In this month’s episode, Nursing Notes Lives looks at nurse entrepreneurs. This month’s featured Get-To-Know nurse, Sharon Rogone, uses her experience as a NICU nurse to create specialty products to improve care for these tiny patients with her business “Small Beginnings.” I asked her how she decided to become a nurse and what led her to branch out on her own with a new patient care innovation.
MP3 Audio Podcast
Sharon: When I was a kid I was a candy striper. I was always fascinated by medicine and science. I looked at nursing as a way of helping people. The candy striper, you do all the dirty jobs. That you watch all the people do all the great things that they do for people and that’s where I wanted to go.
Jamie: Where did you go to school and how did that progressed? Did you start off in an RN program or did you go right into a BSN program? I know this was a few years ago.
Sharon: Well, I got married young. I started back to school actually when I was in my late thirties. I became an LVN first. Then I went into a RN program. I got my Associate degree and I do not have a BSN. I found neonatal nursing when I was in LVN and I worked in the unit as an LVN and was taking on greater responsibilities because I was good and passionate about what I did in there. That’s when I decided to go back to school and get my RN. Like I said, I was very passionate about “Do no harm” that’s an oath that we take as nurses. Nurses are out there without the tools to do no harm and that bothered me greatly. That’s why I started doing things to make the job better for the baby, better for the nurses and cost-effective. If you don’t make them cost-effective, then you’re not going to do any good. If they’re too labor-intensive to make, your products aren’t going to get on the market because the units are not going to buy them.
Jamie: We see a lot of nurses out there and people listening to the show are going to be nodding their heads, I know, when they think about this. But we’re constantly innovating, making do with the tools that we have to adapt them to a new task or job that they weren’t originally intended to be used for simply because we have a need to fill. Many times you sit there and you scratch your head and go, “Wow! I wish there was a better way to do this,” and you did that. I looked at your first product you ever came up with called the “Bili-Bonnet Phototherapy Mask.” A lot of people may know what the phototherapy mask is but why don’t you tell us a little bit about what your thought-process was when you first came up with this idea and what exactly it does – the advantages it brings over what was there before?
Sharon: Okay. When I was in the unit, it was a long time ago, there were very few products for the babies. We used to cut black construction paper in a shape of a mask and put cotton balls or eye pads behind it and use stockinettes from the ortho unit to make little hats to hold it in place. Gradually, the bigger companies started coming out with products that were not easy for the nurse to use, didn’t stay in place well. I came up with this idea of using the burn net and making it into a bonnet. I was making them by hand for myself. Other nurses started seeing, “Could you make me one of those?” It just kind of grew from there, just kind of snowballed. I just had one product that started my business with about $3,000.00 and it just kind of snowballed. It’s so like I was on a fast-moving train because I had other ideas in my head but it takes a while to get them to the market place if you have no backing. As a blond with a little squeaky voice, nobody took me seriously for a long time. It’s been a long and slow process. But, like I said, I had a passion for making things better for the baby. I was looking at the outcomes for the babies. We see these kids with their arms spread wide and their legs spread wide learning to walk and talk. That needed to go to physical therapy and occupational therapy all because we weren’t positioning them right. We weren’t positioning them correctly because the products were inadequate or too expensive for the hospitals to use. So although developmental care started this [unintelligible] years and years before, the products were from the big companies that were out to make money and my focus was to make it better for the baby, so that’s what everything stems from.
Jamie: I know from experience, my son needed phototherapy in his early days of life eighteen years ago. They didn’t have your product. I remember this strap that went around behind his head. Yes, infants, they squirm. He kept rolling that thing off and it wasn’t staying on. He seemed like he was uncomfortable and just – we were constantly adjusting as his parents. I know the nurses were doing the best they could to keep it in place as well. It seems like such an easy solution to come up with something that was much more form-fitting and yet not costing an arm and a leg. I think that you have that focus of the person who’s actually been there and worked in that environment when you said, “I need something that’s better for the patient, A, easier for the nurses to use and is not going to cost too much so that it’s something that can be readily purchased and used everywhere.
Sharon: Right. The other thing that you will find is that your baby was laid in a bed strapped with nothing surrounding him, naked, and that makes them jumpy, squirmy. That makes the mask harder to stay on. If you use my Bed Buddy in conjunction with the mask and nest that baby in so he had sides that he can feel and something to push his feet against. He feels more secure as he lays there. He’s not stretched all the time. Under the phototherapy light they’re just left flopping there and that’s not right. We can nest them and allow them comfort even though they’re unwrapped. They need to feel that comfort around them and then they will lay quieter. The Bed Buddy is a very good adjunct to the phototherapy mask which most nurses don’t even think about.
