How I got my MenoTech startup to market
How I got my MenoTech startup to market
Words Rebekah Brown
August 31st 2020 / 10 min read
MPowder, a revolutionary new menotech startup providing nutritional powders and support for women, is on the path to disrupting the underserved menopause market, which is set to be worth $5.28 billion by 2023. Founder Rebekah Brown shares how she launched her first product, raised a seed round, and collaborated with FMCG category leaders Reckitt Benckiser (RB) to bring MPowder to market – all in just six months.
You can expect to read about:
Learn how the team went from product trial to pre-order and launch in just four months
Hear how they’re building a knowledge hub for women around the world going through the different stages of menopause
Lessons on working with FMCG giant Reckitt Benckiser (RB)
Introduction from the founder, Rebekah Brown
For many years, the topic of menopause has been ridden with taboos and bereft of attention. As a result, the potential of the billion-dollar menopause market has remained largely untapped. But with a recent influx of femtech startups catering to women’s issues such as fertility, periods, and pregnancy, the stigma around women’s health is slowly starting to fade.
I never really thought that I would segue into the menopause market. But then, in 2019, I was suddenly quite unwell. It began with night sweats, exhaustion, and an outbreak of teenage acne. Then came the loss of confidence and an onslaught of anxiety. In short, I was experiencing all the common symptoms of perimenopause – at the age of 45.
My GP, however, told me that I was too young to be menopausal, and I was advised to head to my local health food store and try a herbal remedy. Walking down the “end of life” aisle, I eventually found the menopausal supplements – right next to the osteoporosis products. The brands on display sported pictures of people wearing dentures, cardigans and comfy shoes. And the meagre selection on offer made me both sad and angry.
Without realising it, I had stumbled across a major gap in the market.
Every woman on earth will eventually experience menopause. That’s thirteen million women going through menopause today in the UK alone. Yet GPs only receive 4 hours of training on the menopause. The only NHS-approved treatment for menopausal symptoms is hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and there is very little research into alternative forms of treatment.
A study from Newson Health Research and Education found that one third of women had to wait at least three years before their perimenopausal symptoms were correctly diagnosed; and 18% of women had to go more than six times before they received adequate help or advice. Women are effectively left to self-medicate in the aisles of their local pharmacy – just as I was.
“This is a life stage that 51% of the population will go through. Women deserve a greater choice – and innovative, smart, robust solutions that encompass the body and mind.”
The lack of research into women’s health issues is most likely due to the long-standing legacy of male bias within the health sector. Women are woefully underrepresented in clinical trials, and the gender gap persists at each stage of development for new pharmaceuticals.
This presents serious consequences for women’s health, leading to difficulties advising women on treatment options, unsafe dosing recommendations and more frequent adverse drug reactions in women. In the meantime, many promising ingredients fail to get beyond petri-dishes.
“The fact is that women need to make more noise. We need to demand a better range of solutions that address our experience. Men are already doing this – just look at the growth (pun intended!) of the erectile dysfunction sector.”
Within the EU, there are no herbal, vitamin or botanical sources that can legally assert their ability to address menopausal symptoms. At the time of my search, I found just one brand that specifically targeted perimenopause.
Unable to find what I needed, I decided to make it myself. After researching what vitamins are needed at the biochemical stage of perimenopause, and how dietary changes could impact my symptoms, I began dehydrating raw organic fruit and vegetables, blending them into a powder that would deliver the nutrition I needed more effectively. It tasted horrible. But I started to feel better.
I enlisted the help of a nutritionist and a flavorist to help me tweak the ingredients, validate my recipe, and make it taste less horrid. Before I knew it, my personal journey gradually became a public mission. I had embarked upon the road towards developing a brand new range of nutritional, vegan, plant-based powders.
MPowder is reframing midlife as the superpower it really is:
From product trial to pre-order and launch within four months
By the spring of 2020, I was on the cusp of producing my first powder. I had done my due diligence in terms of research, I had validated my product, and I knew what my customers wanted and needed. But as a first-time entrepreneur and ecommerce novice, I needed some guidance to grow my business.
A recommendation from one of my brilliant investors led me to Founders Factory’s Home & Hygiene accelerator programme, which is backed by Reckitt Benckiser (RB).
When I joined the accelerator, I had a brand, a product, and early recruits for a trial, but I was still in the very early stages of developing my overall business offering. Together, we refined the product trial, and used our learnings to form the foundations of our go-to-market plan.
Building an early community
One of the very first things we did was launch a trial of my first product, the PeriBoost. We built a trial group of women struggling with the symptoms of perimenopause, all of whom had registered their interest via a survey on our website and a social media recruitment drive.
Over a period of two months, our trialists (who we referred to as "Makers"), tried the product for free and generously provided us with their honest feedback via a weekly symptom tracker. It was important for us to deliver a 360 experience – our powders are a nutritional foundation, not a silver bullet! – so we also created a programme of free events with qualified experts in the perimenopause field, to give our community access to lifestyle practices and tools to support them too.
