8 Min ReadBusiness 06 March 2020
It's absurdly difficult to launch a product for women, by women.
When I moved to NYC, I was bright and full of dreams, my hopes pinned on a colorful career and exciting new friends. Within one year, exciting new friends in tow, I was fully engaged in learning the ropes and climbing the ladder at a global investment banking firm. It was an exciting time of learning new things and my capacity for growth was enormous.
While living the daily grind of corporate life, I often had a seven-minute walk from my apartment to work and/or the subway. As a self-respecting NYC pedestrian, I walk with purpose and who among us isn't always running a few minutes behind once we finally dash out the door? This accelerated pace often led to sweating around the 6.5 minute mark which means I would be blooming into a full sweat right as I arrived in the office or (worse) dove into the sweltering depths of a muggy subway to await the sweet yet fleeting blasts of crisp AC, like a soldier in the desert but more humidity...
This became increasingly annoying during our long and stifling city summers. Eventually I began to use a variety of different absorbent solutions from paper towels or bandanas to premium (yes, premium), baby diapers! That's when I decided there was a giant gap in the market — I'm not the sweatiest person I know, but I do sweat. It's normal, and I knew I couldn't be the only one with this problem. So I began to do some research.
Eight years went by and this brilliant idea burned — an itch left unscratched. How could I ever forgive myself if I didn't take a leap of faith on such a great (insane) idea? Swoobie began to lurk in my mind like an oven I'd left on.
Finally, in 2017, I purchased all known boob sweat products and took a week off work to run gym sweat tests while researching established patents, patent law, intellectual property and the general feasibility of launching such a product. I was astonished to discover patents for boob sweat products going back to the 1980s! Some I even recognized as products I'd purchased. It was both concerning and reassuring to see that I wasn't the first genius with this plan. But, thankfully, none were like mine.
That was the week I discovered the cost of properly defending an infringed patent against copy-catters STARTS around $300K. That dampened my spirit but didn't stop me from thinking about it.
But WHO is so crazy as to leave their job and launch a boob sweat product? Not me baby, that's crazy talk.
So while I kept my full-time job, I worked on designs and researched companies that make prototypes. I was careful not to provide any images or clear product concept without a signed NDA. Some people may think me over-cautious but better to be safe than sorry. Once they understood my product concept, every prototype maker turned down the project. Soon I found out why.
I spent $7,000 on months of "design" during which a college dudebro completely revised my design and removed the adjustable feature that made it valuable. They submitted two burnt left sides that were an embarrassment and I realized I could make my own better and free. That made me feel really stupid, and I will die lucky if it remains the most expensive of my mistakes. As it turns out, reputable prototype makers rejected my project because nobody has massive absorbent-hygiene machinery laying around. Machines can be the size of multiple trucks.
I was still working and hired a product consultant who helps entrepreneurs and inventors bring their visions to life. By working with her I was able to see a clear roadmap of what would be required to get my product launched and selling. We discussed costs, strategy, and timelines. Thanks to her experience, I was pointed toward an industry group for nonwoven materials, which includes absorbent hygiene.
Joining this organization was one of the best steps I could have taken, and I was thrilled to have their directory of industry contacts. I called their head of training and development and spoke with a kind and generous man who shared my frustration over flushability ignorance. He sent me starter materials and encouraged me to fly in for their three-day workshop on absorbent hygiene products. I immediately booked the trip!
Their training was fantastic. I met many warm and interesting people from the nonwovens industry, many from production giants like Proctor & Gamble or Kimberly-Clark. Others were product engineers or independent consultants. I met machine specialists, wood pulp experts, chemical engineers, and one truly generous man from Velcro. Using these new contacts and the member directory, I began cold-calling third party and independent contract manufacturers to develop my bra liner.
I quickly discovered the nonwovens industry in the USA developed from the collapsed cotton trade and is predominantly run by, you guessed it, old white men. As a result, it was an uphill battle to not only convince them I had a viable product idea, but also explain what it even was. Most had no qualms informing me boob sweat isn't "a thing" (because they would know) and if it were, it's not problematic (or a product would, of course, exist) and if it's problematic, women could use nursing pads (an amusingly frequent suggestion).
Men who would never use my product, told me it wasn't needed. Meanwhile, 80% of women would light up when I'd explain my idea. One facility stopped returning my calls after receiving my pitch deck, while others found reason to stop replying. It was disheartening to say the least. I felt stupid. At the same time, cold calls who were unable to help would also take the time to explain things, providing a better understanding of who I was calling and what their priorities were.
Ultimately, the reason nobody would make my product was because it's outside an established product category, with no guaranteed market. Due to the size and expense of these great machines and the non-square (custom) nature of my product shape, customized equipment and processes must first be developed and then products are produced at such high speeds that there'd better be someone buying them or you'll be real sorry to own that big machine.
One potential partner provided a long list why my bra liner for boob sweat would fail like all its sweaty sisters before. I noted his reasons and did my due diligence, responding with facts and figures to support my claims. Later I applauded the addition of a woman (to their all-male team) and he grew angry with me and compared my appalling (anti-male) sexism with racism. In the same discussion he rejected my research and data because he "didn't think so." I came away from that discussion very angry and confused.
