Tell us about you and Awkward Essentials. Who is Frances Tang and how did she come up with Awkward Essentials?
Frances Tang: I grew up in the Bay Area, went to college in San Diego, and had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated. With a degree in Communications, I defaulted to marketing. As I worked these marketing jobs, I always had other jobs on the side. They were rooted in interests and hobbies. I’ve had over a dozen jobs in the past decade ranging from being a hula dancer to being a baker.
The first business I had was a pop-up date night event business. It was based in Orange County, and slowly evolved into an event planning business. Then, after that, myself and a co-founder started a cannabis SaaS business. After that, I was a wedding photographer. It was a pretty wild journey.
I wasn’t the type of person who says, “I’ve always wanted to have a business, or be an entrepreneur.” But because I graduated during a time when it was really hard to find a job, I had to think outside of the box. When I couldn’t find a job, a lot of those side hobbies became jobs.
Awkward Essentials came about right after my co-founder of the SaaS company and I decided to split ways. I felt really bummed. I remember telling my friends about this after-sex clean up tool that I’d been thinking about for years. It was inspired by my job baking. I’ve been baking for a decade. Everytime I used a plastic spatula to get a cake batter out of a bowl, in my head, I would be like, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a spatula for my vagina, to get all the excess fluid out after sex?”
I just never told anybody because it sounded weird and I was kind of embarrassed. But my friends were so supportive and passionate about my idea. Due to their enthusiasm, I decided to look into it and pursue it.
What went into creating the final product? How did you develop it?
Frances Tang: I looked at what was already out there and what’s safe for vaginal insertion. So, I looked up companies who had done things that were similar. I think there’s value in leveraging the research that companies have done.
For example, I looked at tampons. The average length of tampons are always the same. The companies that manufacture tampons have done a lot more research on the average length of vaginas, so I worked off that. The material of the dripstick is the same as a contraceptive sponge and a non-latex condom. But I also wanted it to absorb the fluids quickly as opposed to a tampon, which is used to absorb fluids for an extended period of time. I basically looked at what’s out there. Then, I designed the dripstick around that knowledge.
So, what was your initial experience with finally putting the product out there and getting people to try it out?
Frances Tang: It became clear to me early on that I needed to get the product in people’s hands for them to understand what it is. When I initially told people that I was looking to invent a product to clean up excess fluids out of the vagina after sex, they couldn’t understand it. They thought it was some kind of suction machine or a wipe. I think since my product didn’t exist yet in the real world, people had a hard time imagining it.
So, I took a gamble and ordered 20,000 sponges which I stored in boxes at my parents’ house. The only way to know if people would be willing to buy my product was to sell it. So, I put together a website on Shopify, listed dripstick, and posted it on a couple of Facebook groups to get some feedback like, “Hey guys, what do you think of my website?” Then, I went to bed.
The next day, I had a feature from a Huffington Post writer in the UK. I guess she was in one of the Facebook groups. She’d checked out the website, messaged me overnight, and asked me if she could do an article. That morning, when I woke up, I had all these notifications and emails.
That must’ve really caught you off guard.
Frances Tang: Yeah, I was like, “What is going on?”
I discovered that she had posted the articles. That same day, more and more articles came out. The floodgates had opened. And it was insane. We sold 8,000 sponges that first week. And we gained over 30 pieces of press coverage organically. I had to invite my friends over to my parents’ house to pack boxes and figure out how to do things. We were selling 10 units for 10 dollars, only in the U.S. We were flooded with orders, going back and forth to the post office. It was a Cinderella start-up story.
It sounds like a dream start for any start-up. Where did you go from there and where are you now?
Frances Tang: And from there, I was like, “Will people buy it again?” That was the next step. Did people like it? Or did it work? Did they have feedback?
After that huge influx of orders and unplanned accidental launch in the UK, I go married a month later. It was winter when we started testing digital ads to see if we could advertise on Facebook and Instagram. We began to see people ordering again. We started to see incredible reviews, especially from women who said, “I’ve thought about this. And it bothered me, but I never talked to anyone about it.” or “I never imagined that there could be a solution.” or “I always thought post-sex clean up was just something that I had to live with.”
I realized that we needed to move quickly if we wanted to do this right. We needed a partner. So, in February of 2020, right before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., we closed a seed round with some investors in Austin. Then, we rebranded to Awkward Essentials. We redid the website, we stopped shipping out of my parent’s house, we started shipping out of a warehouse in Austin, we got new packaging – we did everything right so that we’d be ready to scale and grow quickly and get bigger.
That’s kind of where we are at right now. We have a great brand and a really amazing customer base that is honest with us, and it has been a really fun and really incredible experience.
Looking at your website, dripstick seems like a very straightforward product. But I know that you had a difficult time explaining your product in the early days. What was that like?
Frances Tang: In the early days, I applied for an accelerator program in Los Angeles called GRID110. It was an incredible jumping-off point. I learned how to pitch and talk about the product. To this day, our branding is based on the way that I crafted my pitch during that program.