Jamie: You found this great idea, Sharon, and it led you to do other things and look at other ways that you can improve patient care in these tiny patients where they really didn’t – they weren’t well-served by the general tools that were available for the patient population.
Sharon: Right. Nurses were trying to roll blankets and position them and make their own little beds and every nurse had a different idea. Each shift would come in and tear apart the bed put it back together the way they wanted it. Then the laundry expenses weigh up. The products that were out there were so costly that the units weren’t using them. My products have a two-year warranty on them. Wipe or clean this with whatever disinfectant they use in the unit. Overall, it saves the hospital money. They’re a little more expensive in the beginning but they don’t have a three- to six-month shelf life. They have a two-year guarantee plus they’ve been lasting, in some of the hospitals that started using them a long time ago, they’re still using them ten years later, which is very cost-effective. It’s [pennies] per baby instead of dollars per baby since they put them on.
Jamie: Over the years you’ve met many other nurses that have been entrepreneurs, is there one challenge when you talk to other nurse entrepreneurs, is there one challenge that constantly comes up that you share ideas and thoughts about and that you might offer as a lesson to be learned or somebody else considering entrepreneurship?
Sharon: Perseverance, determination, those are the things that you have to have. You also need to make sure that your product is cost-effective to make. You need to make sure that your patent is written in such a way that it’s not an easy one to get around. I have an entrepreneur packet for nurses that write me on my email. I send them what I call a “poor man’s patent” which is a certified letter to yourself. I send them the disclaimer form, a non-disclosure agreement, an NDA, so that they can fill it out and talk to other companies that they might want to go to. When I look at products, I looked at – to take on. I look at products that would fit into my product line, would be easy to make, and that there’s not anything else already out there like it. They need to look at that. Before they go to a patent attorney, they need to make sure there’s not something out there already that is like the product that they’re interested before they get the money. There’s also a provisional patent that they can file with the patent office. That is not real costly but it gives them a year to investigate the market before they spend the money on patent, the product line.
Jamie: Sharon, I love to hear that because you’re saying something that I found in every other career in nursing is that nurses are great mentors for other nurses. I’m very excited to hear that you are sharing your knowledge in doing that. Having that packet available for someone else considering these things and passing on your lessons learned. I talk to people a lot of different areas in business outside of the medical industry. I haven’t found many that are as open and willing to share lessons learned with others like you are. Yet this is something I see consistently throughout the nursing career paths that I’ve talked with so many nurses over the last several years. They all have been excited about sharing and mentoring and helping other nurses to reach that career path and be successful. I find it here with you as well. That is so exciting to hear.
Sharon: Thank you. Whatever work – we always say if we don’t make our products, another one is going to make it. That’s how I feel about other nurses coming out with a product line. If it is better than what we have and cost-effective we are going to take it on. We have other nurses’ products in our product line. I have my company, Small Beginning, products conceived and developed by healthcare workers, so they come from occupational therapy, physical therapy nurses, respiratory, so I’m excited for them to come up with ideas. I always say that “If everybody is thinking alike” – General Patton said, “If everybody is thinking alike, somebody is not thinking,” so we all have great ideas and we need to pursue them.
Jamie: I noticed that you were recognized by the Smithsonian Institution as an outstanding woman entrepreneur and also for your innovative products for an underserved population like the neonatal units, tell me a little bit about how it felt to be recognized in that way.
