From Curator to Tech Founder, A Mission Driven Mid-Career Switch by Kristen Carbone

Automatic Summary

How a Big Idea Transformed Grief into Solution: The Story Behind Brilliantly

Meet Kristen, founder of Brilliantly, who shared her incredible journey of transforming idea to product, at a recent conference. This article succinctly captures her years of hard work, determination and antecedent experiences that formed the genesis of her brainchild, Brilliantly.

Genesis of the Idea

Kristen's tale begins about a decade ago, when she was in the middle of raising her two children, handling a move to Providence, Rhode Island, and grappling with the grief of her mother's premature death to metastatic breast cancer. Amid this turmoil, she experienced a health scare—an alarm raised at a routine ultrasound, which thankfully turned out to be benign. However, this instance prompted Kristen to opt for a preventative mastectomy.

"This was back in 2012 and not many people were talking about that procedure back then. There weren't online support communities in the way there are now.", she said. Unfazed by the lack of information and precedents, she forged ahead, as she did through many challenges in her life—embracing single motherhood, finding a job amidst caring for her babies, and managing her physical health.

Turning a Temperature Struggle into an Innovative Solution

Kristen's hardiness saw her through a multitude of changes, but it was the aftermath of her mastectomy that led to the creation of Brilliantly. "One of the big negatives was how I felt in my body. I was completely unprepared for what it would feel like to live in a body that had been surgically altered.", she shared candidly. Kristen noticed she felt cold all the time, a situation attributed to the lack of insulating breast tissue around her implants. Driven by the sheer discomfort, Kristen came up with an idea—a wearable warming device that could fit into any bra.

Taking the First Steps

Armed with a prototype made from thermally conductive material and powered by a drill battery, Kristen ventured out to discover if other women faced the same issue. She started reaching out to women in breast cancer community groups on various social platforms. Remarkably, she learned that over 75% of women who had implant reconstruction experienced a similar constant coldness.

Bringing the Idea to Life

Armed with this newfound validation, Kristen set out to turn her idea into reality. "The first step in me starting this business was asking for help." Taking the leap to seek help from those proficient in areas she was unfamiliar with, she successfully transformed her prototype into the app-controlled warming wearable, brilliantly warm.

The Birth of Brilliantly Warm

"Women are using it for both temperature and pain management," said a visibly fired-up Kristen while announcing the launch of Brilliantly Warm. Users found it incredibly helpful for a plethora of needs—from staving off the chill at their desk, increasing comfort during outdoor activities, easing nursing mothers' discomfort, to managing menstrual cramps.

Making Big Ideas Happen: Key Takeaways

  • Honour Your Ideas: Every big idea starts small. Validate it, research what's out there, test your assumptions, and forge ahead if it solves a problem.
  • Talk About It: Share your idea with a varied audience—friends, acquaintances, potential customers. Don't hesitate to draw from their feedback and suggestions.
  • Ask for Help: In Kristen's words: " You probably have many, many people who want to help you and who want to share their expertise. Use them"

With her dedication and willingness to seek help, Kristen navigated her way through personal and business challenges to create Brilliantly—Innovating comfort for women, and creating an ecosystem that supports women's needs better, and truly makes their world a better place. Don't hesitate to reach out for whatever assistance you need for your big ideas—you might find a brilliantly warm community ready to help you as she did.

Video Transcription

Um I'm Kristen, the founder of brilliant, thanks so much for having me today. Just some quick housekeeping. If you have any questions, please drop them in the text.I'm happy to be interrupted and I tried to leave a, a moment of time at the end for some Q and A um really excited to be here today and share a bit more about my background and my how and why for starting brilliantly if we were together in person, I would be asking with a quick show of hands who here has had an idea for a product or a service or a business that would make the world a better place or improve lives even if it was just your life.

But because I can't see you, I'm just going to assume that every single one of you would have your hand raised because we all constantly have amazing ideas. And for me having a big idea that I wanted to see to fruition did not make it easy. It did not fit seamlessly into my life, but it didn't stop me and it shouldn't stop you either. So my story of my big idea started about 10 years ago and I'll give you a little context. This is me about 10 years ago with my two kids and we were moving to Providence Rhode Island with my then husband. And our move was meant to be, you know, a whole new fresh start for us. But it was proving to be my undoing and my becoming, but I didn't know that yet. And as any mother can attest motherhood is exhausting both physically and emotionally. And I'd entered into motherhood already worn out from the caretaking and eventual death of my mom, Lisa, who died from metastatic breast cancer before she even turned 50. And from the outside, my little family appeared happy and much like what I'd always imagined my adulthood would look like I'd persevered. I started to build my own family and my own life.

But I was really bogged down by grief and I was struggling to feel happy and fulfilled with my place in the world and how to make a good life for my kids also during that time. So we're talking 10 years ago, March 2012 during a routine ultrasound, they found alarm. And before anybody told me, I knew they'd found something, the ultrasound tech was almost holding her breath while she went over and over the same upper quadrant of my left breast and took measurements.

