Meet The Two Women Who Are Changing The Face Of Periods
Pause. A product that allows us to have sex while on our periods - sans mess? We had to learn more about FLEX when we first heard about their product and mission. A female-founded company based on the premise of bringing more awareness and a modern solution to that time of the month for women, FLEX is on a mission to make women feel more comfortable in their own body.
FLEX is a disposable, single use device that is hypoallergenic, latex-free, and safe to wear during sex.
The product itself is a soft, disc-shape that allows you to have sex by blocking off your cervix for up to 12 hours. It's disposable, helps relieve cramping, perfect for active lifestyles, holds up to five tampons worth of fluid and is disposable after each use. Oh yeah, they’re also doctor-approved to be hypoallergenic, BPA-free and they won’t cause toxic shock syndrome. Sign us up!
We had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Schulte, CEO and Founder, and Erika Jensen, Head of Growth, to learn more about their journey creating FLEX and disrupting a very outdated industry.
Femme & Fortune: Tell us about yourselves! How did you two meet and what motivated you to work together?
Lauren: I had the idea for FLEX in summer 2014. I was frustrated by tampons (they were the secret culprit of persistent yeast infections) and I had just learned about menstrual cups for the first time. I was immediately intrigued by the promises of menstrual cups, but when I tried them, I was even more frustrated by how difficult they were to insert and remove. I thought the problem was unique to me, so I tried getting my friends to use menstrual cups, but most didn't like the idea of rinsing and reusing.
This kicked off a research and discovery phase about the menstruation market. When I learned that the modern tampon (and menstrual cups) were invented in the 1930's, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to making something better for women. I quit my lucrative marketing job and started working full-time on FLEX in May 2016. At the time, FLEX was just a concept, but the idea spread so quickly that I started getting calls from out-of-state strangers who heard about the idea and wanted to order my product.
Erika:I was introduced to Lauren through a mutual friend who described us both as the “vagina girls” and therefore thought we’d be perfect for each other. (We are, but in general, probably not true for all vagina girls, FYI). Lauren had been looking for a partner with a background in ecommerce and my experience at Jimmyjane was particularly attractive given I had spent the previous two years marketing something everyone wants but never talks about (vibrators).
When we met, I learned that we'd both suffered from yeast infections caused by tampons, and Lauren convinced me to try FLEX. I was pretty skeptical -- I had been using tampons for 14 years! I tried it for the first time a few weeks later during a day of board meetings. I made it all day without running to the bathroom, my cramps diminished, I literally forgot I was on my period, and no inkling of an infection! I quit my job that day, threw my tampons away, and Lauren and I have been girl ganging ever since.
We now live and work together.
Femme & Fortune: What are some of your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to working together and how do you two balance each other?
Lauren: Erika is the perfect partner for me because she’s been extremely successful growing revenue for consumer brands online. She understands how to leverage technology for marketing better than anyone I’ve worked with my 11 year career. And she’s obsessed with making customers happy.
Erika: Lauren is like the other tree that hangs our hammock.
Lauren: We’d be remiss to not mention our co-founder Panpan Wang, who was our first advisor and investor. Panpan was a longtime friend and worked for a VC at the time when he started advising me (before I quit my job full-time). After Erika and I paired up and the company really started taking off, we needed help with operations and finance and he’s spent his career working with health companies as an entrepreneur, operator and investor, so he was a natural fit to complement our skillset. He ditched his VC job to work with us full-time and never looked back.
Erika: He also loves using our product just as much as we do.
Femme & Fortune: The technology of FLEX is pretty unique. What was the process of designing and creating it?
Lauren: There were a lot of starts and stops. I spent a year researching the FDA, the product development process, the feminine hygiene market, and manufacturing. I knew how to measure a market and sell a product, and understood the basics of product development and manufacturing from my time at Autodesk but recognized that I had a lot to learn.
I did my own research and talked to dozens of experts in each of these areas, who graciously took the time to teach me. I worked with a few industrial and mechanical engineers to get our early concepts going, and simultaneously bought every type of feminine hygiene product I could find online. I gave the products away to women, collected feedback and hosted focus groups to find out what they liked about existing products and what features they would change.
We eventually landed on a concept that’s similar to a diaphragm, and the product tested really well with women. We used that as a baseline for our design, and identified changes we could make to improve the product experience. We eventually brought an industrial designer in house to partner with our manufacturer to perfect the final product.
Femme & Fortune: What setbacks did you two have prior to starting The Flex Company?
Lauren: The greatest challenge to creating a medical device is that it requires a great deal of money, which I didn’t have. Regardless of what you’re making as an entrepreneur, prospective investors want to see a certain amount of traction to know that you’re making something people want before they will invest. But without a product, it’s difficult to demonstrate traction.It was a bit of a catch-22. So, I exhausted my personal savings to test products, host focus groups, and utilize on research and development of our design. We eventually were able to show significant data that not only did women want what we were making, that they were fanatical about it.
