Carly Leahy of Modern Fertility gives tactical advice for starting a startup

Today I’m joined by someone I’ve been admiring from afar for a very long time, Carly Leahy, co-founder of Modern Fertility.

Modern fertility is a women’s healthcare company that set out to launch the world’s first at home fertility hormone test in 2017 alongside Afton Vechery. Since launching they’ve successfully gone through Y-Combinator, raised 22 million dollars in funding, been named as Fast company’s number 1 company for innovation in healthcare and expanded their product range to a pregnancy test, an ovulation test and an app for women to track their cycle.

Their mission is to empower women to understand their bodies and their fertility in an easy to digest manner, that takes out the fear you can experience when going through this important milestone in a woman’s life.

Carly’s background in lead creative roles for huge companies like Uber and Google has been a major factor in the success of this business. Her skill in creating and marketing a brand for the modern day woman really shines through and in this discussion you’ll find so many tactical pieces of advice and information that you can take directly into your own venture.

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

I'm eager to get back to the early days and go back to the very beginning to understand how you and often met, how the business got started. What was those early days of thinking about Modern Fertility?

The good old days, the good old days, let's say.

Where do you begin? A little background on me. My my background is in the creative and brand world. So I started out in creative agencies or in-house at Google on creative teams and then in Hasset labor building, non writer driver products like Overeats. And when I walked in and I met I was at Uber at the time. And believe it or not, we met through a non not anonymous. It was a very good friend, but it was a blind date. Essentially, we did not know each other and I think everybody assumes we were friends all of our our whole lives. And we had sort of decided we were going to do this our whole lives. But it was actually a very good friend of ours, but the most epic email of all time and said, you two you two have to meet. So we met for coffee. I was very much focused on my career, very much focused on what I was doing at the time. And often my co-founder, my brilliant co-founder was very bullish on fertility.

And she had had sort of an early exposure to the fertility space. She had worked in health care, private equity, and had seen sort of the ins and outs of the fertility clinic world. And she couldn't believe how reactive the fertility system really was. You couldn't really understand what was going on in your body until you are having trouble conceiving. It was kind of backwards. So she was hell bent on creating something to help women get access to what was going on in their bodies earlier. And when she and I met, I basically told her, this sounds cool, but baby stuff is not for me. So I think this is something we can we can talk about as it relates to how do you how do you come up with an idea or where do you know, like your places or how do you start to just build something? For me, it was a complete blind spot. I thought, you know, being a feminist meant kind of pushing away all of the motherhood stuff. I always thought I wanted to be a mom, but I was focused on my career and I didn't think fertility was for me because I associate it with with baby stuff and I wasn't ready for. And the more I started I mean, acting is brilliant. She as soon as you start talking to her, you're you're just like kind of in this world of wait, wait a second. This is so interesting. I don't love not knowing what I don't know. I consider myself, you know, an intelligent woman and it's stuck with me in our conversation. You know, I really don't know all there is to know about my reproductive health. I don't know some of the fundamentals.

So I started reading clinical papers, I started reading books, and I got sucked into the fact that there was so much about my reproductive health and fertility specifically that was sort of left out in this world where I had been preventing pregnancy my whole life, focused on my career. And I sort of just assumed it would happen one day. But the reality is we're waiting longer to have kids. You know, we've got stuff to do. But our biology is exactly the same. Fertility declines over time. And that that doesn't have to be scary. It is what it is. And women need to be able to have tools to help them understand where they are in that trajectory, especially as we're waiting longer. So the origin story is one of Kali being totally blind to sort of this thing that I think many women are sort of in the same shoes. So for me, it was kind of this really nice ability to authentically take a stance in this thing that I didn't think was for me and make it for me so often. And I've always talked about the clinical and science forward aspect of modern fertility, but also the authenticity and the community and the support that we provide. And those two things together I want really create the modern fertility experience. So I really do think sometimes your blind spots are the things that you're most well equipped to come to the world and that we have this brand that talks like this because nothing is ever broken through to me before, but it's not dumbed down.

