kids as much, and I travel a lot. But whenever my kids start saying, "Momma airplane, " I realize I need to stay home a little more. For Lent, I gave up commercial air travel just to get grounded, to get focused, and I found some really interesting things I'd been missing by just trying to go out and hustle. I think that there's a lot of value in keeping yourself grounded. Oklahoma's great. It's a very low cost of living. Our cost of production here is low. You can find hotshot drivers to drive anything across the country for you. We're centrally located. There's a lot of benefits to being here, and our runway has gone a lot further bootstrapping here than it would in any other part of the country.
Lauren: That's really powerful because I think a lot of people think to have a successful startup you have to go to San Francisco or New York or LA or Chicago.
Stephanie: We go to all those places, but it's to hustle deals, not to take cash. I tried. I mean, I really did look at the VC route for a long time and ultimately just decided it wasn't right now. You can do so much with a good banking relationship. You really can. I mean, if you have a product that's viable that is you're getting purchase orders, you can pledge them. With us it's a lot of governmental entities, so you're having to carry it 30, 60, 90 days, which can end up in a cash crunch. But I think that's what's so neat is that you can find alternative ways to continue funding and manufacturing. My thing is that I just keep reinvesting it. Someday I'm like nope, I'm going to finally pay myself. I'm going to cash out some of it. I'm going to take the risk off the family. Then another big deal comes and I'm like, "Ah." It's like you're at the casino. You just bet it all on black and go.
Lauren: Oh my gosh.
Stephanie: Luckily, my husband has a job with health insurance.
Lauren: Okay, good. So you still haven't paid yourself?
Stephanie: I mean, I have the valuation of the company, and we have 100% equity, so in that I have a tangible resource. But no, I don't pay myself. I pay a lot of other people, and I pay them on time. I make sure that their cash is always there. I pay interest on money that I borrow, but to me this has been a longer term goal. I still make money in other ways, and so it's just a way that we can continue to try to make social impact and wait until we find the right partner. I would love to find the right partner, but right now our manufacturing teams are our partners. And the community has really taken a hold of this idea and concept and I think has really rallied together to understand that we take back 43 square feet in places for moms, for families, and in places like the state of Washington, for dads. They have them as parent pods, so it's not even a female end user in the space. That's really pressed us to evolve and open our minds up to new ideas that we hadn't otherwise thought of.
Lauren: It's funny, as I hear your story, it actually reminds me a lot of the Nike story. Have you read Shoe Dog by Phil Knight?
Lauren: You read in that book, so Shoe Dog is Phil Knight's memoir, and he talks about how you get one order in and you make enough money to pay for the next order. Then you just keep growing, but it keeps going back into the company. To me it's cool the parallel between those two stories and the fact that Nike is now one of your clients.
Stephanie: Yeah. We listened to it on Audible on our way out to Nike, and it was, it was really interesting to hear that startup story and then show up in their world headquarters. Just, it really makes you appreciate the vision and leadership of entrepreneurs to really change our economy. I mean in significant ways, to actually create livelihoods for people who go back and are involved in community organizations or purchase things locally or help build parks. You realize that there really is a place for innovation, and whenever it's done well, we are creating impactful communities that will continue. To me, I think knowing that my daughter... I mean whenever we went and pitched Nike, she was sitting there with her coloring book.
Lauren: I love that.
Stephanie: Just hanging out. It was President's Day weekend and I didn't have childcare, so I just bought her a ticket and we went out together. We pitched two, got both, delivered within six weeks. I think it's really neat. She and I talk a lot about failure, and I'll tell her when I have bad days. She'll hear me on calls when my neck is turning red and blotchy and I'm shaking my head. She asks me, "Hey, what's going on? Why do you look like that?" I'll tell her, "We messed up again." She's like, "Well, mommy, you gotta keep trying. That's what we do." For her to see the rollercoaster of it has been really profound to me. No matter if I lose all of their college education money or if we could've put that money anywhere else, I still think that our family has taken this risk together, and I feel really confident in where we're choosing to live our life based on the values that we hold in our heart.
Lauren: I'm sure this journey has been filled with a lot of doubt, but this is something that is seriously improving the quality of life for so many women. Was there a moment or have there been moments when something's clicked and you've said, "Wow, this is really worthwhile. This is worth the sweat, the tears, the grind"?
