September 16, 2020

#96 A Test of Time

by The Pitch

Background show artwork for The Pitch

It was three years ago, when Claire Coder went in front of our investors to pitch Aunt Flow. At the time, her startup was a very risky bet. But now, in 2020, Claire’s business has stood the test of time. We find out just how far a business can go in three years.

Today’s investors are Jillian Manus, Phil Nadel, James Altucher and Daniel Gulati.

Transcript

What if we could meet a founder right on the cusp of a big pivot, and then instantly jump forward in time to see how that pivot ended-up playing out years later. Well…in this episode we’re going to do just that. 

It was three years ago, when Claire Coder went in front of our investors. But you’ve never heard this pitch before. At the time, her startup was a very risky bet, she was just at the beginning stages of her pivot from selling tampon subscriptions on her website, to signing big contracts with tech companies.

But enough time has passed, where her company now is so far beyond what she was pitching to investors. And in the second half of today’s show, we’ll talk to Claire and find out…. just how far a business can go in three years.

From Gimlet, I’m Josh Muccio. And you’re listening to The Pitch.

Let’s meet the investors.

Phil: I wanna to invest in a company where you have a scalable way of acquiring customers and I can add money to it that’ll let you explode that. 

That’s Phil Nadel. He is our legendary numbers focused investor.

Jillian: I would love to invest in you. I think you are the real deal. 

That’s Jillian Manus, she cares about the people and the mission behind the company. 

Daniel: I think the only way to make money in VC is to take a non-consensus view that turns out to be right. 

Daniel Gulati is a hotshot VC. Well one person said that, online.

James: Why didn’t you stress the productivity solution? The fact that there’s billions left literally on the floor without your product. 

Oh right, James Altucher. You may know him as that bitcoin guy from a few years back. He was only on the show for a few episodes. 

The Pitch for Aunt Flow, is coming up. Right after this. 

[AD]

Alright here we go! Let’s travel back in time, it’s August 2017. And Claire Coder steps into the pitch studio, carrying a small box of tampons for the investors. 

Daniel: Hey there!

Phil: Hi!

Jillian: Hi! Hello! Okay.

Daniel: Who are you?

Claire: My name is Claire. I have goodies for you guys.

Phil: Oh, we like goodies, Claire. Thank you.

Claire: For your nose bleeds. 100% organic cotton non-applicator tampons. And then of course...

Phil: Wait, what? Let me give this back to you.

Jillian: That's for you Phil. Phil.

Claire: Nose bleeds. Nose bleeds.

Phil: What’s the name of your company?

Claire: Yes! So my name is Claire Coder, and I’m the founder and CEO of Aunt Flow. And myself, I’ve experienced something that 86% of women have as well. And that’s getting my period unexpectedly in public. And there are three options to handle that situation. One, is just like 64% of women, they leave work or what they’re doing immediately. Of course, for businesses, this is lost work hours, and for women this is lost opportunities in a really awkward situation.

Jillian: They leave work?

Claire: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

James: Okay, can I, I'm sorry to interrupt - is it really that unexpected? Or do you always have in your purse when you know it's around that time?

Jillian: You do. You always carry around.

Claire: You hope to. I've definitely been in a situation, I actually started this business because I was at an event called Start-Up Weekend. And I was locked into a building for 52 hours and I unexpectedly got my period.

James: But with a purse.

Claire: With a purse. But I didn’t have tampons with me because I didn’t think I was going to have my period. So some people carry tampons all the time. Not everyone.

Phil: I don’t.

Claire: Yeah. Right.

[laughter]

Claire: Well, I mean you could carry it around and like support your menstruators in need, yes, but there are a lot of situations where that doesn't happen. And you're caught without a tampon, or you're in a bathroom and you don't have a coin to figure out how to use a coin-operated machine. And that's a huge problem as well.

Jillian: That's true.

Claire:So it's a really uncomfortable situation. And so it happens unexpectedly. And that's a huge, huge problem.

Phil: So you said three things happen. One is you leave work or wherever you are.

Claire: You could leave work. So 64% of women have left work immediately to go to the store to get the products that they need.

James: Oh okay.

Jillian: How do you get data?

James: Where is the 64% coming from?

Claire: So we, uh, we partnered with Free the Tampons. Which Nancy....

