Women are outnumbered in medical sales. In fact, in the 2019 Medical Sales Salary Report, 67% of the respondents were men. In addition, the report found that women earn just 83% of what men do and makeup only 33% of the respondents.
While, at first glance, this may seem discouraging, there is a multitude of highly successful women in medical sales. We’re talking to these professionals to find out what it means to be a woman in the field and what it takes to be successful.
Kerry Mellin spent nearly 35 years building her career in the Hollywood costuming business, but she has also spent her life being a hardworking farm girl. When she’s given a task, she’s not casual or slow about doing it.
“I really delve into things hobbies, work, and I move quickly. I like to design things myself, build it myself, do the work myself, in everything I do — I use all of my body,” Mellin shared with us.
Her path to EazyHold, an adaptable silicone cuff, evolved from her personal struggle to efficiently keep up at work, and complete everyday ranch chores at home. By the time she hit 55, she could see her body wasn’t keeping up with her brain. “My feet were hurting, my knees and hands were wearing out,” she said.
And one day, needing to prepare the barn for a family gathering, Mellin couldn’t hold onto the broom properly. Her grip was too painful. But she refused to give up, so she taped her hand to the broom. The alarming effectiveness of this solution and a family history of osteoarthritis inspired a life-changing discussion with her sisters.
“My sisters and I were talking about the challenges baby boomers will face in the future,” she told us. “I told them about the tape on the broom handle, and I wondered if there was anything on the market, like a little cuff, that could help me (and other baby boomers) do this same type of task.”
Together, with her sisters Merrily and Wendy, the three researched, molded, and patented the product into the success it is today — literally. As both the designer and marketer, Kerry is a busy woman in the medical device world. However, it’s her attitude toward customers and her innovative spirit that continues to drive the company forward.
Embrace the unexpected
The initial idea for EazyHold was based on the anticipated challenges the largest aging population to date would soon face. But while doing their own ‘feet on the ground’ research, Mellin and her sisters discovered a whole other demographic needed their product. So they shifted their focus to where they could make the most immediate impact.
When we realized there were no new adaptive grip aids on the market, we designed prototypes using hand-crafted clay molds and silicone. We decided the best place to find out who might need our product was where there was a diverse group of people. We chose the local Ventura County flea market — a great random sampling of humanity.
We put EazyHold on every product we could find around our houses. Spoons, knives, pencils, pens, stylists, brooms, rakes, paintbrushes, paint rollers, sports equipment — everything.
It was fascinating.
Someone would walk by and pick up the spatula, or paint roller, and say how they could see it being more effective. We saw therapists, teachers, nurses, moms and dads, husbands and wives; everyone gave their opinion about what it would work on, and who they knew could use it.
At this point, we weren’t sure where it was going to go — if it would be best to focus on just the baby boomer generation like we initially thought. Everybody that came by gave us an idea of they knew who could use it. We were surprised to find that it skewed heavily for pediatric needs. Therapists who help kids with cerebral palsy, for example, could use it to help them with basic functions, like holding a spoon or bottle.
Now, I’m surprised each day by what I walk into during my workday. I’ll wake up with plans to spend the day reaching out to new hospitals or posting to social media, and then there’s a parent’s email in my inbox asking me to design a special tool for them. I evolve my plans around what my customers need on a daily basis.
Focus on innovation, not invention
Inventions, in Mellin’s eyes, are innovations joined together by old and new ideas.
Invention is innovation and innovation isn’t new. It means a melding of old and new ideas. For others that would like to design, I think it takes someone who has the mind that’s always trying to improve on things. Always curious and thinking, “I could solve this,” that’s all it takes. Universal cuffs are old inventions and silicone is new — my sisters and I combined the two to make a better grip assist. That’s innovation.
Everything you pick up, think about how you can make it better. For Class 1 medical devices, there are fewer requirements than other classes and anyone can make them. This is a class where everyone uses the products. Gloves, thermometers, tongue depressors, and bandaids: we’re all using them in our everyday lives.
