By: Alicia Ciccone
Like many great moms-turned-entrepreneurs, Julie DeFruscio found herself faced with a challenge on the homefront and turned her homegrown solution into a booming business. In her case, she’s helping children with Type 1 diabetes, including her own, do what kids do best — be kids.
DeFruscio’s three children have Type 1 diabetes, and as a result, they are forced to wear pumps that dispense insulin to control their blood sugar levels. As you might imagine, wearing a small pump all the time can hinder the running, jumping and playing that kids are wont to do, not to mention drawing some snickers on the playground. It’s a disease that affects an estimated 3 million children and adults in the United States.
While searching for a kid-friendly solution back in 2001, DeFruscio and her best friend Dawn Juneau decided to devise their own and started making cases and clothing that would solve the problem of carrying these pumps. Nearly 10 years later, Pump Wear now features a full line of — dare we say — designer accessories that help kids and adults conceal their pumps with a little bit of flair.
How did you come up with the idea for Pump Wear?
My daughter, Nikki, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2001 when she was 2 and a half years old. My husband and I did a lot of research on the best management of Type 1 diabetes and found a doctor who was willing to put a 3-year-old on an insulin pump. The pump company had given us this ugly harness to carry the pump in. This is her life support. This pump and harness has to be on her 24/7 for the rest of her life. I don’t think it bothered her, but it bothered me. Every shirt I put on her, there was this big, bulky thing in her back. I thought, “We’ve got to be able to do better than this.” I had a friend’s mother sew pockets on the back of some of her T-shirts. This worked great because you couldn’t see the pump — Nikki was comfortable and still her cute little self — and I had easy access to it.
Dawn was over one night and we were talking about how great the T-shirts were working and decided to see if something else was out there that she could carry this insulin pump in. We searched thousands of websites and the only things we could find were very medical-looking, so we decided that night to change that and come up with some pieces and cute T-shirts. I have to say, our business was really created out of love for my daughter. Nikki started on the pump in April, and by August we had Pump Wear up and running. We started with six products — just our pump cases and T-shirts.
Was it difficult to find local manufacturers?
Neither Dawn nor I had any experience starting a business, but we’ve learned a lot. When we started, we had to have the fabric cut in one spot, have it printed in another spot and have it sewn in another spot. At that point, there wasn’t any one place that would do all the procedures for us, so even though we can’t sew, we felt like we were making them because we were so involved. Today, we’ve streamlined that whole system and we manufacture here in the U.S.
How do you make your products so they’re compatible with the different types of insulin pumps?
We just try to make sure all our cases are quality cases and don’t interfere with the tubing, which is the most important part. We make a standard case, because although there are several different pumps available, the sizing isn’t off by that much. We have some cases that are made to fit a specific pump, but for the most part we try to stay to a standard size. We also make pump cushions you can fit inside a case to make the pumps fit better.
How did you get in touch with the medical community and get your product out on the market?
We did it through our own marketing efforts — basically, word of mouth. We constantly send out e-mails and we’ve built our database within the diabetes community, pitching our products to diabetes groups and educators. A lot of it has been through happy customers and repeat customers, and we also get recommendations from diabetes educators and doctors’ offices.
Your product line has grown significantly and includes some unique items, such as a pump-carrying garter. Are you constantly refining your designs?
We have over 800 products today, from cases and T-shirts to sleep and active wear, which we’ve expanded to include children and adults, male and female. We’ve also begun making fundraising-walk T-shirts and diabetes-awareness clothing. As time has passed, we’ve made some improvements, but we still use the original idea of the pocket design for our clothing items. We’re continually learning what works best.
Since starting Pump Wear, all three of your children have been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. How has helping them manage their condition improved your business?
Originally it was Nikki, and then two years later, both of my sons were diagnosed within four months of each other — Adam was 14, Patrick, 11. That encouraged us to increase the boys’ and men’s products. Patrick was very athletic, so it was important to us to have products that could accommodate children involved in sports, whether it be gymnastics, baseball, soccer, anything. They’ve really been our inspiration as far as what products are needed. Our goal all along is to make wearing an insulin pump a positive experience, and ensure there isn’t anything you can’t do while wearing an insulin pump.
Pump Wear has a great blog that you and Nikki post videos on. How do you come up with the content?
Basically it’s evolved to what we call Diabetes Tidbits — bite-sized pieces of information that we’ve discovered to be helpful. We thought we could post things like what to do when you’re going to a sleepover, or when the insulin site keeps coming off in the pool. I want parents to know we go through the same things they’re going through and these are some of the little things I’ve found helpful. We just did one on sugar packets. Those little sugar packets are a great tool for children when they’re having low blood sugar and just need a boost quickly. I just discovered that six months ago. It makes me think other people may not know, either. So we’re just trying to volunteer information for others to share.
As an active member of the diabetic community, does Pump Wear participate in any kind of fundraising or awareness activities for diabetes?
We just hosted our third annual Caring and Sharing weekend, in which we help raise funds to send 20 families to the Double H Ranch in Lake Luzerne, N.Y. The entire immediate family — mom, dad, sister, brother, grandma — gets to go completely free. This is really important to us, being a family with children with diabetes. Diabetes affects the whole family, and your life as you once knew it has changed. So we thought, what better way to bring these families together and let them bond? They go horseback riding, swimming, boating, we have campfires and a talent show, and it’s just a fun, relaxed weekend where families don’t have to worry and diabetes is the norm.
We also do the Wall of Change. That’s where kids and adults form the number of years that they’ve had diabetes with their spare change. They take a photo, which we post on our website, and that change is forwarded to the Diabetes Research Institute to help find a cure. We’ve had over 100 people post photos and donate through that effort. It’s not so much about raising money as it is about bringing awareness to finding a cure for diabetes.
How has the business affected your family?
We’ve been fortunate that both my and Dawn’s families have contributed their help since the beginning. Dawn and I run the business, but at one point or another, everyone has pitched in during busy seasons or has helped us develop a new idea. That’s the great thing about having a small family business — you can have an idea and act on it without having to go through 10 layers of people. We do most of our business through our website and we’ve sold across the United States and internationally, along with having some presence in children’s boutique shops. Are we successful? Well, we are satisfied when we can pay our bills. We try to manufacture in the U.S. and unfortunately, the costs are high, but we think it’s important to keep jobs here. Dawn still works a full-time job aside from helping with Pump Wear, and I started working with Pump Wear full-time three years ago. We’ve both had to manage other careers and our families while growing Pump Wear, but that’s the nature of small business.