Modibodi founder Kristy Chong talks to us about her taboo period underwear business that she has built from the ground up, single-handedly, since founding the company in 2013.
Kristy is a fantastic example of a successful female entrepreneur. She has a PR background, but she knew she always wanted to launch her own business. It was simply a matter of time in terms of finding the right product or service to launch.
With two small children, and suffering light incontinence (a common problem amongst women especially after childbirth), Kristy decided that she would design and develop an underwear brand that helped women with these sensitive and, at time, embarrassing issues. It then grew into period underwear also, and now Modibodi has realised the many different ways that they can help women with feminine health problems.
The idea came to Kristy back in 2011, and Modibodi was founded in 2013. Now in its seventh year, the company shows no signs of stopping its growth, as it moves into the UK and USA markets (set to happen this year).
Modibodi has recently achieved the milestone of selling over 1.5 million pairs of leak-proof underwear. The brand is winning customers through its focus on sustainability and body positivity, using only inspirational, photoshop-free, real and raw photos and stories in its campaigns.
With International Women’s Day (IWD) 2020 on Sunday, we thought now was the perfect time to sit down with Kristy and chat about her amazing story building Modibodi up over the past 7 years, and establishing a well-known brand (with now a team of 26!) despite having a product that must battle against taboo, judgement and secrecy.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you were doing before Modibodi, in PR, and how that led you to founding your own business?
“For me I’ve always wanted to start my own business, so in that sense it’s always been in the back of my mind, before I even had the idea. I think that helped.
“And then when I had the idea for Modibodi and this new range of sustainable comfy products to replace disposables, it really was one step at a time to evolve into a business and to eventually grow into a big business.
“I think it was a case of putting one foot in front of the other and having the big picture there, knowing ‘I want to be bigger’, but not being focussed on that. I wanted to focus on delivering a great product that there would truly be a market for. That was just my focus at the start.
“It’s really important to not get carried away by what you have to be. Just break it down and take it one little step at a time.
“And then my PR background was obviously really helpful because it’s one of the most cost-effective ways to market your product or you brand. I was able to go out to others, to influencers… and social media was really growing when I launched my business.
“I didn’t get a lot of positive pick up from mainstream media and even the stuff I did it was like ‘These are comfy undies,’ but that kind of stuff doesn’t lead to anything… It doesn’t lead to engagement with your customers.
“Then I knew that I had to use all these micro influencers – small influencers with 20,000 followers or less. That’s how I went about growing it, from really, the grassroots way.”
So the PR was definitely helpful, and you’d already had that idea of wanting to found a business… it was just a case of having the ‘right’ idea, is that right?
“Yes. That’s right. I had many ideas and my husband said to me ‘Wow, this is the first idea you’ve had that I think is actually a really good idea.’” [laughs]
I love the honesty! That’s important.
“Yeah, he was really supportive. We discussed how much money we’d need to obviously create the product. We discussed what that would look like and what I’d commit to, that was about it really. And then it was ‘OK, just go on and do it!’
“And of course, I did this on the side whilst raising my children. I was coming up with the product when I was a full time Mum. When they were having their nap times, I was busy working on creating the product and setting up the business in the meantime. It was more of a side hustle to start.”
How old were your children when you started? That sounds very full on!
“Yeah, when I first had the idea they were about 6 months and 2 and a half. Then when I launched my business (2 years later) I had another baby, and then at the start of last year I had another baby.”
Wow! Congratulations! Such a tricky time to start a business… That’s impressive.
“Yes, thank you. It is! And I won’t say that it isn’t. I won’t sugar coat it. But I loved it and ultimately, beyond all my skillset, I just felt this product should come to market.
“Why that product came to me, I don’t know, but I just felt that I wanted it and that women deserved it.”
So, reading up on some of your story already, I’ve seen the product was launched from incontinence/bladder leaks, not periods. What was that discovery moment, and how have things evolved from there product-wise?
“You’re right, so when I had the two children, I had suffered from light incontinence, and I still do, but I’m probably a little bit better now than what I was. You get stronger. I also did have heavy periods and I was sweating a lot, and so it was a combination of the three.
“I always thought, you know with white pads, ‘Why do you want to see your blood there anyway?’ People actually think [the Modibodi pants] are gross, but in a way it’s less gross -because you don’t actually see it. We’re making women feel more comfortable with it.
“It came from a variety of areas, and when I spoke to friends and family I found out that there was a lot of issues it would help. When I launched it into the market I found out about women with sensory issues, young girls with autism, girls with down syndrome… there was other needs for it. It has evolved!”
As a still taboo subject, what have been the main challenges with Modibodi?
“Definitely there have been challenges! We started with my friends and families using it, and then their family and friends…. and that’s kind of how you get there and how you can expand.
“Then we started with micro-influencers, and so I knew that there was a demand there, but there was still a struggle with getting the message out there simply because of the message we were talking about – around periods and incontinence.
“People just didn’t want to discuss them. I couldn’t get customers to talk about them, and that was really hard, especially socially.
