Maternal health is a concern the world over, especially in developing nations. Childbirth can be a precarious process; for some women and their infants it can be life-threatening.
According to the World Health Organization, 800 women die every day during childbirth, with 99 percent of those deaths taking place in the developing world. There are medical tools, often times inexpensive ones, that make a drastic difference in these outcomes.
However, these can be difficult to obtain and ship, and this is exactly where social enterprise startup Maternova has made—and continues to make—inspirational strides.
Maternova is an online marketplace for low-cost but vital obstetric tools; you might think of it as something like Amazon for childbirth-related medical supplies. The business model is innovative and unique, and the business itself serves as a fantastic “how to” example for entrepreneurs looking to start a social, mission-driven business. I was fortunate enough to speak with co-founder Allyson Cote, and hear the Maternova story, as well as some of its exciting plans for the future.
Allyson met her co-founder Meg Wirth in 2012 when Wirth was working as a consultant for groups like the Rockefeller Foundation and the United Nations. She was initially drawn to Wirth’s passion for the cause of maternal health, but she also came to see that the two of them were well-matched for a business partnership because their skill sets were so complementary. While Meg was deeply involved in the nuance of the maternal health crisis worldwide, Allyson had in-depth experience building successful startup companies.
“It was her commitment that really tipped the scales to make me say, ‘Yes, I’m coming with you,’ but I also wanted to do something that had more of a social impact than what I had done previously. I think that you can create a business, and you can run a profitable organization, but you can also be socially conscious and do good at the same time,” Allyson says. She and Meg formed Maternova and set out to doing just that.
As can be imagined, tackling a global, public health problem through social enterprise is not just a worthy goal, but a lofty one. Maternova’s business model is breaking new ground, and co-founders Meg and Allyson had to invest a lot of time simply laying the foundation for something that has never been done before. “It took an enormous investment of sweat equity on both our parts,” Allyson admits. What started as a basic obstetrics kit, adopted early on by doctors and midwives, has expanded into a global, online marketplace.
Allyson offers a concise description of what Maternova does: “We’re almost like Amazon in the sense that we’re click-and-ship. 90 percent of our clients are ordering more than one product at a time, so we’re an aggregator. We give them the ability to outfit an entire obstetric theater for significantly less of a typical investment, not only financially but also with their time. They don’t have time to go digging around to find all these great innovations; we do. We’ve actually helped save the lives of over 180,000 women and children.”
At this point, they have launched products in over 40 countries. Allyson attributes part of their large reach to Maternova’s strong social media presence, which she says is essential to their marketing strategy.
As an employee of Palo Alto Software, I remember reading about Maternova because in 2012, they won the “Business Boost” competition we were sponsoring, and a grand prize of $10,000. Allyson told me that winning the contest was a huge victory for Maternova, and thanks to those winnings they were able to create the company’s nonprofit arm, Maternova Research.
Allyson is very down-to-earth; she describes a typical day at the Maternova office as busy and creative. The small team works out of a rehabbed shipping container. Working with so many international clients means that the “work day” is 24/7, but they find fun ways to de-stress: she notes that they take breaks to stay active through things like yoga and archery, and that her beloved dog accompanies her to the office.
Of course, managing stress is a priority for any startup founders, but likely a little more so when you’re dealing with life-saving medical equipment that people otherwise would not have access to. The pressure is understandably high to select the most effective products. Customer feedback, both from medical professionals and the patients themselves, is a key factor in how Maternova selects their products, in addition to copious in-house research. They interview customers about their experiences; what worked, what didn’t, and what products they wish they had. Allyson says: “If it’s a matter of life and death, we need to get it right, and we do. We will work until we get it right.”
Maternova also reaches out directly to entrepreneurs who are developing these products. Through this work, they’ve created their innovation index, a database intended as a free public health resource for what medical products are in development across the world. In the future, Maternova’s nonprofit arm, Maternova research, will continue to research and maintain the innovation index. Maternova itself is heading into the patenting stages for some proprietary products, a project they’re very excited about.
