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Maria Del Mar Gomez of Mighty Well: Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup

An Interview With Paul Moss

…Do not underestimate the importance of empathy. One of the reasons Mighty Well has succeeded in creating the best products for its customers is that we always listen to our consumers and involve them in our creative and design processes. Value your consumers as the intelligent, knowledgeable users they are.

Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Del Mar Gomez at Mighty Well.

Since her move from Santo Domingo to Boston to attend Babson College in 2012, Maria del Mar Gomez has immersed herself in the world of health and wellness. Maria graduated in 2016 with double concentrations in TED (Technology, Entrepreneurship and Design) and Environmental Sustainability. She has been honored by world-class entrepreneurial programs, including the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, MassChallenge, and one of the youngest members of Babson College’s Hall of Fame as a Rising Star. However, for Maria, her most distinctive focus is as a champion for those who are often unheard, primarily those who suffer from a chronic illness. Following the struggles of many family members and friends with chronic conditions, particularly one of her beloved aunts, Maria has found herself a passionate advocate, not only for individual patients but for business as a means of social change in the healthcare space. Thus, Mighty Well was born. Maria and her two best friends and co-founders have built a community for those suffering from a chronic illness while providing essential Adaptive Wear products, from PICC line covers to the wildly popular Mighty Well Mask. This mask has been used by “spoonies” and their healthy counterparts alike throughout the past year.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I grew up in Santo Domingo, a bustling city in the Dominican Republic known for its warm and lively people. I was lucky enough to grow up in a highly entrepreneurial family. Most of my family members were involved in running a business, so I grew without many fears and hesitations about entrepreneurship. In all honesty, I never imagined myself doing anything else. My mother’s company in agriculture, my father’s private security business, my brother’s bakery, and many others helped me believe that the right path was always to follow one’s passions.

In 2012, I moved to Boston to attend Babson College. Here, I became friends with my future Mighty Well co-founders and furthered my enthusiasm for entrepreneurship. I loved my time at Babson and credit my education there for much of my success today. I was surrounded by outstanding professionals as well as friends that matched my entrepreneurial passions. My professors not only imparted immense logistical knowledge but a great deal of wisdom that continues to affect how I view myself today. In particular, they spoke to us about the notion of “failure” frequently and taught us how to redefine the word as a positive term. As a result, I learned to view “failure” as a necessary learning experience and one that is crucial to success.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

My co-founder Emily Levy and I went to Babson College together- ranked #1 for Entrepreneurship; separately, we both knew that we wanted to leave our footprint on the world in an impactful way. However, we hadn’t yet figured out how. Then, the summer of our Freshman year at Babson, the how became glaring very quickly. Emily confided in me that while she looked like a perfectly healthy woman in her 20s, she was incredibly sick with what turned out to be Chronic Lyme Disease. Shortly after that, Emily had to have a PICC line placed in her arm. The PICC line was a long, thin tubing attached to her heart; it extended 8–10 inches out of her arm and it got easily entangled in her day-to-day life, pulling and coming out of the insertion site! However, the only thing the nurses could recommend was a cut-off sock. Apart from feeling uncomfortable, this sock seemed to portray Emily as ‘different’ and alienated many around her. We quickly realized that we wanted to prevent other patients from feeling this way ever again.

As a result of Emily’s vulnerability and honesty with Yousef and me about her experience — Mighty Well was born. It ignited a fire in us to create products we wish we’d had — functional patient products that would benefit Emily and the entire chronic illness community. That mutual honesty and support have continued to sustain Mighty Well to this day. We continue to utilize our skills in empathy to develop new products that will serve those with a chronic illness or disability. Not only do these products solve a problem for our consumers, but we hope they bring them dignity and, even, style.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

I am forever grateful for the entire Mighty Well team, as well as anyone who has helped us on our journey, but I find myself particularly indebted to our Chairman of the Board: Leslie Smith. Not only has she been instrumental in Mighty Well’s growth, but she has also played a key role in my growth- as an entrepreneur and as a leader.