And in the few minutes that I was waiting all by myself for the radiologist to come in, I made a decision that I was going to have a preventative mastectomy. The first time a doctor recommended I have a preventative mastectomy. I was horrified. But in that moment, faced with the possibility of being diagnosed with cancer, having a preventative mastectomy, didn't seem crazy at all. My mom's cancer had been caught extremely early and she died anyway. So for me early simply wasn't good enough. Thankfully, the lump was benign, but I'd already started down the path of having my preventative mastectomy. And as I said, this was back in 2012 and not many people were talking about that procedure back then. There weren't online support communities in the way there are now.

And I personally didn't know anyone who was facing the same decision. So I forged ahead into a life altering decision sort of blindly which you're gonna see is a bit of a theme in my life. It took me a year of fighting with my health insurance before they agreed to cover even part of the cost of the procedure. And over that year, my husband moved out, my grief had worn down our bond in a way that we just couldn't seem to overcome. And as a newly single mom of two very small Children who hadn't been working for almost two years, I realized that I needed to find a job ASAP. And I'd spent most of my professional career working in museums. So I managed to network my way into a three quarter time position at the Rhode Island School of Design. So with a job and some health insurance and an army of friends and family supporting me, I went into the or in April of 2013 feeling really confident. It was the first time I felt like I was taking action to ensure a healthy future and doing that, forced me to do something that was even scarier than having surgery, which for me is asking for help. I don't know about you guys, but I always felt like there was some value in being able to do it all, all by myself. Like, wouldn't it be awesome if I could do everything perfectly all on my own? No, it totally doesn't work, it doesn't happen.

And this is the perfect example of that the gift of my physical health until this moment meant that I'd almost never needed to say I need help. But because my kids were two and four and I was about to have multiple surgeries. I simply had no choice. So for months, there was a rotating cast of visitors living with us and it was a new phase of parenting and of co-habitating and honestly of becoming myself and the relief that I felt for not only asking for help but accepting it was truly profound. So for me, my mastectomy, I think made me a better person and a better parent and a better friend, the positive outcomes of this experience were like completely unforeseen as were the negatives. And one of the big negatives was how I felt in my body. I was completely unprepared for what it would feel like to live in a body that had been surgically altered. And one of the strange and unexpected outcomes was that I feel cold all the time. So hopefully, this gives a little bit of clarity to that problem. But if you are a woman in the audience, you probably have found that you feel cold in normal daily situations where other people seem comfortable and we will get to that later. But this slide, hopefully, clearly illustrates the problem that happens when you have implants without breast tissue, insulating them, without breast tissue, nothing's keeping them at body temperature and they are a heat sink and the implants are just pulling heat from your core.

And for years, I assumed that I was the only person dealing with this problem. And while I never asked my doctor about it, my close friends knew that I was uncomfortable pretty much all of the time. This is where my big idea comes in. I really wanted to make something that would make me feel warmer and more comfortable and less distracted. So I could focus on what was important in my life and stop thinking about this constant nagging coldness, which reminded me of this terrible experience that I had and my dear friend found this thermally conductive material. And offered to help make me something to wear. And I knew right away that I didn't want to make a jacket or a vest and I really didn't want to try to make a bra. What I wanted was something that would fit easily into any one of my bras and be invisible under any outfit and guess what we did it. But I mean, it fit into all my bras and you can see in the front in that first image that there's like a hot pink reddish bra and what we made is laying inside of it.

But you can see in the second picture that it's hooked up to a drill battery. So a big yellow DeWalt drill battery, not super discreet, not invisible under any outfit. And I knew it would be expensive and time consuming to find someone who could make it. And it didn't make sense to me to have them do that for just me. So in an effort to understand if other people needed it, I joined Instagram and Facebook groups and started reaching out to other women to chat about their sensation, but also their life, post surgery, cancer or treatment. And over the summer of 2017, I learned from hundreds of women in the breast cancer community that over 75% of women who've had implant, reconstruction experience coldness as a regular and constant pain point. And that's when I knew I had to do something to solve this problem, my big idea had to happen. So I'm not sure if you guys are gonna be able to guess what I'm gonna say here. But the first step in me starting this business was asking for help. But before I could ask anyone for help, I needed to know like what I needed help with.

So I made a list of all of the parts of starting and running a business that I could think of. And then I circled the ones that I knew nothing about which if I'm being totally honest with almost all of them. And then I made another list of all of the people in my network who were amazing at those things. And then I invited them to dinner. And in September of 2017, I had a dinner party with coworkers, former colleagues, friends, like basically the smartest group of people I had access to and I told them about my big idea and then I asked them for some guiding principles so I could at least get started. And I'm like, honored and delight, delighted to say that every single one of them has continued to help me for the last almost five years. And with their help, I started an advisory board, I found a design firm. I've learned about financial projections and fundraising and marketing and business plans. I've read suggestions of books and listened to podcasts and started building a plan that has guided me through four years of R and D and user testing and now a pandemic and created content and services that would help me meet some of the needs, the quality of life needs of women in the breast cancer community.

