Pumpspotting Founder On Community, Relationships And The Power Of Rejection

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series” is comprised of stories, Q&As and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies.

Amy VanHaren is the founder and CEO of pumpspotting, a community-driven breastfeeding support platform that aims to elevate the breastfeeding climate for women wherever they are. In August, the company announced its seed funding round and a partnership with the State of Maine that will bring new breastfeeding benefits to 20,000 employees of the state and its affiliated agencies.

VanHaren created pumpspotting from personal need, as a working mother who spent countless hours pumping in airports, Ubers and bathrooms. Along the way, she and her team (all working mothers) have developed a community that is more than 40,000 parents strong. The company has been named a high-impact startup by MassChallenge and VanHaren has been named a Forbes Next 1000 Entrepreneur.

In this Q&A, VanHaren shares her journey to becoming an entrepreneur in the femtech space, how relationships led to pumpspotting’s seed round, and how a painful rejection led to her crossing the country on a five-month RV trip.

Amy VanHaren, Founder and CEO of pumpspotting

Q: What inspired you to start pumpspotting?

Pumpspotting began from raw need. Six years ago I was sitting on a dirty bathroom floor in the San Francisco airport, hooked up to a breast pump that sounded like Darth Vader trying to navigate breastfeeding, and working and feeling like a failure at both. I was flying across the country every month, pumping in bathrooms and on airplanes between businessmen and in the back seat of Ubers, feeling so alone and overwhelmed.

The one thing that kept me going was other women. I saw a way to connect all of us feeding mothers so we could share encouragement, tips for work and places to pump outside the bathroom and went out and built it. 

Q: What problems were you trying to solve with pumpspotting?

Breastfeeding is really hard. It’s a massive time commitment—1,800 hours in one year, which is the equivalent of a full-time job—and a real emotional roller coaster. It’s even harder when you’re working.

Nearly half of breastfeeding workers are considering a job change; and according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the average retention rate of breastfeeding workers is only 59 percent.

We’ve discovered that–because breastfeeding is mostly invisible to employers–the risks associated with weak or nonexistent breastfeeding support programs include turnover, absenteeism and increased medical claims.

That’s why comprehensive breastfeeding support programs are a huge opportunity for companies. By removing barriers, they’re helping nursing mothers achieve baby-feeding goals, increasing retention rates to an average of 94 percent, and reducing absenteeism by 50 percent and medical claims by nearly $900 each year per employee.

With pumpspotting, we’ve created tech that makes it easy to remove those barriers, allowing parents to feed both family and career and the companies they work for to be real champions.

Q: What is your advice for other female founders at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journeys?

Cultivate relationships with those who help you be your best self. The journey of entrepreneurship is filled with many ups and downs—and so many questions and doubts—so the energy of the team and investors and advisers around you matters.

Seek out mentors and fellow female founders who inspire you, and be brave in approaching them to start a conversation; I’m always amazed at how open people are to an authentic ask. Also, build a personal advisory board: A small group of people who care about the success and well-being of you as a person (vs solely the success of your business) that you can turn to each month for council and cheering on.

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as the founder of your own company?

Early on, someone told me: “Fall in love with the problem you are solving, not your solution,” and it has been the best advice.

As an early-stage startup, we don’t always know exactly where we’re going to end up, but we do know exactly who we serve. Product features, messaging, go-to-market strategies will all pivot—COVID has taught us that—but the parents we serve and our authentic approach to serving them does not.

Our community is our North Star, and by staying deeply connected to them and engaged in conversation with them daily we are building a solution they truly love.

Q: Do you have a favorite quote or “personal mantra” you use to keep yourself motivated?

“That which is meant for me will not pass me by.” 

It may sound a little woo-woo, but no matter your hustle as a startup founder you always need to have some faith. I learned early on how important it is to put your vision out there, hold your course, and then let go of your death grip.

All the best investors and partnerships come when we’re being authentic to our vision. Forcing never leads to anything good and by reminding myself that it will come together if it’s a positive alignment for all, I can release some of the pressure to be perfect and show up authentically. Which, of course, is when we land the deal!

Q: What challenge are you most proud of overcoming in your career?

Early on we turned our biggest failure into one of our defining moments. 

We pitched on Apple’s reality show “Planet of the Apps” in 2017 and were rejected. Gary Vaynerchuk, one of the mentors on the show, asked us: “How well do you really know the audience you serve?” His question struck a chord with me and my partner and head of product, Lindsey Witmer Collins. We woke up at 4 a.m. the next morning with an idea.

Six months later, I bought a 40-foot RV, turned it into a nursing and pumping oasis called The Breast Express and lived on board for five months. We traveled across the country, to over 50 cities, stopping at NASA and IBM, at the St. Louis Fair and inner-city Detroit, and even parents’ front doors. I met close to 5,000 parents in person and I came to understand the pain points of breastfeeding and postpartum intimately; that propelled us to where we are today.

That trip was the start of a movement for us, and I’m proud to have turned something defeating into a powerful experience that was a source of great company strength.

Q: How have you integrated your values and mission into your own company structure?

We’re helping companies create working parent-supportive environments that enable people to thrive as both parents and professionals. That work absolutely starts with us. 

Every full-time employee at pumpspotting is a working mother. The key elements of a family-friendly environment are built into our fiber: community, flexibility, paid maternity leave, breastfeeding support and, above all, empathy.

There is power in saying to your working parents: We see you and your hard work. We honor your commitment to us and your family. Together, we’re going to create an experience that works for you.

When we lead this way, everyone wins. I’m very proud to be modeling the way, both internally at pumpspotting and externally through our products and services.

Q: What are the biggest lessons you learned from raising your last round of funding?

As a female founder of a breastfeeding company from the state of Maine, my fundraising experience has certainly been a real journey. Closing our seed round required a great deal of grit and adaptability and fierce passion. Breastfeeding is a topic that is still invisible in so many places, yet it’s also really good for business.

There were times I pitched to a room of over 50 men and I had to find real champions, especially among female investors.

I learned which insights landed most and built off them to make my pitches stronger. I learned the value in choosing clarity over certainty; you must move on quickly from the investors who don’t get your vision early on; and always lean into your superpower, which for me is storytelling.

These next funds will fuel the company’s growth in the B2B channel, helping employers, retailers and brands of all sizes provide critical support to feeding parents, transforming breastfeeding-tolerant climates into breastfeeding-supportive climates. 

Q: What do you find most rewarding about your experience as a founder so far? How has your experience as a founder impacted those around you?

I never knew my journey to nourish my son would lead me on this quest to nourish so many others, but it has. It’s been pretty amazing to see the ripple effect of bringing this traditionally invisible conversation to the forefront, especially in workplaces.

Not only have we made breastfeeding and postpartum a focus of conversation at leading organizations like Steelcase, the State of Maine and NASA but also into investment firms, underserved communities, and even in the homes of many of my relatives.

Feeding a baby takes a community, and so does building a company. I wouldn’t be where I am on this journey without my family, friends and all those I’ve met along the way who share this passion and opened doors.

While I hope that I’ve inspired others to put a big idea out into the world, what has meant the most to me is learning from all the female founders, investors, lactation consultants and mothers I’ve met along the way. 

  • Originally published October 25, 2021, updated October 26, 2021