Prove the doubters wrong
Whether you’re an inventor or salesperson — or both — you likely deal with naysayers. If you believe in your product, keep pushing forward, focusing on your own agenda.
My dentist was my biggest naysayer. He told me I’d need a B.S. in engineering to make a medical device. I went back in and told him I drew up patent ideas and was moving forward with the creation of the product. He kept saying, “Don’t spend all your money on this. Really, 98% of patents never get made, or make any money.”
After a year and a half, when I had a product to sell and people lined up to buy it, he finally recognized that I had made it.
My dentist wasn’t the only naysayer. We had been sending out our information via email to source silicone manufacturers and got no responses. Six months later, we stopped using Merrily’s name (female) and began using her husband’s Jeff’s name (male) on the requests for quotes, only then did we get responses back. Pretty eye-opening!
Along with being women in a male-dominated field, disability products come with a stigma. We made it through various rounds to be on Shark Tank and continued to get turned down right before the third round. We later found out one of the ‘sharks’ wasn’t ready to deal with anyone from the disability industry.
Reach out one-on-one
Mellin doesn’t claim to have the key to marketing and sales success. With the market and trends constantly changing, there simply cannot be one tried-and-true secret. But one thing that will never change is the importance of making connections — reaching out one-on-one to discover what your customers really need from you.
With boots on the ground and free samples in tow, we got to work visiting therapy centers and hospitals. Though we have no medical backgrounds or degrees, we doggedly tried to set up appointments with therapists, and though the receptionists were fascinated by our idea, they had no protocol to fit us in.
However, we love a challenge, so we began to camp out in the hallways and lunchrooms until we saw a therapist walk by and ambushed them, prototypes in hand, to demonstrate how much more effective and hygienic our simple universal cuffs were compared to the devices they’d been using for so many years.
We continued to drop off samples to professionals throughout Southern California. We sent them out for trials at educational facilities, nursing homes, hospitals, to the parents of special needs children we connected with, and showed our product at local disability expos.
We were invited into the homes of children with special needs and no grip abilities. One of our first little subjects, a one-year-old with Cerebral Palsy, couldn’t do much of anything independently. We put a tiny EazyHold on a rattle and she began shaking the rattle. Her mom was excited because she saw a glimmer of hand-eye coordination that she hadn’t seen with her child before.
This mom shared the experience she’d had with us to her social media community of moms with children who have disabilities. We then realized we could do all of our research in-house. Interactions like this, and that one flea market, sent us on a trajectory that was fast and furious.
We’ve continued on in this word-of-mouth approach, reaching out to people on a daily basis. I look for special educators, teachers, therapists, and others who could use our products one-on-one through LinkedIn, business cards handed out at medical conventions, even an old phone book I had when I used to volunteer at Northridge Hospital’s occupational therapy center.
These one-on-ones help me improve our product and innovate new ones. Our community tells me what kind of devices they need, the size, the style, the colors that are desired. What people do from year-to-year changes so quickly, so I reach out to my customers, I find out what they need, and, in return, they reach out to me.
Follow the thread
The trajectory of many of your days in medical device sales will be unexpected. You may even have days where you reach out to 100 customers and feel you’ve accomplished nothing. Mellin says you need to keep going wherever your threads take you — the connections will come.
The most successful resources I’ve used are Facebook and Instagram to seek out potential customers. I joined groups and constantly read the feeds. If I saw a mother comment, “I wish I could afford this product,” I sent it to her for free. When someone is struggling, I reach out. I’m not afraid to leave my email address everywhere.
I also reached out to the Small Business Administration and among several ideas for marketing, they suggested finding influencers — for a fee they will endorse your product. However, the way traditional influencer-marketing works isn’t how the disabled community comes together.
But following the chain of people with needs, people with suggestions, finding that small facebook group that may only have 35 people and commenting when someone has a child who can’t hold a toy — that’s how this demographic works together to improve the lives of those around them.
After all of this commenting and outreach, I would wonder at the end of the day, had I done anything? I couldn’t see how it was growing immediately. Then, a week later, I’d hear from these people and I’d realize all the important connections I had made. It’s both rewarding and very humbling.