“Choose to challenge.” 👏 Could this year’s International Women’s Day theme be any more HANX? Just three years ago, our Co-Founders Farah Kabir and Sarah Welsh took on the condom industry, driven by a desire to smash stigmas around sex, shine a light on women’s wellness and create condoms and lubricant you’re proud to leave on your bedside table. Fast forward to 2021 as we staged a virtual catchup to find out more about their journey as female-founders, from pitching to preconceptions and how to find help along the way.
Gender discrimination: How has being female impacted your business journey, through HANX or otherwise?
SW: Well, Farah and I are female founders and we’re disrupting a category that’s always been male-dominated so that does come with its own challenges. Since the very beginning, people didn’t expect us to be doing what we’re doing and at times, we’ve definitely come up against preconceptions that we’re just ‘two little girls’ taking on the big boys. This usually changes when they understand our vision, our backgrounds, research and what we’re trying to achieve! My qualifications and experience as a gynaecology doctor is a key factor in what we do at HANX and if someone’s on the fence about our expertise, that usually convinces them that we’re an authoritative voice in this space...
FK: I have two older brothers and was raised equally, as a result, I carry the belief that I can do anything! When I first forged my career in finance at Goldman Sachs I found that for me, it was the opposite of the stereotypical space you’d imagine it to be and while it was male-dominated, I didn’t necessarily feel there was a difference between my colleagues and I. It was only when we were in the early (and not so early) stages of founding HANX that we definitely encountered male investors who didn’t believe in us, two women or our vision for a very traditional industry. If we were men or touting a male-focused brand, I think things would have progressed faster for us, for example, you can advertise viagra on the NY Subway but you can struggle to just get Facebook ads approved for a female-founded sexual wellness brand…
"Women are significantly underrepresented in entrepreneurship, it is said that up to £250 billion of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as UK men."*
What is your advice to women looking to start a business?
SW: Go for it! Do your research, understand the market you’re going into. Take the plunge, you’ll never feel 100% ready but if you surround yourself with positive people that support and champion you, get advice where you need it and if you need that extra push, just think, ‘if I don’t, someone else will’.
FK: Make sure it’s a calculated risk! Really do your market research, understand what your proposition is, what others are offering and figure out your USP. Speak to as many people around you as possible to validate your idea, draw on their skill sets that can lend a hand to build the business whether that’s sales, accounting, reporting or operations. Go with your gut, there’s never been a better time to start a business, people are so receptive to female-founded brands right now and I’d also suggest finding a mentor who’s not a woman so you’re getting advice from outside your core demographic, too.
You could say HANX origin story embodies this year’s theme of ‘Choose to challenge’ - what were the expected and not so expected challenges in bringing HANX to fruition?
SW: When we thought of the idea, it seemed so obvious that the condom market was crying out for a brand like HANX, as none of the usual suspects were talking to women. There was a lot of research involved and we were both working full-time and spending all our free time (weekends, nights, you name it!) looking into this. As condoms are a medical device, there’s a lot of regulations to adhere to, then, of course, testing and finding manufacturers who could do all the specifications we’d envisioned for this product. We did a lot of research into the market, surveying over 2,000 women to figure out exactly what they wanted - there were a lot of challenges in making HANX exactly what we wanted it to be but that makes it even more rewarding. We’re still learning and from the start, we learned not just about the manufacturing process for condoms and lubricant but also tech, branding, finance, fundraising, basically, how to run a business!
As for retailers, that could be challenging too, certainly in 2017, condoms were the preserve of the ‘family planning’ aisle and people just didn’t talk about sex the way we do now. This was especially the case with more traditional retailers but we also found people who understood where the market was going and here we are three years on, stocked in both major retailers and independent stores, too! Approaching stores like the legendary Coco de Mer (one of our very first stockists) who we knew would love our message was a calculated move on our part, we wanted to find retailers who closely aligned with our core values and who love talking about pleasure!
FK: Full disclosure: I’m really impatient and used to working at a certain pace and in all honesty, things took a lot longer than we thought they would! It was difficult to break into the market, particularly with retailers, as we thought the need for a challenger brand was so obvious but it took us far longer to get into grocers and pharmacies than we expected. We’re also humbled by the support shown to us, considering my cultural background (Bangladeshi Muslim) it wasn’t an issue - my family supported me and my vision and still to do this day. Workspace accelerator Huckletree were our first family and we probably wouldn’t be where we are today without them, from our first convo with their Co-Founder Gaby when we didn’t even have a product, they really championed us and we’re so thankful for that. Having people who are willing to help and support you from the off is invaluable.
I also never expected it to be so fun working with my best friend as it’s something you’re generally you’re warned off and told that friendship and business don’t match. Admittedly, there are times where I was worried it’d get too much but it’s been such a fun ride! It can still be lonely, as a founder and a member of a small company, and particularly in the pandemic where we’ve been removed from the workplace and being physically surrounded by people.
What does IWD mean to you?
SW: A chance to celebrate women the world over, the history of our achievement and how we’ve gotten to where we are today. Of course, for me as a female founder and gynaecology doctor, every day is International Women’s Day! I’m thrilled to hear about the moves being taken to tackle the Gender Health Gap and address inequalities in healthcare. Fertility, maternity and menopause care are among the areas due to be examined and this can only be a good thing!
FK: For me, International Women’s Day is a strong reminder that we should be celebrating the women in our lives, those women who’ve shaped our lives and the women of the future, every day! I look forward to a world where women truly have equality and am proud to play a part in that, be it in the board room or sexual wellness space.
Why do we need more female entrepreneurs?
SW: We need to level the playing field! We make up half the population and for everyone who identifies as a woman, we’re creating products and solutions for existing problems. Sexual health is just as important as our mental and physical health and for women, they’ve been left out of the conversation for way too long. Female entrepreneurs can offer insight to issues and address problems they themselves may have experienced - an inherent understanding of the market you’re targeting is the ideal way to make good things happen. We recently launched our HANX Fix service for the treatment of common vaginal health issues like thrush, aiming to remove the stigma around these conditions while making the purchase and use of treatments as easy and stress-free as possible. We've been there, done that and had those awkward conversations in the chemist, too and drawing on personal experience is what we're all about!
FK: It’s about time we showed everyone what we’re capable of! If everything’s delivered and marketed to men, you’re excluding half the population from very valid conversations and there’s such incredible female-founders out there and future founders who can shake up industries worldwide and bring a different point of view to very traditional, staid spaces.
Share the love and champion your fave female-founded businesses over on our HANX Life forum now. 💬