Katie Blouin of Larken on staying true to your brand’s mission
Please share a brief introduction about yourself and your business:
I’m the Co-Founder of Larken. Larken is a line of innovative clothing essentials designed to make pregnancy and postpartum easier and more comfortable. Our hero product and best-selling, patented Larken X bra is a totally different take on the traditional nursing and pumping bra of the past. It is the first all in one nursing and hands-free pumping bra without any irritating elastic, awkward holes, snaps, zippers, or other hardware. It’s made with a buttery soft, lightweight, breathable and stretchy fabric that adapts to your changing body and feels like you’re wearing nothing at all. It can be used during pregnancy, nursing, hands-free dual or single pumping, as well as to secure a silicone pump. It has over 500 five star reviews from moms raving that they are “obsessed” and it is the “absolute best” and has been named by top publications, such as Babylist, The Bump, Scary Mommy, New York Magazine and more as the best pumping bra.
In addition to our bra, we sell several other basics that combine the functionality moms need with the premium comfort they deserve, including bump and nursing friendly high-waisted underwear, pajamas, tanks and will soon be launching leggings. All of these products are made with with luxuriously soft, easy to care for and ultra-stretchy micro-modal fabrics and are available on our own website as well as our retail partners like Nordstrom, Maisonette and Monica and Andy.
What excites you about being an Entreprenista League member?
I am so thrilled to be an Entreprenista League member. I’ve already made incredible connections and started collaborating with other members. I’ve also learned so much from other members as well as the vast resources and webinars the Entreprenista League provides.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
I became an entrepreneur to solve my own problem. I’m a mom of 3 children, ages 1, 5 and 7. My Co-Founder, Maggie and I were both pregnant with our daughters at the same time in 2016. Between the two of us we have struggled with miscarriage, fertility challenges, postpartum anxiety, and in particular, significant breastfeeding challenges. We looked for bras and tanks that could help us nurse and pump, and only found bulky, uncomfortable bras made with itchy fabrics and all sorts of clips, zippers and weird holes that irritated our sensitive skin. We needed a comfortable solution that we could wear all day and sleep in at night so we could easily transition between nursing and pumping without ever having to change bras. It didn’t make sense to us that a mom who has already gone through so much both physically and mentally has to wear something equivalent to a torture device to be able to feed her baby. At that moment, Larken was born out of our belief that pregnancy and postpartum is hard enough, your clothes shouldn’t make it harder.
Without any apparel or manufacturing experience, we dove in and began sketching ideas to combine the functionality that we needed with the premium comfort and simplicity we deserved. The very first working prototype arrived to Maggie’s doorstep minutes before my daughter was born. Maggie was only a few weeks postpartum and texted me while I was in labor to say “how are you doing, and by the way we have a prototype and it works…” We tested it ourselves, and while we knew we were headed in the right direction, it definitely needed more work to achieve the level of comfort we were focused on.
About 5 months later, we were at my parents’ house for brunch on Mother’s Day 2017. I was telling my mom how we hadn’t quite gotten the design down yet but had a new idea. I grabbed the bin of fabric scraps I carried around with me in my trunk, and she pulled out her old sewing machine. She sewed our final prototype right then on Mother’s Day with my 90 and 99 year old grandmas and then 5 month old and 2 year old daughters in the room. We knew right away we had figured it out. My Grandma Iona even said in her southern drawl “I think ya’ll are gonna be on Shark Tank one day.”
From there, we were testing it ourselves and getting it in the hands of several moms of different shapes and sizes and in different stages of their motherhood journey to get feedback. It was a steep learning curve trying to navigate the manufacturing process and finding the perfect partners, all while practicing law full-time, but we knew we had a game-changing product so we kept going and ultimately launched in 2019.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
I practiced Intellectual Property Law at a commercial law firm in Chicago and then took a position at one of our clients, McDonald’s Corporation, as Marketing & Intellectual Property Counsel. Though those roles ultimately were not what I wanted to do long-term, my education and former career has made me a better negotiator, a creative problem solver and a critical thinker. I also got a front row seat to how several global small and large brands operated, all of which have been hugely beneficial as an entrepreneur.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
To be honest, it wasn’t until my 20s that the word “entrepreneur” was even in my vocabulary, but there were some signs of an entrepreneurial future for me. Growing up, we lived on a park, and I would call the local schools to get their cross country meet schedules. (This was pre-internet days). On meet days, I’d rush home from school and set up a lemonade stand along the route and camp out while I did my homework. I quickly learned that I needed to find anyone that looked like a coach and complain about how hot it was and how thirsty those kids must be, and then I would successfully sell through pitchers. I also lied about my age to a local salon in middle school so I could get a job as a shampoo girl despite being too young. When I was shampooing the elderly ladies that frequented the shop, I’d try to upsell them with services the salon didn’t offer, like scalp massages, and then I’d negotiate my own separate fees.