But I'm totally getting ahead of myself. This is my only cautionary moment and what I'm hoping will be an inspiring chat that makes you guys want to pursue your big idea. But if you've pursued something like this before or you own a business or you've worked in a start up, you probably already know that it has the potential to completely take over your life. And before we created all of the things that I just listed, I spent about a year getting up before 5 a.m. So I could do work before the kids got up and then going to my day job and then working on brilliantly until about midnight after that year, I was so physically worn out, but also still really, really excited and I decided to quit my job and work on brilliantly full time. Despite my dad being really nervous about this major risk I was taking. And the cautionary part of this is if you are going to pursue your idea, be smarter than me, make sure that you've pressure tested all of your assumptions. And if you want more than just this one cautionary tale, please feel free to reach out to me after this talk. I'm full of them, but make sure you have a really realistic idea of the time and cost it's going to take to bring your idea to life.

I forged ahead with brilliantly, with a very healthy dose of naivete and optimism and some really unrealistic projections from my then design firm. And when I left my day job to start this business, I had no idea that it was going to take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars more than I ever expected. So be smarter than me. You have access to people you have now have access to me and make sure that you really have a good helpful solid plan for how to move forward. So you can take care of yourself and your family, the best way possible. Cautionary tale over and my cursor is gone again. Here we go. So with that said, I am truly thrilled to report that almost exactly a year ago, we launched brilliantly warm, which you can see here it is our app controlled warming wearable that indeed fits into any bra and is safe for all day wear and safe was really important to me just as a side note because in those interviews with women that I did in 2017, the diy solutions that women had were so unsafe, hot hands in their bra hot water bottles and with limited sensation, it was really easy for people to get burned.

So safety was paramount for me. And the amazing thing that happened was when we launched a quarter of our orders were from outside of the breast cancer community. So it turns out that women are using it for both temperature and pain management. And here we have some of the women who are brilliantly warm users that allowed me to go and take photos of them using it. So we learned from our extensive user feedback campaign last fall that women use brilliantly warm, not only because of chronic health conditions, but because they're just tired of sitting at their desk all bundled up with their mug of tea and their office sweater and their space heater.

They love it for outdoor activities like skiing or running. And even nursing moms love brilliantly warm and report that it helps ease discomfort and aids with letdown. And we also learned that some of our users put brilliantly warm in their pants when they have menstrual cramps, all of those insights led us into a deep dive into the market opportunity for this patent pending technology. And I'm sure none of you are surprised I was that the opportunity for helping women feel more comfortable so they can focus on what's important is absolutely huge. Building brilliantly has been the most important chapter of healing my grief and the most impactful learning experience, both personally and professionally that I've ever had. It's been a truly amazing and exhausting effort and I want to share just a few things that I did, right.

So you leave this talk, feeling encouraged and hopeful about your own big idea. First, I joined a number of online communities that were not only so I could reach the customers I wanted to serve but also ones that supported founders. This means that I have people I can talk to when things get tough and who will celebrate the wins with me. And just a note, make sure that you celebrate every single tiny win. Life is hard and each hint of success is worth a toast. Second, I talk a lot. I talked a lot shamelessly to anyone who would listen to me about my idea and spoke to anyone who then introduced me to someone in their network who might be a helpful resource. I talked to women who might use this product at every opportunity I had and that included women from outside my target audience. I wanted to know that my big idea headlines outside of this community of women that are so near and dear to me. And lastly, I just wanna leave you with some key takeaways that are not about me that are helpful advice. If you decide to move forward with your own idea, honor those big ideas. I'm sure you have them all the time. Research, what else is out there? And if your idea is better and it probably is, especially if it's something that is a problem you're trying to solve for yourself. And Google is the first place to start, try to make it yourself. I am not a technical person.

I was a museum curator and you absolutely zero engineering. Found out really easily that I had friends who could help me at least make a proof of concept design and you want to do that before you raise any money. So, you know, if it's even possible, um confirm with other people who want your idea at every step of the way, every time you make a change, just because you think it's a good idea, doesn't necessarily mean that your users will so talk to them constantly and the most important thing and I can't stress this enough is make sure that you ask for help.

You probably have many, many people who want to help you and who want to share their expertise and you should use them because you would definitely do it for someone else. So thanks so much for having me. If you have any questions, please feel free to drop them in the chat and there we go and share. Um It's really been a pleasure talking to you. This has been such an amazing conference heard so many inspiring talks from um motivating people, inspiring people and would be happy to share information. I'm also going to put my email here in the chat in case you want more cautionary tales or have questions. Thanks so much, Anna and Katie. Yes, for nursing. I hadn't thought about it. My kids are now 11 and 13. So it had been a long time since that was part of my daily experience and I'm truly delighted to be supporting um a community of moms as well. Thank you all for coming and enjoy the rest of the conference. Bye bye.