Jillian: Free the tampons.

Claire: Free the tampons, yes. So in 2013, Nancy Kramer started this movement called Free the Tampons. She had a TED talk where she discussed how, if toilet paper is offered for free, tampons should be too. And so there’s this whole idea where there’s a lack of bathroom equality. And for businesses, especially startups in Silicon Valley, they really want to show that they support their women. And offering free tampons is a visible way to demonstrate they support female employees.

Daniel: And so you would sell to those companies?

Claire: Precisely. So our business model is two parts. So we have a consumer facing side, and then we also sell to businesses. 70% of our company is selling directly to businesses. We sell these boxes, they offer them in their bathrooms, and they can refill them with our tampons. And we work primarily with their maintenance department to make sure they’re completely restocked.

Daniel: And that box which looks like a big jewelry box, that just sits on the, in the restroom? Or...

Claire: Yep. So it sits in the restroom and it also can be wall-mounted as well. 

Daniel: Got it. And then you just come in and refill the box with tampons every so often?

Claire: Well, I don’t, but typically the maintenance company does.

Phil: Why would they buy the tampons from you instead of from Walmart or Costco? 

Claire: Totally. So Aunt Flow is actually the only company that works directly with businesses to supply them with 100% organic cotton tampons. Now, the other options are Tampax, and typically with Tampax they either order through Amazon or Costco. So Amazon and Costco are our competitors, but for companies like Viacom, who we just met with yesterday, they are not going to order a box of 36 applicator tampons to put in their bathrooms for 53 floors.

Phil: What's the buying decision for a company like Viacom, whoever is doing the buying, to decide on they want to buy from you versus Costco or Walmart or Amazon.

Jillian: And what have they been doing beforehand?

Claire: Yeah, so there's a few different options. So Viacom for example have already been offering tampons. But, they just did a huge $130 million renovation on their building in Times Square, and it was all green initiative. So our products are non-applicator tampons. Which you can't really buy at Costco.

James: Okay, I’m sorry, what’s a non-applicator tampon?

Claire: So if you look in your little baggie, those are non-applicator.

Jillian: So, meaning there’s not an applicator piece to insert. It’s manually inserted.

Daniel: And why is that important?

Jillian: Because - they’re plastic applicators, usually.

James: But how many women, must use an applicator just for whatever reason?

Jillian: A lot. 

Phil: But aren’t there other non-applicator tampons out on the market?

Jillian: Yeah.

Phil: Right. So I’m just wondering, can you buy them from Amazon?

Jillian: I think it’s bulk.

Claire: So to clarify. There’s really one brand that does non-applicator tampons, and that is OB tampons. They’re really, really well-known in Europe. They sell, 86% of tampon sales in Europe are non-applicator tampons. While only 6% of purchases for tampons in the United States are non-applicator.

Phil: Why? Why is that?

Jillian: I think one of the reasons is because it’s more difficult. That people who have been using tampons actually prefer to have an applicator. 

Claire: So let's be clear. We started out with applicator tampons.

Jillian: You did?

Claire: Yes.

Jillian: Okay.

Claire: So in November of 2016 when we launched sales, we launched with our business-to-consumer side. And that was our buy-one-give-one subscription box for 100% organic cotton applicator tampons. And that's what you see here.

Jillian: And how'd that do?

Claire: So this is still in the market. It's doing really well. 

Phil: How much revenue are you generating?

Claire: $5,000 a month. Right now we’re transitioning from applicator to non-applicator. So we completely stopped all marketing starting at January.

Jillian: Why? 

Claire:Because when we researched our current customers we realized that 75% of them actually wanted non-applicators. We started sending them to our customers and… 

Jillian: Well, why not just offer both? Can you?

Claire: Well... We’re really, we really want to make sure that people have access to these non-applicators. They’re 53 percent less waste, they’re extremely less money to manufacture. And then for businesses, when we sell to businesses, it’s really for an emergency situation.They don’t want to stock with high quality applicator tampons, or people are going to steal a whole bunch. 

Daniel: How much more expensive are you? 

Claire: Comparable to, comparable to the other options. Like Kotex or Playtex.

Daniel: Like more expensive comparable?

Claire: So we’re about 12% more expensive. 

