In our new Q&A series, The Lightbulb, we ask innovators and entrepreneurs to tell us about how they turned their ideas into reality. This week, we talk to Hello Cup’s Robyn McLean on what sparked the move into menstrual cups.
Since launching in December 2017, Hawkes Bay-based start-up Hello Cup has helped introduce menstrual cups to a more mainstream audience. In the short time it’s been around, the business has gone from selling online-only to being stocked in more than 100 stores worldwide. Most recently, it’s added Urban Outfitters in the US to its roster – its biggest retailer to date.
So how did co-founders and childhood friends Robyn McLean and Mary Bond arrive at the idea of making their own menstrual cups? McLean talks to The Spinoff about her ‘light bulb’ moment and what she believes makes Hello Cup different from others on the market.
First of all, give us your elevator pitch for Hello Cup.
Hello Cup is a menstrual cup made in New Zealand. It’s designed by Kiwi women to be the most comfortable menstrual cup on the market.
The main benefits of it are that it holds three times more than a tampon and one cup will last at least five years. So you’re not only saving money, you’re saving thousands of single-use sanitary items from going into landfills and oceans.
Prior to that, what were you and co-founder Mary Bond doing?
My background is actually in journalism and PR. I used to work in newspapers (Sunday Star Times, The Dominion Post) before moving into PR doing communications for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and then Napier City Council.
Mary was – and still is – a registered nurse. So we’ve got two quite different skill sets.
So how did the idea of actually designing and making your own menstrual cups come about?
I tried a menstrual cup for the first time a couple of years ago and I thought they were amazing. But until that point, all the things I’d read about them were really off-putting because [their marketing] was quite in-your-face and ‘greeny’. The language they would use was a real turning point for me. Nothing was written in a way that would make you feel comfortable about giving a menstrual cup a go.
Some of the things I read would say things like: ‘Menstrual cups are great because you can keep a bucket next to your toilet and pour your menstrual blood into the bucket, and then use that menstrual blood on your vegetable patch’. Most people would read that and think ‘oh my god, I can’t cope with that!’ People just weren’t ready for it. [At the time], TV ads would pour blue liquid onto pads or tampons to show absorbency because people couldn’t handle the fact that the liquid could be red.
I also really wanted a New Zealand-made menstrual cup because when I tried looking for one, I found that there weren’t any. So I called Mary and I said ‘look, why don’t we look at designing and making a New Zealand-made menstrual cup?’ Mary could use her nursing knowledge and skills to provide a medical perspective, and I could create the brand, do the marketing and engage as many people as possible in a non-confronting way.
What happened next? How did you go about trying to make your idea into reality?
We found a factory in Napier and we just got going. We tried all the other menstrual cups on the market and found that the design of all those cups were pretty much the same. Someone had basically made one and then everyone else had copied. Most of them were made of silicone and they didn’t have any colour so they didn’t look overly appealing. Until very recently, menstrual cups were a very underground movement. You’d find them on the bottom shelf of organic health stores and they were never marketed in a way that would appeal to a mass market.
So we designed ours quite differently: it’s smooth on the outside and it doesn’t have a rim that digs into you. We also make ours from medical grade TPE which is a type of plastic. The reason we chose that is it allowed us to make it fully recyclable. Silicone is harder to recycle and we wanted to create a zero-waste product.
We also wanted to make our cups really cute so that customers would want them and feel good about owning them. We’ve been meticulous about having something that’s appealing and doesn’t scream ‘menstrual cup’ from the shelf. We see people reusing the boxes on Instagram as something to hold their pens or their make up brushes, which we love because that was the plan all along. We wanted it to be so beautiful that customers wouldn’t want to throw it out – that they’d find another use for it. Of course, it can be recycled, but ideally, it gets repurposed.
What kind of growth have you experienced since then?
When we started, our goal was always to make the highest quality cup we could. We knew it was never going to be the cheapest and we expected that we’d always be an online business selling a few a week. But very quickly, I had to stop doing other work and work full-time on Hello Cup. We’ve never approached a retailer and yet [we’re stocked in about] a 100 of them now.
There’s just the two of us – we don’t have a sales manager – so all those retail stores have approached us directly. We’ve never gone out and asked retailers to stock us, which is amazing because it goes to show because people are going into their stores and asking if they stock menstrual cups. So it’s a sign that times are changing.
What about your growth internationally? Australia’s your fastest growing market and now, you’re about to launch online with Urban Outfitters in the US.
That expansion into America wasn’t on our agenda. But when Urban Outfitters approached us, we were just like ‘wow, that’s such an amazing way to get to a market that’s huge, but also a market that fits us and our demographic’.
Finally, what can we expect for the rest of 2019?
In two months we’ll be launching a range of organic cotton washable liners as a complementary addition to cups because cups can take a while to get the hang of. So we’ve developed this line of really cute and pretty liners [that are] like those pads with wings, but made of fabric with an absorbent bamboo fleece core. They hold two tablespoons of fluid and you just chuck them in the washing machine after. We tested them last year and they sold out in two hours.
We couldn’t find a factory in New Zealand to do the numbers we needed, so I travelled to India at the start of this year to visit a family-owned certified trade organic cotton factory who’ll be making them for us. We’ll sell those in packs of three and six and possibly expand that range to include thicker absorbencies for women who don’t want to wear cups at all.