Aimee Marks was designing new tampon packaging when she had her lightbulb moment. Unusual? More like a fortuitous episode. Now the young go-getter is heading up the country’s fastest-growing organic tampon business – Time of Month, or TOM, for short. Here’s how she’s changing perceptions about this traditionally touchy subject and making a positive impact on women’s lives.
In her previous life as a graphic designer, 26-year-old Marks was researching tampon ingredients after she was tasked with designing new packaging to stop them falling loose in handbags. Horrified to find conventional products contained ingredients like polypropylene, tree pulp core and the world’s most heavily sprayed crop, cotton, she wanted to offer women a safer option – and TOM became a reality.
She’s been busy in the three years since she secured a business partnership with private equity firm Small Giants and had her products ranged in a number of major retailers, including Chemist Warehouse and Woolworths. TOM has also just been recognised as a B Corporation – a new type of business that uses its power to solve social and environmental problems.
But it hasn’t been a complete dream run. Marks might be passionate about giving women a safe personal hygiene option, but she’s found it tricky to get women to open up about this traditionally taboo area, let alone change their buying habits. In this interview, she reveals the role education, storytelling and community are playing in changing perceptions and talks about the impact her youth has had on her success.
What’s the biggest issue you faced when getting the business off the ground? How did you manage this?
We’re a small, Australian-owned business that’s up against some of the biggest companies in the world. In that sense we have some major challenges we’ve needed to address when introducing a new product into the market: firstly, education and awareness around a traditionally ‘taboo’ category; and secondly addressing a market in which women tend not to consider their buying choices or often make changes to their buying choices.
This will continue to be a challenge, but our amazing community of women have been pivotal in helping to spread the word about TOM through social media and the press. Once women realise there’s a choice, it’s incredible to witness the level of empowerment they experience, and they feel excited to share this snippet of knowledge with their friends and families.
Tampons are an item some people are uncomfortable talking about. What has this meant for the way you conduct business?
We address this traditionally uncomfortable topic by having real conversations with women on a grassroots level. We pride ourselves on storytelling – people remember stories. We tell stories through our social media platforms, through our packaging, the media and our community events. When you bootstrap as a start-up – creativity is ingrained into the DNA of your business.
Our packaging is like our silent salesman on the shelf. We partnered with leading Australian designers and Illustrators to bring to life a visual story to educate women about the choices available to them. And we do it in a way that doesn’t compromise anyone’s health, the environment or our design.
I also believe community is critical if you want to build a robust brand. The first place to look to when you want to build a community is within your own, so this was the foundation for building TOM. We’ve grown the business by having plenty of conversations with our community and by setting a standard for the way we perform ethical business within our own company.
After realising you wanted to start a business, you enrolled in an entrepreneurship degree at RMIT. What important skills did this teach you?
It was critical to learn every aspect possible pre start-up, like accounting skills as well as core marketing and communication skills. But ultimately, it was the practical learning and mentoring throughout the course that helped me the most. I was taught life skills by learning about other people’s business journeys – like Janine Allis from Boost Juice and Brian Hamersfeld of Moose Toys.
It then took another two years after graduating for me to actually launch the business. I then learned that there is no recipe to starting a business – this is not something that you can learn in a degree, but you can absolutely equip yourself with the skills and strong support network to help you through the process.
You’ve achieved a great deal, and you’re not even 30! In your experience, is youth a help or a hindrance to an entrepreneur?
A help, absolutely. Regardless of age, starting a business is going to be a challenge, but at a young age (perhaps there’s a sense of naivety in a good way) you believe you can achieve anything. I’ve found that mentors and the community have been more willing to help – it’s important not to pretend that you always know what you’re doing!
Also, there’s risk benefit to starting a business young. There isn’t too much financial risk at stake, because you’re less likely to have a mortgage or other financial strings. You also have the ability to give 110 percent of your time. I truly admire women who start businesses while having children!
How important is it for an entrepreneur to have a good support system around them? What impact has yours had on you?
My support system has been everything. I didn’t do this on my own, and I wouldn’t have wanted to. In my eyes, to be able to share the ups and down of business with an incredible team is the only way to do it.
From my Mum and mentors in the early days to the incredible support of my business partners Danny Almagor and Berry Liberman of Small Giants, many people have had a great impact on how I’ve been able to navigate running a start-up business.
If you could offer one piece of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, what would it be?
Surround yourself with yes people and no people. I believe the people who have been most helpful for me are those who believed in me, but weren’t afraid to tell me when I was wrong.
Looking back at your time at the head of TOM, what are you most proud of?
We’ve just become a B Corporation! Over 7000 companies applied this year, and just 600 were accredited. B Corp’s are a new type of corporation, who use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. I’ve just returned from the B Corp conference in the US and would have to say that to be a part of this incredible community and know that ethical business has been ingrained into the legal structure of our business makes me so proud.
On a day-to-day level, I’m most proud to be creating positive change within our world. We meet women weekly who cannot use traditional tampons or pads as they are allergic to them or react to the chemicals inside these products. To give women a new sense of freedom through TOM feels right.