Daniel: Got it. 

Phil: Wait, I'm sorry. I'm having trouble understanding the value proposition for the customer. So if I'm JP Morgan, I'm this Chief Tampon Officer.

Jillian: Would you stop that, Phil.

Phil: Whatever. You know. Chief Toilet Paper Officer. Whoever is doing the buying here. What is the value proposition? Is she focused more on price? Is she focused on the green aspect? On the convenience of the delivery? You tell us.

Claire: Yeah. So. It's a little bit different for each company. For Viacom it was, they're already offering free tampons, but they wanted to produce 53% less waste. That's why they're going to non-applicator.

Phil: So for Viacom it was about going green.

Claire: Right. And for Chase, it's to show that they support female employees. So recently in the news, Wall Street Journal just published how they're actually paying their women employees 15% less. And they really are looking for a way to visibly show that they support women.

Phil: But why through Aunt Flow as opposed to buying tampons at Amazon or Costco and giving them away. Why are they going through you?

Claire: Yeah. A few different reasons. So of course for the green side, there's that. For the cost side, we're pretty comparable to the other options because our manufacturing is significantly less expensive, because we don't have the applicator. And then in addition, what was awesome about our consumer standpoint is we've created this national phenomena where we've been featured in over 50 local and national news pieces ranging from Forbes to Teen Vogue. I was on a TLC TV show talking about the company. And so Chase Bank recognizes, they want to align with a very progressive brand. And a brand...

James: What’s an article, what’s a sample article about? Like what do they say about you?

Claire: So one of the top headlines is 20-year-old drops out of college to talk about menstruation for a living and is changing the world one cycle at a time. 

Daniel: You’re 20 years old?

Claire: I try to not mention that, because I don’t want people to think that I’m not real or I’m actually running sh*t. But, yeah, I’m 20.

Daniel: You’re killing it. I’m trying to think what I was doing when I was 20. It wasn’t selling to JP Morgan. But I just wanted to pull back a little bit.

James: I'm sorry to interrupt, I wanted to answer Phil's question a little more. Because I think there's something going on here.

Daniel: What was it? oh yeah value prop.

Phil: I don't get it still for Chase. They can, I mean, they could buy OB non-applicator tampons in bulk. I'm sure OB produces them...

Claire: But people aren't following OB. OB is...

Phil: So it's important to Chase for them to align with you? That's the reason they're giving you the business? They want to align with you because you've been published, you've had some articles about you?

Jillian: Young women.

Daniel: It's like a...

Claire: We check a lot of boxes for them. Young woman, or women-owned business. Small business. A business that is founded by a 20-year-old. A business that has national recognition for what we're doing. And in addition we also have a giving factor, or a giving piece, too. So for every 100 pieces that a business purchases, we donate ten. So that's our social enterprise component. 

James: But, but Claire, let's say I’m OB. And I'm going in right after...I’m going in right after you. I'm going to say to them, all of those reasons are total bullsh*t. The reality is, your employees are running home or having some problems at work, you're losing money because women are not as productive as they could be, and so I'm solving an 

Daniel: But it's not all about price, right, is what you're saying.

James: But I feel that’s bullsh*t, though. I think the main pitch - is that JP Morgan is actually going to save a billion dollars a year on productivity.

Daniel: No, I think it’s an employee perk or something. Where like…

Claire: There’s a variety, like I was saying, there’s a variety of reasons. 

Jillian: Well I get your thought. 

Daniel: What I’m saying is like we have Aesop soap in our bathroom. And there are 500 other brands that are lower cost. But we make some sort of balanced buying decision that’s like you know we’re willing to pay a little bit more for a better product to make our employees happy or more productive. And I feel like that would be the pitch, correct me if I’m wrong, that would be the pitch that you would go in with. We’re not the lowest cost, but we’re the best value.

What the investors are getting at, is the fact that Claire’s sell for Aunt Flow is all about the environment and support for women, but the people she has to convince are facilities managers, who typically have different priorities, like price. And even if Claire is able to win them over, what’s to keep a competitor from swooping in with a similar product, at an even better price?

Daniel: So what happens when Aunt Flow 2 comes along. I’m just thinking about, thinking about barriers to entry here. So I can go and access one of those three manufacturers, I can get connected to the Chief Control Officer at any of these companies. You may have a one-year contract with these companies, but sales cycles take three months, six months anyway. And so how do you think about someone coming in and knocking you out of these big companies?

