Growing a start-up in the midst of a pandemicBy Shalini Garg
We recently sat down with several of the companies we featured this past school year to talk to them about how COVID-19 and the related shutdowns have impacted their businesses. The founders of Remmie (formery MiVue Health), Miravel, Hakuna Brands, and Fil2r talked to us about all things from operational changes to the fundraising climate. Every aspect of society has been impacted by the novel coronavirus, the pandemic-related lockdowns and social distancing requirements; so we caught up with the founders of each company to see how they are navigating these uncertain times.
Remmie (an homage to the word “remedy”), formerly MiVue Health, is a connected ear-nose-throat (ENT) monitor and app system that allows customers to visualize symptoms and receive professional evaluations at home. The company rebranded during the first half of 2020; expanding from a parent and pediatric-centric name and target customer, to include consumer ENT health for all adults. Originally designed for parents to monitor child ear infections, the surge in demand for telemedicine has allowed the company to pivot away from parents and pediatric care to general ENT health for all adults. Telemedicine, while in its relative infancy, is here to stay and Remmie is an interesting device that solves a real-world need. While the re-branding and increased target market size are exciting, Remmie is facing challenges in this time of health and economic uncertainty. The 2nd quarter of 2020 saw a massive decrease in VC funding across numerous, if not all, verticals and Remmie was on the verge of closing its first fundraising round several weeks before the pandemic exploded in the US. The current climate has made many investors more risk-averse, but investors still believe in the product’s viability. Remmie’s position at the cross-section of benefiting telehealth, parenting, and remote care continues to attract investor interest in the recent months.
Founders Jane Zhang and Zaris Shen remain positive as the product is showing strong signs of success. Four healthcare organizations intend to pilot the device, and several dozens of users are testing the device and app and are providing feedback to Remmie. Jane and Zaris have also leveraged their UCLA and University of Washington advisors in preparing for their Fall 2020 launch; using the UCLA network to promote the product within the physician community and creating a larger digital presence amongst retailers in hopes of creating a D2C waitlist.
While it has been hard for the team amidst the ambiguity during this time, the founders maintain an optimistic outlook and a strong plan of action to develop and market a product that will impact the future of healthcare.
Due to numerous restaurants closing their doors in response to the pandemic related lockdown, many people have taken a stronger interest in home-cooked meals with fresh ingredients. The founders of Miravel, Riley Kuffner and Randall Shapiro, are no strangers to this trend. Their flagship product, the Simple Garden, is a functional and beautiful home appliance that grows fresh food sustainably and autonomously. With more people prioritizing gardening, home decor, and growing their own food, the product has been thriving in the current environment.
Riley and Randall have been in touch with investors, who have come back to them with increased interest during the pandemic. Recently. the founders were able to close their pre-seed round, raising a total of $500,000 in initial capital. The pair has found the support they’ve received from investors to be instrumental to their early success; they are receiving important advice on budgeting, operations and product marketing. In just the last few weeks, the duo also expanded operations 5X after acquiring over $25,000 of assets for pennies on the dollar following an industry competitor’s decision to go out of business.
Miravel has started to accept deposits for systems and has already collected more than 40% of their 200-250 unit goal. They plan to use their raised capital to release 15-20 systems and deliver them to early adopters for beta testing and consumer feedback. They expect to reach their goal by the end of Summer 2020. Also, 4 major retailers have shown interest in the product and they are in preliminary discussions for a launch in one retailer’s experimental showroom.
Over the last few months, the Miravel team has begun optimizing its website, developing referral platforms and increasing their customer service capacity. Last week, the team also completed their largest harvest to date, harvesting over 45lbs of fresh produce out of their Westwood apartment. While consumer behavior can be hard to predict, especially with the increase in unemployment, the shift toward a more health-focused and sustainable society is not slowing down anytime soon. Miravel is excited to continue to focus on bridging the gap between sustainability and accessibility, despite the challenges ahead.
Hakuna is a non-dairy ice cream company that specializes in ice cream made from banana or oat-milk without added sugars or artificial flavoring. Hakuna’s “quarantine” story has been strange in that it saw a dramatic increase in sales during the first few weeks of the pandemic as customers flooded the grocery stores and cleaned out the ice cream aisle (not to mention toilet paper, paper towels, and cleaning supplies). Hakuna’s founders, Mollie Cha and Hannah Hong, were initially excited about the bump in sales, but quickly realized that because grocery stores were not prepared to sell out so fast, grocers were also not prepared to re-stock a plethora of goods. Obviously, essential items were given priority, and thus Hakuna’s ice cream Hakuna’s ice cream was sold out for weeks until grocers had capacity to re-stock non-essential items. While Hannah and Mollie were frustrated with the inability to quickly restock shelves, they do believe that the mad rush for ice cream likely put their product in the hands of customers who had never or would have never tried a plant-based ice cream since the household brands sold out first. After weathering the first month of quarantine (mid-March to mid-April), things started to go back to normal for Hakuna and sales are in line with what the founders had forecasted.
In talking to Mollie and Hannah, we had an interesting conversation about the future of in-person grocery shopping. The nature of in-person grocery shopping has changed so dramatically and in-store loitering has decreased. Most people do not scan the aisles for new products any longer, they are focused on purchasing pre-determined items in an effort to reduce exposure to coronavirus. Hannah and Mollie are changing their marketing strategy and thinking creatively about how to ensure that people can find their product. For example, they are considering offering samples at Costco once sampling returns at the wholesale retailer. They are also increasing their digital presence on Facebook and Instagram, and are considering hyper-localized promotions such as a cross-promotion with pilates studios in the Rocky Mountain geography and other fitness studios in California.
As many of us are doing to keep some semblance of human contact, Mollie and Hannah have been holding socially distanced outdoor team meetings every couple of weeks – which we were told has been both fun and challenging. The team continues to stay agile and scrappy, and are meeting the challenges it faces head-on.
Fil2r is an eco-friendly, plastic-free, water filter founded by Audra Huffmeyer, a solo, female founder. Like many CPG brands, Fil2r’s manufacturing is done in China, so when the pandemic hit, the company’s two manufacturers in China closed their shops and did not reopen until March and April, respectively. Audra’s initial goal was to fulfil orders by April, but due to the temporary manufacturing shutdown, along with shipping delays, Fil2r is 2 months behind – which given the circumstances, is a positive feat in and of itself. Thankfully, this was a small bump in the road and with the manufacturers open again, the company swiftly completed its pre-orders.
While the demand for sustainable water filters has remained strong, Fil2r has had to change their fundraising strategy. Pre-orders remain consistent with no signs of slowing down, but investors are increasingly more risk averse and are requiring increased traction prior to investing. This has actually been a silving lining for Audra and Fil2r as she has been able to dedicate more time to projects she historically had not been able to, such as developing a water pitcher, Fil2r’s next product. She has also been in discussion with Amazon in regards to product positioning and fulfillment. Fil2r is readying itself for full product launch and is excited for the future.
Despite the difficulties of the last few months, the team has expanded by adding a marketing lead. Fil2r’s website has been redesigned and it is finalizing its go-to-market strategy as well. As we all have during this time, Audra has leaned on her support systems in Techstars and Start-Up UCLA to continue the fundraising process and stay connected with the LA and UCLA start-up ecosystem. Audra feels optimistic about the lockdown and has been surprised by how many people have supported her during these trying times.