Putting yourself out there is hard. Especially if it’s new territory. You can read countless motivational articles, try to convince yourself that failure is ‘part of the process’, but then you actually have to get up off the couch. Our Leap Before You’re Ready panel featured Miki Agrawal, founder of THINX: the period underwear brand committed to breaking the menstruation taboo.
“I graduated from Cornell University in 2001, and 9/11 happened right after I started my first job. I was 22. My subway stop every morning was through the World Trade Center, and I was supposed to be there on that day. 700 people in my girlfriend’s office died. Two people from my office died that day, and that was the only time I’ve ever slept through my alarm clock. It made me realize that you truly never know when life is going to end, and that you should live every moment as well as you possibly can. I started to take a stab at a few different things—I played soccer professionally for a few seasons until I had three ACL reconstructions. Following that, I worked in the film business for a couple of years on productions, which led me to my first entrepreneurial idea. I kept having horrible stomach aches from eating the free (processed) food on sets, and after some research, discovered the pesticides, hormones, and preservatives that are in packaged food. One of my favorite sayings is, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and this was how the idea for a gluten-free pizza restaurant started—before the whole organic, hormone-free food thing. The restaurant started as Slice, became WILD, and soon after, I came up with another invention that was born out of necessity.
Each month I would have period accidents, and so, again, I started researching and found that no one was making functional underwear for women. Underwear brands were creating flimsy, sexy, see-through product—nothing that performs the way we need it to on a monthly basis. I spent the next three and a half years developing the technology for THINX. We soft launched in January 2014, and had our big launch in May 2015. We recently debuted our sister brand, Icon, which is pee-proof underwear to support women who experience leakage as they age—and then our other sister brand, Tushy, an extendable bidet attachment that clips onto any standard toilet. Tushy was developed in an effort to battle the sustainability issue our world is facing. Right now we kill an average of 15 million trees per year to make toilet paper, and a single roll requires 37 gallons of water to make. So sustainability, hygeine, and the sanitation crisis: those are the things I’m working on.
Something I’ve learned from being in the startup world is that failure is just learning. With Slice, for example—it was my first business. The New York Times wanted to write about us before we opened. Instead of thinking, let’s open quietly and work out the kinks before we get people in—NYT wrote an amazing article, and we had a line around the block the first day. Which was exciting to start off with, but then quickly turned into a huge disaster where everything possible went wrong. Pretty much everyone was like, “Fuck this place. I’m never coming back! Terrible service!” You know, awful New Yorkers. So I personally delivered handwritten notes to every apartment in the the neighborhood, apologizing and asking them to come back and eat for free. I went to playgrounds and handed pizza out to moms. I went to gyms and handed out free pizza. And 90% of business came back through those efforts. I could have been too proud to do any of that stuff, but it doesn’t matter. Whatever it takes. There should be nothing stopping you from your desired outcome.
There have been many “Oh Shit” moments with THINX also. The first was around two years ago when we almost ran out of money. It’s a very real problem when you have one month’s payroll left. We were being courted by investors who led out a very long fundraising period, who finally sent their term sheet right when we were running out of money. My partner was like, “We have to do it.” And I was like, “No. Our product is healthy. We just need the right partners to get this to the next level.” It was such a hard decision to say no to money, especially when we were desperate. But my big urge to you is that when you hit a road block, you can still say no to what doesn’t feel right. When you believe in what you’re doing and you trust the universe—which sounds so hokey—the universe will deliver. And it does so every time that you surrender to standing in your full integrity. We ended up getting a little bridge loan from another investor and found great investors soon after. It changed the course of our business. So that was a big challenge, but we run into the patriarchy every single day. We can’t advertise on Taxi TVs. No national television will talk about THINX right now. New York City MTA wanted to ban our ads for using the word ‘period’—but based on First Amendment rights, they had to allow us to advertise on subways. What a huge victory for womankind and the publicity we received from that battle put us on the map. Thanks, MTA!
People often say to me, “I have so much passion. I don’t know what to start but I know it’s in me. Where do I begin?” I boil this down in my book to three questions. Question one is that it has to start with you. What sucks in your world? For me, period accidents sucked in my world. Having a stomach ache sucked in my world. Question two: Does it suck for a lot of people? If it just sucks for you, then you might be a super high maintenance diva. But if it sucks for a lot of people, then you might be onto something. Question three is: Can I be passionate about this issue, cause, or community for a really long time? It takes 10 years to be an overnight success. Our restaurants are 11 years old. The idea for THINX started forming 11 years ago with my sister. Are you going to be in this for the long haul? It’s so important to ask yourself those questions when starting a business, and it’s so important to solve a real problem. When you find that problem to solve, get ready to settle into discomfort for the next 10 years. It’s fun and exhilarating, but if you don’t wake up scared a little every day, then you’re too comfortable. I think each one of us know what our magic sauce is and the goal is to not ignore it.
