Dr. Elizabeth Chabner Thompson was a radiation oncologist when she decided to shift gears and become an entrepreneur. She saw something lacking in the current health care system, and using her experience, decided to create a business to improve the lives of many women.
Dr. Thompson was inspired by her mother who had breast cancer to focus on women’s health, after graduating with a medical degree from John Hopkins University and a Masters Degree in Public Health from Harvard. Her career path changed when she underwent prophylactic mastectomies. Her role reversal experience from a doctor to a patient allowed her to see the needs of patients undergoing radiation therapy and surgery such as the garments to tools to help them with their recovery.
Her own experience inspired her to start a business focusing on making life a little easier for surgery patients. Dr. Thompson decided to start her own business and created BFFL http://bfflco.com/ (pronounced “biffle”), creating a line of fashionable bags and garments that surgery patients can bring and use. She wants to address the needs of the surgery patients, such as:
- What should I bring to the hospital?
- What bra should I wear after my surgery?
Currently on leave from her medical practice to focus on her business, Dr. Thompson founded the company BFFL in 2011 because she felt there was an opportunity to develop products for the health care industry that would enhance patient comfort, recovery and dignity. The idea was for people to send a Bffl Bag instead of flowers to a friend facing surgery.
We talked with Dr. Thompson about BFFL and her new journey as an entrepreneur:
Why did you create BFFLCO?
As a physician and then a patient, I came to realize that there were many recovery products that patients needed that were not offered to them by hospitals or physicians. My patients encouraged me to bundle these items together for them and improve the patient experience. I guess it comes down to the addage “takes one to know one.”
How did you come up with the name of the business?
Our best friends, Lisa and Mark, who are both in marketing (no pun intended) brainstormed with us. My children also made suggestions, but with my teenage daughter and Mark pushing for BFFL “Best Friend for Life” I think the message rand loud and clear. Your friends, your hospital, your physician all want you to recover and have a full and productive LIFE. Hence, BFFL Co.
Where can people buy your products?
Our BFFL Bags can be purchased online; the line of Masthead™ bras can also be purchased on line– these are bras for women going through radiation or after surgery. Absolute comfort for women of all shapes and sizes; all cotton lined and no rub.
Many hospitals now purchase BFFL Bags to give to their patients because the hospitals see the value in a patient going home with all of recovery products, instructions, wound care, and a little comfort.
We have also partnered with 1800flowers to create a Get Well bag for men and women and a Mommy Bag.
What were the challenges you faced in finding distributors for your products?
It’s a full time job. We elected to begin distributing on our own until we reach a critical volume. We employ 4 women who work out of our warehouse and fulfill our orders.
What are your current products?
We began with our signature Breast BFFL Bag and rapidly grew our product line to a Double Mastectomy BFFL Bag, Lumpectomy BFFL Bag, a Neuro/Brain BFFL Bag, Transplant BFFL Bag, coming soon are the Mommy, Prostate, and Peds BFFL Bags. We also make a Chemo Pack and all sorts of custom bags. We welcome all challenges.
Your products are very targeted — e.g. Products for brain surgery patients, breast cancer patients, etc. how do you find your potential target market?
We started as a retail company selling from Friend-to-Friend word of mouth. Soon hospitals discovered the value of making the patient feel cherished and appreciated. Now our hospital sales have exceeded our retail sales. We hope that they will balance out, as not every hospital will give them to their patients.
How do you come up with ideas on what to put in each product bag?
We speak to doctors, patients, hospital administrators, consumer products companies. I read medical journals, magazines and scour the internet to find the most helpful tools.
How are you protecting your business, especially from potential copycats?
It’s really hard to pull everything together and keep a consistent mission. We have a very identifiable product and it’s hard to source everything. Good luck to the copycats! Some of our products are protected by intellectual property law– copyrighted and patented.
How did you design the products?
We have a fantastic design staff. I want everything to have a very clean look, but stay bright and cheery, not institutional. The standard “Amenities Kit” that patients are handed when they are admitted to the hospital consists of an emesis basin with a bar of soap and a tooth brush. That is not our aesthetic. I look to fashion magazines, trends and newspapers to bring me the latest trends and try to incorporate this into our BFFL Bags.
What was your biggest challenge in starting the business?
As a Women Owned Small Business, we had had enormous hurdles in financing our business, being taken seriously, and finding the time to get everything done. I have had to learn everything from soup-to nuts– filing patents and trademarks, learning about import/export, supply chain… It’s a language completely foreign to most of us, especially a physician. I spent many nights reading patents, sketching designs, sourcing products long after my children went to sleep. A frequent question is “why aren’t you a non-for-profit?” I wish I could just give everything to every patient I see, but a long time ago, I heard someone on tv say something that has resonated, “no margin, no mission.” This is always sitting in the back of my mind. I need to sell product to stay in business and really make a difference in patient experience.
How are you marketing the business?
We are focusing on Hospitals and also on trying to get our message our through social media– pinterest, facebook ,twitter. Trying to reach women who have family, friends, who are in need to our products. So far, I have done 99% of the marketing and sales, but I need to delegate to others now– it’s just getting too hard.
What are 3 lessons you want to share to other women planning to start their businesses?
- Establish a budget and then realistically double it. This is what you will spend in the first 6 months! Then stay on top of your numbers: monthly p&l; remember “no margin, no mission”
- Time is precious; be selective with whom and where you spend your time. You can say no to people, just be polite
- If you are not passionate about what you are trying to do, move on. You have to believe in your product or service 100% because the going will get rough.
How are you balancing your work- life right now?
My family comes first and they are very forgiving. I am not convinced that women can have it all– the children and my husband, my parents sit way above all else, so my business may not move as fast. I have missed business opportunities or sales, but in the long run, my kids give me the hugs that make it all better. It’s not glamorous starting a business, but it does earn respect. My kids and my husband know that I am a hard worker and example goes a long way with my children.