When Leslie began to work with Mighty Well, she came to us with years of experience in the apparel industry. However, I came to realize that her greatest gifts to Mighty Well (and to me) were her years of experience as a leader and her talent for adaptability. Through her mentorship, I learned that anyone can have a fantastic idea, but it is the team behind a company that will separate it from the competition.

Around early last year, one particular memory comes to mind: we had just completed Morgan Stanley’s Multicultural Innovation Lab in NYC. We had raised our latest round of capital and were ready to be laser-focused on the next stage of growth for Mighty Well. Then, COVID hit. Suddenly, like many startups across the U.S., we faced many uncertainties and changes across the industry, especially in healthcare. Leslie quickly prompted us to take a step back, to focus on our core competencies and how we could create the most value for our consumers under this new set of circumstances. We pivoted to focus on growing and supporting our chronic illness community, which was one of the most affected health-wise and creating products that would be most beneficial, including the Mighty Well Mask. As a result, we came out of the pandemic with a stronger community and ready to get back to our original goals.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

A unique strength of Mighty Well is our extraordinary connection to our customers. Apart from the founders, most of the Mighty Well team has experienced a chronic condition first hand or is a caregiver. This gives us a remarkable insight into our consumer base. Since the beginning, we have always valued fostering community just as much as designing functional products. In many ways, Mighty Well’s digital presence functions as a support group and patient advocacy hub for both our team and the patients we serve. This novel and personable connection we have cultivated with our customers is a “friend-to-friend” relationship rather than a typical business-to-consumer relationship.

Another element of this core strength is that we incorporate patients into every stage of product development, allowing them to advocate for themselves. We are so proud to say that we design products “for patients, by patients”. Our brand ambassadors are patients, nurses, and doctors, which allow us to create a superior product we know will serve our customer base the best.

This patient-centric product development fosters innovation. In one particular instance, the mother of a 5-year-old girl battling leukemia reached out to us. At the time, we did not have PICC line covers available for kids, but when her mother called, we developed a prototype for Carmen in a matter of days. She loved it! We were lucky enough to meet with the young and brave Carmen and do a photoshoot with her on the beach. Finally, she was able to play without fear of damaging or hurting her PICC line. She is now cancer-free, and the entire team celebrated the day we found out. For us, it’s personal: good news for one of us is good news for all of us.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Since day one, we have wanted to incorporate philanthropy into our mission. We think of a business as an opportunity to be a force for change for your community. So, when COVID hit, we knew that we had a chance to make an impact through Mighty Well. Today, we’re proud to have donated thousands of face masks for multiple non-profit organizations that needed them the most, as well as for front-line medical workers throughout the pandemic. And, the truth is, it’s not just a nice-to-do; it’s good business. People want to spend their money with socially responsible companies.

Another way I enjoy giving back is through mentorship, particularly woman-to-woman. As a young woman in business, it can often feel like entrepreneurship is an exclusive club and feels nearly impossible to join. After all, only between 2%-3% of funding goes to women-led startups in the United States. For this reason, Emily and I feel strongly about sharing our experiences and learnings through the past five years.

During the pandemic, a female entrepreneur in the adaptive-wear space reached out to me. She had an idea about a new product for the adaptive market. After sharing my insights and providing feedback to her specific questions, I sent her our Rhode Island manufacturing contacts. The other day, I caught her on the news discussing the product! I was so proud that I could’ve played even a small part in her journey. I believe that if everyone in the business world helped the younger generation, we’d see innovation in ways we’ve never seen before. Your influence as a business leader doesn’t end with your company; it can extend so much further.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

One character trait that has been vital to me, yet often overlooked, is empathy. Empathy extends to leadership style and how you communicate with your team, product design, and evaluating the customer journey. It isn’t enough to just create an incredible product. It is equally important to make sure that your product is also filling a need in the marketplace and that the value you are creating for your consumers is equal or higher than what they are willing to pay. Empathy has helped me connect and listen to our customers and learn what they want and need, even when they don’t communicate it verbally.