Claire: Yeah. So I think about that in a few different ways. First, we’re pushing for the three to five-year contracts. So that’s one barrier. It’s our mission to really grab as much land as possible. And be able to really expand our brand so that people recognize us and know us. And that’s primarily why we’re raising money right now. Quite frankly, we don’t necessarily need the money if we want to grow at the rate that we’re growing. But. We know that it’s a situation where we need to get in front of as many people as possible so that they can start purchasing our products and more people know our brand.

Daniel: So I think your barrier is actually share of wallet. So I think that I’m less interested in just the number of clients that you get. And I’m more interested in can you sell more product to JP Morgan or - any of these guys right? And I think if you could sell them soap and, you know, toilet paper and whatever else they might need, I think you then become a core supplier. And it then becomes harder for them to kinda knock you out 

James: Can I reel back. How much are you raising and what valuation?

Claire: So we’re raising $500,000 at a $5 million cap. 

Daniel: Here’s where I’m at. I think that you should really expand the product range as quickly as you can. Sell a suite of really interesting products to these companies and really lock yourself in. Because the other trip-up for me was really barriers to entry here. So if you can go out and get these big customers, why can't the next sprightly young awesome entrepreneur do the same thing. And I kind of worry a little bit about that over the long term. So I've got no doubt that you're going to build a good business. It's not quite there for me as a venture capital opportunity. So I'm going to respectfully pass on the opportunity to invest.

Claire: Well, I'd love to come back. Because I do think that we can expand our product line. 

James: I would like to say I'm in. But I do not like a $5 million valuation at all. But aahh...

Daniel: What are you thinking valuation-wise?

James: I'm thinking valuation $2 million. 

Jillian: How much are you going to put in?

James: Well, I wanted to hear how much, if anybody else was interested at the $2 million, and if she was interested in the $2 million, and then I would say how much I would be in for.

Phil: For me, I think you’re incredible too. Love your energy, love your attitude. And again, like what I said before, you’re really an inspiration, and I think...

Claire: It sounds like you’re about to say, I’m out.

Phil: I, I’m not totally buying into the value proposition from, on the B2B side. And I see it as an educational mission. Which I’m not on board for. I don’t want to be in that business of having to educate all these businesses about why they should find the ecological solution and why it’s a good idea to give tampons away to women. And there’s...

James: Which is why the productivity solution was the one I was waiting to hear. Which she did use with JP Morgan Chase. 

Phil: I think that that’s a better way to go. But then I’m worried about the competition. Because a company like Tampax, or if they want the eco solution, OB, can crush her in terms of price. So someone who is focused on productivity is going to be price-sensitive.So I’m sorry to say, despite the fact that I think you’re wonderful, I’m a pass on it.

3] Claire: All right, that’s all right.

Jillian: There's a lot of problems with the business model that I have. primarily - there are two. One is that it's 12% more expensive. The other problem is, I think that just offering this non-applicator tampons is a problem. Because people, women just don't use them as much. I would prefer you to be able to offer both, and whatever the company wants, it's up to them. I’m going to pass, okay. 

Claire: Thank you.

Jillian: You're welcome.

Claire: We'll change the world one cycle at a time.

Jillian: There we go. There we go 

In the pitch, James Altucher said he would go in, IF Claire dropped her valuation from $5m down to $2m - he did eventually convince her, and James said he’d invest $25K in Aunt Flow.

But then, in the months following the pitch, Claire never heard back from James.

Claire: I'm the queen of follow-up emails, so it's not like I didn't harass, but I didn't hear from him. 

Josh: You never heard back from him?

Claire: Never heard from him ever after the show. I felt like I was like high school dating and I got ghosted by an investor, but as I continued through raising my round, I actually realized that that's like a thing that people do, even like grown professionals. That was just my foray-

Josh: Grown professionals like adults? 

Claire: Yeah, adults 

Josh: Yeah, well - that's not super surprising. He did that to every founder he committed to on our show. He also did it to the show. Next thing, we were like touching base on the commitments he made to founders on our show. And then suddenly, he went dark.

