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The machines stock feminine hygiene products, along with items for hair care and skin care
In our increasingly on-demand world, it's kind of shocking how difficult it can be to get basic necessities in the moment when you're out and about. If you need anything like tissues or Tylenol or deodorant, and you're not near a 7-11 or CVS, then you're out of luck.
That can be especially difficult for women, which Susanna Twarog found while she got her period while working for a Fortune 100 company.
"Most of my days were spent working on deals and I was traveling for business all the time and I repeatedly had this major issue getting access and reliable access to feminine care products on the go, which is an issue that women nationwide and, honestly, globally struggle with all the time," she told me.
"Whether it's fine dining or a hotel or in an office or a meeting, when you need these products very often they're nowhere to be found, or the machines that supply them are empty or broken. Or they only take cash or coins which absolutely no woman is carrying around in her pencil skirt or dress or whatever she has with her."
It was that experience that led her to consult with her colleague and friend Robina Verbeek, and together the two of them came up with idea for a vending machine company that would not only make these products more widely available for women, but do so in a way that would be welcoming and inviting.
They founded their company, called SOS, in 2017 and it has now raised a $3.4 million funding round led by For Later LLC, with participation from the Khan family, owners of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham F.C.; Jerod Mayo, a New England Patriots coach and former player; Ju Rhyu, founder and CEO of Hero Cosmetics; as well as executives and founders in real estate, retail, advertising, marketing, sports, and entertainment.
A machine that's also your friend
Part of what makes SOS different from other vending machines is that they are designed to be modern. Or as Verbeek put it, not like the "cold, rudimentary, steel boxes," that "look like a small payphone." Not only are those machines not exciting, but "they often have memories of pain and frustration," she said.
"They're also not very sophisticated in terms of their interface and they're certainly not devices that belong in the prominent spaces, like a lobby or other areas where you, as a woman, or as a person, may want to have access to these many products on the go."
That is why the machine designed by SOS is curvy and colorful, so it could be placed anywhere and it wouldn't look out of place, meaning they could easily be seen in an office or a high end commercial space, like a stadium, airport, or hotel.
"What we have today is obviously this beautiful, bold, bright, curvy machine that, when you see it in person, really does feel like a welcoming friend; the idea early on was, how can we create a machine that almost feels like a friend? That, when you see her, you will be excited because you'll know she has the products that you love and will introduce you to new products that you have yet to discover?" said Verbeek.
Of course, equally as important as the design of the machine are the products that it carries: each one can hold 10 unique products and the company has partnered with a number of brands to stock them. In addition to feminine care products, that includes haircare products from Drybar and R+Co; skin care products, such as face wipes, face balms, and deodorant wipes, from Ursa Major and First Aid Beauty; cosmetics from Kosas; hair ties from TELETIES; one size fits all thongs from Hanky Panky; hand sanitizer from Megababe; and invisible pimple patches and sunscreen from Hero.
In addition to all of these brands being, like SOS, female-founded, there are a few other qualities that the company looks for in its partners, Verbeek explained to me, the first being that they are "fearless," by which she means "in the conversations we have to have with men that may not appreciate and understand the problem that we're solving, or listen to our design standards and the product experience that we're building."
The second attribute is accessibility, meaning making the products so they can be used on the go, and then third is exceptionalism, which means that the company is "looking to bring the best of class products within their category to people on the go."
"There's a really incredible ecosystem of brands that we've been able to curate in the machines but also of founders that are very focused on creating products that perform, products that are good for you. That's something that continues to focus on as we grow the company over the next few years to come."
Also, as Twarog noted, several of the executives from brands that SOS is working with are actually part of this round of investment.
"We know that we align from a mission base with what they're building and what we're building, but also a strong belief in the viability of the business and the value that we're going to drive for their brands and CPG brands in their spaces," she said.
Launching in a pandemic
The company launched its first machine in January 2020, just before the entire country went into lockdown thanks to the COVID pandemic.
While obviously this was not the ideal situation for a company in the retail space, which is dependent on commercial real estate spaces, to find itself in, especially right when it had just launched, SOS decided to embrace the moment to do a slight pivot and provide access to products to those who needed them most at the time: healthcare workers.
In response to the pandemic, the company began a campaign called Give SOS, where all of its brand partners donated products, and allowed people to purchase bundles of products that it would typically have available in its machines, but instead were packaged those up into bundles and driven to hospitals. The company was able to deliver thousands of products to healthcare workers during the initial weeks of the pandemic; the campaign went national, and was available in places like New York and Colorado.
"It was a moment where we were scrappy entrepreneurs and had to make a business pivot, but at the same time stayed true to our mission, which for the entire team was, in the end, just a very exciting experience to have had together. And when summer came, and things were a little bit normalized, we refocused our energy on building that pipeline," said Verbeek.
In addition, the company also used that time to roll out its contactless shopping experience quicker, meaning that users don't have to touch the screen to shop or interact with the machines. And it also changed the company's strategy as to where its machines would be located.
"As we go into the end of the year and into 2021, a lot of the locations that are of large strategic public venues have obviously adapted, and really stood up a space for people to still come in," said Twarog.
"Whether that's a sports stadium, or a shopping center, our focus has pivoted to more public venues, with an eye towards the office space as something that will be a location for SOS eventually, but there was definitely a strategic pivot in terms of our location target as a result of the pandemic.
SOS currently has machines launched in seven locations: six in Boston, including at Fenway Park, Prudential Center, and Boston Children’s Hospital, and one in Sunrise, Florida, at the FLA Live Arena. In the coming months, SOS plans to expand to new cities and locations across the U.S., including more machines in Florida, as well in New York and California. The new funding will be used to fuel this expansion, which will mean expanding the team, specifically in product strategy and operations.
In addition, the company is also looking at new potential models for selling its products, including an UberEats-like model where users might be able to get SOS products delivered directly to their house.
Being the brand that women can rely on
While the first customer to buy a product from an SOS machine was actually a man, and though the company does sell products that can be used by either sex, it still does consider itself to be in the femtech space, and a company that caters to women.
"This business is built by women for women and we need to solve that problem. We need to make sure women have access to products that they need that are essential to their daily life," Verbeek told me.
The company's long-term mission is to be a brand that women can trust and rely on for access to these products everywhere she goes, said Twarog.
"Success for us is when a woman needs a product and is able to find the nearest SOS machine and knows that SOS is the brand that she trusts to deliver her phenomenal, exceptional products just when she needs them and just where she needs them. Without achieving that, we won't have succeeded," she explained.
"It’s a big mission. A lot of people that we talk to us say, 'These machines can be everywhere,' and our goal is to have them literally be everywhere so that there's not a moment of distress for a young woman in an office or a young girl who gets her period at a mall. At that moment that she would have previously been in distress is now something that is transformed into delight and excitement."
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