“We had to go around it from other ways. I put myself forward as the case study. I said ‘I’m going come out and say this is OK.’ And anyone else who did, like any influencers that did, who were proud enough – we promoted them.
“And now we’ve got customers everywhere talking about us, posting us all over their insta stories, openly talking saying ‘I’m wearing period proof underwear.’
“You know recently there was that campaign of ‘Me Too’ and a real second wave of feminism that has aligned with our brand. The sustainability as well, with people now more concerned with what they’re buying and from where… So, a few things have sort of worked for us and we’ve been there at the right time for that, but obviously we’ve been there championing that also.”
Interesting that you felt you had to be that first case study, and it snowballed from there, but someone just had to be the first.
“And I still go out there, and every panel I’m on I’m very open about my story and discuss it openly. I do think that’s very important to have these open discussions so that other women can not feel afraid, and share their stories, and talk about problems and get the right solutions.
“But the other reason I do it is because we can champion conversation around women’s health issues. The more we do it, the more that we’re going to have better solutions and products in the market. We now know it was a bigger issue than what we thought it was.”
I’ve seen Modibodi a lot recently everywhere, on busses and billboards… but what has worked best for you in terms of marketing?
“It’s definitely been micro-influencers, that’s definitely worked for us. In the beginning when you’re a smaller business, you’ve got no-one searching for this topic so you can’t do paid searches on Google – it was really more about social advertising then.
“Then building our organic social media as well. When we’ve then got customers we’ve got product reviews – that’s been an integral part of our marketing strategy. To use our blogs as well. It’s been more digital.
“It’s now moved to Out of Home (OOH advertising) because now we’re looking for category ownership, whereas before it was about educating the market. We want people to be saying Modibodi first. Other brands have obviously entered into the market so that’s really important, but there’s still quite a bit of education to do as well. You get to a point where digital gets costly so you need to look other marketing options to drive your digital audience. It’s been a mix.
“When it comes to marketing, we do everything, we test everything, we use google analytics, we analyse the results, we know our data, we know what agencies are saying – whether it’s truthful or not. We’re able to forecast our spend quite well, that’s why we get it right.”
What does the business now look like internally? Not just yourself anymore, I guess!
“It was myself for the first sort of 3 years, then at the end of 2018 we were 7 staff, 2 of those being of a casual capacity. Now we’ve grown to 21 staff and we have 5 outsourced as a customer service team. Still not a huge team for the growth we’re looking at, but we can scale a lot this year. We’ll bring on a few more head counts before the end of the year.”
How did you fund the business? Would you recommend doing it the way you did?
“For me, bootstrapping was right. It was a product-based business but I didn’t need the financials upfront. I could get a little bit of stock. I put money obviously into developing the technology. We had that because I was 35 years old and my husband and I had savings behind us. In that sense it was right for me, and we committed a certain amount to get the product. Then the marketing, and everything else, I was doing myself. So everything else was low-cost. I was doing it on the side.
“I’m not going to say there’s a right way for everybody, I think everybody has to look at their own personal circumstances.
“The great thing about not taking cash is you learn to do things really cost-effectively. Every opportunity you’re looking at the ROI, and you really take that mentality through as you scale. That’s my worry about taking money early, however I do know some businesses that show you can grow a lot quicker from investment. It’s not a straightforward answer! But you should know if you need money or not.”
I want to ask your tips and advice for entrepreneurs, particularly for female entrepreneurs, as it’s International Women’s Day this weekend. What would they be?
“You’re not alone. You can look at success stories and think ‘Oh, they must have it differently, maybe theirs is better than mine.’ But it’s not true. You’re on that journey, you’re there for a reason. So have that self-belief.
“The big thing more with women, is, you need to get comfortable with not feeling comfortable. I always say that one. You do need to back yourself. Think big, think bigger, and think bigger again.
“Always believe you can be the CEO of a big business. I think women can play in the small space, but why can’t you be bigger? Why can’t it grow to a large business?
“And some women go ‘Oh, well it will sacrifice my relationship for my children’ or ‘I won’t be a great mum.’ And yes, I probably have given up some things but I’ve gained so much more, and the great thing about running your business is that you can have flexibility. You can be there more for your child than what you were if you were to stay in a difficult corporate role.
“It’s a lot of hard work. You’ve got to dig deep!
“Also, if your partner isn’t supportive… if there’s not on board, it’s going to a challenge.”
Where’s the future heading for your personally, and for the company? Do they match up?
“They do! We did take on a partner last year. An equity partner, they’ve come into the business, but I’m still at the helm of the business as the CEO.
“My role is to grow this business globally. The UK is a big market and the US market will be a bigger market for us this year. So we’re focused on global expansion and product development.
“Also, our brand stands for positive impact, and championing social impact, and so now we’re thinking ‘What can we do to be even more sustainable?’ so that we can sustainable at all levels and become an iconic global brand, not just an Australian brand.
“I’m heading it up, I’m proud to be doing it, and I’m enjoying it!”