Another instrumental character trait I have developed throughout my journey with Mighty Well is delegating. I remember, at the outset of Mighty Well, I wanted to do everything. For example, even though I wasn’t a fashion designer, I immersed myself in the process. I remember striking up a deal with a professor, wherein I would be a speaker at her class, and in return, I could use her students as my models for arm measurements for our first product! When working with a small team, the best thing you can do is to make sure that everyone is doing what they do best — and that doesn’t always mean you! Find people who do what you need to do better than you, then let them do it.

A third essential trait for me has been learning agility. Simply put, learning agility is the ability to learn from experience and then apply that knowledge to new situations. It is the skill of flexibility and adaptability. Nothing taught me this lesson better than the past year and the COVID pandemic. At the beginning of the crisis, like many other businesses, our sales started to dwindle. So, we pivoted. Our consumers required comfortable face masks they could use daily, and we moved to fill that gap. This adaptability enabled us to create our most widely popular product yet: The Mighty Well Mask.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

One of the most common adages in the business world, particularly as a woman, is always to portray a “strong” image. Of course, one does need to be strong and keep moving forward when things are tough (which they will be). However, many misinterpret this to mean “unemotional and undisturbed”. Your empathy and vulnerability are just as important as your strength, and these traits are not mutually exclusive. They often work best in tandem. In Mighty Well, we have found that consumers want to follow an authentic and vulnerable image they can relate to over a seemingly flawless one.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

Of course, there were many challenges at the beginning of our journey, but I would classify most of them as par for the course: with limited capital and a small team, we expected struggles to arise. However, one of the obstacles we didn’t foresee was the doubts and questions of those closest to us. Unfortunately, I frequently found myself defending my choice to follow our entrepreneurial passion right out of school instead of finding a job like most of my peers. I know most of these attacks came from a good intention of wanting to “ensure” my success. However, it wasn’t easy to feel I wasn’t getting support from those closest to me at a time when I needed it the most.

In many ways, these difficult days at the inception of Mighty Well brought our co-founding team closer. We learned to lean on each other and actively seek out people who would be our mentors. We found a great deal of support from our alma mater: Babson College. As the #1 Entrepreneurship school, it was such a blessing to be surrounded by eager and innovative, like-minded individuals. So many of our professors and friends encouraged us up — I learned that if you seek out the support you need, you will most likely find it. You just need to know where to look and how to ask for it.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

Apart from the supportive community I encountered in college, the greatest lesson I learned was to redefine my notion of failure from a negative to a positive one. Fear of failure quite literally stops many of us from getting out of our comfort zone and taking risks. Of course, failing is sucks, but it is certainly better than never trying. The important thing is to learn why you failed and to try again. In other words- “fail, fail again, fail better”.

This newly conceived notion of “failure” made our team braver, and we decided to start selling our initial product very early on. Our strategy was to bring something to the market swiftly, get feedback, iterate, then go back to the drawing board and improve. We quickly began to see first-hand the vast impact our first product line had on patients. We were lucky enough to receive an overwhelmingly positive response: the letters, cards, and feedback we received from the consumers motivated us to continue growing and developing better products. I think everyone on the team felt that if we could make one patient’s life easier, it was worth it, and we finally began to see the fruits of our labor.

Today, when things get difficult, I think about the patients- the people we’re doing this for. Earlier this year, I saw a video posted of a young woman finishing her radiation treatment and ringing the bell- and she was wearing a Mighty Well Mask. The thought that our product brought this person a feeling of safety and companionship during an arduous and painful journey gives us renewed energy.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

One memory that comes to mind is when we won the Babson Breakaway Challenge. It was so significant to us, as it marked the instant we stepped into the world of venture capital. We were keenly aware that women receive only 2% of venture capital, so the moment we realized we beat that statistic was highly emotional. It was so important to us to celebrate that accomplishment as a team and to take some time to reset, recharge and energize ourselves. Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint, so make sure that you celebrate your wins- they will sustain you during the low times.