I spoke with another potential resource, an abrupt and somewhat argumentative gentleman, for about an hour while he trashed my ideas with his concept of "reality." He wasn't mean about it; he had started a number of endeavors, which had gone poorly and was eager to share how things can (and do) go wrong. When he ended our discussion by saying there was no way he was making my product, I felt I'd received an education and thanked him for his time. One year later, I needed more no-nonsense advice, and again he provided valuable insight into my process. Although many men challenged me on my idea, there were a good number of male contacts who were generous and willing to provide details, resources, explanations, suggestions, and more. The reality was, in order to make Swoobie come to life, I needed to find men who would see my vision and partner with me.
Early on I thought I'd found a facility to make my product, but after several months of verbal intentions (but no contract) they reversed course, and I found myself back at square one. I was absolutely crushed and started looking again when a European fellow I had previously cold-called reached out via LinkedIn. He remembered my unusual product and had recently met a facility manager in India with the skill and motivation to develop new products. A brilliant stroke of luck! Through his facilitation, I was relieved to meet a modern and ambitious young man who saw the opportunity in my product.
We met in March of 2019, and one year later I have boxed products for sale. I can't believe it! They are really amazing, and I didn't have to compromise my vision. My product developer listened to me and created an excellent product — it turned out great. I was recently looking at our final product and realized it's happened! Two years of staying true to my vision and believing in myself and suddenly I have Swoobies! It was a little mind-blowing, and I may have allowed myself to feel just a little smug very briefly. It was a great feeling.
Yet as I continue to climb, the next peak lies ahead. Each achievement levels me up to new obligations, expectations, and commitments. Equipping myself to meet these goals is a constant exercise in unlocking the next level, and I love it.
Three tips for starting a new business:
- Get involved with your local startup community by attending inexpensive topical discussion panels and informative events. Learn as much as you can and make genuine connections. Always try to contribute or offer value rather than just requesting help. Become familiar with the community and build inroads among similar founders; it is important to realize there are no superheroes.
- Join relevant trade or industry organizations — many have consultant or private rates for individuals far below the corporate rates billed to big players. Utilize their membership directory to make connections and don't be afraid to cold call knowledgeable experts. Many people are eager to speak about topics on which they are experts. Acquire relevant training materials. Learn as much as you can about the industry/product/market/service you are considering.
- Focus your time on becoming equipped for next steps. Keep your eye on the horizon and always remain aware of what's coming around the bend and what you need to be prepared for. A can-do attitude is crucial but also know when to outsource and what you should rely on others to manage. Focus your time and skills in areas of strength while delegating the rest as much as possible.
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3 Min Read
The Armchair Psychologist has all the answers you need!
Help! I Might Get Fired!
Dear Armchair Psychologist,
What's the best way to be prepared for a layoff? Because of the crisis, I am worried that my company is going to let me go soon, what can I do to be prepared? Is now a good time to send resumes? Should I save money? Redesign my website? Be proactive at work? Make myself non-disposable?
- Restless & Jobless
Dear Restless & Jobless,
I'm sorry that you're feeling anxious about your employment status. There are many people like yourself in this pandemic who are navigating an uncertain future, many have already lost their jobs. In my experience as a former professional recruiter for almost a decade, I always told my candidates the importance of periodically being passively on the market. This way, you'd know your worth, and you'd be able to track the market rates that may have changed over time, and sometimes even your job title which might have evolved unbeknownst to you.
This is a great time to reach out to your network, update your online professional presence (LinkedIn etc.), and send resumes. Though I'm not a fan of sending a resume blindly into a large database. Rather, talk to friends or email acquaintances and have them directly introduce you to someone who knows someone at a list of companies and people you have already researched. It's called "working closest to the dollar."
Here's a useful article with some great COVID-times employment tips; it suggests to "post ideas, articles, and other content that will attract and engage your target audience—specifically recruiters." If you're able to, try to steer away from focusing too much on the possibility of getting fired, instead spend your energy being the best you can be at work, and also actively being on the job market. Schedule as many video calls as you can, there's nothing like good ol' face-to-face meetings to get yourself on someone's radar. If your worries get the best of you, I recommend you schedule time with a qualified therapist. When you're ready, lean into that video chat and werk!
- The Armchair Psychologist
HELP! AM I A FRAUD?
Dear Armchair Psychologist,
I'm an independent consultant in NYC. I just filed for unemployment, but I feel a little guilty collecting because a) I'm not looking for a job (there are none anyway) and b) the company that will pay just happens to be the one that had me file a W2 last year; I've done other 1099 work since then.
I'm sorry that you're wracked with guilt. It's admirable that your conscience is making you re-evaluate whether you are entitled to "burden the system" so to speak as a state's unemployment funds can run low. Shame researchers, like Dr. Brené Brown, believe that the difference between shame and guilt is that shame is often rooted in the self/self-worth and is often destructive whereas guilt is based on one's behavior and compels us to do better. "I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it's holding something we've done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort."
Your guilt sounds like a healthy problem. Many people feel guilty about collecting unemployment benefits because of how they were raised and the assumption that it's akin to "seeking charity." You're entitled to your unemployment benefits, and it was paid into a fund for you by your employer with your own blood, sweat, and tears. Also, you aren't committing an illegal act. The benefits are there to relieve you in times when circumstances prevent you from having a job. Each state may vary, but the NY State Department of Labor requires that you are actively job searching. The Cares Act which was passed in March 2020 also may provide some relief. I recommend that you collect the relief you need but to be sure that you meet the criteria by actively searching for a job just in case anyone will hire you.
- The Armchair Psychologist