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Recently, I stood in a close friend’s home as she brewed some chamomile tea. Grabbing two cups from one cabinet, she began to set the water, talking calmly about a man she met at her 37th birthday party a few weeks before.
It was at a hip, Austin bar and she genuinely liked the guy. There was potential in the air. They exchanged numbers and went on a date. She was giddy, hopeful –– finding a guy she had a connection with wasn’t usually this easy.
Then, she asked his age.
“Twenty-four,” she said, setting the kettle down. “Well, that was the end of that.” She brought the tea to the coffee table.
I admitted he was young, but couldn’t help to inquire as to why she didn’t have any more interest. Young, sure –– but that doesn’t eliminate him as a capable suitor.
She took a deep breath. It was clear I wasn’t the only one who had taken this particular route of questioning.
“I want kids,” she said, this time holding the tea steady in her hands. “I have to be focused on that. He understood. Most of them do.”
Autonomy in Uncertain Times
For my friend, like so many others, the desire to be a mother and have a family was seeded long ago. The path just hasn’t quite led there –– yet.
This, too, is Emily Ironi’s story –– or at least a variant of it. Emily is the founder of The Dairy Fairy, an online store selling nursing bras –– pretty, comfortable and functional ones –– which she assures me (a woman without children) is an extremely uncommon combination.
Image of a traditional nursing bra above
Emily now counts herself among the inventors in the U.S. She filed her first patent three years ago, creating a unique front flap on her bras to allow nursing women to expand and contract the pressure on their chest due to engorgement, subsequently reducing discomfort.
“I did not know that I was capable of inventing something,” she tells me over the phone. “When I filed for the patent application, it says it wants you to fill out inventor’s name. I thought, ‘Inventor? Oh my goodness. I’m an inventor!’”
Today, The Dairy Fairy is making quickly scaling it’s annual revenue and counts celebrities like Zoe Saldana, Chrissy Teigen and Alyssa Milano as customers.
Little more than three years ago, though, the idea of nursing bras and patents on such couldn’t have been further from Emily’s mind. Almost 40, with a business on the verge of shuttering and wanting very much for a family of her own, Emily was about to take reproductive matters into her own hands.
Community as the State of Modern Parenthood
There’s the preconceiving stories. The ones riddled with struggle and loss. The ones of new technologies and innovative procedures. The ones of connection and empathy and community, the forming of modern families.
Then, there’s the postpartum stories. The ones riddled with struggle and loss. The ones of new technologies and innovative procedures. The ones of connection and empathy and community, the true coalescing of modern families across the world, not to speak of what is happening at the community level.
Even I, a 20-something, childless woman –– born to a mother who was told she’d never conceive –– know all too well the stories of struggle.
I’ve even seen the pictures, hidden away in old family photo albums, of my infant self in an incubator, my mother crouched over, smiling best she could through a face swollen and puffy from tears.
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“I thought those would be the only pictures I had of you,” she told me as a pre-teen, questioning why she took so many awful pictures and put them in a book hidden so far away. I had contracted pneumonia days after birth –– and spent the majority of my first year of life at that hospital, in and out of incubators represented in all those images.
Even a 14-year-old can feel the weight of that memory.
To put it simply, parenthood is hard. To put it accurately, it’s a task few can accomplish alone. Technology and community provide the basis of modern parenthood, and they serve as the means to our end: surviving the struggle.
“All moms are challenged,” says Emily. “I can’t say that I’ve heard from one single mom who’s like, ‘It’s been a breeze. I had a beautiful pregnancy. I got pregnant right away. I felt great. Delivery was a breeze. My baby latched on right away.’ It doesn’t work that way.
I think it’s pretty miraculous that we have so many tools to help us along those journeys, whether it’s getting pregnant in the first place, having a safe delivery or making sure that you have all the tools, whether it’s products or services.”
Post-Partum Diaries Retold
Emily knows modern parenthood well. With a business on the brink of extinction, and her days numbered in terms of the role she’d play in human evolution, she turned to IVF with the help of sperm from a donor. Nine months later, her baby girl Arden was born.
Her preconceiving story had come to end –– one that was long and fraught. It’s hard to imagine Emily knew what postpartum would have in store for her.
“Me becoming a mother, it changed my perspective about life, about business, priorities –– and also the needs that new moms have,” says Emily. “I was going through the emotional highs and lows of being responsible for this new, tiny human while closing down a company and not being completely sure what my next steps were. It was an incredibly stressful time and I was completely sleep-deprived.