Stephanie: Yeah. I will go to the places that we have Leche Lounges like Mother Road Market, and I will grab lunch and just sit there. Every time I go and it's occupied, I'm still like, "Oh my god, people use it." Still today, I'm like, "Wait." I'm like, "No, someone's just relaxing there. No! It's a mom and she's there.” Sometimes I just let them go. Sometimes I'll say, "Hey, you know, what did you think about that?" And not tell them anything about me or who I am. Sometimes I'll be like, "Yeah, you know, this is my company." It's so amazing to me... and I get kind of emotional thinking about it, but early motherhood can be so isolating. I talked to one mom two weeks ago at Mother Road Market, and she said, "My baby won't latch. I can't breastfeed my child, so I have to pump every two hours. This is the only place my family can come and eat together." Both sets of grandparents were there. Her husband was there. She predominantly spoke Spanish, and she was just talking about the challenges she had in motherhood and that she got to feel like she had a sense of community there because she had a place that she could pump in private. Because no one wants to ask someone to unplug their cellphone at an airport so that they can pump. No one does that. She said, "Well, I normally will just stay home. I won't even go out because there's nowhere that I can go do this. My child won't latch. There's nothing I can do. I have to just stay home." To think that just saving space for people can uplift their spirits, can bring hope, can bring that family together to have a nice meal and that because we didn't quit and we kept going, you're really changing the everyday experience. Another one at Mother Road Market just that I was thinking about is a new mom there was wearing her baby. She has a restaurant or a food vendor booth there. She said, "Yeah, I don't have to pay for childcare. I can wear my baby. I can go in there and nurse and come back to work." You realize that you're changing the everyday lived experiences, and you're helping provide for those infants too. That's what's really amazing is that these are people that the end user isn't the mom, it's actually the baby. You're advocating for their rights, and you're negotiating with CEOs and compliance officers and HR professionals for the rights of children. It's not even exactly for the rights of the mom or the dad. From my advocacy background in public policy and law, it's just so profound. I'm just really proud of each place that sees this necessity. It continues to, like you said in the introduction, it really opens up the conversation and dialog around breastfeeding and around... just people are like, "What is this thing? I don't understand. What's the use of it?" It's kind of neat because it's informing them as well, and it's just making us feel visible again. As a mom you start to feel so invisible sometimes. I mean, your kids are screaming. They're demanding snacks all the time it seems. You're driving to pick up and drop off. You're coming back, but no one's really holding space and taking care of you. To me, it's nice that we are able to provide a space that just acknowledges the presence and the work that moms do.
Lauren: That's really powerful.
Lauren: A few years ago you went through the Project Entrepreneur incubator program, and for those who don't know, it's a really cool program through Rent the Runway where participants are hand selected and spend a whole summer in New York City focusing on scaling their businesses. I think for you this program was a huge turning point. Tell us about that summer. What did you learn? What are the holes you saw in your business in that process, and how did it help you grow?
Stephanie: It was just last summer, so that's what has been amazing to me is to think about what has changed since we put the kids on the airplane and moved to SoHo.
Lauren: And you were there how long?
Stephanie: We were there for the summer. It was all last summer. I came back and forth quite a bit just with the kids. I mean, it was a logistical nightmare. My husband used all of his vacation for two weeks. I was going back and forth, but we made it work. For me the biggest thing that I took away was a cohort of female founders who have businesses in similar stages. We keep in contact every single week. We share with each other a rose, a bud and a thorn, something good, something we're looking forward to and something that's not working. Then it gives me time... I love solving problems. I love other people's problems. I mean, just to put mine aside for a while and try to think outside the box and figure out what you could do differently makes me feel like this huge jolt of joy and purpose and love. Sometimes when you are dealing with your own problems, there are really easy solutions that you just can't see because you're too close to it. Someone else is like, "It's right there." You know them. You trust them. You try it, it works. It's amazing to me each one of these founders, and most of them are VC backed. I think there's only two of us that haven't taken outside capital, and one is currently about to raise 2 million. She's spending all of her time going to New York to try to bring up cash. New York has really become an interesting place for cash, even more so than you're seeing in California, so it was a great place to be. I think sometimes you can start thinking small, and you can start to feel just kind of limited. I think being in New York really made me think larger. It made me think about the larger opportunities. It made me think, “Yeah, why not me? Why wouldn't I go for this? Why wouldn't I call Nike?” I mean, maybe it was like drinking the Kool-Aid and a little crazy, but it gave me the opportunity to go through a rebrand with a really great designer. That really elevated our look and feel to where I think companies wanted to be locked up with us.
