Full Steam Ahead
An Alamo entrepreneur turns a cool device into a hot commodity.
In 2011, when Varun Nanda of Alamo decided to take a break from his career as a marketing executive for international biotech firms, he hit the golf course—only to find a former colleague, Lars Barfod of Danville, doing the same.
Weary of corporate bureaucracy but wanting to do something, the two teamed up to take over a small, floundering company called Vapore, in Alameda. The draw was Vapore’s handheld steam inhaler. The device, called MyPurMist, provides instant steam to help ease allergies and congestion.
The pair started small in Nanda’s garage, working to improve the quality of the product and to bring down its cost. Then, they had to market the $150 device.
Now, MyPurMist is in Target stores and retailers across the country. Diablo talked to Nanda, president of the company, to learn how he turned a smart idea into a handheld success.
Q: What drew you to this product?
A: It reminded me of my upbringing in India, where my mother gave me steam the traditional way. She would take a huge bowl with boiling water and put a towel over my head. It helped but was extremely hot on the face.
Q: And this product helped with your allergies?
A: Even though I have allergies, I had never done steam therapy in the United States. So I tested out the device. In two weeks, my allergies cleared up—even my eyes stopped watering. I was able to stop using Afrin and Claritin.
Q: What were the initial challenges?
A: When we bought the company, the cost of goods was very high, and we had quality challenges. On top of this, we had no resources to hire people. We decided we needed expert advice, and we needed to do everything ourselves to truly understand the challenges and opportunities of the business. So we started in my garage—doing shipping, marketing, and customer service every day.
We improved the quality and worked with advisors to reduce the cost of goods so we could have a viable business. Having advisors and an open mind was key to our success.
Q: Were there any missteps?
A: Given our background from pharma/biotech, we first took the approach to market to doctors. Even though doctors knew the benefits of steam, we realized that unless we had a sales team, convincing physicians to regularly recommend MyPurMist was an uphill task.
Q: When that didn’t work, what did you do?
A: Based on input from a board member who worked in marketing for Sonicare, we took our story straight to consumers via a two-minute infomercial. We took a unique approach to the infomercials: Besides educating, we communicated the availability of MyPurMist in retail stores such as Target, even though we were told that two-minute infomercials only work if you can get people to purchase on the spot. We just constantly tested and experimented with different ideas. It’s fun to go to work and still learn something new every day.
Q: MyPurMist retails for almost $150. How do you get consumers past the sticker shock?
A: Why would anyone spend upwards of $200 on an electric toothbrush when you can buy a regular one for a buck? Because it’s so much more effective.
Q: Can MyPurMist help serious conditions?
A: While we don’t promote MyPurMist for treating serious conditions, early on, a woman called us in a panic because her unit stopped working. Her child had cystic fibrosis and used it every single hour to loosen the gunk in her lungs. We shipped the woman two overnight.
Q: You’re very passionate about this.
A: My focus has always been on improving people’s lives. I worked on [marketing] a drug for severe combined immunodeficiency [bubble boy disease], which completely changed the lives of children who had to live in a contained environment. It allowed them to lead normal lives: to go to school and to play sports. I also worked on the launch of Avastin, which cuts off the blood supply to cancer cells.
Q: This was your first start-up: Was that scary for you?
A: I would say it was a thrilling scary! It was like the first time I went skiing beyond the bunny slopes, or the first time I went sailing with friends where only one of us knew how to sail. The key was to take a deep breath, believe that failure was not an option, and to listen and learn. This is easier to do when you have a product you believe in and you can feel that what you are doing will change people’s lives.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: Vapore is working on applications for skincare, and providing a simple, handheld way to use steam to soften and exfoliate skin. We’re also looking at creating a small and efficient humidifier to be used with CPAP machines to potentially ease the symptoms of sleep apnea. CPAP machines can dry out the airways, and the added moisture from a humidifier can help reduce irritation to the nasal passages.