When I first started pitching, the way I pitched the product and the company is probably the way that most people pitch products and companies. They use a lot of statistics and facts. It did not go over well. People were shocked and horrified.
During my time at the accelerator program, the pitch shifted into more of a personal story, so strictly about myself “Frances doesn’t like cleaning up after sex. She doesn’t like the next day leaking or dripping. So she invented this.” That went over a lot better, and I think it’s because the dripstick is such a personal product. And post-sex clean up is a topic that people are not used to talking about. Hearing it from someone else makes it a lot more approachable than me saying “Do you have this problem?” Because that can sound a bit accusatory, especially for something that’s so taboo.
Did that experience make it easier for you to pitch the product to your early investors?
Frances Tang: In terms of pitching to investors, I took a similar approach. A combination of my personal story and statistics to demonstrate that there’s a large market for the dripstick. It wasn’t too bad. As a female pitching female products to male investors, there were instances when some of the questions they asked just didn’t make sense. They asked things like,”Why can’t they just use a tampon?” or “Let me ask my wife”. But for the most part, a lot of them got it.
I was fortunate enough to find investors who immediately understood the brand and the direction that we were going in. In fact, the current investors and partners we work with are a pretty great fit. They like unusual products.
I read that you ended up collaborating with Cindy Gallop – how did that happen?
Frances Tang: Well, I was at this event where I ended up approaching and talking about my product to someone on the panel, who, in turn, said, “I’ll introduce you to Cindy Gallop. I don’t know if she’s going to respond. She gets a lot of requests, but I can introduce you.”
I still remember the day that I got her email. I was shooting a wedding when she emailed me back, “Frances, this is fucking brilliant. When can we talk?” (laugh) Like, I died.
She’ss just so incredible and so supportive. She’s the coolest person I know and such a champion for female founders and being open and honest about what happens in real world sex. We stayed in touch. Eventually, I asked her to be one of our advisers and she said, “Yes”.
The initial investor who introduced me was like, “Oh, I’m surprised that she really responded because she gets a lot of emails.”
The moral of the story is you never know until you ask.
I imagine that hygiene products are going to sell well in the sex industry. Are you hoping to dominate it as a market?
Frances Tang: Our goal is to be a hygiene company. Our product right now solves the aftermath of sex. We straddle the line between sex and hygiene very much. I think there are many incredible sex tech companies out there, and companies that are aimed at women and sexuality.
For us, we want to stay in the hygiene lane. We like the weird, sticky and gooey and uncomfortable type of things that aren’t associated with pleasure. Our product isn’t a pleasure product, it’s a utilitarian product. So, we want to stay in this utilitarian lane because we think that there aren’t a lot of companies that are doing it. As far as I know, we’re the first hygiene company that addresses the weird post-sex stuff.
Are you hoping to explore the same stuff for men?
Frances Tang: Yes! Actually, 30% of our customers are men. We don’t know what percentage are straight men, and what is potentially not. Right now, it’s not for anal usage. But I suspect that some people are using it that way, because of the reviews and questions we get. But point being, yes, they’re an equally important market. And it’s equally important to have men in this conversation.
As I was building this company, I encountered a lot of really thoughtful men who bring a warm towel for their partner and who show their concern and interest. The fact that some of our customers are men who are purchasing for their partners is just so sweet. A lot of them were like, “I didn’t know this was a problem. I had no idea what she was doing in the bathroom afterwards.” And so, there’s definitely a lot of education that needs to be done on all fronts. The goal is to have products for both women and men.
Are you hoping to get into more retail stores this year? What’s the plan?
Frances Tang: We’re hoping to go into retail, yes!
When I think of the first time I heard about menstrual cups, it was through word-of-mouth as well. You’ve been able to grow the interest for dripstick organically. There’s nothing more powerful than having your friends and other women speak honestly for your product. Do you think you’re going to stick to that strategy for the duration of your e-commerce campaign?
Frances Tang: We do all of the e-commerce stuff – the digital ads, social media, and email marketing. Also, we have a private Facebook community. We have a lot of incredible and loyal customers there. But we also like weird experiential marketing. After all, we’re a weird company and this is a weird product. So, we like doing unusual and fun things. As the world opens up, we will probably do more events and immersive marketing.
But you’re right, there’s a lot of word of mouth about the product just because it’s so unusual. I think people want to talk about sex. And when there’s something that you can mutually look at, then you can have an interesting conversation. So, we do see a pretty high level of engagement and sharing and organic word-of-mouth with our product.
When I think of your product, it seems like such a given. The Female Hygiene industry is worth a billion dollars. You would think there would be similar products, but there’s actually not a lot. Why do you think that is?
Frances Tang: That was very concerning for me too when I was inventing this thing. I was like, how has nobody done something like this? Frankly, I don’t know. It is possible that it has been done before. We just don’t know about it. Or it wasn’t as effective. But I haven’t figured out the answer to that question either.
