The idea for TOP the organic project was typical in that we saw a problem that needed a solution.
It was not typical because my co-founder and I were both at the height of our careers, the breadwinners for our families, and had to take a huge risk to start our company.
Was it a gradual decision or lightbulb moment to start TOP?
I had been an Executive in consumer products for 20+ years for PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Nestle USA. I had seen consumer trends change over the years. Customers began to look for organic, non GMO, gluten free and sustainably sourced foods. The same happened with cleaning products and then one day my daughter started asking for organic lip gloss. Why wasn’t anyone talking about period products?
When we went looking for period products for our daughters we saw a category that had no transparency, little innovation and had been largely ignored. Who wants to talk about tampons?
How did you validate the idea?
It was truly like peeling back an onion. There are 3 major problems in the feminine hygiene category that we discovered.
- Lack of Transparency - Feminine Hygiene products are considered a medical device so manufacturers are not required to list their ingredients or test the impact to womens’ health. Traditional products may contain synthetics, dyes, fragrances, and the cotton treated can be with pesticides and bleach with no disclosure. Women use an average of 15,000 tampons in their lifetime and have no idea what is in them.
- Environmental Impact - Over 20 billion period products end up in US landfills each year and take centuries to biodegrade. Traditional tampons and even pads are made primarily with plastic and synthetics and rank a higher threat to our planet than plastic straws and bags.
- Period Poverty - In our country alone, there is an alarming statistic around the number of girls that miss out on school simply because they don’t have access to period products. It’s an average of 1 in 5 girls.
None of this was ok with my Co-Founder and I so we decided to do something about it. We wanted to do something as Mothers of daughters and good humans, we needed purpose in our lives!
Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?
I had a strong background in consumer packaged goods and sales and Denielle brought a wealth of knowledge from her years in branding and marketing. We could totally do this.
Our plan seemed so simple. We would apply everything we knew from our corporate training, build a big brand and disrupt the feminine hygiene category to the delight of women everywhere! We got some great lessons early on that. it is not so easy.
How did you fund the idea initially?
We had been self funded to start the company and knew from the groundswell of support we received from the women around us that we were doing something important with TOP and we had to find a way to get it done. In order to keep the business going, we needed to raise funds. We thought investors would love us because we were seasoned executives with years of experience leading organizations and teams.
We met with, spoke to and reached out to over 100 VC’s and investors. Everything they say about women securing VC funding is true, women raise less than 3% of all venture capital. We were mature entrepreneurs, we were pitching to men, we were not tech based and we were talking about periods. Investors were not interested in us. There is no “fun” in fundraising” and it almost broke us both financially and in spirit.
Where did you meet your co-founder/founding team?
Denielle is not just my co-founder she is my cousin. Our Dads were 1st cousins, very close and unfortunately both passed away at a very young age. We had not seen each other in over 20 years and reconnected on social media.
Denielle was at a similar crossroads in her life. She was at the top of her career as an executive at Talbots and prior to that Kate Spade, Coach and Ann Taylor. We were both Moms of 2 children with unbearable work and travel schedules and no real passion for the careers that were consuming our lives.
What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?
The first thing we had to do was throw out the playbook and get uncomfortable. We are both super type A high achievers who did everything right to progress in our careers. We worked hard, we stayed late and we stayed in line. We tried to build TOP the same way and it just didn’t work.
We realized that if we were going to do it how it had always been done we may as well go back to big corporate jobs. What if we listened to our instincts, got out of line and went left when everyone else went right?
I went on a Halloween website and bought a tampon costume because I thought it was funny and Denielle bought a pink glitter unicorn headband for good luck and we made a plan.
I signed up for the Reebok 10K for Women in Boston because I wanted to get noticed and hope that people thought it was funny. I ran the race and we got the press we were hoping for. We started a YouTube channel and posted to social media. I went to yoga as a tampon, the supermarket and out for Bloody marys with friends and it all changed. We changed the narrative and made it easy to talk about our purpose.
Putting ourselves out there as Moms and the face of the TOP Brand with true authenticity we were noticed by retailers, investors and most importantly by our customers. We are speaking to Moms and their daughters who are looking to make better choices with the products they consume. What used to be a hushed conversation with other women was now a topic openly discussed with everyone because of the levity we brought to the conversation.
Our message was “Tampons can do anything and so can you”. We want to be a role model for the next generation and show them that you can do anything if you believe and work hard.
How do you protect yourself from competition?
There is always going to be competition in a free market. We call other organic feminine care brands our peers because they are helping to raise awareness that women have a choice in their period products. Only 9% of the feminine hygiene products sold in the US are organic, there is a tremendous amount of opportunity in this category.
We are different in that we are speaking to Moms and their daughters because we are those Moms with daughters. We try to live active and healthy lifestyles, make good decisions for our bodies and our planet and help others along the way. We are building a community.
Do you have any trademarks/IP/patents?
We have a very strong commitment to the environment as well. Many of the other organic brands still use single use plastic applicators for their tampons and the pads are wrapped in plastic and only have organic top sheets.
TOP tampons are 100% organic cotton and have a plant based applicator that looks and feels exactly like the plastic you are used to. TOP pads are 100% organic cotton top sheet and core with plant based wrappers.
We have developed products that are better for the environment without sacrificing performance. This is the one thing you buy that has to work! We are building our business to drive positive social change now and for future generations.
What are your favourite podcasts?
Both of us are obsessed with podcasts, we listen to them daily while we walk the dog or drive in the car. Our favorites:
- How I Built this - A must listen for any Entrepreneur, you will listen and understand there are many paths to success
- The Marie Forleo Podcast - Because everything is Figureoutable
- Unlocking Us with Brene Brown - The Queen of courage & vulnerability
- The PinkCast with Cindy Ecker - A role model for resilience and women entrepreneurship
- The Story of a Brand with Ramon Vela - a smart and thoughtful host featuring brand founders and their journeys
What are the next products you’re working on? Are there any releases you can tell us about?
We closed our seed round early this year with a total of $1.6M raised. This funding enabled us to launch our plant based “PLANTASTIC” applicator tampons that will be the new standard in period products. We expanded our D2C business to include Amazon and will launch in retail outlets throughout 2020.
The COVID 19 outbreak changed everything for us and the world. We feel very fortunate to have a lean and agile team so that we could adjust quickly to our changing environment. We had to make two big changes:
On the business front we cut back our budgets to be as lean as possible to extend our cash flow. We are leaning into our Amazon business with our efforts and reallocating our promotional spending. We feel fortunate to be an essential item but also understand that our retail rollout will be much slower than planned.
Giving back has always been one of our core values and this crisis has made it more important than ever. We are leaning in to our social impact with our partners at Period.org to donate 110,000 products to the most devastated cities in America. We are also taking our daughters to local shelters for smaller donations in our communities. We are all in this together and we need to take care of each other.
Where do you see the company in 5 years?
Our perfect future would include innovating the feminine hygiene category to make better and safer period products accessible to all women. We will show our daughters and the next generation that you can build a purpose driven company and have some fun along the way. We will invest in other female entrepreneurs and ultimately sit on boards so that we can drive true social change.
If a Tampon and a Unicorn can change the world, so can you.
|Founder:||Thyme Sullivan and Denielle Finkelstein|