“Breast Is Best,” so the breastfeeding slogan goes. But when former Airbnb operator, Laura Modi, couldn’t produce enough milk for her daughter, her journey down the grocery aisle uncovered some shocking realizations about her baby formula options. 90% of the $70 billion market was cornered by three companies and their formula contained controversial ingredients like syrups and soy.
I had been hyper-vigilant about everything I put in my body during pregnancy. Now I had to choose food for my baby made of the exact ingredients my pediatrician advised against. I felt trapped. And I felt guilt.
She’s not alone. 83% of women will need to introduce formula in their child’s first year of life and of them, 70% of women will use formula to supplement their breastfeeding routine — a choice a staggering 64% of women report feeling judged about.
No stranger to building disruptive companies, Modi decided to create Bobbie Baby: a companion formula that would give parents like her an alternative. She closed a $2.4 million seed round, led by Bolt’s General Partner Greg McAdoo, who was also the first investor into Airbnb, a week before delivering her second child. She then enlisted her Airbnb “work wife” and mother of two, Sarah Hardy, as her COO and co-founder. In San Francisco, they are now piloting white-glove deliveries by family specialists trained to offer hands-on support to their customers. We sat down with Modi and Hardy to learn more about how they are breaking taboos and building their company to be the proverbial village for new families.
Emily Joffrion: Tell us a little bit about the formula available in the U.S.? How did you realize this was a problem that needed to be solved?
Laura Modi: When you think about most pantry products — granola bars, coffees, you name it — you can choose whether or not you need them. Formula is the only substitute for breastmilk, which is the only food babies can consume until they start eating some mashed foods at 4 to 6 months old. It’s a staple. That’s why the market for baby formula is $70 billion globally. And yet, in 90% of formula available — the brands you can find in most grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals — you see ingredients like corn syrup, brown rice syrup and soy.
Sarah Hardy: When Laura first came to me with this idea, I stopped her halfway through her pitch. I had been importing German formula for both of my children for years, so I was personally connected to this problem. As parents who need this product, we are disappointed by our options.
Emily Joffrion: There’s a huge stigma around using formula in the United States, but working families rely on it. What’s going on here?
Sarah Hardy: In the early 80s, we started to shift toward a better understanding of healthy food. Up to that point, we had the boom of fast food chains and the “Tupperware era” that was centered around convenience. This extended to baby formula. As scientific research began to uncover the benefits of breastmilk — some of which formula couldn’t replicate — there was a movement around “Breast Is Best” to encourage women to breastfeed their babies. This was led by medical professionals and a group called La Leche League, who have done really great work increasing the rate of breastfeeding through educational programs and support.
Laura Modi: But, when you’re entering the most vulnerable, exhausting moment of your life, it doesn’t feel good when you can’t be on the pedestal for what the movement is saying. I’m not saying the “Breast Is Best” movement set out to point fingers or call people bad parents. Our research actually shows that guilt and shame is something people experience internally and typically hide from each other. We believe in the science and goodness of breastmilk, but we also acknowledge the reality that, for most women, 35 hours a week of breastfeeding may not be possible.
Emily Joffrion: How does this stigma affect parents, particularly women, who use formula?
Laura Modi: Culturally, we often talk about it in binary terms — either you’re breastfeeding or you’re using formula. But the truth is, parents are doing both. We shared that 83% of parents are using formula. Of them, 70% are using it to supplement breastfeeding. This unique insight means that parents aren’t choosing one end of the spectrum or the other. They just don’t talk about it. We put a tremendous amount of pressure on women to breastfeed and many of them don’t feel like they can claim that status if they have introduced formula at all. That’s something that needs to change.
Sarah Hardy: We call this group the silent majority. Most women start their journey through labor and birth thinking that they are going to breastfeed. As someone who has been through this, it’s stunning that 83% of us use formula. It certainly doesn’t feel that way. When you make this decision, it feels isolating. It certainly doesn’t feel like the majority of other parents are making the same journey. For example, Laura and I have been friends for years. We worked closely together, had children at the same time, but only started exchanging feeding stories because we started building Bobbie. We had no clue about each other’s journey because it’s just not something you discuss.
Emily Joffrion: You talk a lot about Bobbie Baby being the new village for families. What does that mean?
Laura Modi: We want to evolve the conversation around parenthood as a whole. Our parents’ generation came from very large families and there was a much different focus on what’s important. The challenges of parenthood are no different than they used to be, but we as parents are different. We live in transient cities, often far away from the support networks our families had. We need to see companies, products and communities become the village and support new families.
Sarah Hardy: For example, we have a “companion support team” who hand-deliver Bobbie so they can help consult parents on how to introduce formula to their baby. Remember, many of our customers are in isolation over this decision and there may not be anyone they can talk to. We want to be there to offer support, answer questions and help them understand their options.
Emily Joffrion: You met at Airbnb while expanding global operations. How does that work translate to building a consumer brand and packaged product?
Sarah Hardy: When I joined Airbnb, Laura and I were partnered up and spent the first two years on the ground together solving Airbnb’s global customer support challenges. We had a lifetime of experience and growth during that time, but we came out understanding how to move fast in a learning environment.
Laura Modi: We went through this moment in the company history where we brought a brand to scale that changed a global conversation. We did it through purposeful growth and making sure that our customer came first, which is exactly what we’re doing with Bobbie.
Emily Joffrion: What’s next for your Bobbie?
Sarah Hardy: We launched a subscription, direct-to-consumer model in the Bay Area to start. That will allow us to focus delivery components that may not scale, but will help us learn what we need to replicate in other markets. We plan to learn as much as possible and figure out how to bring this village to the rest of the United States in the fall of 2019.
Press Release: VentureBeat
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