Something else that I highly recommend to any navigating the entrepreneurial roller coaster is finding a community. For me, I was lucky enough to have two amazing co-founders, with whom I navigated the highs and lows of the business. If you don’t have a co-founder, find other ways to connect with people in similar stages as you. There are so many organizations that can provide you a community. Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation Lab, Cartier Women’s Initiative, and MassChallenge are just a few of some incredible ways to find support with other entrepreneurs.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks for your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

The answer of venture capital versus bootstrapping depends on many variables. Firstly, what kind of business are you looking to start? How much capital do you require? Is it scalable? What does the return on investment look like, and does it fit with the VC model? It isn’t possible to give a firm reply, without first answering all of these questions.

Secondly, it also depends on what kind of founder you are. Bootstrapping requires you to be far more conservative with your money; however, you have only yourself to answer to. This can be a great option for individuals who are highly independent and one-minded. With venture capital, you’re working with larger amounts of capital; however, you may have to bring other people’s opinions into the decision-making process. Venture capital could be for you if you’re more open to a collaborative approach.

Both options have their pros and cons. Bootstrapping often comes with slower growth, meaning there’s less money to reinvest in research, product development, and new hires. For our team, venture capital made more sense, as adaptive wear is a nascent industry. It was important to us to see faster growth and get products out to the market more quickly than we might have seen with bootstrapping. As a bonus, through venture capital, we had the opportunity to make connections and receive support from individuals we may not have met otherwise.

Ultimately, venture capital was the best choice for Mighty Well. However, this is not true for every business. I encourage young entrepreneurs to ask themselves the important questions before proceeding. Fast growth is not always the best option for every company, and bootstrapping can be a fantastic alternative that yields incredible results as well.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

First, do not underestimate the importance of empathy. One of the reasons Mighty Well has succeeded in creating the best products for its customers is that we always listen to our consumers and involve them in our creative and design processes. Value your consumers as the intelligent, knowledgeable users they are. We always describe our products as designed “by patients, for patients”. When you include your customers from Day 1, not only will you build a product line that serves their needs, but you can develop a great business-consumer relationship. Our consumers’ connection helps us innovate future products and motivates us on difficult days. You’ve created your business for a reason — if your consumers are that reason, invest in them.

Second, recognize that your team is essential. Your team is one of the most critical aspects of the business. This is something investors, mentors, and business owners have said time and time again. It doesn’t matter how impressive your idea is; without an eager and cohesive team, your business won’t go anywhere. Then, once you have built a great team- manage them well. As Mighty Well has grown, I have learned to automate and delegate where I can. This will let you divide and conquer, allowing you to focus your precious and limited time where it is most valuable. Initially, this “letting go” can seem like a scary prospect, so make sure that you completely align with and trust every member of your team. This delegation does not mean I work less than I once had, but my responsibilities have evolved and grown just as the company has.

Third, make sure you have a clear and attainable objective. From the outset of Mighty Well, I remember having a mile-long laundry list of things to accomplish. At the end of the first year, I realized that while we were making headway with one or two items on the list, much of it fell to the wayside. Not only was this discouraging, but I found myself beginning to burn out, trying to do multiple people’s jobs. I learned quickly that with limited capital and team members, it’s vital to pick one or two initiatives to help you succeed; dedicate yourself entirely to them, and then expand from there when you can. It’s far better to do a few things very well than do many things at a sub-par level.

Fourth, remember that you will need more than just a great product. Of course, a great product is a fantastic start; however, it is not the end of the road. You must make sure you can answer the questions, “What problem is my product solving?” and “What hole in the market is my product filling?”. If you can’t answer both of these questions, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. You can have an amazing product, but people won’t buy it if there isn’t a use for it. Or, if the market is oversaturated, there may be too much competition for your product to survive.

Lastly, don’t ever forget the why behind what you do. Make sure to stay invigorated about the business. The world of startups is so competitive that if you lack passion, it’s likely that you won’t succeed. Additionally, it’s almost certain that your business will go through various hills and valleys. You’ll need the drive to keep you going when things get tough. For me, I like to remember the patients who have contacted us over the years, thanking us for what we do. I’ll think about Carme, the little girl with leukemia who could finally play on the beach. Or, I’ll think about the young woman with cancer, who rang the radiation bell with our mask. These patients are so special to me, and they are my drive to grow Mighty Well.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

It is important to remember that during your time as an entrepreneur, you will make numerous mistakes. Some will be small, and others will be big. All will be important to your growth. However, some costly mistakes are easily preventable.

