In Conversation with Gail Sexton Anderson of Donor Concierge & Tulip
Describe Donor Concierge & Tulip in a few words?
We are the premier fertility concierge service – made up of caring experts who personally guide our clients through the intimate and complex process of finding their ideal egg donor, surrogate, or sperm donor – so they can create their family via third-party fertility.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
I saw a need that was not being met and was desperately needed. When I first started working with intended parents through an egg donor and surrogacy agencies, I found my passion was to help them find who they were looking for to create their family rather than offering only the donors or surrogates who worked with that agency. Eggs and sperm are not replaceable widgets in a manufacturing process; they are half of the DNA that will create one’s, future child. When a future parent can relate to the person that they choose as their donor, it is easier for them to make their decision.
We offer intended parents far more than just helping with the search; we help them build their fertility team. When entering into third-party fertility, the only thing that most fertility patients know is that they need a donor or a surrogate. In reality, they need a team of professionals which may include a reproductive endocrinologist, a mental health professional, and financial and legal professionals. Over my career developed an extensive network of trusted professionals.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
My academic background is a combination of psychology and marketing. I have a Masters in Counseling Psychology from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Before pursuing my masters I was working in sales and marketing, primarily in high tech. I didn’t find sales work fulfilling and had always been more interested in psychology.
I loved my studies and considered pursuing my PhD but I loved my son more than school and I wanted to have a second child. I knew that if I continued toward my PhD I would be putting in the same long hours that I spent during my Masters’ studies for 4-5 more years. I wanted to create a balance in my life through meaningful work and being a mom.
Shortly after I moved to California (with two young children) I began working with a small agency that had an egg donor and surrogacy agency after a chance meeting with the founder. I found that I had a passion for helping couples find an egg donor or a gestational carrier.
After starting my journey in third-party fertility, I want on to help start a few other agencies. What I enjoyed most was helping intended parents solve problems and help them find the donor or gestational carrier they needed to create their families. That’s when I realized no single agency is going to have the right donor or surrogate for every family.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I didn’t always think so but I’ve come to realize I’m an entrepreneur from my core and my heart. I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian; I don’t like to hear, “No, we can’t do that.” My immediate reaction is, “why not?” That attitude led me to create Donor Concierge when there was no such thing as a service to help fertility patients find their best fertility options customized to their individual needs.
I felt strongly that future parents needed to be able to move forward and create the family they have been yearning for for years. They needed to know and have access to all possible options, not just those from the pool of donors or surrogates of any single agency. People need to feel like they’ve done their due diligence regarding their choices and my goal is to help them find that special donor or surrogate who they can relate to. What they relate to is different for everyone; it may be heritage, religion, or physical characteristics. Choosing a donor or surrogate is a huge decision and people need to feel comfortable with it.
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
I was fortunate to have come from a sales and marketing background and while I didn’t find sales and marketing fulfilling in high tech, I am passionate about family building. I started by reaching out to first about three agencies, then ten, then 20 and now we work with more than 200 vetted agencies.
At the same time I built relationships with clinics. At first clinics would say “We have our own donors” or “We work with such and such agency. Why would we need to refer our patients to you?” Over time that has changed. We now get 60% of our clients from direct referrals from clinics, attorneys, and previous clients. We built our reputation for integrity and always keeping our future parents as our True North. We work only for them. At Donor Concierge, we don’t take any referral fees from anyone. Our clients pay us for our time and expertise and we work only for them.
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
I’ve learned from my mistakes, both in small ways as well as large. Surrogate Resource Network was a new venture within Donor Concierge that I thought would change the surrogacy world. Our goal was to recruit and screen surrogates, match them with our clients, and then collect a referral fee from a partnering surrogacy agency to manage the cycle.
We hired a few new employees to focus on this exclusively but soon learned that the idea was good in theory but not in practice. It was time-consuming and not cost-effective.
What I learned was:
- Finding good surrogates is different from sourcing anything else because it’s a very unique group of women who are willing to be gestational carriers.
- The challenges that surrogacy agencies face that are unique to their practice.
- Not all agencies are reliable partners.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
There are many accomplishments that I am proud of, not the least of which is building our amazing team. What started as me working from my kitchen table, has become a team of 23, all across the US, working with hundreds of clients every year.