It sounds like I’m doing 55 things, but to be clear, I’m doing one thing at a time. It takes a village to do this. I have a great team to support me, and right now my main focus is THINX. People forget how hard it is to focus—and not just for a couple of months. You have to focus for years on the same thing chipping away. I love the saying “Iteration is perfection.” As women we’ve been told, “You have to be perfect. You have to do this right.” We want our thing, whatever it may be, to be totally perfect before we put it out to the world. We’re so scared of rejection or failing that we stop ourselves from starting. Instead: put it out there, then make room for those constant improvements. Iterate, fix, obsess about it. Like I said—THINX was first thought about 11 years ago, and has been five years in the making. We’re just scratching the surface. I’m not patient, but I respect the process.
Doing cool shit requires doing. It’s so easy to talk a big game. A lot of young people think they can read one book or do something for a couple of months and think they’re experts. That’s not how it works. You have to dive in and humble yourself. You have to do and do and do. For example, finding the right fabric and technology for THINX took forever. We called so many people who said no, or who said, “You’re not even a brand yet, but I’ll send you a swatch”. This little piece of fabric would take weeks or arrive and testing would take a lot of trial and error. If it didn’t work, we had to go back to the fabric and technology companies saying, “Please, can we just try one more swatch?” There was a lot of begging and borrowing, and that process required a lot of perseverance. What it taught me was that when someone says no, that’s where the games begin! No means: “How do I get them to say yes?” No is just a temporary yes. You can get anything you want if you just ask in different ways.
In terms of raising money, 2004 was very different compared to how it is now. Back then, instead of having one-on-one gigs (which take a lot of time and are really painful) I would host fundraiser dinner parties, and invite a lot of people with pocket change that could potentially invest. And do you know what’s crazy? For my first business, I had a white male present my business idea for me. I did it because I was scared. I lacked the confidence and was mortified of speaking in front of people. I would sweat through everything because I was so scared that I would fuck up, or when I could tell people weren’t listening to me. But once I started to speak in front of people, I did it over and over and over. It takes time. Right now we’re fundraising for Tushy. We’re out of the seed round and are raising a million dollars, and even though I’ve already built successful businesses, it’s still hard. You have to sift through the annoying investors to get to the right ones who fit what you’re doing. In that sense, it’s a numbers game: you have to meet with a ton of people and build relationships. But most importantly, have an amazing idea. What can you do with that business that’s groundbreaking? Something that I also recommend: If you ask for advice you get money, if you ask for money you get advice. It’s a very interesting thing and I’ve found it to be true.
I truly believe that you are the average of the five closest friends you keep. If you hang out with shit-talkers, that’s what you’re going to become. If you hang out with people who waste their time and watch sports all weekend and drink beer, that’s going to be you. But if you hang out with people who are lit up and positive, you’re going to become the median of that. I took a good look at my friends from the ages of 25–30, and I eliminated what I call the depleters. These could be people who are like, “Stay in your safe job,” or “Give up.” Versus, “Let’s raise that army. Let’s sit down together once a week and look at where you’re at with your business.” When you start blaming others for what doesn’t work in your life, it’s such bullshit. You can change everything. You can say, “I’m really psyched about what I’m doing here,” or “I’m not getting paid enough,” or just, “Wow, I’m lucky to be alive today.” If you don’t like what you’re dealing with, change it. Complaining is not mastery. Masters do not complain. We can, of course, go to our friends and rant and have a cry-fest. That’s totally fine. But the people who constantly complain—get rid of them. Cut them out. You also have to know that there are no guarantees. You don’t know whether or not you’ll succeed, but you have to go in believing that you will. Like people who believe in God—it doesn’t matter what science says about whether or not God exists. In the same way, I believe that this is going to succeed. Half of the people I talked to were like, “Period underwear—brilliant!” The other half were like, “Ew, I’m never using them.” Or when I started raising money and the first 20 people said no. It’s discouraging and demoralizing no matter how confident you are. But you have to keep up your passion, because passion builds believers. You have to decide, “I am on this train whether you are on it with me or not.” Then focus on loving the work, not the recognition. Love the work, put your head down, crush it, and the rest will come.”