We had to figure a lot of things out as we went along. One of our biggest challenges was choosing how to collect consumer feedback in a way which enabled us to analyse the data appropriately. From notifications on product delivery, through to our first event, and of course symptom tracking, there were so many different touchpoints that needed to be systematically reviewed.
We leveraged SMS to easily communicate with our trialists. Using a tool named MessageBird, we could easily create bespoke flows which triggered regular texts, asking the participants for an update on their symptoms and feedback on the product. These responses were then automatically collated and entered into a Google spreadsheet for our review.
This feedback system worked so well that it has gone on to become a long-term feature of our product, which we refer to as our “symptom tracker”. At the end of each month, customers who opt-in to track their symptoms with us receive a personal report of their progress, as well as tailored tips on managing persistent symptoms further.
“I remember feeling physically sick and nervous about sending my product out to complete strangers… but it ended up being the best thing we ever did. The testimonials, the generosity of spirit, and the belief in what we were doing – it was incredible.”
These early efforts really highlighted the importance of building a purpose-driven, community-based business. In my opinion, this is the only way that businesses should be built, and it’s the only way that the business will thrive.
To support and grow our community of Makers, we launched The Powder Room, a private Facebook group where our Makers could connect with each other. It has now become a place for MPowder customers to share recipes, ask questions, and participate in monthly online events. We’re currently building a dedicated platform for The Powder Room on our website, and we hope that it will eventually become a valuable “knowledge hub” that can inform women around the world – as well as the medical profession.
Securing seed funding
Given that MPowder is a female-led business focused on menopause, the odds of securing funding were stacked against us.
First of all, there is a woeful (and well-documented) lack of investment into female-focused businesses. In 2018, women-led businesses received just 2.2% of the $130 billion given out in US venture capital. Adding to that, 80% of healthcare VCs have never invested in women’s health.
In my experience, many female founders lack confidence or suffer from imposter-syndrome. We tend to think we need a 5-year plan before we’re “allowed” to talk to investors, whereas male founders go into investor meetings confidently, without worrying too much. Perhaps this confidence gap has something to do with the persistent lack of women in investment decision-making roles. After all, people tend to invest in people that look like them.
I also found that being a female founder can be quite lonely – especially when you’re delivering your 400th pitch to a young male investor who, understandably, knows very little about menopause.
When I joined Founders Factory, what struck me most was the comradeship. Of course, I learnt all kinds of skills, and received advice that helped me navigate the fundraising process – but perhaps more importantly, the team offered me emotional support when I needed it most.
With their help, I ended up reaching my £500K seed round goal. Here’s how we did it.
How to fundraise for female-led startups
Start having conversations with investors early on. Lesson number one is to get people excited about the broad concept you’re working on. Say yes to all of the conversations. Try to figure out which investors will actually invest, and which will just be “friends of your brand”. Initially, I felt demoralised when investors would express interest without following through. I simply didn’t know that’s how the investor space works. A lot of investors talk because they want to know what’s going on. That is valuable too. As a result, I’ve built a network of MPowder friends who wish us well, and give us access to phenomenal networks when we need them. I keep them regularly updated on both our business progress and its challenges. And you never know what might happen in the future.
Have conviction about the value of your proposition. Female founders need to assert the value of female-focused categories. We have to have the confidence, alongside the stats, to champion a sector. Remember that investors won’t invest because they like you – they’ll invest because you can make them money. So go into that meeting with all the conviction of a middle-aged white male entrepreneur. You know your audience.
Don’t forget about female investors. If you’re a female-led business, you might want to look into securing a few female investors. In the end, 20% of our investors were female; among them were Pink Salt Ventures, a VC that provides early-stage investment for female-led startups, and female Angels such as Mumsnet co-founder, Carrie Longton. This was really important to me. I wanted women around this venture. And I wanted individuals who would provide more than just money. We ended up accepting smaller tickets from several female angels to make it happen.
Our female investors came through recommendations (largely thanks to Founders Factory), but here's a great list of the top female investor VCs in the UK.
This investment is just the beginning. It will enable us to take another step towards providing the same depth of service and community to women going through menopause as women going through pregnancy – or men going through erectile dysfunction.
Accelerating the business
We went into our launch quite confidently. Thanks to the trial, we were armed with real feedback and insights that we could use in all our pre-launch communications: 89% of our trialists had seen an improvement in their symptoms, and several of our lovely Makers had left us glowing (and often very personal) five-star reviews.
For a new brand, building up this layer of credibility and trust can take months (if not years). In hindsight, even if brands don’t need to run a product trial, I’d highly recommend doing so before going to market.
We focused our pre-launch efforts on Facebook and Instagram, organic PR, as well as drawing on our early community for referrals. By leveraging customer reviews – and later, external social proof (on all of our touchpoints) – we were able to achieve impressive results from day one - including our website conversion rates and our Return on Ad Spend (ROAS). This was all despite the fact that the product was still on pre-order, and shipping times were weeks away.
