With three teenagers at home - Max, 18, Miles, 16, and Jill, 14, you’d think balancing home life with a start-up would be elusive. But for Amy Baxter, paediatrician turned tech innovator and entrepreneur, it’s all part of the fun.
Amy’s company, MMJ Labs, developed their inaugural product, Buzzy®, in 2006 in an effort to reduce or eliminate injection pain and “needle-phobia”. As a physician herself, she saw first-hand the mental and physical suffering that accompanied injections, especially for children.
She set out to create a reusable product that could provide pain relief, drug-free. in time, and with the help of research and development funding, she launched Buzzy®, a palm-sized device that uses both vibration and cold to combat pain. When the device is placed “between the brain and the pain”, the competing sensations confuse the brain, effectively inhibiting or totally eliminating pain.
Now, Buzzy® is in over 5,000 hospitals, has sold over 75,000 units, and has been used by over a quarter million individuals.
It’s truly a success story, and one that is deeply rooted in the urge Amy has to reduce the suffering of her patients, and indeed the world.
I had honor of sitting down with Amy via Skype recently. I was struck by her wit, thoughtful responses and razor-sharp intelligence. Amy took me through the journey that led her from doctor to CEO, and how finding balance has not always been easy.
When you started “Buzzy”, what dream did you have for how your life would eventually look?
Honestly I though getting Buzzy® into hospitals would take three years tops, and that I would do medicine part time and then eventually go back to it full-time. When I started, I didn’t intend for it to be the family business, and eventually my only job.
I created a prototype of the device to help my children not have pain during their shots. I was a an emergency doctor and I started to get very anxious while working in the emergency department because I couldn’t use the device on the kids screaming in the emergency room; it wasn’t FDA cleared at the time. It was just a little prototype made of cellphones and electrical tape. That anxiety of having a solution but not being able to give it to my patients is what propelled me into the business.
What would you say your company’s core belief is?
Part of why people have stayed with me, is that we to our core, ethically, feel like it’s not right for people to have to pay for a disposable item when they have a chronic health problem. I invented Buzzy® for vaccines, so people can get fully vaccinated without the pain that causes needle-phobia. With that said, we found that the people who are our biggest fans are families with kids who have diabetes, with growth hormone, women who are trying to get pregnant. Making a device that is disposable for that is really feeding off the vulnerable. So ethically, that matters to all of us.
On Shark Tank they wanted me to make it disposable. That was a big part of why I turned them down. They wanted me to sell it only to hospitals. That would be undercutting and stopping taking care of those who have been our core.
We are a passion and a purpose, as well as a company.
At what point did you feel like you “made it” and what did your life look like then?
There was a moment where I saw the trajectory of Buzzy® working and being acknowledged in hospitals and homes, and spreading everywhere. I saw that vision at one point, standing in my kitchen and thought, “this is really going to work.” but it didn’t feel like a success until I went on Shark Tank, and felt like everything was going to be great from here on out. After that, we had the worst year of our history!
The moment where I saw the path to success, and then the feeling I had watching my kids get into the limo to watch the screening of Shark Tank, in some ways both of those moments were mythical. So there wasn’t a specific moment where I felt “We’ve made it,” or “We’ve arrived.” I feel that way now, though. I feel like we’ve arrived fully.
When things started to get really busy for Buzzy initially, what did that look like in terms of balancing work and home life?
I have sifted my family into this business at every step of the process from testing the first prototype on them in our living room, to having them help me take apart cell phones so we can figure out what causes vibration, to having them pack up Buzzys® and work at trade shows early on.
The experience that the kids have had, seeing that you can create a device with your own hands and then expand into an actual business, that has been the best part of the balance.
We were in my basement up until two years ago, so I was always available to have an emergency consultation, I could check in with them and see what their emotions were after school. Nine times out of ten they would be fine, but that tenth time, when somebody had a bad day and we have to deal with it right now, that was an important part of the work/life balance - being available.
I still work really close to home. So if I need to pick somebody up from school or drop off something they forgot it’s easy to do. But I think overall, part of the balance was about incorporating them into the work itself whenever possible, then continuing to be in close proximity to be able to respond to their needs as soon as they arose.
The other things is, anytime I have a business travel opportunity, I’ll take one kid with me. I’ve brought them to New York, London, Mexico, all these exotic places.
What challenges do you face as an entrepreneur trying to find that balance?