Lauren: Yeah. I was going to ask about that, because you completely redid your logo and your website and everything else.
Stephanie: I feel like it really elevated us. To go through a complete rebrand, to find a designer, go through the entire thing in six weeks was insane. We just haven't looked back. We just keep moving forward. I think that it really helped with a lot of our process, with the new submissions form on the website. Anyone can go to the website and say, "Hey, call my company," so you can basically anonymously report your company for noncompliance and then we'll follow up and talk to them.
Lauren: I love that.
Stephanie: Yeah. It's changed the way that we've done processes. Being with UBS Bank, which was the other sponsor with Rent the Runway, you started to realize the level of competency it takes to work with Swiss multinational banks and unicorn founders like Jen Hyman with Rent the Runway. UBS Bank commissioned a Leche Lounge to be at Art Basel at the Miami Beach Convention Center. We're like, "Okay. We need to have museum quality on this one. Don't use Sharpies on it. Museum quality." It really pushed us into some uncomfortable places. It changed a lot on our technology. Most people don't understand that we are a tech company. We quantify data. We quantify usage. We quantify how many people are walking by. We've started to create new lounges that have external screens that can help offset their cost, so we can place them at pretty much no cost to airports or facilities and then use reoccurring revenue off ad sales. There's really no reason not to comply at that point.
Lauren: Yeah, that's brilliant.
Stephanie: Because that's what you hear is that well, it's too expensive or it's not in our budget. You're like, "Well, how about you just give me a ground lease?"
Lauren: Yeah. You turn it into a billboard and-
Stephanie: Yeah, exactly. I think that's the future. I don't know if we will... I mean, the per-unit sales, it takes a long time. A lot of times you're competing in a procurement process. You're doing fixed bids. You have really long terms to be paid out. You have to deliver and install, and then it's 90 days after that, so you're fronting all of it. With this option with creating reoccurring revenue, I think that may actually be the future. In that pivot, it means that we have to learn how to become an advertising company and a billboard company and a completely different skillset than when we thought we were building spaces.
Lauren: Project Entrepreneur also led to a ton of national press for you. You were featured in Good Morning America, Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, Cheddar, and that press was really great in that it gained you national attention. But it also created a ton more demand that you just weren't prepared to meet. What did you do about that?
Stephanie: I apologized a lot. I think I still do. I really upped our customer service. We started to implement a lot tighter strategies around customization. I just like to meet people where they are and solve the problem for them. In the field in the manufacturing, that's not quite so ideal, so I end up getting kind of sideways with our manufacturing team some because I'm like, "Yeah, they want this, this and this, and it's absolutely doable. Here's the research. Oh, do you see any engineering issues?" I mean, they're like, "Yeah, there's like 76 issues, and you need it in three days. It makes no sense to me how you will do this." I'm like, "So we'll be good by Thursday?" I think part of that's just being naïve in changing things, but I think that's what differentiates us is that we are a customizable product. I mean, each piece can go through any standard-size door. We can set it up. We can take it down. You can throw casters on it if you want to to move it around inside a space, but we can retrofit basically anywhere so that companies are within compliance. Most of the time the companies out of compliance need a fix immediately because someone has said, "I need a place now," so they don't want to wait six to eight weeks. One of the things we're focusing on now is building ready-to-ship inventory, but...
Lauren: Which requires capital.
Stephanie: Yeah, which requires capital. Yeah, because you can't purchase order, finance speculative units to use in the future, and there still is customization, whether it's redoing the door art or coming up with a custom wrap. I mean, there's still these things that you have to use graphic designers for, and you have quality assurance with working with major national brands. A lot of times they want you to print and ship it to them so that they can check to make sure that your print color's the same as their brand specs, and the timeline just starts to get out control. Every order is critical to us, every order. It's not just the Nikes and the UBS and the Rent the Runways of the world, which we all have projects for right now, but it's each and every person that we talk to has a critical need that has to be solved like yesterday. The national media has been incredibly helpful in that every day, and I mean that, every single day someone is asking us for a quote. I mean, imagine that. They're just going to our website and asking us for a quote, and I'm talking about incredible entities. Last week was SpaceX.