As I was going through all of these processes, I was finding that I was trying to breastfeed my daughter and pump for my daughter while trying to multitask, and realizing how inconvenient and unattractive that process was.
I will never forget that moment when my boyfriend at the time walked in while I was pumping, and the horrified look on his face. You’ve got these horns and these bottles hanging from them with milk, and it’s just the least sexy thing you could possibly experience.”
This was Emily’s light bulb moment. She decided to put the eight years of development and marketing experience she’d gained at her last startup to good use. The product research began, beginning first with product market fit. One Kickstarter campaign, hundreds of emails to mommy bloggers, $24,000 raised and dozens of messages from supportive new moms later, Emily knew she was on the right track.
Boxes being shipped out to Kickstarter backers
The money raised on Kickstarter helped Emily turn her prototype into an actual product –– though there were several iterations on the route to finding the right material for the stretch needed. She was living in Santa Monica at the time her and for each bra prototype she created, she drove, newborn in tow, downtown to the seamstress, then to the San Fernando valley for the pattern maker, then back through downtown to the fabric market.
Then, she’d host wine and cheese nights, invite all her friends, both women with and without children, and encourage everyone to try the bras on.
“I invited all my girlfriends, who were not breastfeeding, but they still had breasts, so I figured I could fit the bra on them and then test the functionality as a second phase. The irony, and it’s quite tragic, was that by the time I had perfected my bra, I was already done breastfeeding, so I never actually got to use my own product for the purposes it was intended for, which is why now whenever any one of my girlfriends has a baby, I lavish them with bras because I get to enjoy their ability to use my product. Vicariously enjoying.”
The original prototype
The Feedback Loop to Success
This kind of feedback has always been critical for Emily. She wanted real women to test the bras –– not just ones who were breastfeeding. She wanted to make sure all aspects of a nursing woman’s needs weren’t just met –– but that her bras were specifically designed to address them, pre and post-partum. Her goal was simple: make just one thing a little bit easier for new moms.
“The part that’s been so gratifying is I often get emails from moms that say, ‘Your product has changed my life. I couldn’t do this without this bra.’ It’s how I felt when I was developing it, that passion of making life just a tad easier and attractive just for a mom who is so sleep-deprived and is so run-down. Just that one tiny, extra, little benefit makes a world of difference. That was the crux of it all.”
New moms –– and all the women she’s worked with in general –– haven’t been slow to provide critique. The first ones began coming in during the Kickstarter campaign. Emily’s model was a close friend, a woman who has helping to babysit part-time while Emily got The Dairy Fairy off the ground, and whom had children of her own. The only problem, though, was that she had given birth seven years earlier. Post-partum wasn’t how the product photos read.
“My initial prototype pictures were all on her body, so everything on Kickstarter and all of my first marketing materials were all with her photo. Now, I did get some criticism back then because she had a perfect body, and a lot of moms reacted by saying, ‘Hey, that’s not a postpartum mom.’
Usually, you’re not a size zero with triple D. She was gorgeous and had perfect skin, and she was a mom. Her son at the time was seven. The photos just didn’t communicate what most moms feel and look like. Everything’s a tweak. You learn, and you adjust.”
And the feedback didn’t stop there. For the first year, Emily was taking account of it all. In return, The Dairy Fairy was only a one-product shop. The goal was to increase visibility of the brand, take in feedback, tweak the bra and nail the original product –– all before deciding to scale up.
“It was a journey and kind of a long road to get there, but the product as it is right now is so functional and just beautiful. I have moms tell me they still wear it even though they’re done breastfeeding because it’s such a supportive and beautiful bra.”
Satan’s in the Straps: Solving for Functionality
“OK, but exactly how is the bra made and what makes it so great?”
I had to ask.
After all, you don’t need to have been pregnant to know that bras by and large are not comfortable. That sentiment, along with those arguments of equality, are part of what spurred the “free the nipple” movement.
So, if Emily could create something that so well served anyone with breasts, it stands to reason that other brands could, too.
Why hadn’t they?
Emily obliges me. She talks about the spandex or lycra in the material –– which provides give for the product. That isn’t though, she tells me, what makes it revolutionary. The Arden bra, named after Emily’s daughter, is revolutionary because of how versatile the fit can be.