Another challenge was getting manufacturers to take us seriously when we were a very early startup. If we were going to have the type of demand to be a real, exciting business, we needed a manufacturing partner that could scale very quickly with us. We had the added complication of making a medical device, which needs to be made in an FDA approved, ISO compliant facility. The manufacturers that pay for those approvals are huge, work with major brands, and don’t want to take on a startup. Plus, manufacturers want to know you have deep pocket investors, and investors want to know you already have a manufacturer that can make your product. It was another catch-22.
Femme & Fortune: How do you think FLEX can change lives?
Lauren: Periods are uncomfortable. As women, we are taught this as a fact. So we spend almost a quarter of our lives in discomfort, more or less accepting our fate. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What I learned in the research and development phase of our product was that lot of the discomfort we experience during our period is caused by the products we use.
Periods are also uncomfortable for many people to talk about. Menstruation is still a taboo topic. A lot of stigma is driven by lack of education. We put a great deal of time and effort into educating women (and men, and children) about female reproductive health.
If we can help a woman feel more love for her body during her period, we’ve accomplished our mission.
If we can help a woman feel more love for her body during her period, we’ve accomplished our mission.
Femme & Fortune: Talking about women's health and menstruation can be seen as taboo. How do you deal with any negative comments or naysayers that don't believe in your product or its functionality?
Erika: Talking about periods and sex IS definitely seen as taboo. We see all of these incredible feminists talking about how the taboo of menstruation is dying and how women should be ashamed for being ashamed of their bodies, but that’s not how we should approach this. The majority of women do not share that sentiment. We need education, and we need time to learn about the normalities of our bodies in order to reach a baseline comfort level, let alone a hoo rah rah attitude about menstruation.
We see naysayers as an opportunity to educate. We talk to our customers everyday - on live chat, in comments, at the grocery story, the gym, on the bus. In talking to them we learned this: FLEX allowed couples who wouldn’t have previously had period sex a new opportunity to talk about it and try it. The conversation alone is worth the back and forth because regardless of outcome, we triggered a thought process.
Lauren: Our product speaks for itself. Even customers who come to us defensively end up finding value in FLEX.
If we can get them to try it once, 85% tell us they want to switch from traditional products full-time. They love that they can wear it leak-free for up to 12 hours, don't have to worry about infections, it helps relieve cramps, and it's disposable unlike a menstrual cup. We've had women tell us it's so comfortable that they forget they're on their period when wearing it--probably the best compliment we'll ever get.
No startup finds success by marketing to everyone. Even if it’s a product that the founders foresee could impact 100% of the population, you have to focus on early users. What do they want? What makes them tick? What do they care about? What features would improve their lives? As long as we’re talking to and obsessing over our core users by making something they really want, we’ll be on the right track.
Femme & Fortune: How have men reacted to your product?
Lauren: I wrote a bit about this in a Medium post “How Talking About Periods With Men Helped Us Raise Money & Join Y Combinator’s Fellowship.”
We’ve spoken with hundreds of men about FLEX. Many are huge supporters. Many of our investors are men. Ultimately, this product was created to improve women’s lives, and many men recognize that there’s a real need for innovation in this space. They’ve heard their partner/sister/daughter/friend’s struggles with their period, and are advocating for better options for them.
We've received heartfelt letters from fathers who have girls, messages from brothers who talked about menstruation with their sister for the first time after hearing about FLEX, and emails from husbands who's relationship with their wife has improved by showing compassion and understanding for her health. About a quarter of our sales are from men who tell us that they purchased FLEX to support the well-being of a special lady in their lives.
Femme & Fortune: Having a startup is an intense amount of energy, time and effort. When you're not working on FLEX, where can we find you two? How do you balance your lives with work?
Erika: Define “not working.”
Lauren: Most startups don’t fail because of market forces, they die by suicide. (I’ll spare you the adage about startups being a marathon…) Mental and physical health are really important to us. Erika is really into pilates and coloring; I enjoy hiking and Burning Man. We both read a lot. And we make watching Silicon Valley a weekly affair.
Femme & Fortune: Where do you see Flex going in the next year and what are some of your bigger picture goals for the company?
Lauren: After we ship FLEX to our first customers, we’re going to focus on making our product available to more women. About a third of our customers are not living in the US, and most women purchase their menstrual products in retail stores. This is challenging for a startup; it takes time (and money) to get into retailers, and most companies take several years to figure out their supply chain internationally. So, we’re going to work on tackling both of those challenges.
We are also beginning research and development for another product. Like our first product, we’ll work very closely with our customers to create a collaborative design that they really love. We have some exciting ideas for our second version which we plan to unveil next year.
Thank you so much to the ladies of FLEX for sharing their story with us here at Femme & Fortune! Pre-order your own FLEX by visiting their site at at FlexFits.com and be sure to follow them on Facebook and Twitter.