Have you heard of #Pinkygate? If you don't live in Germany, don’t watch Die Höhle der Löwen (the German version of Shark Tank) on TV and aren’t on social media, probably not. Never mind. Pinkygate describes the PR disaster that just befell two male founders when they sought investors via the aforementioned TV show with their product “Pinky Gloves,” a glove to discreetly and hygienically remove and dispose menstrual tampons.
The show was followed by media outrage, a shitstorm, the whole nine yards. The two of them honestly deserved it, but that's just a side note.
The good thing about it is that some of the enormous media hype was once again reflected in those start-ups that want to take on the period with much more sensible products and bring menstruation out of the taboo zone in times of female empowerment and no body shaming.
Ooia is one of these start-ups and offers sustainable menstrual underwear that also looks good. Behind Berlin-based Ooia are Dr. Kati Ernst and Kristine Zeller, who redirected their career paths at McKinsey and Zalando, respectively, and launched their company in 2018.
We asked Zeller about this complex mix of zeitgeist, smart business ideas, sustainability, menstruation and female empowerment.
How did Ooia come about? Out of your own need or because the timing was right?
We were made aware of the product period underwear by a friend at a ladies' dinner at the end of 2017 and immediately found the product interesting. Period underwear has been around since 2014 in the US. Our research showed that this product did not yet exist in Germany, but met with a lot of interest in various forums. That's when we decided to quit our careers at Zalando and McKinsey and founded Ooia (at that time we were still called Ooshi). The response was very high right from the start. Already when we entered the market in September 2018 with a Kickstarter campaign, we exceeded our goal many times over and since then the demand has been constantly increasing significantly. So we were in the right place at the right time with the right team.
Women's desire for female centric products is huge. The fact that many decision-making positions in companies are held by men means that many women's needs are not being met. This is evident, for example, in the period market, which has been under-innovated for many years–despite the fact that many women want new products. The above-mentioned movements have led to more and more women daring to speak out when they are dissatisfied with products–and they are also more open to trying new things. But the need for our product was there before that, too.
What are the experiences of female founders when they sit across from men looking for investors, especially for a product like Ooia?
At the beginning of the start-up, we still thought that we would have to raise external capital, so we started looking for business angels. Here we quickly noticed that such a "woman's topic" as period underwear met with a lack of understanding from mostly male investors. "I'll have to talk to my wife about that first" or "Is that even a market?" were just two of the phrases we often heard. Even during our appearance on the TV show Höhle der Löwen, one of the investors declined an investment on the grounds that we would be a better fit for a female investor. And this although only about 2-4% of the investors are female. A product that benefits half of humanity only receives a fraction of the capital–that seemed unfair to us at the time. Also because men often invest in topics they do not have specific knowledge about, such as new med-tech products.
Today we know that this is a structural problem: Women are systematically rated lower than men when it comes to funding. They are simply not assumed to have as much entrepreneurial skill. Simply because it's the "norm" for men to start successful businesses.
To date, we are bootstrapped and have not raised any external capital.
However, we are noticing that the wind is slowly changing here: more and more investors are now actively looking for female founders–so it's a good time to start up as a woman!
How were–and still are–the reactions of consumers to your products? Are they all positive, or are customers also bothered by the way you deal with the subject of menstruation?
We are overwhelmed by the positive reactions of our customers. We are rated on the independent rating platform Trustpilot, where we receive an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars. It's also great to see how many emotional and grateful messages we receive every day about our product.
What’s the average age of your customers?
The core of our customers at Ooia is between 30 and 40 years old. But we also offer a range for teens and, with our Ida's Place brand, products for bladder weakness–here the average age is higher.
What is at the core of what is sustainable about Ooia?
Just by using Ooia products, a lot of waste can be saved: every menstruating person uses about 12,000 disposable products in their lifetime. By using Ooia, tons of waste can therefore be avoided.
But sustainability is also very important to us in production: We take care to keep our carbon footprint as low as possible. We source all fabrics from Europe and our sewing factories are also all located in Europe. The sewing factories also work according to the strictest ecological and ethical criteria.
We also avoid plastic along the entire supply chain: for example, our products are not delivered in standard plastic bags but in recycled paper packaging.
Transparency in the supply chain is essential for us. Contrary to common practice in the textile industry, we source all fabrics and ingredients ourselves and don't let the sewing factories do it for us. This is the only way we can be sure where our fabrics come from.
Our sewing factories have certificates that include the strictest ecological and ethical criteria (such as GOTS) or must adhere to a similarly strict code of conduct. We regularly convince ourselves of this personally –even if this is sometimes difficult during Corona.
We live in a consumer society: how far can sustainability go?
Climate change is now a very clear threat to most people. That's why more and more people are rethinking their consumption and their carbon footprint. We are sure that consumers have enough power through their purchasing decisions to force companies more and more in the direction of sustainability. However, we would like to see companies communicating more transparently on this and "green washing" being pursued more strictly.
Menstruation, period underwear, panty liners and sanitary towels... not exactly image highlights. How did you approach the issue to get it out of the taboo zone?
First of all, you have to acknowledge that periods are still a big taboo. This taboo is deeply rooted in society and that can't be changed overnight.
We want to gently pick up all menstruating people where they are with their taboo. We are happy if they have new possibilities to manage their periods better through our product.
Through the discussion about our products, social change is created–an important corporate goal of ours.
Your latest product is a nursing bra. After menstruation (and menopause), another social taboo. Why is that the case?
This taboo is also ancient. A woman's breasts are always first put into a sexual context. Many people perceive this as unpleasant or shameful. The fact that women now more confidently take this space and breastfeed in public is sometimes perceived as a threat–almost equated with a declaration of war. Even though it's the most natural thing in the world.
Basically, we think it's great that the product is becoming more and more well known. The market is also big enough for several suppliers.
Most suppliers position themselves well below us in terms of price and simply buy ready-made period underwear in Asia and sell it back here. This cannot be compared at all with our fairly produced quality product.
We were the ones who made the product known on the German-speaking market. We have been able to maintain our position as market leaders to this day–for which we work very hard to constantly optimize the product. For example, we are the only ones in the world to have certification from the renowned Hohenstein Institute for anti-bacterial efficacy. Particularly with regard to this issue, other suppliers do not communicate transparently and sometimes simply incorrectly.
We are also the only ones to be evaluated on an independent evaluation platform–nothing can really be glossed over or deleted there. So we show our ratings completely unvarnished and are very proud of our average of 4.7 out of 5 stars.
What new projects are currently in the pipeline at Ooia?
We still have big plans with our brands. There are a lot of new products in the pipeline–some of them are really completely new products.
We also have many ideas for more female-centric products–there are still so many unfulfilled women's needs in various areas of life.