Business planning is something Allyson notes has helped Maternova navigate the waters of being a startup, from raising capital to transitioning from an LLC to a C Corp with a 501 (c) 3 under its umbrella. “I’m a firm believer that you can have the best idea in the world, but if you can’t put together a cogent business plan, it will become very difficult for you to get something off the ground.” She says that planning keeps them on track as goals get larger and their growth becomes more ambitious.
Maternova has raised a seed round of funding, and is currently working on its series A. Allyson says that she and co-founder Meg knew that more traditional sources of funding like venture capital wouldn’t be the easiest avenue for a social enterprise, so they connected with an organization called Investor’s Circle. Investor’s Circle gives qualified organizations the chance to pitch impact investors who are looking for startups with social missions. Allyson highly recommends it, saying that the opportunity to talk about their company with like-minded people who could also invest in their company was incredibly helpful.
When I asked Allyson about what makes running a business and all of the hard work worth it, with a startup like Maternova the answer came easily, which is the beauty of it. I’ll leave it in her own, eloquent words:
“I can tell you firsthand, I was in a complete blind spot before I joined Meg. The initial shock and heartbreak of what women and girls endure, was mind-blowing. I really believe, and so does Meg, that once people know, they will want to help.
Our numbers are growing, and our supporters are growing. It’s wonderful to say that there is a lot of good that’s still out there in the world. The more moms we can save, the healthier and better those communities and families will be. It’s wonderful that other people are finally waking up to that. Women are valuable. They are invaluable.
There are women all around the world who are giving birth in bad situations that are completely preventable. We can do better. Maternova is here to do that.”
Allyson Cote’s advice for entrepreneurs:
- Make sure you have a viable product. “You need to be realistic,” she says. “The first thing to do is make sure that you’ve done your homework, that you know your competitors, that you know if there’s a place for you in the market.”
- Put together a great team. Allyson says the biggest mistakes she sees entrepreneurs make is gravitating toward team members that are similar to themselves. “The biggest thing that you can do to help yourself is to find other team members with complementary skill sets, but not identical,” she urges. “As soon as you go for funding, they will point that out immediately if you don’t have a well-rounded team.”
- Target the right funders and investors. Cote says: “Know your audience. Know who’s going to be moved by your story. Your time is precious, and you need to focus on the people who are going to get your message.” Allyson and her partner knew where not to look for funding, so they could focus their energy in the right places.
- Always be learning. “There are always people who can give you hugely helpful advice, with your business model, or with your products, or even with your team members.”
- Make smart agreements with strategic partners. Allyson notes that the agreements Maternova makes with their distributors basically determine the success of a given product. In your own business, carefully consider contracts, pricing, anything that might affect the commercial viability of a product you’re selling.
- Be your own advocate, and keep the faith. “You’ve got to stick to your guns, stay focused on your mission, and you’ve got to ring your own bell. You have to tell people you’re there.”
Maternova’s recommended tools and books:
- Google AdWords. “Absolutely invest even a minimal amount in SEO and Google AdWords. Even a small investment can make a huge difference.”
- Social media. “Social media is our primary marketing channel,” Cote says. “Hootsuite, where we can schedule tweets and updates, and Thunderclap to amplify the impact, have been highly successful for us.”
- The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam is an insightful and interesting look at how visual thinking and illustration can help entrepreneurs solve problems.
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. This book addresses the fascinating case studies of people and businesses that are the true outliers and have been wildly successful—and analyzes why.
- The Lean Startup by Erik Reis. Also a favorite around Palo Alto Software, this is a book that highlights a path for startup success, focusing on agility, tracking the right metrics and KPIs, and adapting to a changing business environment before problems become overwhelming.
- Buyology by Martin Lindstrom evaluates why people make purchases at a scientific level and offers solid insights applicable to any business person.
What’s the secret to your success?
“First and foremost, while we take our mission seriously, we don’t take ourselves seriously at all. A sense of humor and a willingness to laugh at yourself are key to survival when you’re launching a company with a brand new business model. We like being the upstart, the disruptive voice puncturing the pretension and processes that have yielded little success for women globally.
It may sound trite, but our total inability to accept defeat, coupled with our commitment to our mission has kept us growing long after many companies would have folded. And we have the battle-scars to prove it,” Allyson says.
What is the secret to your business’s success?