Our guest today is Meenal Lele, an entrepreneur who was inspired to start her baby supplement company Lil Mixins by her own experiences as a mother. Soon after Meenal’s first son developed several severe food allergies, new research showed that there was a way to keep babies from developing most common food allergies. Meenal was inspired to develop her own brand of supplements to make early introduction of these allergens as easy as possible for new parents. Listen as she describes growing her business through education and how the best advertisement is earned rather than bought.
Meenal Lele: [00:00:01] And one of the things that struck me when I saw these new recommendations come out that food allergies were preventable are 1) that the American healthcare system is terrible at preventative medicine. There’s just no money for it. Nobody ever really seems to care about it. It’s always this orphan.
Sam: [00:00:21] Meenal Lele joins us today on Ideamix Radio. She’s the founder of Lil Mixins, a baby supplements company trying to put an end to allergies before they start. After having a first child with life threatening allergies, Meenal was determined to find easier and better ways to prevent allergies for other children. Meenal, it’s a pleasure to have you with us on the show today.
Meenal Lele: [00:01:06] Thanks so much, thanks for having me.
Sam: [00:01:09] So by way of data, between 1997 and 2011, food related allergies increased 18 percent among children under age 18. Children with food allergies are also two to four times more likely to have other related health conditions. Meenal, tell us what started you down this entrepreneurial path of starting Lil Mixins.
Meenal Lele: [00:01:31] Yeah, absolutely. The leap really was that before I started Lil Mixins, I had previously worked at two different startup companies in the medical device space. And so I have, you know, I had this crash course, if you will, over a decade– I guess that’s not really a crash course, but these learnings over a decade about how the medical system works and what kinds of things today in the United States we tend to put our money behind. And one of the things that struck me when I saw these new recommendations come out that food allergies were preventable are 1) that the American healthcare system is terrible at preventative medicine. There’s just no money for it. Nobody ever really seems to care about it. It’s always this orphan. And secondly is that when new innovations come out, they tend to be very expensive because they tend to be venture backed. And so the way you typically build a venture backed company is you take on debt, you take on this debt effectively from venture capitalists, and you price your product very, very high. And so that you, you know, recoup that money quickly. And it was really that understanding that made me really worried because I have this child with food allergies. I know how terrible this is. And the idea that we would continue on this path for whatever it is, five years, 10 years until, you know, those companies decided to make their products cheaper or more accessible to the average person, that really frustrated me. And that was really the thing that I was after when I wanted to start Lil Mixins.
Sam: [00:03:17] You know, you said so much in there that I completely want to unpack and we’ll circle back to that. But for years, the conventional wisdom was that we should protect kids from allergens and introduce them later in their lives. In recent years, the science totally shifted to, in fact, say that allergens should be introduced as early as possible. Do you think there’s a risk to your business of these recommendations changing?
Meenal Lele: [00:03:45] No, I would normally worry about that but, you know, there are now at this point been five or six different massive studies done covering multiple different populations in the US and Canada and the U.K. and Japan, looking at multiple different foods, looking at high risk children, low risk children. And in every single case, with these top designed, randomized controlled studies, we see the same thing over and over. 80 percent of these food allergies can be prevented simply by children eating the proteins in their diets from when they start solid foods. So I don’t know what it would take to undo this science when you’ve got so many different studies corroborating the same finding.
Sam: [00:04:31] That’s really good to hear. So you have this idea, you have this experience in the healthcare industry and you sort of understand what it takes for new methods and technologies to come to market. And you know why that may not work in this condition or under this set of circumstances. What did you do to test your idea and how did you begin to prototype what you were really trying to do?