First, if you and your team are going to go the venture capital route, make sure you are raising the money at the right time. I have seen businesses raise money too early or too late; both can be fatal to a young company. For instance, if you raise the capital too soon, it can make your business less profit-oriented. But, on the other hand, if you raise money too late, you can lose control of your business.

Another mistake I see many leaders make is rolling too far past self-confidence and moving into pride. Of course, self-confidence is important; you need to have faith in yourself and your ideas. However, you must also allow yourself to learn from others. It’s important to recognize that others on your team have excellent ideas, and there are many valuable mentors with more experience than you have. Be open to feedback from others, and don’t get stuck in your worldview- allow yourself to evolve in ways you didn’t foresee. This open-mindedness also extends to your customers. Make sure that you’re listening to your consumer base and evolving to their changing needs.

Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?

You will have to actively work on finding a balance between your work and your personal life. When working at a startup, you have to learn to be maniacal about time management. Team members, customers, investors will all pull you in different directions, and you will have a laundry list of projects. You will not have time for all of them, so you will have to decide what the priorities are. Moreover, there’s always an assumption that you have to do whatever it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur, no matter how hard it is. However, this reasoning will wear you out quickly. As an entrepreneur, you also should find things that make you excited and bring you happiness, in and outside of the business. This joy will carry you through the hard days.

Another tip is to cultivate an effective support system. When I graduated from college, I felt invincible — I believed I could do everything independently, but I was wrong. I didn’t consider that when I left Babson, I’d lose my built-in support system. In this way, I began to burn out quickly. Of course, I had my co-founders at Mighty Well, but it wasn’t easy to separate the friendship from the business at times. Two of my best friends were my co-founders. We realized we needed to set clear boundaries between personal time and work time. In this way, we could enjoy our hobbies and favorite activities, clear our minds, and return to work each morning relaxed and energized. Make sure to value your time outside of work just as much as your time inside the office.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

My vision is to have the “Friends in the Fight” movement go viral. Since launching our first product, I have seen and heard from countless people struggling with a chronic illness alone. I know how scary and isolated that journey can feel. To this date, when I call a customer for product feedback, this always comes into the conversation. Unfortunately, 1 in 3 Americans has a chronic condition, including everything from asthma to diabetes to Lyme disease. So if you don’t have one, it’s highly likely that you know someone who does. My friend Emily was undiagnosed for seven long years, struggling without answers. When she was finally diagnosed, she had to learn to live with a medical device and started on heavy treatments, all while navigating the complicated health care and insurance system. This is a horrifying reality — one that we do not want others to go through alone. We hear, too often, from our customers that they think they are the only ones suffering these physical and mental struggles. But when they connect with our community, they quickly realize that there are many others just like them, willing and excited to share their advice and personal stories, and they find strength in this shared sentiment. The Friends in the Fight Movement would ensure that each patient knows there are not alone — that there is a community committed to advocating for them and providing the resources they need to help them through their health journey.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, V.C. funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

One incredible woman who comes to mind is the fabulous Robin Roberts. I always love to see a strong woman in the media empowering other women, and I appreciate Robin Roberts’s continued openness and vulnerability in her struggles with breast cancer and myelodysplastic syndrome. Today, so many Americans live with a chronic illness or disability, and she’s a fantastic representative.

Another woman I would love to speak with is Whitney Herd, the founder and CEO of Bumble. She has done an incredible job both as a female entrepreneur and as a community builder. To me, the community is at the core of Mighty Well, and it’s inspiring to see another businesswoman execute this dynamic so well.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me on Instagram @Mightywell_Maria and connect with us at Mighty Well on:

Instagram @mightywell_, our website, and LinkedIn.

If our mission resonates with you, I invite you to join us and become a Friend in the Fight!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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