Beta is Bloody

Bardia Dejban
Feb 13, 2018 · 6 min read

Update: The CEO of Willow Pump, Naomi Kelman, reached out to us shortly after reading this article, and was very empathetic and apologetic about what happened. She inspired confidence that even as a young company, they will listen to customers and get better from feedback like this. I’m looking forward to a new design that either eliminates this problem or provides transparency in the pumping process so moms know what’s going on without having to wait-and-see after 10–20 minutes.

I wanted to put some thoughts together around the word “beta” when it comes to product launches. Having used the word many times myself for private launches and early-stage startups, it’s basically a disclaimer that stuff might not be perfect, but thatcustomer feedback will help us get better.

Our first son is almost 5 years old, and he had to be exclusively breastfed the first 18 months of his life due to life-threatening food allergies, one of them to milk. I remember how difficult it was, of course mostly for my wife, to pump and store breastmilk every single day to make sure he had enough to eat. In fact, it took months to build a three-day excess supply!

Fast-forward to January 2018, and our second son is born. I remember sitting in the hospital as my wife was trying to pump (using the hospital equipment) and thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if she could walk around and not have to hold the pumps in her hands? Sure there are bras and other contraptions, but I remembered stumbling on the Willow Pump a few months prior. So I called them.

Ordering from Willow was mostly quick, although it was a long phone call versus an online checkout. On a positive note, they were able to ship the next day so timing was perfect, we had Willow in our home the day mom and baby also returned home. The boxes were sturdy, equipment looked well-built and my wife was excited to try them out.

First Impressions

Before we get into the gory part of our story, here’s some initial feedback:

  1. They were bigger than we thought. There’s a lot of technology in each pump, we know, but if I wore them, it would look like I had a C or D cup. So you can imagine what they look like if you are already a D cup and wear these under your bra.
  2. One of the pumps was charged, one wasn’t. We found out that there’s only one charger with a single adapter so you have to charge the pumps one-at-a-time. For the price we paid, we felt like Willow could have created a dual-adapter or send two chargers.
  3. Those neat donut-shaped milk bags are super challenging to put into the machine and we always wondered if we had it right. Sometimes we had to wrinkle them up slightly (not fold) to get them into the pump.
  4. It took a few tries to get the app to connect, and even after connecting, we found that one pump always had a lag in reporting the pumping session details unless we restarted the app.
  5. We found that we had to watch the tutorial videos a few times, and we had trouble finding a simple video like: “How to start pumping 101” or “Everything you need to know in 60 seconds.”
  6. The pump isn’t the quietest on the market, although they use the word “quiet” a few times across their website. Try the Spectra S2 if you want to see what quiet really sounds like.
  7. It’s expensive and insurance doesn’t cover it, so you have to pay for it out-of-pocket. You might be able to submit to insurance, although we never tried.

Oh, and that picture on the homepage of a young woman picking up her toddler while she’s pumping is just ridiculous.

Yeah…right

The Pump Experience

We finally figured it out, and wife started pumping on one breast to try it, everything was great. Not quite.

You see, there’s a fundamental flaw in the design of Willow Pump, which we didn't realize until after the first pump session. Every other pump on the market has clear components, or at least, the part you attach to the breast is clear and you can see milk flow. Willow does not. This means you have to trust the app unless you want to regularly take it off and re-latch.

On that note, when my wife tried to take it off the first time after a few minutes of pumping to check, she lost about an ounce because there’s a special way you need to take the pump off and hold it horizontal, then push a button for it to suck the milk that’s in the valve assembly back into the bag. Lesson learned, at least it was only one breast.

She decided to move to the other side with the other pump, taking into account all we had learned. This is when the trouble really started. After 10 minutes of pumping, something felt off. She took the pump off and here’s what we saw:

Willow the Vampire

The picture of my wife’s nipple was too gruesome to post. But basically, Willow Pump tore it open and because of the major flaw in the design, or lack of transparency, she didn't know this was happening.

This same thing occurred on the other breast the next day on the lowest possible pump settings. It happened a third and final time on the original breast after applying lanolin and silver cups, so we gave up on Willow altogether. Disappointed. As a reference, Medela, Spectra (S1 and S2) and the pump in the hospital never did this.

Worst Part

Because of the nipple damage done by the Willow Pump, my wife had to pump-only for four straight days while her nipples healed, forcing our newborn to only drink from a bottle. We felt bad for him, and were also angry that this happened so early in the mother-baby bonding process.

We contacted Willow within a couple days of these issues, and they have mostly ignored our request for a refund although they have a 60-day return policy. In my opinion, they are too young and too inexperienced to be good at customer service. Unfortunately, they have also been silent for a couple weeks now. Here’s part of our back-and-forth emails:

Initial feedback to return Willow
Start of the refund process?
Still no word…10 days later

Parting Thoughts

We’ve been exclusively using the Spectra S1 and S2 for the past week, with no issues, on a variety of settings. As a father and husband, I felt compelled to write this article as an open warning to other families looking to upgrade their breast pump technology, or just wanting to try something new. Beware of the word beta. Beware of the Willow Pump. We hope this informs mothers enough so they don’t have the same painful (and costly) mistake we did.

Bardia Dejban

Written by

COO @volusion. Founder of @lolayinc, @codalytics. Formerly @intuit, @eharmony, @iac. Perpetually seeking enlightenment.