Meenal Lele: [00:05:04] Well, for me, I thought of the space of baby supplements addressing a largely preventable disease, as what I call a pediatrician directed market, or a healthcare provider directed market. And you see these a lot, right? Because in medicine, typically the person deciding to do something is not the person actually doing it. So the classic case of your doctor recommends you have knee surgery and the person who has the knee surgery is not the person who made the recommendation to have the knee surgery. And it’s very similar in, you know, in most medicine, actually. And so one of the things I saw was, well, parents are never going to do this unless doctors tell them to. Why would you just randomly pick up and start shoving random foods in your kid’s diet unless there was a rationale. And so the first testing I did, if you will, was really to start talking to doctors. Say this is the data, at what point, you know, what point would you start to feel comfortable recommending this to parents? What would you need to see in a product to make you feel good about recommending it? And everything about Lil Mixins in many ways was designed to fulfill the needs of a healthcare provider who wants to know that a parent is going to be able to access it. They’re gonna be able to afford it. And it’s going to last them for, you know, for however long they need to, quote, unquote, treat their child. So that was one of the big things I did. And the second thing is nothing is possible unless you can manufacture and scale. So I had figured out what we needed to do to make the foods into a supplement, take the proteins and basically isolate the proteins. And I just you know, I figured that out doing research and I had a bit of a food science background. But it was starting to talk to manufacturers. How could we scale this? And once I found that those two things are possible, that I could create a design concept and understand the price point everyone was comfortable with. And then I was sure that I’d be able to manufacture it at scale. That’s when I kind of decided ‘let’s do this’.
Sam: [00:07:16] Interesting. And so you figured out the sourcing and producing this at scale. How did you find your first customers? How did you kind of create the first product prototypes? And who is the population with which you tested them?
Meenal Lele: [00:07:37] And that kind of goes back to my point about how in medicine, it’s always an interesting question, right: who is your customer? In this case, your customer is of course, the parent right there, the parent who is going to buy it at the end of the day. But your customer is also the doctor. And so I had to test simultaneously with both groups of people. I had to get the product in front of doctors and say, does this meet your needs? And then also give it to parents and say, how easy is this to use? And that’s basically what I did. I just gave it to people and said, you know, give me feedback.
Sam: [00:08:08] Got it. And did you encounter any resistance among the doctors that you talked to? Were there any that were sort of resistant to trying this because it still seemed so new or was it pretty well established, conventional wisdom by then?
Meenal Lele: [00:08:31] Well, so we did this. I started doing all this in 2017 and the recommendations actually came out in early 2017. So it was incredibly new. But the fascinating thing was that 2017 was the year that the pediatricians societies and the American Academy of Pediatrics made their statement that this is what we’re going to do now. And so I had very little resistance from pediatricians. And when I presented the product and showed them that it was 100% natural. That these proteins were isolated and prepared in a safe form so the baby could not choke. That there was no sugar or salt added. We had everything you wanted, but nothing you didn’t need. It basically met their criteria. It became a product that had effectively no downside, because if– there’s no harm in feeding a baby these foods early, if they already have a food allergy, you haven’t made anything worse. But you can protect them. And if they were never going to develop an allergy in the first place, then all they’ve done is eat healthy protein.
Sam: [00:09:42] Yeah, that’s totally fascinating. I want to go back to something you said earlier, which was about understanding that the customer here, you know, was your doctor and then ultimately the end consumer and that the timing was amazing, right? That you started this company when this came out as a recommendation from the American Pediatric Association. And still, there has to have been a kind of customer education process that went on, because even though pediatricians might mention this to parents, they had to sort of be educated that this was now the conventional wisdom and here was a product that, in fact, could help them introduce these foods to their children. Did you have to do any of that yourself through the company, or did the doctor take care of that for you?
Meenal Lele: [00:10:38] No, we do. We do almost all of that. And it’s been a challenge, really, understanding the right messaging. And I would say that continues to be one of the biggest challenges – what are the right words if a new concept comes in and people don’t even know what their questions are about it? And so when you’re messaging and advertising, if you will, it’s like you’re trying to answer the question, but you don’t know what the question is that they have in their mind because they’ve never had to think about this before. And so, yeah, it’s been an interesting challenge for me particularly to really work with customers and new parents to figure out: what are their confusions? And a really interesting one that came out is, just sort of a funny story, is I was having some work done in my house and, you know, it was an electrician and he came in and he saw a bunch of samples at my desk and he said, what is that? So I told him about it and he said, oh, my girlfriend just had a baby four months ago, you know, so we’re going to start solid food soon. So I said, oh, great. Would you like some samples? I gave some samples and he said to me, how do you use this? So I explained to him the powders. You mix them into baby food. And then you feed them to your baby. And he said, but like, how do you use it? And it was such an interesting moment for me because I said, I don’t even know what the question is now. And I did a lot of digging. And it turns out one of the biggest points of confusion for a parent is that if this is your first baby, you’ve never fed a baby before. And the feeding schedule for a baby is very different from an adult. As an adult you think about, okay, I eat breakfast, I eat lunch, dinner, maybe have a snack. But babies don’t eat in these, like, three giant meals a day. They eat six times a day or, you know, and they’re eating very tiny meals. And then those meals are getting bigger. And you’ve just not had to do any of this stuff before. So a lot of his question, it turned out, was actually about what is feeding a baby. And so we’ve made an effort to actually explain that. What does it even look like to start solid foods?
