When Lynn Tao told a male friend and former Y Combinator alum about her business idea, he thought it was a joke. When Tao informed him that it wasn’t a joke, his response was visceral. “That’s gross,” he said.
Tao is the founder and CEO of Juniper, a monthly subscription commerce startup for tampons. The company launched in October 2012 and has been steadily building up a user base of women who get a discreet monthly delivery of tampons, back-up pads, and treats and goodies.
Tao got the idea last summer when--as often happens to the best of us--she realized too late that she was out of tampons.
“I was like, ‘God damn it! Why does this always happen?!’”
By September, the startup was shipping to its early testers—mainly friends and family. By October 1, thecompany was shipping to paying customers. Each box comes with a supply of tampons and back-up pads tailored to individual flows, be they heavy, medium, or light.
A crowded space
Similar subscription startups for tampons and pads have since entered the market, including HelloFlo, which launched last month. Prior to that, there was Le Parcel, which launched in January. And prior to that, there was My Cotton Bunny. All offer more or less the same thing: a discreet box of tampons delivered to your doorstep once a month so you never forget or run out. No one likes making the midnight run to the drug store, but everyone’s been there.
While Juniper’s price hovers at the higher end of the spectrum ($28 a month, compared to HelloFlo, which is $15-$18 a month), the service offers a more luxurious, pampering experience. Each box comes with artisan treats to satisfy those salty, sugary, and chocolaty cravings that come with your period, such as salted caramels, chocolate truffles, and cheese snacks, as well as other artisan goodies like honey sticks and tea samples.
“My mom is super nurturing. She would put a care package together for me,” said Tao. “She told me once, ‘I know you like to have your creature comforts.’ She doesn’t just give you things to solve your problems; she gives you things to make you feel better. So that’s how I look at this.”
Throughout the month of March, Juniper boxes delivered artisan treats specifically from women-led businesses to customers. And they were mind-blowing.
Ultimately, the concept is a no-brainer. There are subscription commerce startups for virtually anything you can imagine, from shoes, clothes, craft kits, and educational kid’s toys, to makeup, snacks, green living, condoms, and sex toys. Half of these things don’t even make sense as a monthly purchase. Why not create a company for something that more or less half the human population actually does need on a monthly basis?
Part of the problem is that there are cheaper alternatives, like Amazon, which allows you to subscribe to get an item delivered at the same time each month. The difference is that Juniper is going beyond the bare essentials to make your period a time of pampering.
The other problem is the gross-out factor. The gut reaction of the aforementioned Y Combinator alum was one of disgust, even though he admitted to Tao that it made perfect logical sense. But “instinctively,” he said, “the whole thing is gross.”
His reaction is interesting, considering the fact that he must be relatively smart to have gone through Y Combinator. And Tao insists that he’s actually not a sexist jerk. The problem is that that kind of visceral reaction is simply the way people respond to conversations about tampons and periods. Because no one likes to think about people perioding all over the place like a bunch of heathens.
“Once our customers find us, they’re in love with the concept,” said Tao. “But it does take a little while for them to process it.”
Putting a new twist on an established industry
The global feminine hygiene market—which includes the entire spectrum of tampons, pads, pantyliners, and wipes—grew to $26.5 billion in 2011, up from $24.2 billion in 2010. While developing countries are proving to be the biggest source of growth for pad and tampon companies, that growth is being counteracted by an aging population as the number of women ages 15-49 continues to decline by 1% each year.
Many companies are finding that if you can’t make women menstruate more, you can grab more of the market by offering something new. Kimberly-Clark did this in 2010 with the launch of U by Kotex, a line of tampons for teens that featured bright colors and fun graphics. U quickly became one of Kimberly-Clark’s fastest growing brands, and Kotex consequently inched higher in market share by four percentage points over the course of one year.
At some point, you have to put a new spin on an established market. People can only process so many commercials that show tampons soaking up blue liquid in a test tube. Companies like Juniper take a fresh approach to the topic by turning a monthly hassle into a fun monthly surprise.
They also have the potential to expand into many other areas of women’s health, like fertility (ovulation predictor tests, nutrition supplements), pregnancy (vitamins, antacids, lotion), and postpartum care (giant pads you could land a plane on, lanolin, snacks and treats). And the day birth control pills are made available over the counter, that’s a whole new monthly subscription possibility.
Will the largely male venture capital community be receptive to something like this? Tao’s company was bootstrapped—which has been the case for other tampon subscription companies.
“Half the population has this experience every month,” said Tao. “That’s a number investors should be able to wrap their heads around.”
She also had some keen advice for other female entrepreneurs: “It’s not even about leaning anymore, we just need to charge it. No one’s going to give you permission, you have to take it.”