She wants all the information. I want all the information. Give me the things I need to know so I can plan proactively and plan ahead. So that was the beginning and we started just working on it together. We actually applied to Y Combinator, and once we got into Y Combinator, I quit my job and we said we're doing this thing. So that was kind of the introduction. And I'll just say it to that point. I feel really fortunate that I was in a position to be able to say, yes, I'm going to quit my job and go do this. I, I didn't have student loans. I had a little bit of savings on to myself. It was sort of this the worst that could happen. And I, I have to go get a job in a few months and I don't think anybody in that position. So I just want to say also there's sort of this myth of like just quit your job and do it and like it. That's not bad. It's not that easy to do that. It was sort of like a sliver of time. I knew I don't have kids yet. I don't have. You don't have a mortgage. Let's do that and see what happens. And I feel lucky that I was in that place.

Yeah. You were able to assess the risk and be like, you know what? Now's probably the time. I'm not deep in debt and deep in bills that I. I can't take that risk at this point. Yeah, I think that's really important to note. Definitely. That's a tough one for a lot of people as well, especially if you don't have access to the friends and family capital that you also might need to raise around those kind of times where you're kind of looking to networks and and you haven't got a base to start from for sure.

But that's so funny that you met on a blind date and that you guys decided to build this company together.

It was that blind date, was it, with the intention of you guys becoming co-founders or was it the intention of you being friends and essentially you kind of giving your opinion on the creative side of building a business after?

My co-founder often is so brilliant. It was absolutely a co-founder date. She was you know, she was just feeling me out. I was I was feeling her out. I was never the serial entrepreneur that she was. So I didn't I didn't think I needed to start a company in order to make a mark on the world. And honestly, as a creative person coming from sort of a brand and marketing background, I didn't think that was possible. I didn't think you had to be in finance or an engineer. And that is not the case at all. And that's another thing that we can talk about. This is not understanding what people want. This is about being a team player and motivating people and being really organized and following through with everything you do. It's about being somebody that people want to work with and you can build up those skills in any functional area. And I was very fortunate that I have a partner who is who is very well steeped in, OK, here's what we need to do to to lay the fundamental groundwork. And I've learned a ton for her. And then the thing that we did to build on facility is find the people who have done each piece of what we were trying to do in a really smart way before, in some way, shape or form, track them down and talk to them.

So if you are a learner and you're not afraid to talk to people and ask for advice, you can really do it no matter what your background is. So in the in the early days of getting started with my fertility, after that I had a list. We built the company on a list and list Carly's list, and we would kind of like look at each other's list and add things and kind of trade things. And we don't know about this. Let's find an expert here and an expert here. And then we we really talk to the people who are really smart, the things that we were trying to figure out. And we both have our expertise in the areas that we're really good at. So we were able to cover those. And then slowly but surely you find you find people to join your team who are really experts in those things that you're asking experts for advice on. So there's also no it's no sort of like magical. All of a sudden a company has been created. It was a list and it was every day, all day ticking through our list toward goals that the bottom line on in order to sort of put one foot in front of the other.

And so when you doing that process of going through this list and speaking to people, experts in their field, I imagine people in the medical space, and then I also imagine, like tactical things to get things up and running and maybe unique perspectives and things like that. Was that all prior to Y Combinator? And you got yourselves to a point with some kind of NBA MVP minimum viable product for those listening who don't know what that is, to be able to get into Y Combinator and then launch from there like you hadn't launched yet at that point, correct?