Do you think it’s because when people think of sex, it’s always in the context of fun and messy, but not necessarily in the context of cleaning up that mess?
Frances Tang: A lot of the feedback we get includes “I just thought I had to live with this.” I wouldn’t say I’m a clean freak. But for me, I saw it as a personal problem. I don’t like this – there’s got to be a better way. Like a more efficient and faster way. I want to stop having to change my underwear and not have to jump in the shower. And when you think about it, that’s how a lot of companies start out, right? Because they were able to identify a personal need.
What was 2020 like for you? I assume that it went really well, because everybody is spending a lot of time at home – which sounds like the ideal situation for an e-commerce start-up with a product like the dripstick?
Frances Tang: I think it’s either of two things. Either they’re having more sex because there’s nothing to do or they’re fighting with each other and not having sex at all. But, honestly it’s been really great. Last year was a great time for us to rebrand and spend time getting the website together. People are spending more time on the Internet. E-commerce did really well in 2020. Plus, I think sex and entertainment are one of those industries that will stay steady no matter what.
The dripstick is a product of your excellent creative thinking. I also want to know, while running Awkward Essentials, did you have to get creative in terms of your business decisions and other processes?
Frances Tang: I’m a huge champion of skill stacking, which is taking the skills you’ve earned from other industries and hobbies and jobs, and applying them to your current one. I think all the other jobs that I’ve had have come in handy. It’s crazy how past experiences will carry over to current experiences.
Had I not been a baker, I don’t know if I would have thought about the solution this way. The spark for dripstick came from seeing a spatula and a cake batter bowl, and from just being a person who is very obsessed with efficiency. Don’t get me wrong. There’s some really great stuff on the market. A towel or a wipe is really great from the outside, but not from the inside. It’s simply not that efficient. I wanted to solve the problem from the source, not at the tail end.
Even learning how to pitch came from when I worked as a hula dancer. We had to MC all the time. So, those public speaking skills were so helpful.
Having been a photographer translated over to the early images of the website. People kept asking us how it works. We realized we were going to have to do a video to demonstrate how it works. I didn’t want to get a plastic anatomical vagina from the doctor’s office and demonstrate it that way. So, how do you demonstrate how to use an intimate product in a PG-13 way and effectively answer people’s questions? After all the time I spent in the food industry, my mind immediately went to food. That’s how the twinkie video came to life, and it’s one of the things that helped us go viral initially.
When it comes to business decisions, I learned a lot from starting out in start-ups and in my own start-ups. I learned how to do email marketing and how to build a website. Even if those businesses are no longer active, all of the skills I learned carried over. I don’t think I’d be where we are now if I hadn’t done those things.
In other interviews, you’ve talked about your dad as one of the influential mentors for you. Is there a piece of advice from him that you think really helped you carry your entrepreneurial vision this far?
Frances Tang: It’s so crazy because so many people ask me what my parents think about this company all the time. I think it’s sexist, maybe racist, because I’m Asian. (laughs) And I get it. I know only one or two other Asian people in the feminine care industry.
But I’m very fortunate because my dad is also a founder in a different industry. He sees things in a very business minded way. So, he was like “Okay cool, you found a market, you have a product, great! Go sell the product!”
In short, I’m very fortunate to have his support and his advice and guidance from a business perspective. As I was building and storing products in his house, and he was helping me ship things out, he told me things that he probably wouldn’t have told had I not started my company.
When it comes to a specific piece of advice, I remember doing a lot of planning before I started my events pop-up business. And I remember we were having dinner one time and he told me, “You’re all talk and no action.” And I was shocked. (laughs)
I was trying to tell him why I kept planning to make sure things are perfect but he was totally right. That was the straightforward wake-up call that I needed. It’s never going to be perfect. Even now, we want a lot of the things we do to be perfect before we try it but it’s not ever going to be. The only way we’re going to learn is to launch it and put it out there. It’s scary, sure, but that was one of the defining moments. Coz having my dad say that to me, I don’t know if I would have ever ended up launching that company, or would have ever felt comfortable to launch and iterate and fail until I got here.
Looking into the future, where do you hope to see your business in five years? Are there products that you want to develop in the next 5 years?
Frances Tang: We want to focus on this product pretty heavily because it is an invention and it doesn’t exist. In five years, I hope post-sex clean-up products become a normal thing. I can only imagine when tampons were first invented, what they said about it, what they felt about it, how shocked and potentially horrified they were. And now it’s so normal. Nobody cares. It just exists and it’s a fact of life.
I hope we can get to that point and just kind of be a pioneer in being a company that will have these conversations, that isn’t afraid to just make fun of ourselves and take it lightly.
I mean, it is a hygiene product that women put inside their bodies. But we don’t think it’s something that should be taken too seriously. And that’s the approach that we think makes sense for opening up that conversation.
And, of course the goal is to create more products in this weird, sticky, gooey awkward space.
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