Stephanie: Indianapolis Colts. I mean, my graphic designer's like, "This is a dream job." They're just doing the coolest mock ups all over the country, Y Combinator. I mean, it's just insane the addressable market, but to be able to scale means limiting customization, adding capacity, doing more speculative builds that are easier to ship. Then there's legislation that continues to change as to what's mandated or required in these spaces.
Lauren: I know we're talking a lot about compliance, and I don't think we've touched on yet. For people who don't know, under the Affordable Care Act companies with more than 50 employees are required to provide a space for nursing mothers that's not a bathroom. Is that right?
Stephanie: Employers with more than 50 employees total, not at any one location total. What you're also seeing in places like San Francisco and New York City and states like Minnesota is that it's become a woman's economic rights issue because that's how they are to return to work. So if you are in Minnesota and you have more than five employees, you may be mandated to provide a space.
Lauren: By the state?
Stephanie: By the state. State laws sometime or municipality... In New York City, more than 15 employees. We had an order for nine related to a large company there just last week who needed them yesterday because this law went into effect. We're actually seeing a strengthening in laws. Airports, they're mandating them in medium and large airports in every single terminal, so you're starting to see a lot of regulations strengthen around this, which is why I think you're seeing the demand increase. This is what we've been advocating for since 2015, and even before we had a product I was writing congressional testimony and responses to the Senate and the House to say like, “Hey, this is an issue.” Another issue that I'm really passionate about is FMLA and paid leave. I didn't have paid leave with either children, and it's just hard to survive. It's just hard.
Lauren: Yeah. I have a lot of friends that have gone through that of like, "Okay, I guess we're using all our savings so that I can stay home with the baby for a few weeks."
Stephanie: Yeah, just to heal from major surgery or from childbirth. A lot of times I feel like this is just a great platform to advocate for the rights of women and families and children. I think that's why you're starting to see the needle move on legislation and protections around the workplace and then around, like I said, community spaces like airports.
Lauren: I love that you had the boldness to just approach Nike and say, "Hey, you need a Leche Lounge in your headquarters." I'm curious, A, how that went. Obviously, we know the end of the story. You are there, but what was the journey from approaching them to getting it in? Then I'm curious, what's your next white whale? What are you like, I want a Leche Lounge here? I just want to know where you're going next.
Stephanie: Yeah. I read a book called Breastfeeding in Combat Boots, so the answer is every single military AAFES I want to give them one at no cost, and I'm going to talk to Senator Inhofe about that soon. I'm going to find him, so if anyone listening is good friends with Inhofe, let me know because we're coming for you, Armed Services Committee. No, but I mean women are deployed sometimes six months after giving birth, and they are expressing breast milk and dry icing it back across oceans for the caretakers of their children.
Lauren: That's incredible.
Stephanie: It's incredible. I mean, what do I have to complain about? Nothing. Anytime you want a humbling experience, you can go and look on Instagram, #breastfeedingincombatboots, and you will find your place in the world. It is a very humble space that you will then be in. I have a big vision that I'm working on with our digital advertising to be able to take corporate sponsors to offset those spaces for our military families.
Lauren: I love that.
Stephanie: That's my whale. As for Nike, the worst thing that can happen is they say no, and the best thing that can happen is you're a vendor of Nike. Somewhere in between there it takes a lot of phone calls, more phone calls than you can imagine. I also have a lucky pair of Nike shoes that I wore for about three weeks straight just to remind myself. And even on my keychain I had this funny ring. You can hear my keys in the background, but it was... I don't know why. I have this Nike gold ring.
Lauren: That's awesome.
Lauren: It's very blingy.
Stephanie: It's very blingy. I put it on my keychain so every single time I picked up my keys, I would just say, “Leche Lounge and Nike collaboration.” I just willed it into existence.
Lauren: Just spoke it out into the world.
Stephanie: I just told the universe that it was time and found great partners. There's a project manager there who we would text each other like song lyrics back and forth. Because she would get stopped, and then something would happen on my end and we would get stopped. I mean eventually, and she has a one-year-old and had just gone through this issue on campus. They have a-
Lauren: Did you stalk people on LinkedIn? How did you find her?