We had not launched or announced the company yet, but we had basically laid the groundwork and we were able to say, here's how far we are from bringing the first comprehensive fertility franchise that you can take it home to market. And I can back up a little bit. Just everybody knows what we're talking about. Fertility. We're a women's health company. We're really focused on making sure women have access to fertility information before they're ready to have kids. And like I said, it's because we're waiting longer. We actually need to understand what's going on in there earlier in. And our core products that we're talking about right now is a fertility hormone test, you can take it home. It's the exact same panel of hormones that reproductive endocrinologist would test. If you walk into their office and say, you know, I'm having trouble conceiving or I'm thinking about egg freezing, it's just a fraction of the price and it's more accessible. So that more accessible piece was was the core piece. And while everyone else in my family and not everyone else, that's that's a gross exaggeration. But there are many sort of sex companies and tech companies that are watching their their their adoption curve skyrocket with people joining their software. We were doing a clinical study, you know, like we are a health product. We are recruiting our medical advisory board, working with physicians, obsessing over the research. And we launched and published a concordant study that proved that the fingerprint test that we are offering is concordant with a traditional vein, a puncture drop that you might get if you go to a lab and and do the lab test that way.

So it was the exact same panel of hormones. We were just bringing in new collection method and to make it easier and more accessible and more affordable. And that was the sort of work that we were doing while, you know, everybody else was sort of like group hacking. Not that we didn't grow up in our own ways because very early on and I we wanted to build our reports and get this information in front of women. So we worked with mobile phlebotomists and we worked with physicians to help women get the get the blood testing through sort of the traditional method just so we could give them the insight to help them understand what was going on. And as a wellness test only, it's always been this balance of saying here's here's what your hormone levels are and here's what they mean without being a diagnostic. Here's how you can start a conversation with your doctor. So that was also a line that we we needed to get really good at helping give our information, but making super crystal clear that she and her doctor are the ones that decide what to do around this information.

Yeah, it's obviously a very deep and personal and intimate space to be playing in a woman's life. Absolutely.

Yes. And that's another piece of advice we got very early on was, you know, when you're an early stage company, your startup people say do not think about brand. And as a brand person, that was not an option.

I think I think that's another sort of bonus when you do have a skill set that is a little bit unique and different to a founding team, especially founding team in Silicon Valley, use that. So for us, it wasn't just about making sure women had access to lab testing.

It was about making sure there was such thing as fertility, not just infertility, making sure you feel comfortable, understanding what's going on in your body and not not having to feel like, you know, it's your baby crazy or something like that. They sort of weird undertones that are associated with understanding fertility. So very early on, we really cared about how we felt, what we said, what we what we meant, why we matter. And I think that really served us well. And one one small example of like a million examples was very early on when we were building our Lockton experience, which is a very customized dashboard that each woman gets based on her hormone levels and the lifestyle factors she shares. And we basically break down. Here's what your hormone levels say. Here's how they can help you understand your ovarian reserve, how many eggs you have, time to menopause, potential success in egg freezing and IVF, all of that stuff. We did a color study because we didn't want her to think there was a good or a bad. There's no red or green. There's no like green light or red white.

We're all human beings. We're all on sort of the spectrum. We all start with the same number from the same number, but we all start with a large number of eggs like in utero, and we lose those eggs over time. And that is just like the way our bodies work. So how do we how do we normalize that in a way that that doesn't have to feel scary or this big kind of like mysterious thing? Because right now, fertility and having a baby is just maybe it will happen. And that is crazy. Like, we don't we don't say maybe I'll have more retirement funds. We don't say like maybe I feel like, I don't know, maybe all like when the Olympics we we work super hard to get to to get to where we want to be. So infertility shouldn't be any different. And if there are tools that exist, which there are to be able to take a look inside our bodies, you should be able to have those tools. So brand is another thing that matter. And we can talk more tactically, too. About like what exactly that meant melting.

And yes, I definitely want to get into that. But before we do, I want to sort of stick around that early, early time in the brand. When you've just come out of Y Combinator, I want to know, like, what was the process off to that? Because obviously you come out of Y Combinator, you get some type of. You've been able to, like, really define your offering, who your audience is. All of that kind of stuff.

