Holly Branson speaks with Virgin StartUp-funded Fertility Circle's co-founder, Abi, about the importance of their work.

Earlier this year, I was excited to work with Virgin StartUp and Crowdcube to launch its Collective Impact programme for purpose-driven startups. 10 incredible businesses have now completed the five-week programme and I was really inspired by the story behind one startup in particular: Fertility Circle.

My husband Freddie and I struggled with fertility issues for several years, and it sadly resulted in miscarriages, IVF treatments and intense anxiety. When you go through fertility issues, you can feel incredibly alone and sometimes you don't know where you can turn to for help. You know that many other people are going through similar experiences but it can be really difficult to reach out and shake off that feeling of isolation. This is why I was so moved by the way Fertility Circle is supporting and empowering people who are trying to conceive and need the extra help.

Holly Branson and daughter Lola
Image from Adam Slama

Fertility Circle was founded by three women – Abi, Karen and Jo – who have been on their own fertility rollercoasters and decided to launch a first-of-its-kind online platform that offers all the information and support they longed for when they were trying to get pregnant. Abi, Karen and Jo turned their idea into a brilliant app, and the founders are currently crowdfunding so the platform can continue to grow. When you go through fertility issues, you can feel incredibly alone, and sometimes you don’t know where you can turn for help.

As part of Virgin StartUp's This Is What a Founder Looks Like series, I reached out to one of their founders, Abi, to learn more about their journey. Here’s what she had to say...

First thing's first: what is Fertility Circle? 

We created Fertility Circle after our own personal fertility struggles, and after realising that one in six struggle to conceive. Fertility Circle is designed to help you navigate this challenging path to parenthood. Our app offers education, community, experts and holistic support.

Fertility Circle is an app
Fertility Circle

Fertility challenges can be expensive, isolating and dehumanising, with many people experiencing stress, anxiety or depression. We created Fertility Circle to better support the holistic and emotional health of the fertility community by empowering people and optimising fertility outcomes... It’s meant to be like your best friend, with all the fertility smarts! 

After partnering with over 50 world-leading fertility experts and clinics, we hit 6,000 app downloads within six months! With a 40% monthly growth rate, we were also picked by Apple in their ‘Hot Right Now’ list, and already rank #2 for ‘fertility support’ in the App Store. We were also selected by Virgin StartUp to join their inaugural Collective Impact programme, and are now raising investment on Crowdcube

After going through the pain of miscarriage and IVF myself, I absolutely understand the need for better fertility support. I wish I could have joined your community at the time! Can you tell us more about your own journeys and what inspired you to start the business? 

Firstly, I am so very sorry for your difficult journey to parenthood. My co-founder Karen and I know first-hand what a traumatic time that can be and it’s why we do what we do. I was trying to conceive for three years and finally had my daughter via IVF. Karen and I met at a mums’ group and shared about our difficult journeys to parenthood, including eight miscarriages between us.

Fertility issues are so common, but too many people still suffer in silence. We learnt that 50% of people don’t seek professional help for a whole range of reasons including the stigma, cost, or simply not knowing where to go. We’re passionate about democratising access to fertility services and believe the fertility community is still sorely underserved. We really need to do more to support people through what is one of the most challenging times of their lives. The status quo simply isn’t good enough; we knew there had to be a better way, so we set to work! Jo came onboard a bit later bringing her passion for entrepreneurship, women’s health and wellbeing, and we were away!

Fertility Circle
Fertility Circle

What made you want to join the Collective Impact programme, and how was the experience for you?   

While we have each led our own companies in the past, we had never raised investment or secured external funding. We wanted to understand our options and how crowdfunding could support that journey. It was such a focused five-week experience where we learnt so much from our cohort and expert advisors. It really helped to refine our pitch materials and be focused with our messaging to investors. One of the mentors who ran the legal sessions is now our own lawyer! He loved what we were doing and has decided to invest in us too. It was full of so many network-building opportunities, and it was a really valuable experience that certainly helped propel our crowdfunding campaign.

Holly Branson & Luke Lang introduce the Collective Impact programme by Virgin StartUp and Crowdcube

What was the biggest lesson you learnt during the programme that you think all entrepreneurs should know? 

I’d love to share two lessons around the same theme if I may. The first is around having the confidence to get out there and start testing the investment market. You can find some friendly investors early on who you can test your pitch with and who will give you helpful feedback to refine your narrative. Investors are human and it’s powerful to share your story and really connect with them about the problem you’re trying to solve. You’ll still get some no’s, but always remember that investment is a two-way street. An investor needs to be the right match for your business if they’re going to be a long-term partner and help you grow. 

The second lesson was more legal-related. We actually weren’t aware of all the different structures for securing investment. From ASA’s to convertibles to priced equity. We hadn’t realised how much interest we could get and the different options we had, which allowed us to raise more funds without locking in a valuation upfront. Valuations seem to be very subjective and having the option to fix that when you better understand investor appetite makes a lot of sense.

As three women founders, have you faced any additional barriers in your startup journey? 

So far, we’ve felt really supported. There are now a lot of support structures and ecosystems evolving for underrepresented founders. We’ve taken full advantage of that - from Collective Impact to the FemTech Lab accelerator. However, the fact remains that only 2.3% of VC funding goes to all-women teams, despite women founders outperforming their male counterparts by delivering higher returns on investment.

We’re also all mums, so juggling childcare and a startup during lockdown has been challenging to say the least! From my own informal chats with other mum founders, it seems that women have been bearing a lot of the added burden of managing kids during COVID-19. My hope is that more companies and investors embrace parenthood. I truly believe being a mum makes me a better CEO. I’ve also been going through IVF myself and have experienced ongoing fertility challenges since we launched and throughout the pandemic. This additional burden has been really difficult at times, but it’s a healthy reminder of why we do what we do, and how important emotional support is in the fertility journey.

The founders of Fertility Circle
Fertility Circle

What is one piece of advice you would give to other women looking to launch their own business? 

Work hard to build your network and surround yourself with brilliant people. There’s an expert for everything! Seek out and connect with women entrepreneurs that have been successful in your industry. I’ve been amazed at how kind and generous people - particularly women - have been with their time and goodwill. Programmes like Collective Impact and other accelerators can really help build your network. Don’t be afraid to make cold approaches where it makes sense, though. Our biggest angel investor and supporter came on board after we reached out on LinkedIn! She was actually excited to finally have some women approach her for investment. 

How can other people get involved in the Fertility Circle story and support your business? 

Our crowdfund is live on Crowdcube at the moment and we’d love to have people on the journey with us. We hit our minimum target within 24 hours of launch, and are now overfunding! Additional investment will help us to support more people on their path to parenthood and accelerate our growth plans in both the US and UK. We’re also reviewing our governance and formalising our board. We are working to appoint some amazing directors with different areas of expertise that can help champion our next stage of growth. We would love to hear from anyone that can support our mission at hello@thefertilitycircle.com.

What’s next? 

The money we’re raising will go towards platform development, key hires and reaching more people. With the next iteration of the app under development through 2021, we plan to raise a seed round in 2022, which will help us expand into new geographies. We’re excited to help as many people as possible build their future families - watch this space!

Thank you so much to Abi, Karen and Jo for launch such an important platform and for sharing your story with us. I very much look forward to what comes next for Fertility Circle! 

This article originally appeared on Virgin.com.