Stephanie: Yeah. Just start calling around. You're like, "Hey, I'm going to be in Beaverton, Oregon on Tuesday. You want to meet with me?" No. Anyways, I got really lucky on that gig. We just found a couple really tenacious women who were going to solve this problem. Like I said, we're a data company, so we can provide them with really important insight on space utilization. I mean, I don't know that Leche Lounge is the long-term solution for a place like that. They need to build out more rooms and more spaces and be very intentional in the design. They have the most talented people in the world literally to do that but to even be a partner with them to continue to learn and grow and pilot our product. They had a beautiful ribbon cutting for us, red ribbon and everything. They did a Nike promotional video. They talked to other companies who are interested in using Leche Lounge on our behalf as a customer recommendation. They've just been so great to work with. Companies are starting to identify the needs of moms returning to work and the value proposition of how much they save by having those moms return after leave instead of making an alternative decision because it's just too hard. I think that the value proposition goes beyond just compliance and fines and public shaming. I mean, it's insane. KFC didn't have one place at one location for one mom to pump, and she received over a million dollar jury verdict recently. It's a huge risk that companies are running to not have a space, and it's mandated for up to a year, which means you could hire someone nine months after having a baby, have no idea that they had a baby and they need a place to pump tomorrow. I think businesses are going to start seeing with the rise in popularity in breastfeeding that we're seeing among this current generation, they need it. We can help them quickly and then hopefully work with them to build out more spaces and more intentional spaces and solve the overall issue, even if it's not with us.
Lauren: Well, I'm so excited to see you grow. My last question, the question we always end with is based on what you've experienced over the past five years of building this company, how would you encourage another entrepreneur who's also working really hard on the grind trying to make something great happen, make an impact? Most entrepreneurs, they're trying to solve an actual problem like you are, but it can be exhausting. It can be hard, and the failures can seem so huge. What would you say to encourage someone like that?
Stephanie: I would say you have to have a life that has purpose outside of your mission. Whether that be with your family, with your CrossFit group, wherever you have a community, you have to cultivate and maintain that group. That's who is going to be there when you fail, and it is certain that you will fail. There is no way that you will be the unicorn entrepreneur that just is on a hockey stick financial projections rocket ship to the top. Whenever you are laying on the ground covered in dust sobbing, who's going to be there to pick you up? For me it's having a young family. They don't know that I landed a deal with Nike or if I lost all of our money today. Other people, it could be their church community. It could be a lot of spaces, but I would say you have to plan and you have to engage and you have to continue that. Because if you're only surrounding yourself with other entrepreneurs, you're going to get jaded and crazy and make poor decisions. And if you're only spending your time with yourself, then you're going to get lonely and defeated and have a really hard time pulling yourself back up. I'm thankful that I have my family and my husband, who on bad days they love me just the same as they do on the good days. And I hope that each entrepreneur can find that community or even that one person who's just a real touchpoint to reality. One more thing I would say is before you quit your day job, go do a couple pitch competitions. That's my other big advice. You will learn a lot about yourself and see if you really like pitching the idea, because you're going to have to do it all the time from that point forward. It might give you a little bit of capital that you don't have to give up equity for or you don't have to pledge your car for at the bank. I would say there's a lot of really cool startup competitions throughout the country that you can go to and throughout our community. Really, if you think you have that idea, if you're ready to do it, go put it out in front of people and then listen to their feedback.
Lauren: Thank you for that wisdom. Thank you for coming to share your story.
Stephanie: Thank you.
Lauren: We are so excited to watch you continue to grow and take off.
Stephanie: Wow. I really appreciate the support that we've had from 36 Degrees North and all of our community members here.
Lauren: Next week on The F Word...
Jim: It's pretty easy to recognize when things are becoming a drain.
Lauren: Jim Langdon, the founder of Langdon Publishing, is the creator of the popular TulsaPeople Magazine. He joins us to talk about his publications that did not have staying power on the newsstands and how he came to terms with shutting them down.
Announcer: The F Word is brought to you by 36 Degrees North, Tulsa's basecamp for entrepreneurs. To learn more about our workspace, community and resources, visit 36n.co.