But then what happens next? Because I imagine in this space you need to hire credible people who are medical professionals. I imagine you need to spend a lot of money to put this together. So what's the next phase of bringing a brand like yours to life in those early days?

Yes, great question. And while many people are hiring engineering teams, we are hiring clinical researchers. Again, another difference. We did hire amazing engineers as well, but that's a little bit different. So, yes, we were focused on bringing the actual hormone test to market. So when we left Bisi, we announced that the company existed and we opened up preorders for the amount of fertility hormone test. We said, here's what we're doing. Here's what we're all about. Here's what we've learned. Here's what we're going to do. And we were blown away by the response. We were you're always you're scared about you never know how it's going to go, especially sort of like creating a new market for something. You know, hey, there's something called fertility, not just infertility. We can get ahead of the stuff. The resounding response was how has this not existed before? Which is which was amazing. And we put our heads down to build it and make it happen. So step one was building our medical advisory board. We have over time that was sort of this combination of connections that we had had and we were searching for the right people who are experts in this based on everything from the core hormone that helps you understand ovarian reserve AMH. Scott Nelson, the premier expert on that one hormone to doctrine and talking Douglas, who's the chair of our medical advisory board. She's a reproductive endocrinologist who has done amazing things both on the research side and on the care side to help women and their families. So that was sort of step one. And at the same time, it was OK, now we have to build the digital experience to map to this excellent clinical experience and this clinical operation that we're that we're developing as well. So we very early as part of developing that digital experience, started a community.

And very early, we started a blog, neither the community nor the blog had. I'm doing air quotes. You can't see me, but our immediate R.O. I write this is again, like an investment in something that you cannot show.

The spiking numbers like like other products might be able to.

But we were so convinced that there was that there wasn't a great resource for women to be able to proactively understand what was going on in their bodies, that we could be the thought leaders, we could really talk to women in human speak about what was going on and not just about our product, but about anything related to fertility and reproductive health. So those two pieces create a community for people who are just trying to figure out what their timeline should be, people who are in between their communities, for moms or communities, for people who are trying to conceive. What about that in-between place where you just want to see I just got engaged, but I'm but not covid. And, you know, should I wait to have a kid? How are you thinking about that?

So we found that there was a huge need and gap for that. And then on the content side, you don't see and juices flowing to your blog for months and months and months. It's about finding out what people care about. It's about creating the best possible content, working with our medical advisors obsessively to make sure the caliber is really high.

And we just kept at it until we started really gaining traction and we started seeing that women were really finding us through through our blog. So those I think those two pieces really early on have have laid the groundwork for how we think about, you know, bringing customers in, taking care of them, doing it in a way that is brand additive. We had our way. We would never do an advertisement. We would just do education like. Did you know this? Did you know that? Did you know you're born? If you've never you'll ever have do you know you actually take turns ambulating out of jamhuri? Do you know there's all these just amazing, amazing things that we were so lucky as a brand that we get to dig into and like and obsess about? So that's really been our approach. And the more that we're able to to just provide the education, the stronger sort of our our whole ecosystem becomes.

Yeah, absolutely. That's so interesting. And it's funny because you're saying those things that I'm like actually didn't know that. And I think what you guys do really well is your tone of voice. And your language is like approachable. It's safe space. It's like easy to understand. It's easy to digest. It's not some scary jargon, heavy thing, which is really important. And that obviously brings us into the brand overall. And I'm super excited to talk to you about this because obviously something you guys are doing really well is the actual brand, how you look, how how you sound, how you feel. It's amazing. Congratulations.

Thank you.

And I do want to talk about your background in these creative roles within companies like Apple and Google and how that has prepped you essentially for your role now in creating a brand from scratch and what you've learned from your lessons at those companies and what you've been able to bring across, and especially for women who might be listening, who are starting a brand or who are in that kind of creative space. What's important to understand when you are in this process, it's about 50 questions put into one.