Libre, a Dublin-based clothing line for chemotherapy and dialysis patients, celebrates its first year of sales this month.
Megan Stengel came up with the idea for the niche line in 2008 after witnessing her mother’s frustration with having to cut holes into her clothes to receive dialysis. At the time, Stengel was just a senior at Miami University. However, the concept for Libre won first place in a business plan competition sponsored by the school’s Page Center for Entrepreneurship, and after graduating in May 2009, Stengel and three other young women (also Miami grads) moved to Central Ohio to make the line a reality.
Libre’s clothes are designed to keep patients warm during treatment and tailored to each patient’s specific point of access. The access points are hidden, though, so patients can even wear the clothes outside a treatment setting.
“Libre addresses an underserved market because there are no other products available to these patients that fill their needs,” says Tess Schuster, Libre’s vice president of marketing. (Stengel is Libre’s vp of research and development, Mandy Eckman is vp of sales, and Bethany Skaff is vp of manufacturing.)
Read our interview with Schuster to learn why she knows Libre is making a difference in the infusion community, who Libre’s team turned to for guidance, and what customers can look for later this year.
Melanie McIntyre: Libre has been in business for a year. What has your team learned over the last 12 months?
Tess Schuster: Where do I begin? We have learned a lot over the past 12 months. We learned more about our markets and about new markets. We learned what patients are looking for in their products. We learned retail and medical lingo. We learned what it takes to start a business. We learned how important a good idea and support system are, and so much more.
MM: You said the team has learned “what it takes to start a business.” What do you mean?
TS: When entrepreneurs talked to us about starting a business, they told us all the great things we wanted to hear. They told us we would get to do something we enjoy, set our own hours, be our own boss, et cetera et cetera. What they didn’t always mention was how much went into starting a company.
Libre is still “new,” so we are still learning a lot. But since we have graduated and through our first year of sales, we have learned very valuable lessons. The biggest lesson we have learned when starting a company is patience. Every entrepreneur thinks their company is going to make it big overnight and we were no different. We knew we had a strong idea and we assumed everything would just happen as we planned.
We quickly learned that producing product that no one had really heard of was much more difficult then we thought and that getting into a new market that we were essentially creating was difficult as well. With patience came persistence. We understood we may not get it right on the first try, but we were willing to put in the hours and keep trying until we got it right!
MM: What do you consider Libre’s biggest accomplishment in the last year?
TS: Our biggest accomplishment was our first sale! It was from a man in North Carolina that had been following our company! Our second biggest accomplishment would be ordering a new round of inventory, and having to turn around and order another because the demand was so high. Our third biggest accomplishment was becoming known in the dialysis community across the nation. There are many more aspects of the company that we are very proud of, but those would be some of the top accomplishments.
MM: What resources did you use to get Libre up and running?
TS: Family and friends! We could not have started Libre without our family and friends. Besides the moral support they gave and continue to give us, they were a great resource. Many of these people were connected to Miami University. We started the company as seniors at Miami and the Miami community continues to support us with knowledge and resources. A large resource that really helped us get started with manufacturers was a large retail manufacturer in the Columbus area. They guided us through the manufacturing process, since none of [the founders] had any experience in this industry.
MM: Who did you rely on for advice and input?
TS: When it comes to advice and input in the company, we turn to our board of advisors. We are fortunate to have a board of advisors that we can really count on. It is made up of some of our former professors, business owners, CPA, established lawyer, and more. These are people with years of experience that we can depend on to guide us in the right direction.
MM: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced since launching Libre and how did you overcome it?
TS: One of our biggest challenges since launching Libre was manufacturing. None of us had experience in the retail industry. We did not know how to find and communicate with manufacturers. We had a specific product that we needed produced for a very niche market. We turned to our network to help us in this area. We received guidance from people in the industry. Most people think of New York for retail manufacturing, but Columbus is a great place to start a company!
MM: What’s the most rewarding aspect of owning your own business?
TS: The most rewarding aspect of owning my own business is that I get to do something I believe in completely. I love talking with our customers and hearing their stories. My grandfather was on dialysis for many years and I learned a lot from him and his experiences, so when patients and family call, I can relate to them. I love knowing that our product is really bringing joy to their situation.
MM: What kinds of clothing does Libre offer?
TS: We currently offer two sweatshirts, one sweater, and one pair of pants with hidden access points. These offer access to people receiving treatment in their arm, chest, or legs. We are continuously working on new products that meet the needs of our customers.
MM: Do you plan to offer more clothing in the months ahead?
TS: We will be offering our Stephen sweatshirt in navy in early summer. And by the end of summer or early fall, we plan to have our full-zip, hooded sweatshirt available for patients. We are currently testing this product with some of our customers to make sure it is exactly what people are looking for. We also will receive feedback from nurses and technicians that will work with the product.
MM: Is there anything else you think I should know?
TS: We work closely with the communities we are connected with. We have multiple local and national partners that we donate to financially and support through events. LIVESTRONG and American Kidney Fund are two of the largest groups we work with.
To learn more about Libre, and see a full list organizations it supports philanthropically, visit LibreClothing.com.