The Donor Solution made the news this week with an article in the Houston Business Journal which focused on small business’ that have prospered thought the recession.
To The Donor Solution, it’s all about one good egg
Premium content from Houston Business Journal – by Tanya Rutledge , Special to Houston Business Journal
Date: Friday, January 7, 2011, 5:00am CST
Registered nurse Mary Fusillo had been putting together the pieces to start an egg donation agency for six months when her employer caught wind of her plan and terminated her employment. At that point, she had no choice but to jump into her venture with both feet.
Lucky for her, the business plan Fusillo had been working on had all the makings of a successful startup.
The Donor Solution is now a major player in the egg donation industry, having been involved in more than 100 egg donation cycles in 2010. That’s nearly double the number in 2008.
The Donor Solution recruits and screens egg-donor candidates for clinics and doctors and matches them with recipients.
Fusillo struggled with infertility herself and birthed twins after becoming pregnant through in vitro fertilization. She worked in the infertility industry as a nurse specializing in egg donation for several years before going to work for a pharmaceutical company as donor program manager, where she traveled the country giving talks about egg donation.
But, as the economy began to falter in 2007, Fusillo knew business development jobs such as hers were in jeopardy, prompting her to create a business plan for her own company.
“The pharmaceutical industry was changing, and I saw the writing on the wall,” she says. “Those types of jobs weren’t going to exist anymore, and I knew I needed to do something else.”
So, in August 2007, while still working for the pharmaceutical company, Fusillo launched a website to recruit egg donors.
She kept a big blue binder with her, jotting down ideas for her business as she flew to her next speaking engagement or meeting.
She also began attending lectures and seminars provided by the University of Houston Small Business Development Center and the U.S. Small Business Administration, learning all she could about how to run a company.
While on a business trip to Boston in November 2007, her employer discovered her website and terminated her, over the phone, leaving her stranded in the airport without a return ticket.
“Luckily, I already had all my ducks in a row,” Fusillo says. “But I was still upset for days before I said, ‘This is it, I’m walking the plank — I’m going to do this.’ ”
Within 60 days of launching The Donor Solution’s website, she had recruited 25 donors and her first egg recipient. But Fusillo soon found that securing financing for such an unusual business was not going to be as easy.
Although she had relationships with the UH Small Business Development Center and the SBA, Fusillo did not qualify for a loan because she was not selling a product or a traditional service. Several banks also turned her down for a line of credit.
So Fusillo put $27,000 on her credit card and set out to create an office and get the business fully off the ground.
She says she made two big mistakes when she first started out, both in an effort to save money. One was leasing office space without being represented by an agent.
Fusillo says she ended up with an unfavorable lease in which her rent continues to increase each year. The second was that she did not hire a full-time employee to help her as the business started to take off, instead using fill-in part-timers who sporadically worked 10 or 15 hours per week.
“I should have hired a full-time clerical person right away to answer the phones and do administrative tasks,” she says. “I am convinced that the business would have grown much faster if I had done that.”
Despite the missteps, The Donor Solution, which now has two full-time and two part-time employees, has managed to quickly steer onto the fast-track. Revenue in 2009 — which includes donor compensation — was $625,000, up from $506,000 in 2008.
Fusillo expects 2010 revenue to come in at $844,000.
Although some fertility clinics resisted her business model at first — many recruited egg donors first and then performed the screening themselves later — several came to prefer presenting prescreened egg donors to recipients.
Fusillo says the recruitment and screening process can be expensive for clinics, which have to first advertise to find donors, then screen them medically and psychologically.
“A lot of the clinics are glad to get out of the disappointment business in that recipients would sometimes choose a donor only to find out that they didn’t pass the screening process,” she says.
While there is competition out there, Fusillo says she follows a different business model in that she only works with donors within Texas.
This enables her to personally meet with each donor, and it cuts down on travel expenses to bring selected donors to clinics. Fusillo also only keeps between 150 and 160 egg donors in her active database, which allows her to personally remember the attributes of each.
Fusillo, who paid off her credit card debt 18 months after she started the company, opened a satellite office in Dallas in December 2009 and is preparing to open an Austin office this month. Those offices are used primarily for face-to-face meetings with potential egg donors for screening purposes.
Despite the major role technology now plays in the egg donation process, Fusillo says she still tries to keep the process as personal as possible.
The company uses some modern recruitment techniques, such as Facebook and a website, but Fusillo prefers more personal forms of contact. The Donor Solution also pays bonuses for people who refer friends who turn out to be viable donors. She says one person has made $1,000 through referrals.
Egg donors who work with The Donor Solution receive between $5,000 and $7,000 in compensation, and receipient pay between $9000 and $11,000 which covers the donor fee, agency fee, insurance for the donor, a physical evaluation, prescreening and legal fees.
Fusillo’s extensive background in the egg-donor industry — she ran the donor pools for several well-known hospitals and clinics prior to joining the pharmaceutical company as a donor expert — allows her to play a valuable part in every step of the process. Although The Donor Solution steps out once the egg donor and recipient have been matched and enter the medical process, Fusillo follows up personally after the recipient has delivered a baby.
Houston attorney Kathy Ellis Cook, who has represented donors in their legal contracts with The Donor Solution, says Fusillo’s background and her personal experience with infertility made her decision to start a business in this field the perfect choice.
But, she points out, part of Fusillo’s success also came because did her homework before jumping into the business full time.
“I kept telling her from the beginning that this company was going to be a huge success,” Cook says. “She knows every piece of the business and did all the right things business-wise.”
Cook says another of Fusillo’s strong suits is marketing, a task which Fusillo says she thoroughly enjoys.
Fusillo made a decision in the beginning to focus her marketing efforts on doctors and clinics, rather than trying to get referrals through the Internet or other channels via traditional advertising.
“I spend a lot of my time and efforts cultivating relationships with physicians and clinics because I have found that this business is very relationship-driven,” she says. “It’s those relationships that have enabled this business to grow.”