“When you’re pregnant, what happens is everything shifts. All your organs are moving up and your rib cage expands to make room for this baby that’s taking up the majority of space.
And, when you’re breastfeeding, your breasts fill up with milk and then they have to be emptied out or drained. As they fill up, you can get engorged, and you can go up almost an entire cup size because you’re filled with milk, which you can actually see when you pump. You can see an entire bottle, like six ounces of milk, has been extracted out of your breast.
I know this is kind of crazy to talk about, but that just shows you the level of fluctuation and how much change happens daily. Two to three times a day you can be filled with six ounces of milk, and either it comes out with breastfeeding or through pumping.”
Emily’s hypothesis was simple –– and her business’s success has proven it true: nursing women need a single bra that can fluctuate in fit to maximize comfort throughout the day. And that meant that regular bras weren’t going to cut it.
“The idea came to from sleep deprivation and just envisioning something that didn’t exist honestly. It came out of my own experience and how I was feeling and what I thought I needed. There were tools for pumping out there. There obviously are millions of nursing bras, but there was nothing that did all three things: pumping, nursing and adjustability.
I had the idea. I played with really rough sketches. When I was in, I don’t know, sixth grade, I had a sewing machine, so I had rudimentary sewing capabilities, and I literally took apart old bras and tried to Frankenstein them together to see if the idea would work”
The Ultimate Pay Off
Today, Emily receives hundreds of emails thanking her for her work –– and they come from all sorts of families.
Some, like in the case of Zoe Saldana, are husbands buying the bras for their nursing wives. Some, are lactation specialists buying the bras for their clients. Some are gay couples buying her product to give to their surrogate. Some are women who can’t nurse buying the bra for a friend willing to pump for extra in their place. And, of course, some are just nursing women looking for a comfortable, functional and attractive bra that makes this part of their day and, now, their lives that much more special.
“There are a lot of women that participate in milk-sharing or milk donor programs, so every now and again I get contacted by one of those. I have a mom who was a surrogate who was still pumping milk for the baby she delivered, but was sending the milk to the parents that were raising the baby.
Things like that. It’s just amazing what we can do these days. Sisters pumping milk for each other. One sister pumping for the other one who was not able to have a milk supply. It’s very common.
If somebody is giving you the gift of carrying your child, the least you can do is give them the gift of helping them supply the milk in an attractive way. When I say that, I’ve had people order it and have it shipped to the surrogate, and just say, “This is a gift.” It’s pretty amazing.
It all goes back to my journey towards becoming a mother and going through IVF. I can really relate to those moms that go through that extra hurdle.”
And Emily isn’t done yet. She knows how quickly markets can change. Pumps, for instance, are in flux, she tells me, which will then require her to alter her products as they change. Plus, as niche markets become successful, more competitors move in. Emily is a one-woman show right now. More competitors might mean less revenue margin if she were to need to hire headcount.
Plus, while breastfeeding is a topic close to her heart –– Arden is older now, so Emily’s set of parental challenges has changed. She’s no longer as tapped into her customer mindset as she used to be.
“I have to remind myself of my own personal journey, how challenging it was, what led me down this path, and that that’s what a lot of these moms are going through right now. They’re in the trenches. They are sleep-deprived. I’m at least getting sleep these days!
I’m going through completely different phases now –– not less challenging, just different. A lot of times I will look back at pictures of those difficult times, which ironically, I don’t remember so clearly. I think that’s a human function. I think nobody would have multiple children if they remembered how miserable they were during some of those initial stages.”
Don’t expect The Dairy Fairy, though, to become a Lululemon or anything of that sort. Instead, Emily’s dead set on creating products that solve for a niche set of circumstances –– even if those circumstances end up no longer being her own. Right now, the biggest problem she’s trying to solve for is keeping up with a fast-growing toddler.
“I always told Arden that as soon as she’s old enough, I’m going to hire her. She’s four and a half. She’s not quite capable yet, but she has a lot of pride in having a product named after her. Whenever one of her teachers at school or one of her classmate’s parents is breastfeeding and we give them a gift, she’s just so proud to say, “This is the Arden bra!” She really lights up. It comes full circle that she was the inspiration, and that she still provides me all that validation. It’s pretty cool.”
Check out The Dairy Fairy here and send Emily a note if you like her products. It’ll likely end up on a post-it right next to her desk.
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