Recently I sent an email to James and he replied this time, and acknowledged that he should have gotten back to Claire.

But without James’s money, how did Claire do? We’ll find out how the last three whole years, and 2020 went for her after the break.

[BREAK]

Welcome back. In 2017 Claire was in this big transition, and as her company grew, Claire’s skills as a founder grew with it. She ended up raising $1.5m, at the $5m valuation she wanted too. And one of her biggest investors, was Charles Hudson. A regular on our show. He invested $250k in Aunt Flow in 2018. And that money meant Claire could invest in new products needed to make her pivot successful.

Claire: For example Google North America, they said, "You know Claire non-applicator tampons are only used by 16% of the population. Is there a way that you can make applicator tampons and pads that are entirely biodegradable?" And I was like, "All right. Challenge accepted." Josh, are you familiar with those coin operated tampon and pad dispensers?

Josh: No, but I can imagine what they look like. I've seen the male equivalent, that condom. It's not the male equivalent, but it's the closest thing. 

Claire: Yeah. yeah. Right, sex is an option. Menstruation isn't, but we get the point. And so, our...we call it our Estrogen Dispenser - we actually designed our patented tampon and pad dispenser to replace those archaic coin-operated dispensers with our dispenser that does then our 100% organic cotton tampons and pads, applicator tampons and uhh regular day pads with wings. So we have departed from only non-applicator tampons, but just like every business, we've had a product evolution and uhh It was for the better. 

Josh: That's awesome. I mean that was a huge issue in the pitch. 

Claire: Mhmm.  

Josh: Like, what do you think about the fact that the feedback the investors on our show gave you was almost spot on what you ended up doing?

Claire: Yeah, it's awesome. I wish they would have given me the money to be able to make it happen because we ultimately did make it happen.

Josh: [laughs]

There was something else the investors, particularly Phil, really harped on in her pitch, which was how much of an uphill battle it would be for Claire to educate facilities managers on why making menstruation products available for free was so important. But as it turns out, Claire didn’t end up having to do all the work herself. 

Claire: It was the students at UC Davis - that brought us up to their administration to rally their administration to believe that this was important which was really awesome. umm There's actually a young woman Her name's Annie. She led basically this entire initiative with one of our team members. 

Josh: So they, the students went to the administrators and said, "We want Aunt Flow in our school."

Claire: Yup, that's what happened. Annie basically was like, "You all, Aunt Flow, we need all of these products to be biodegradable." And I was like, "Okay, girlfriend, we got this." umm and At the time, we didn’t have, our pads were not entirely biodegradable. And so we spent about six to nine months in product development to make sure that our pads were about 100% biodegradable. We had like one component that wasn't.

Josh: You have the time to invest in developing that product that six to nine months because you had closed that round of funding in late 2018?

Claire: Yeah, It's crazy to see what we can do in three years when we have additional capital. Whereas previously I was operating off of a scarcity mindset of, "I have $25,000. What the hell can I do with that?" 

With a lot more than $25k at her disposal, she got out of the scarcity mindset and got her tampons into places like Princeton and Penn State and over the next few years, they also picked up accounts for state office buildings in Ohio and Iowa. and even big tech companies like Zappos and Google.

Then, in 2020, she was poised for even more growth with a fresh round of fundraising for $1.2m. But then COVID-19 hit. People stopped going into the office. 

Claire: Yeah. Well. In January, we signed a contract with Twitter for all of their offices. [laughs]

Josh: Which sounds amazing.

Claire: Super amazing. It was amazing. It is amazing. Then, obviously, they made their grand announcement of, "We're remote optional forever." umm and so Our sales leader that lead that deal, hardcore facepalmed, hand-face moment of like, "Damn it, - and some of our customers are on a recurring shipment for us. This was like early mid-March, We made the proactive decision of calling all of our customers and saying, "Hey, we understand that things are changing. We are happy to pause, adjust, do whatever you need" and 90% of them were like, "Yup, we'll opt to pause." - We took a dramatic hit from 100% revenue to I want to say like 10% to 20% of that, 

Josh: So 90% of your business dried up because of COVID?