However, it still never registered to me that entrepreneurship was even an option. There wasn’t anyone in my circle of friends or family who had started or ran a business, and the word entrepreneur wasn’t even in my vocabulary so I pursued my linear path to a legal career.
It wasn’t until my co-founder and I shared a problem we knew we could solve ourselves, that I even realized being an entrepreneur was an option. We somewhat naively dove into trying to solve this problem and start an apparel company, knowing very little about what was ahead and just how difficult it would be, but in the end I think that worked in our favor. We may not have tried at all if we had known the road ahead. But I’m so glad we did because we created a product moms desperately need, and for the first time, I found meaning in my career and now can’t imagine doing anything else.
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?
We had pretty high hopes that once we had a website up and running, people would just naturally find us. It was somewhat of a rude awakening that it didn’t quite work that way, but we’ve bootstrapped this company so we didn’t have any kind of marketing budget for essentially the first 1.5 years. We really focused in the beginning on getting the product into the hands of as many lactation consultants as possible. We knew once they were able to test and feel it, they would understand the selling points and be able to help us spread the word. Those first 18 months, we focused primarily on blindly emailing and calling as many lactation consultants and pregnant or newly postpartum influencers as possible and hoping that they would be willing to test the product in exchange for gifting. From there, fortunately, the word of mouth among moms is powerful, and it organically grew. We were able to then begin allocating some budget to paid marketing efforts.
What is the biggest challenge you have encountered along the way and what did you learn from it?
Our biggest challenges have been related to production. Right before we launched, we ultimately had to pull back because we found out our manufacturer at the time wasn’t being honest and was working with a competitor. We’ve also received finished units that didn’t stretch and function as they needed to and fabric that didn’t meet our specs. In many instances, we’ve had to take a tough loss on those goods or units to ensure we provided the customer the best product possible. We’ve learned several things from these experiences. First, we’ve learned to stay true to our mission. When we’ve stayed true to our mission to help moms, we’ve been able to navigate the tough choices and how to deal with taking losses related to having to fix certain goods or delay launches. We’ve also been able to take those experiences and improve our processes so they don’t happen again. Over time, we have implemented several additional quality control checks throughout every step of the sourcing and production process and we’ve diversified our supply chain and factories we work with so that we always have back up plans in place!
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
We are extremely proud of obtaining a utility patent for our Larken X bra, particularly as women inventors. According to a 2019 USPTO Report, patents owned by all-female teams constituted only 4% of issued patents in the United States between 2009-2019. On a more personal level, the emails we receive from our customers, particularly moms with babies in the NICU, sharing that our product saved their breastfeeding journey and sanity and helped in any way are always some of our proudest moments and the reason we do this.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
I think the word “balance” sets us up for unrealistic standards. I believe in work/life integration and this is a big work in progress for me. I think to the extent there is any sort of “balance,” it is not on the daily level. I think it’s understanding that some days will be more “work heavy” and others will be more “life heavy” and that’s ok. My biggest tip and something I’m still working daily at is learning when to say no. I think as entrepreneurs and the various personal roles we all have, we have to be fairly ruthless in how we prioritize our time. As much as I want to say yes to all the things, learning to say “no” or “not now” has saved my sanity.
What have you achieved recently that you’d like to celebrate with our community?
We recently launched on both Nordstrom.com and Maisonette.com and are excited to see how those retail partnerships can accelerate our growth!
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
We want to continue to innovate in the maternity and postpartum clothing space and think that there are so many more opportunities to combine functionality and premium comfort for moms. We are also really diving into community building and how we can better serve our customers beyond our products. Larken is a name that means “fierce,” and we chose it out of the recognition that motherhood is beautiful but incredibly challenging. We are focused on creating more content sharing moms’ real stories, expert content from resources like OBGyns, lactation consultants, labor and delivery nurses and more and normalizing the conversations around tough topics in the maternity and postpartum space.