I worked for many years at large advertising agencies for a variety of clients such as IBM, American Express, Quaker Oats and South African Airways. Together with a Columbia professor and other social scientists, we started a consulting firm. The idea was to use theories and concepts from the human sciences. This would help companies better understand customer behavior to market to them more successfully. We have been working for clients like Chanel, The Economist, Sotheby’s, and the Whitney for the past fifteen years.
Moving on to a yearlong project on “startups” for one of the big consulting firms, the assignment was to develop a playbook on how to build a $200 million business. During these years, I had been in and out of cancer treatment seven different times. As this consulting engagement wound down, with the knowledge gained, I decided to start a company that would help cancer patients, their friends and family.
As an “endurer” of cancer, a word I prefer to “survivor”, I knew that those trying to support cancer patients often struggle to know what to say and how to be helpful. Patients are overwhelmed and often don’t know how to ask for help. I had the idea to create something akin to a wedding registry for these people. This would be a new way to give and receive between patients and those who want to help, with practical offerings to support recovery. We have started with cancer, because that is what I am familiar with. I hope to expand to other medical conditions and life-threatening circumstances eventually.
Starting the Business
We started Mendafter.com a little over a year ago, and I always feel as though I’m behind. Feeling the pressure to be successful, because of the social mission, I wanted to start helping people as soon as possible. The first step to any start up is to raise money. Raising $500,000, mostly from friends and family, felt like a miracle and gave me validation that I was onto something. With the financing, we built a product line of 250 products, many specific to cancer and treatment.
Another important component is a recovery coach program. While there is a huge amount of money going toward research for treatment and cures, as there should be, there are no doctors for recovery. Many patients receive support from family and friends while undergoing treatment but then inevitably people must get back to their lives. Many patients still deal with the unpleasant residual effects of treatment and need support. I’ve had times when I couldn’t walk more than a block, could get warm or gained 40 pounds. I needed help during those times as well.
The goal of the “registry” is to guide friends and family of patients – to assist with what to say and to choose gifts that are helpful and practical. Rather than flowers, for example, people can choose a gift that helps with recovery. For this we have recruited professionals with a variety of specialties such as nutrition, craniosacral massage, acupuncture and services. Another component is a process to donate to cash funds that can help with mortgages, childcare and prescription co-pays. Patients tend to incur an average of $16,000 in out of pocket costs for every year in treatment. This is a way to help with those costs. We also give practical advice such as “wearing a seat belt or being hugged may hurt a patient” depending on surgery and radiation treatments. Mendafter.com offers practical products for these situations, such as a cushion for seatbelt to take pressure off the affected area.
Creating Mendafter.com is the most difficult thing I have ever done, and it’s taken a lot of hustle to get to this point. While we explored the idea of running it as not for profit entity, we opted not to. As a for profit business entity, will have the capacity to grow more quickly and donate 10% of profits to cancer patients.
The Ups and Downs
Starting a business is a dynamic, fast-paced undertaking with a lot of work and problem-solving involved. We have had great highs such as Memorial Sloane Kettering saying “yes” to financing on our first try. Within a month, we also signed up 400 practitioners and gained 20,000 followers on Facebook in four weeks after a casual post. We never expected any of that. But there are also disappointments such as people pulling funding, or a mistake being made—an inevitable part of the process. Having worked in steadier, corporate structures during most of my career, the volatility has been the most challenging aspect for me. Entrepreneurs are accustomed to this, but it was new to me! During the challenging days I keep my eye on the prize, knowing that this is a business that has the potential to provide some support to patients going through and trying to recover from the fight of their lives.
I always wanted to be the person I was before I got sick. But as I did qualitative research, I found that most people actually felt cancer had made them stronger and I now agree that cancer has made me a better person. About 1.7million people get a cancer diagnosis each year. My personal experience with cancer provided the insight into what patients need. My professional marketing expertise helped me to identify the gap in services for patients in the recovery process. If Mendafter.com can make their journey through cancer a bit more comfortable, it will be a success. Thinking about cancer so much is difficult. I focus on improving the lives of people living with cancer and eventually for people with other chronic conditions.