Sharon: It’s so unreal that it even happened. I don’t know how it happened. We originally have the smallest diaper in the world. We made the smallest diaper which is [known] as “crotch” and then other companies started making them too. My husband went to “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.” He put it in and they – when taped it for them, he called the Smithsonian and ask them if they wanted to have the smallest diaper in the world in the unit. The curator started asking him questions about our company. Pretty soon they wanted to come out and see the company. They wanted to come out and see our products and I guess developed a great interest in it and came out. Right after my back surgery, it came out. I was on a wheelchair and I was pretty drugged. If you listen to the podcast that are on there, I looked terrible. My voice is like [makes noise] so slow because I was heavily medicated for the pain in my back. I was just like two weeks post-surgical major back surgery when they came out. They came out and catalogued all our information, the drawings that I made from the beginning for creating the Bili-Bonnet and different products. They took the prototypes and everything and they put them in the Smithsonian and along with the story of how I got started. It’s unrealistic. After that they asked me to sit on the committee for innovation and invention for the Lemelson Center which is part of the American History Museum because they are trying to promote more innovation and invention back to the United States and that will come from small companies and entrepreneurs. Where the big companies, they just produce, they’re not the innovators. The Smithsonian is doing a lot to promote it in the youth. They have the Spark!Lab at the National History Museum which is going to be shut down for two years, unfortunately, while they get a bigger area for them. They work with schools. They put a satellite into a museum in Reno, Nevada. They’re just really trying to promote this invention and science and technology because innovations and inventions have gone away from our country unfortunately. I’ve been honored to sit on that committee. It’s been amazing.
Jamie: That must be very exciting to get an opportunity to, again, pass on your lesson and be part of spurring innovations nationwide in that kind of a situation. I know that, from my perspective as a journalist, I’m an entrepreneur too. I took my nursing experience and my knowledge of healthcare and became a journalist because I wanted to tell these types of stories. I see no shortage of innovators out there. They all have challenges. I think small businesses, no matter what your product is, but they are out there and their passionate and they’re persevering in all areas. I talk to people who are paramedics and EMTs and nurses and physicians and physical therapists who come up with concepts and solutions to problems to make their patient’s lives better and it’s all about that passion to help their patients and it’s exciting. I don’t see a shortage of that at least in the medical field. If anything, I heard somebody say that whenever we have an economic downturn, we see huge amounts of innovation. As people, you are forced to come up with a good idea to make some money because they lost their job or lost some of their income. I think that we are in a good time for somebody to be considering being an entrepreneur, would you agree?
Respondent: I think so. I think I agree with you totally. I think that’s when things happen. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” remember. When things get tough people have to do what they have to do and those ideas keep cropping up. People have to remember – I always tell people that ideas are like floating in the air. If you don’t take your ideas and do something with it, somebody else will, because you’re not the only one that’s getting that idea. If you’re not doing something with it, somebody else will come up with it and they will do something. Make your move, do something.
Jamie: I think that’s a great piece of advice. I think you showed that it can be done with stuff that comes out of – ideas that come out of the NICU unit but these types of ideas are coming out of oncology units and dialysis centers and everywhere that nurses find themselves, there are patient care solutions that you have floating around in your head. I think that it is exciting that you stand there as an opportunity and an example for everyone else.
Sharon: Build a better mousetrap, that’s what I say. Build a better mousetrap because there’s products out there that you take two pieces from this other product and put this product to make it work better for you. That’s a product. You need to write it all down, send it to yourself. “I’m a certified [unintelligible].” So it’s your idea and then talk to a big company. Anyone can make it happen. It’s been fun. It’s been exciting. It’s been a wild ride and as passionate as I was at the bedside to take care of two patients a day, I now impact many, many, many more patients every day in their care, in their outcome and that’s important to me.
Jamie: Well, Sharon, it’s fantastic to see how your passion for nursing has carried over to care for so many people and having innovative ideas and then being courageous enough to do something about it. If people want to get in touch with you, there’s contact information on your website. Do you mind if I give your website information out?
Sharon: Not at all. Sharon@small-beginning is my email site and I get a lot of queries about products. I try to look at everything that people send to me. Some of them I’ve seen before and some of them are not cost-effective and research and development, R and D, are so costly for a small company. I always advise them to go to a big company because it must be something that’s quite simple. We really don’t have the wherewithal to do it for them but I love seeing their ideas. Our product line has been pretty stationary for a while but I love helping anybody that likes – like I said, I give them the provisional patent paperwork and the website for the US Trademark Patent Office. My poor man’s patent and the NDA so they can get started on their way. I have had some bad experience, I should say sad experiences, where nurses who came to me with – like a long, long time ago, this nurse paid this attorney – oh, how much money – but beware. Now just when a attorney research herself, beware. It was basically lift off and that’s pretty sad.
Jamie: So people can go to small-beginnings.com and the contact information is all right there. You can find that on the main page. Sharon Rogone, I just want to thank you again for all you’ve done for nursing and all you’ve done for your patients.
Sharon: All right, thank you for the interview. I appreciate it. (22:46)
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