Sam: [00:12:51] Amazing. That’s so interesting. I mean, you wouldn’t think that would be the question. That’s such an interesting story.
Meenal Lele: [00:12:58] Yeah, and it makes perfect sense because like I said, you forget once you’re a parent, you forget what it was like to not be a parent and have no idea what you were doing.
Sam: [00:13:07] Totally, totally. There’s no greater instructor than your first child.
Meenal Lele: [00:13:11] Yeah, absolutely.
Sam: [00:13:14] So, who do you view as your competition as you think about other companies out there? And how do you think about differentiation?
Meenal Lele: [00:13:24] There are a couple of big players in the space, actually, and you know, there are some days where that is frightening and most days it reminds me that, you know, this is a real space, that that is going to exist as a real need out there because you wouldn’t have four or five competitors if this wasn’t a real need. I think one of the best known was recently on Shark Tank and which is kind of interesting. I would say the biggest differentiator for me from all the others is that positioning of a product that a doctor feels good recommending. And that ethos really drove a lot of our decisions and what we do and one of the biggest pieces of that I always come back to is the access and access means like physically being able to get the product in your hands, but also it layers in affordability. And many other companies, I would say actually every single other competitor requires you to make multiple purchases over and over again. Either you have to buy their, you know, monthly packets or you have to keep going back to the grocery store and get it. And so our Lil Mixins Proteins can be maybe, actually we’re not even more expensive on the upfront, at the upfront it’s about the same price, but you never have to come back and buy it again.
Sam: [00:14:48] Because you become a subscriber?
Meenal Lele: [00:14:50] No, because it’s a one time purchase. So you each buy a jar of Lil Mixins treenut protein, for example, it has 48 servings in it. So if you gave it to your baby three times a week, which is the approximate recommendation, it will last you for over four months of use. And what you’ll find is that if your baby starts solid, let’s say, around five months old. When they’re done with the jar, they get very close to potentially, you know, maybe being able to eat almond butter or something. And so we have customers that come back and buy it again, you know, make sure they get their baby all the way over 12 months. But some parents, especially with the baked egg, it’s a great way. It serves you that exact window until your baby can safely eat scrambled eggs.
Sam: [00:15:37] Got it.So how did you, we talked a little bit earlier about how you found your initial customers. How have you– what have you done? And have you thought about scaling the business?
Meenal Lele: [00:15:52] Well, the first customers were really, you put the product on Amazon, find some customers, get some feedback. And it’s actually been an interesting continual iteration. So there’s three areas of the business we want to be on our website, then Amazon is effective. It’s a digital retailer, but a retailer. And we want to be in physical retail as well. So each of those little pieces requires a wholly different kind of effort. And we scale the business by getting a bigger footprint. So again that footprint is about where can people buy it? But then who are our recommenders? So you’re only going to buy something if you’ve heard about it. And I am– I’m just not a believer in the, you know, throw ad dollars until people buy things. Because you’re basically buying revenue, then. And that’s just a wholly unsustainable way to run a business.
Sam: [00:16:45] Yeah. It’s a very slippery slope.
Meenal Lele: [00:16:47] Yep. And so we have thousands of doctors now who have, you know, who have samples of Lil Mixins in their office who are actively talking to their patients about it. So that’s one of our biggest channels to reach new parents. We do generate some, you know, earned media from articles and things like that where people hear about us and influencers. And then the last, of course, is just this sort of like this referral chain. If it works for one parent – all of us mothers are new parents. We tend to get our advice on what products work from our friends.
Sam: [00:17:24] Absolutely
Meenal Lele: [00:17:24] You have to be patient and just kind of wait for your buyer to then turn around and tell their friend that this worked for me. So, you know, I recommend it.
Sam: [00:17:35] That makes sense. As you look back, what were one or two key decisions you made and, you know, it may have been, for example, the first person you hired or the first partnership that you developed or a decision you made around manufacturing. What were some of those decisions that in hindsight you really view as critical to the trajectory of the business?
