“It kind of came out of Dollar Shave Club,” says St John Burke, founder and managing director of Time of the Month (TOTM). For the uninitiated, Dollar Shave Club is a California-based company offering razors for men by post as part of a monthly subscription package. “It got me thinking,” Burke continues. “Is there anything like that available for women?”
TOTM sells organic cotton tampons and sanitary pads direct to consumers via its website and Ocado. When the company launched in 2013, there was nothing in the way of a subscription service in the personal care sector for women. Fast forward four years, and the space looks a little different.
In the US, tampon subscription startup Lola secured $10m in venture-capital funding in 2016, with high-profile backers including Lena Dunham. Another US organic tampons brand L. donates products to female entrepreneurs in the developing world with every purchase. And in the UK, TOTM sits alongside a growing number of fledgling tampon businesses offering subscriptions as a point of difference from the big players.
Commercially speaking, tampons and sanitary towels are a similar proposition to razors: they’re essential products that consumers buy regularly, but which have seen little innovation for decades, and the market is largely controlled by a handful of multinational conglomerates. But the success of Dollar Shave Club, which was acquired by Unilever in summer 2016 for $1bn, proved it was still possible to get a slice of the market.
Making TOTM’s products using organic cotton wasn’t the strategy from the beginning, Burke says: “The research I did started to throw up a lot of the questions over chemicals found in mainstream products. We’ve done some research which suggested that 86% of women don’t know what’s in their femcare products.”
Afsaneh Parvizi-Wayne, co-founder of tampon subscription service Freda, agrees it’s striking that, at a time when free-from diets are so popular, women are largely unconcerned with what’s in their tampons. “This is a product that you use every month; it’s the most intimate product you use,” she says.
Like Burke, Parvizi-Wayne founded her company after being inspired by subscription shaving companies, but after some research saw that there was an opportunity in an organic alternative to mainstream brands. “[Manufacturers] don’t have to tell us what’s in tampons, and nobody talks about it because it’s a taboo subject. It’s not an informed choice, which we’ve been given in every other aspect of our lives,” she says.
Freda offers subscriptions of its tampons and pads, and also has a budding corporate clientele. Parvizi-Wayne has secured contracts with co-working spaces and a gym, as well as a number of hotels. It’s not just about brand positioning; she wants to see a shift in the way we think about tampons.
“It’s all about trying to normalise the conversation,” she says. “In Urban Outfitters, they have condoms by their cash desks. If condoms can be dragged out of chemists, why not tampons? Why can’t you have little sample kits of tampons in female-space retail stores? It’s rethinking the whole sector, and going to places where Procter & Gamble haven’t gone.”
Alec Mills and Celia Pool launched their company, Dame, in 2015 as a subscription service using products from existing brands – monthly boxes combined tampons and sanitary towels with other things that women might want during their period, such as ibuprofen.
It wasn’t until they were working in the space that they realised how little information there was about the lifecycle of sanitary products. “Every year, 1.3bn plastic tampon applicators go into landfill in the UK. We thought, we don’t really want to encourage this,” Mills says.
Dame is now offering reasonably priced, organic cotton tampons via subscription and retail. The company has also developed a reusable tampon applicator, which they’re planning to fund through a Kickstarter campaign.
Making it work
But it’s not all plain sailing. Although tampons themselves are an essential product, Mills points out that if your brand isn’t competitively priced, consumers have plenty of choice to buy elsewhere. And making the margins on subscription boxes is tough.
And, of course, there’s the challenge of getting funding – tricky for any startup, even more so when the product you’re selling is something most men (who make up 90% of angel investors) would rather not think about.
Mills and Pool appeared on Dragons’ Den, but their pitch was rejected. The pitch wasn’t helped by the host Evan Davis introducing the business with the ill-judged line: “It may seem counterintuitive to launch a product that half the population will never have use for.” Burke says that one of TOTM’s investors has admitted that he doesn’t like to talk about the company at dinner as he would his other investments.
However, Parvizi-Wayne says she’s largely been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to her business. “I found if I spoke in a very matter of fact way, such as: ‘There are 23 million menstruating women in the UK, give them the market share data’, somehow their brain would switch off from the product,” she says.
While the opportunity looks good, the competition is now hotting up. UK businesses, as well as contending with each other to capture the loyalty of British women, face the possibility that Lola could use its venture-capital big bucks to launch this side of the Atlantic, or that Procter & Gamble could revitalise the marketing of Tampax.
“I think the market is big enough,” says Parvizi-Wayne, adding that Freda’s socially responsible approach (the company matches customer purchases with donations of sanitary products to refugee women) will hopefully set it apart from its competitors.
“As a percentage of the overall market, organic tampons are tiny,” says Mills. “I think a little bit of competition is good because it creates a category. If everyone is shouting about the benefits of organic cotton, that actually helps.”
Burke agrees: “We think that once we present the case for organic cotton, there’s a big opportunity for us to take a share from the mainstream brands.”