In 2006, Tally Annese was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. She was seven years old.
Soon after, the active third-grader started wearing an insulin pump, but it was cumbersome. One day, while watching her daughter play on a trampoline, Donna got to wondering whether there was a better way to carry an insulin pump.
“I just started sewing, and came up with a basic black fabric belt with three Velcro-secured pockets. It wrapped around the belly and lay flat against the body,” says Donna.
She called it the Tummietote belt. The belt could hold an insulin pump, along with other diabetes supplies, in its pockets. The result, everyday life became a little more carefree for Tally.
Donna started making the belts for local kids—and a year later, as more requests streamed in, she and her husband, Matthew, started selling them online. That was the birth of Tallygear.com.
And requests for new products for diabetes gear kept coming. “With each email, we would think of new products to develop. Then we would ask our customers to give feedback about how they worked in real life,” says Mathew.
That symbiotic relationship has inspired customer loyalty. Since 2007, the online store has grown entirely by word-of-mouth. On average, the family of five fills 40 orders a day, sewing and shipping everything from their shop in Webster, Massachusetts. In addition to the original Tummietote, they now offer nearly 40 items. The company’s mission is to make life a little easier for everyone touched by diabetes.
“We work seven days a week,” says Donna. “We go to sleep thinking about [diabetes], and we wake up thinking about it.” It hasn’t been easy, but the husband and wife duo stay motivated by remembering why they are doing it. “Every day we ask ourselves, Is there something else we can do to make things better for people with type 1 diabetes?”
For example, they added a clear vinyl window to the original Tummietote belt. Rather than remove the pump from the belt, kids and parents need only look through the window to check numbers and make adjustments. Customers asked for a simple band, instead of a belt, that would hold an insulin pump. So they came up with one. And, of course, requests came in for stylish designs, such as flowers for girls and fire engines for boys. They now offer a dizzying array of fabrics, prints and patterns to make the Tummietote belts and other products.
“You can’t explain diabetes to a child, because they can’t fully understand that, but what they do understand is a belt they like to wear with an outfit. If you can find something that makes a kid smile, that is a little victory,” says Matthew.
One customer was able to fulfill a dream to go skydiving. The Tummietote belt held her insulin pump while she jumped out of a plane at 13,500 feet. “We also have people at the other end of the spectrum who just don’t want to have to hold their pump in their hands while they go to the bathroom,” says Matthew. “The belt just makes it easier for everyone with type 1 diabetes to function on a day-to-day basis.”
Not surprisingly, Donna and Matthew want to their business to be profitable, but Tallygear is more than a business, it’s also a community of like-minded people. “Because we are type 1 parents, we understand what our customers are going through. The moment they learn that we’ve been dealing with this for quite some time, the questions start. We always made the joke that it’s a club no one wants to join,” says Matthew.
This fall, Tally will start college where she will study biomedical engineering. She intends to build on the family business of inventing products that help others with type 1 diabetes live a more normal life, and let them know “we are in this together.” In addition, Donna and Matthew continue to go out of their way to support fundraisers for diabetes research.
Seeing so many advances with diabetes in the past 10 years alone, including new devices and technology, Matthew and Donna remain hopeful for the future. Still, there is one thing that sets their business aspirations apart from others. They look forward to the day they go out of business.
“We live our life two hours at a time,” says Matthew. “If they found a cure today, that would be okay, because our daughter would be back to normal again, and we would find something else to do.”