Claire: Yeah. People weren't in office. They weren't at school. They weren't reordering. They weren't installing new dispensers into their bousy offices that they're not sure if they're ever going to use again. Uhh [laughs]

Josh: You know, it does strike me that I wouldn't have thought that COVID would affect your business. Like actually, tampon sales seems like the type of thing that would remain quite steady no matter what was going on with the economy.

Claire: Yeah, now I wish that I was still in direct-to-consumer. Man, I messed that up.

Josh: Yeah you made this pivot, and then, it made you extremely susceptible to a pandemic.

Claire: And so I guess it's the age-old question of, "Are you going to build your business to perform in a pandemic or are you just going to build your business?" 

Josh: The way you want to build it. [laugh]

Claire: So yes, it did dramatically impact us. 

Josh: Yeah how do you survive on 10% of your sales?

Claire: Well, Josh, you pivot. [laughs]

Josh: So what did you do?

Claire: Part of our end of the year goal was to roll out our sister company Work Flow - which was additional products that facilities managers needed to make their lives better - part of those product lines were wipes and disinfectant. And basically we expedited that - and because of the situation we also leveraged our supply chain and the fact that we know how to manufacture FDA approved products and uh class 2 medical devices we also made masks and we support restaurants and salons and places like that that are now reopening. And the hard part is they don't know where to get masks. Ummm - we make specific products that are industrial grade, medical grade, that are supportive for what people need in the business environment. 

Josh: How much of your loss in sales, that 90%, have you been able to recover selling some of these other goods to workplaces? 

Claire: 100% and then some. 

Josh: Your company has actually grown through this? 

Claire: Definitely grown. Definitely grown.

Josh: That’s amazing. So it sounds like you're no longer a tampon company?

Claire: Well, Josh, people still menstruate. They will still go back to school. We do still sell menstrual products, but I will say we've had our evolution. Part of Aunt Flow's mission was making sure everyone has access to tampons and pads. Our mission has now grown to say, making sure everyone has access to basic quality necessities.

Josh: Yeah. 

Claire: When I look back two, three years ago, Josh, I was still making decisions based on a scarcity mindset. Like I never had in real money to be able to think about what could our evolution of product look like. I knew I wanted to make sure that we had products that were sustainable, but I couldn't even imagine. Now, thinking back, I genuinely couldn't even imagine where we are now with our patented dispenser, patent-pending dispenser tampons, pads, masks, sanitizers, wipes, but It is definitely a different perspective of what we can do, what we can achieve and what impact that we can make on the world. There's not as many caps that I was putting on our trajectory. 

Josh: Well, awesome, Claire. Thank you for finally sharing the story of what happened with Aunt Flow after The Pitch.

Claire: Think about it this way, Josh, we're both still around three years later, which I think is also very cool. 

Claire said they have 7-full time employees now at the Columbus, OH based startup. And that in the last few months, Aunt Flow, just crossed over into profitability for the first time ever. 

Josh: Bye Claire, thanks again for coming on the show. 

Claire: Thanks Josh, toodles noodles.

Josh: [laughs] Toodles noodles?

Claire: Does that make your life better? 

Josh: It's a thing. [Laughs] Toodles.

That’s all for today’s episode. But, I do have a quick announcement! On Wednesday, September 30th we are opening up the phone lines for listeners to call-in and ask investors for advice. So mark your calendars, September 30th [note: 2020] from 4:00-6:00pm Eastern the phone lines will be open and this time investor Elizabeth Yin with Hustlefund will be on the line, AND a new investor will make his debut appearance on the show. Hunter Walk with Homebrew. I’ve been following him on twitter for a while and I’m psyched he’s actually going to be on the show. 

So if you have a question, or a problem and you could use some, potentially awesome advice from investors, you should call the pitch hotline!

On Wednesday, September 30th from 4:00-6:00pm eastern. The phone number to call is 833-748-2448. Talk to you then.

The Pitch is hosted by me, Josh Muccio. Produced by Chris Neary, Heather Rogers and Max Gibson. We are edited by Sara Sarasohn.

Original music in today’s episode from Emma Munger, Breakmaster Cylinder, Peter Leonard and The Muse Maker. We are mixed by Enoch Kim with help from Sam Bair. 

Lisa Muccio coordinated the recording of this pitch.

Thank you so much for listening. Tell your friends about the show. And we’ll be back with a new episode in two weeks. Toodles noodles.