Meenal Lele: [00:18:01] Well, a sort of funny one that you wouldn’t think, but I’ve recently read a book that talked about how important branding is. And this book was basically recommending really nail down your branding before you ever do anything. And I hadn’t thought about the business that way. I come from an operations engineering side. So it was all about supply chains and manufacturing in my head. So one of the best decisions I made actually was it was over drinks with a friend who said she’d helped me and I hired her firm to do our initial branding. And the monkey, the Lil Mixins monkey. He’s actually modeled after my younger son. But everybody loves the monkey. And it’s funny.
Sam: [00:18:49] The monkey’s pretty cute.
Meenal Lele: [00:18:49] But I can’t believe how many people just love the monkey. They’re like, can I get a sticker of the monkey for my kids? And so it’s this it’s not even a decision I made I guess it’s something I fell into, I would really say. But I actually think it’s been a really high value, a high value decision in the long run. And that’s kind of the one that most readily comes to mind. The other one is again, is just kind of starting to do the research early. I had this really amazing opportunity from my last two businesses that I worked for that we took, well the first one we took from a napkin drawing to an exit. And the second one, I was on the early team there, but it allowed me to learn a lot of the things that you need to do early. Like, how do you get the data? How do you get the information you need? How do you know if your pricings right? How do you know if people like it and what they’re telling you is correct. So I was able to implement a lot of those strategies and fall back on a kind of formula to some extent that I used before.
Sam: [00:19:57] Makes sense. So last question. What’s a lesson that you feel you’ve learned that’s extensible to other entrepreneurs?
Meenal Lele: [00:20:08] I think I was actually listening to one of your other podcasts. It was talking about these founders who um, I forget the word she used, but basically they have no employees and they sort of, you know, get to a million dollars sort of thing.
Sam: [00:20:27] One person million dollar businesses yeah, with Elaine Pofeldt.
Meenal Lele: [00:20:31] Yes. It was a great episode, by the way.
Sam: [00:20:35] Thank you.
Meenal Lele: [00:20:36] You know, it was that idea that she brought up that one of the things these people do is just get up every morning to show up, you know? And I found that it’s so important. And you just have to kind of– many days just kind of sit down at your desk and you don’t know what you’re gonna do. You don’t know what the right thing is, but you just kind of keep ruminating, like run over the thought in your head over and over and just try and soak up as much information as you can. I actually read a lot. I try and read a couple of books a month or something like that. And I would say it’s when you can pull an insight from something that seems unrelated, but it will actually change the way you think about maybe a problem you’ve been stuck on. But that sort of idea that you don’t have to have all the answers. You just kind of have to show up every single day and like, just keep running it over in your head until you find the right solution.
Sam: [00:21:32] That’s so true. You know, and sort of look for sources of lateral thinking, as you said. I mean, I don’t read as much as I would like to, but I try to read a variety of things. And I always find, you know, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, whether it relates to what I’m doing or not. There is some thought process that it jogs that then informs something I’m thinking about in our business.
Meenal Lele: [00:21:57] Yeah. Most recently, or just the other week, I was reading a book about someone talking about debt restructuring. And he’s the kind of guy that they bring in when a company is about to declare bankruptcy to see if they can basically salvage it, which is something I didn’t realize, which is that people don’t want you to declare bankruptcy because of the way, you know, the debt waterfall. And so anyway, so he’s talking about, you know, within 30 days, I can completely fix a business because there’s always only three answers, you know? And one of those things is if they’re not making money, is it that their costs are too low, they’re not so pricing high enough or their costs are too high. And one thing I look at is always, you know, do they have a competitor, one or two competitors in their space that are succeeding? And what’s the common thread there? You know, and it was just such a little tidbit that it reminded me to actually go back and look at what all my competitors are doing and say, what are the common threads here, you know? And it had nothing to do with where I am right now. But it was just kind of an interesting insight.
Sam: [00:23:05] That’s a great example. Love that. So here’s another fact you need to know. Younger children were more likely to have skin allergies while older children were more likely to have respiratory allergies. And the prevalence of food and respiratory allergies increases with higher income levels, thanks to the CDC for the data cited in today’s show.
Meenal, we love your products and that you’re at the forefront of really educating parents and changing the conventional wisdom and the ease of use of your product around new parents and acclimatizing their children to allergens. So thank you so much for being here with us today.
Meenal Lele: [00:23:47] Yeah, thank you, thank you again for having me. It’s always fun to talk about not just the products, but the business side of it, too.
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