But currently the accomplishment that I’m the most proud of is Tulip Fertility. TULIP is something I’ve dreamed of for years. I don’t think financial background should be an impediment to finding the resources you need for creating a family and I think TULIP makes this possible. It provides a platform where hopeful parents can find third party options independently and be connected directly to a vast network of fertility resources, with knowledgeable people to guide them.
We worked on TULIP for 4 years prior to launching. Initially, it was conceived as a software tool for us at Donor Concierge to be able to more efficiently help our client narrow down their donor options so that we could spend more time helping them to solve problems that can crop on the way to the egg donor cycle. That is what we primarily focus on at Donor Concierge.
Tulip is more of a ‘do it yourself’ program with online coaching support. We started by creating the largest database of vetted egg donors in the world.
We contacted every egg donor agency we work with to explain what we wanted to do and get them on board. Egg donation is unlike any other business – it’s composed mainly of smaller companies who are each very independent. But, I’ve known them all for 20 years and they trust us and know us.
TULIP partners with 90% of the agencies across the US and they are all vetted, trusted partners. Next we had to synthesize all of the databases that were out there, “map” all of that data so that we could present all of the donor profiles in a consistent, and complete manner. Egg donor agencies often have notoriously bad databases of donor profiles – mainly because it’s expensive to maintain a highly complex database of information and many of these are small businesses who can’t necessarily afford the cost. That’s why we also made our software technology available to agencies to use – a kind of ‘side benefit’ to the TULIP platform.
We are really lucky to have an amazing CTO in Jon Stowe, who made all of this work by putting together a top-notch technical development team. Jon made my vision come to life in a workable product platform.
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
I don’t have any standard interview questions for job candidates as our successful team members come from a variety of backgrounds. What I am most interested in is getting to know who they are and what they value. I’ve already seen their resume so I’m not interested in discussing that; I want them to tell me about themselves.
In many ways my interview process is similar to how I get to know a new client: I want to hear their story and how they arrived at this point in their life. Once I hear their story, I know whether they are a fit with our team.
Our team is a unique group of women: most of them are middle aged; most have their Masters’ degree; and many have faced some sort of family building challenge which is what has brought them to value the work that they do. Most important, they must share my passion for family building.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
The industry was down about 5% overall in 2020 because clinics were closed for six weeks and international travel was suspended, wiping out fertility tourism. In the first few weeks after lockdown here in California we were concerned because of the uncertainty. Nevertheless, we found that even in the face of a global pandemic, fertility patients didn’t want to put their families on hold. Although our international business dried up due to travel restrictions, 2020 was the best year ever for Donor Concierge.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
We will continue to be a leader in third-party fertility as we grow our family-building platform, Tulip. We launched the online, DIY platform with the largest donor database available and intend to add sperm donor profiles, surrogates, and donated embryos.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
Things change. We have always been proud of our ability to constantly adjust to our clients’ evolving needs. COVID -19 created many constraints that forced us to innovate faster. We found solutions for our clients who were limited in their ability to travel; we used videoconferencing as we never have before both to maintain the feeling of being one team and to maintain our relationships with our partner agencies and clinics; and we hired new team members who became available to us.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
To trust myself and not be discouraged by what anyone else says or does. If you take care of your clients, your business will grow.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
I spend my free time hiking. I find that being out in nature is uplifting and helps me to keep perspective. Hiking keeps me in shape physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
I’m obsessive, a personality trait that enabled me to start a business that no one thought possible. When my children were young, they were my priority when they were at home and awake which meant that I often worked late into the night after they were in bed.
- Set boundaries; there’s always more work to be done.
- Family always come first.
- Take care of your client but set boundaries.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
Twice I’ve ridden the AIDS/LifeCycle bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I did it the first time by myself (at age 54) and the next year on a tandem with my husband. Both were amazing experiences. I continue to support the ride even if I’m not riding.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
- At the end of each day I review the next day’s schedule.
- I take time in the morning to have tea and some quiet time.
- I pick two things to accomplish that day.
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
It means I get to follow my conscience in how I conduct business.