A Startup Success Story: WELL’s Lunch & Learn with Ali Bauerlein

 

At WELL, we’re a pretty happy family.

But sometimes it’s nice to get an outside perspective.

That’s why WELL hosts a monthly Lunch & Learn. Here’s how it works: we order up a delicious lunch for everyone in the company and have an interactive, perspective-broadening talk with a community figure. Past L&L guests include leadership expert Randy Martin or entrepreneur Kevin O’Connor.

On February 22, we were the lucky recipients of a visit from Ali Bauerlein, cofounder and CFO at local-company-made-good Inogen. (They’re currently valued at $3 billion and made about $350 million in sales last year.)

In the beginning…

Inogen may have the world’s most compelling founding story (and we happen to think ours isn’t bad). When Ali and her co-founders were students at UCSB in 2001, her grandmother, Mae, needed oxygen therapy, which meant being tethered to a large, persnickety tank. They wanted to make something small and portable that would allow oxygen therapy users to have “freedom and independence, so you can go and enjoy your life and not be beholden to the tanks,” Bauerlein said.

The only problem? None of them were engineers. And when they spoke to the companies making stationary tanks, they all said miniaturizing the chemical process that made the oxygen flow possible wouldn’t work. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t an appealing idea.


“Everyone agreed that would be the holy grail of a product”

— Ali Bauerlein, Cofounder & CFO Inogen


Needless to say, Bauerlein and cofounders Brenton Taylor and Byron Myers made it work, thanks to a partnership with adsorption expert Kent Knaebel. And today, they’re a pretty shining instance of what Santa Barbara’s supportive business environment can produce. (Other examples include construction software company Procore and Deckers—yes, those Deckers!) “It would have been really difficult for us to get started without the Santa Barbara community supporting what we were doing,” Bauerlein said. “People really stood behind our vision.”

That’s not to say that Inogen has had it easy. Bauerlein spoke frankly—and we kept bugging her for more details—about a difficult period beginning in 2007. They had to lay off a significant proportion of their workforce and rethink their approach, transitioning to a direct-to-consumer model and a heavy, company-wide focus on finances. “It was a time when founders didn’t take pay and executives didn’t take pay,” she recalled. “We had to find ways to motivate people that didn’t involve salary.”

But those difficult years were formative: “Getting through the hard days and seeing the new possibilities encouraged us to keep going.” And even today, Inogen confronts growing pains. “Our biggest challenge right now is how fast we’re going, and keeping everybody going in the same direction,” Bauerlein said. “We have to execute what we’ve been doing in a way that is profitable.”

Startup culture

At WELL, we usually pepper our visitors with questions. It’s a valuable opportunity to learn that while every company has its own challenges, some—like the growing pains of a rapidly expanding startup—are universal. We get the tremendous benefit of an informed, influential perspective on the business world. And, maybe most importantly, our employees gain inspiration and insight into their own career tracks and professional goals.

On that last one, Bauerlein had some advice for startup employees: “You’re going to have new things happening all the time, and you’re going to have to be flexible. You have to dig in and figure it out, because a lot of times you’re not going to know the answer.” And when it comes to implementing new ideas, employees should take a hint from the startup itself. “See if something works on the small scale, then ramp it up and see if your idea has legs,” she said.

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and we’re pretty sure that’s true. But one thing we do know is that wisdom is hard-earned and incredibly valuable. We’re delighted that Bauerlein was willing to share hers with us.♥

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