Robyn McLean is the CEO of Havelock North’s most exciting start-up company, Hello Cup.
Sourcing high-quality medical plastic from Germany, Hello Cup takes orders via a website, manufactures products in a factory in Onekawa, and ships around the world. Robyn is a fearless entrepreneur, her company is a semi-finalist in Theresa Gattung’s SheEO initiative.
And she is changing the way women think about ‘feminine hygiene’.
You read that right: feminine hygiene. Hello Cup makes and sells menstrual cups. Instead of absorbing the blood flow like a tampon or a sanitary pad, a menstrual cup forms a seal inside the vagina and collects it. There is no other way to describe it.
I have two teenage daughters, and I think it’s amazing, but if you’re squeamish about this stuff, you might want to stop reading now.
OK. Are you still with me? Many women find menstrual cups more comfortable and convenient than traditional products, and Robyn says they make periods far less painful. Because they are reusable, they are much cheaper, and $49 for a product that lasts five years sounds like a lot more sensible than spending up to $200 per year, every year. They are also far better for the environment, with no waste, can be worn comfortably for up to 12 hours, and are especially practical for sport and swimming.
Menstrual cups were invented in the 1930s, coincidentally around the same time as tampons. The rise of disposable culture in the 1950s and 1960s saw tampons take an unassailable lead. Plastic was the new wonder material, and big corporations took advantage of it to make vast fortunes peddling all sorts of disposable hygiene items like nappies, razors, tampons and sanitary pads. Out of sight, out of mind was the mantra. There was little or no thought given to the pollution that would result.
Now disposable plastic items are objects of scorn, if not worse. Indelible images of dolphins and turtles strangled in six-pack holders and landfills overflowing with plastic waste have galvanised public opinion. The recent pogrom against plastic bags in supermarkets shows how quickly attitudes can change. Within the space of a few months, no supermarket in their right mind wants anyone to see their logo on a plastic bag.
Robyn had seen menstrual cups around occasionally and had often wondered whether they would be a better option than tampons and pads. They seemed to her they would be either amazing … or terrifying. “Cups had a reputation as something greenie types would use … a bit like cloth nappies.” But on one particularly bad day her curiosity got the better of her and she stopped at a pharmacy in Havelock North to see what was available. Fortunately for her, they stocked cups.
Robyn tried one that was made in the UK and while it was ugly, Robyn considered it a life-changing experience. It was so much better than tampons that she wondered why every woman wasn’t using one. She contacted her friend Mary Bond, who is a nurse, and said they should start making their own. They created a unique design themselves and very soon they were making cups in a factory in Onekawa, and selling them as Hello Cups.
Since its launch as a “part-time, fun thing” in December 2017, the business has grown extremely quickly. Robyn admits she is not the numbers person, but estimates that they have already sold more than ten thousand cups.
Robyn and Mary now work full-time in the business, and with over 100 retailers now stocking Hello Cups, and a lot of interest and orders coming from around the world, they are shipping products globally and gearing up for further growth. There is commercial interest in Australia, Singapore, the UK, and the US, and soon they will be hiring staff. There is already an office in Wellington where Mary works, and Robyn is working to build a team in Hawke’s Bay.
So far, the only marketing has been via the Hello Cup website (thehellocup.com), social media posts, and events like trade shows and school visits. A key part of the marketing has been the packaging and the language deployed in talking about the product. One would expect a certain amount of squeamishness, but Robyn isn’t having any of that. Hello uses language to make periods positive. Competitor products have opted for bland, hippy-ish names (“Mooncup”) or faux-French (“Lunette”, “Diva”), but Robyn uses humour.
The puns are endless (“bloody brilliant”) and the website features a word-switcher which enables you to enter your own preferred term for the v-word, with hilarious results. What was once a taboo subject is clearly, for this generation, quite normal. During school visits and trade shows she says boys and men are just as interested in the cups, and there is no prurient interest, just healthy curiosity.
Robyn is very modest about the success of the business, admitting cheerfully that there has never been a business plan, no spreadsheets, and no investors. They have not even sent an email newsletter to their customers, which strikes the digital marketer in me with horror. But it’s clear that they are doing a lot of things right. The packaging and brand story are absolutely brilliant, and it’s clear that they have achieved what Silicon Valley likes to call ‘product-market fit’, when the offering is so compelling and the timing is so right that demand is insatiable.
As the large corporations move away from tampons and other disposable hygiene products and start to design and promote their own reusable cups, Robyn admits things will get more competitive. But the global market for these products is enormous, even for a one-off purchase every five years, and the fledgling company already has other products in the works, including reusable liners, a range of coloured cups, and hand sanitiser.
“Life-changing” is a phrase Robyn uses a lot and she says the most satisfying thing is to see teenage girls using her products, enjoying life to the full, and not being embarrassed about menstruation. If she has one regret, she wishes she had done it all sooner.