I don’t think that I have it figured out yet, and I don’t actually think it’s something that you can figure out. I’m one of those people that say, “You can have everything, but you can’t have it all at the same time.”
The illusion of balance is not the reality.
There are times when I’ve missed critically important life events because I’ve been out of town. There are times where I have been torn inside because I have to do a phone call or I have so much to get done and my children are irritating me.
You can talk about the balance and the way it looks from the outside. But we should all give ourselves permission to realize that the balance comes in retrospect. But at the time it will often feel profoundly unbalanced.
So long as you pay attention to the quality of the time you spend with your kids, and try to keep an eye out for opportunities to incorporate them when possible, I think those are the best tips.
Do you have a “village” around you, a support system?
Unquestionably. I live in a very tight community. My husband, who is a child psychiatrist, works three quarter time. So he really wrangles the kids while I do the business.
The other things is that there is a really great community of women in business. I have made my business with an all-woman team because we all appreciate the need for emergency cupcake runs, and the flexibility and transparency are the best parts of the job. So we are a whole company built on this culture of “family first”, making sure our children grow up healthy and whole. We give up opportunity cost for that, but we have more balance.
Why is finding that balance important to you?
Jackie Kennedy said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.”
Being able to give my kids the best philosophical approach to how and why they need to serve others, how and why they need to do something that will give back to humanity, has always been important to me.
My paradigm for what matters has been, “What can you do in life that will elevate others, and decrease suffering?”
To be able to give my kids not just the burden of needing to do something huge but to show them that when you find a passion that fits your knowledge or your interests, you’re going to be doing good. You just need to stick with it.
From a family standpoint, the medium is the message. Living by example, here is what I think is important, and I love you no matter what, and you don’t need to feel the obligation to be doing something like I’m doing but you do need to have some discipline and be able to work hard.
How important is confidence in running a company?
Communicating efficiently takes confidence, but passion is also important. Sometimes someone will be passionate about something but lack confidence, and really believing in something will GIVE them the confidence that they perhaps don’t have in other parts of their life.
I am suspicious of people who have a lot of confidence with no substance, but if you have passion, you will have confidence.
How does being a mother affect how you run your business?
One of the big things is that I will not tolerate working with jerks. When you’re a mom you try to teach your kids not to tolerate bullies, and to protect people around you if someone else is being bullied. So in the business world I am positive that I am much less tolerant of people with aggressive or belittling sales and business techniques.
I also think that moms are so much better at helping each other and seeing what needs to be done, that it makes for a great startup team when you hire all moms. We all have our own assigned jobs, but we are willing to jump in and help each other when we need to.
Do you have any one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring lady bosses?
There are actually three pieces of advice I have.
First, everything you say “Yes” to is something you say “No” to.
Women have a hard time saying, “No” But start framing saying, “Yes” as thinking about what you have to give up to commit to that. It might be time with your children, it might be the ability to have a half an hour to wind down and get your sanity back. If you say, “Yes” to something you are saying “No” to something else. That will empower you to say, “No” to things when you realize you don’t want to make that trade off.
Second, lift each other up.
It is very difficult in business because women in my generation and a little older would often want to be the only woman in the room. They didn’t feel constrained by being a woman in business because they were playing like a man.
We need to play like women.
We need to understand where each other are, we need to pitch in and support each other, and we need to have a sensitivity to what’s going on around us with other women, to support everybody in the village.
...and number three?
Just because you’re the best person for the job doesn’t obligate you to do the job.
Volunteerism is another form of saying “Yes”. And when we do something because we think we’ll do it best, it’s like with your kids and having them clean up their room. Sometimes, even if someone isn’t doing it the “best”, it’s about the long strategy.
In business you’ll be tempted to micromanage because you can do it better. Just because you can do it the best doesn’t obligate you to do it.
What does “Motherly” mean to you?
I think being motherly is being loving and strong enough not to do things for your children that they can do themselves.
There are studies that look at different aspects of parenting, being warm vs being cool, being authoritative vs being wimpy. And the best parents are authoritative. They are very warm, but very firm. So to me being motherly is smiling around a corner looking at your child getting frustrated trying to fix something, and waiting until the child fixes it themselves and feeling proud with them when it’s done.
You can see all of Amy’s work here, and order your very own Buzzy® to take the sting out of needles: https://buzzyhelps.com