Not to mention the fact that we were working with a very niche target audience, focusing on peri-menopausal women between the ages of 43 and 52. We started to realise the impact of this after a couple of weeks – we constantly had to be on the front-foot refreshing our creative assets on our paid social channels and discovering new audience opportunities.
Below are some of the very first ads we ran.
Around month four, we were able to fulfil all our pre-orders, and officially launch our new business. Getting products into the hands of our first customers was both terrifying and exciting – what had started as my own personal kitchen experiment had become a living, breathing business with a flourishing community.
At this point, we introduced subscriptions to MPowder and began to experiment with new marketing channels, such as commercial partnerships with the likes of Cult Beauty, helpful content with real women and experts, as well as google search and SEO.
Leaning on a reputable, global brand
I was particularly keen to tap into RB’s unparalleled knowledge of the global supplement space, especially knowing the difficulty of measuring the impact of supplements, and confidently assert their efficacy. Following their best-practice production protocols, I knew that RB would enable us to get it right from the beginning.
Thanks to Founders Factory’s link to RB, I was quickly paired with two wonderful senior mentors: David Coates (R&D Director - R&D Operations IFCN) and Rachel Sexton (Innovation & Strategy Director for Vitamins Minerals and Supplements).
David worked with me on the operational side of the business, helping me to refine my supply chain with tighter processes and strong, scalable protocols. He taught me how to protect the brand; how to de-risk the supply chain and guarantee due diligence; how to create a more robust process and assess delivery timeframes; even how to specify colour and flavour variance.
“There are 24+ ingredients in one MPowder pouch. If cinnamon runs out in one area, that can push the entire supply chain back. There were so many different elements of the production process that I would never have thought to ask about.”
Every sector or vertical has its own language. And if you want to get things done, you have to speak it fluently. With David’s guidance, I was able to shift my language and incorporate terms the supplier would understand. Knowing what words to use is invaluable, and this subtle shift made a huge difference. The suppliers began to respond differently to us as a business – and I was able to get the leverage I needed to get things done.
RB’s deep industry expertise really helped us speed up decisions and avoid cul-de-sacs. Simple strategies, such as using the same ingredients across different products, completely changed how we thought about our supply chains – and our growth.
We have a team of medical and nutritional experts around the business, but RB has an entire scientific team dedicated to researching and developing new products. For our latest product launch, Rachel has involved their Head of R&D (a PhD qualified nutritionist) to look at the ingredients and further validate our recipes. This is invaluable, and has also enabled us to prep our recipes for US market entry. As an experienced marketer in the VMS category, Rachel was also a brilliant sounding board for any marketing and PR-related questions.
Although it started as a mentorship, my relationship with RB gradually became more fluid. On a recent call with Rachel, she mentioned that she saw it as more of a “peer relationship”: we were rooting for each other, supporting each other, and learning from each other.
Rachel often tells her fellow marketers about MPowder’s community of Makers, and the fact that people were talking about our brand before we’d even launched the product. This is something that you just don’t see in big companies, she tells me. With startups, consumer engagement goes much deeper, because the business is driven by purpose and mission, and because we really know our consumers. That’s hard for big corporates to replicate – and it’s also what impressed RB the most.
“[Rebekah’s] approach has already disrupted the UK market and the outdated communications around that stage in life, and her customers are creating a community which is propelling her business. It’s really exciting to see and the opportunity across the globe to meet women’s needs in this life stage is endless.”
– Rachel Sexton, Innovation & Strategy Director for Vitamins Minerals and Supplements, RB
The support we received from RB quickly enabled us to behave like a real, grown-up business. But they always encouraged me to continue to think like a start-up.
When our formal six-month mentorship came to an end, we all agreed that this was just the beginning. I still have monthly check-ins with Rachel and David, and our relationship continues to grow. I’m incredibly grateful for their support, experience and relentless energy. Seeing the enormous pride they take in our business too makes me very proud.
For me, the biggest takeaway from the programme is the feeling that we’re now scalable. The one thing I don’t fear is whether we’ll be able to ramp up our service to reflect demand. I feel secure on the production side because RB helped us do the legwork with our supply chain, putting contracts into place even when we were ordering tiny volumes. And on the growth side, I know that Founders Factory has laid the foundations and frameworks we need to keep iterating, improving the customer journey and ultimately, continue to scale.
In the future, we want to continue to build out our product range. Our three core recipes will be born from trial data – but as more insight comes to light, our recipes will evolve. In the next quarter, we’ll be releasing three foundation products, starting with Meno-Boost (launching March 2021), which targets the core symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes, blood pressure regulation, heart health, skin health, bone density, energy and mood. The vision is to keep improving based on what our customers are telling us.
This year, we’re working towards having an RB employee come and work at MPowder on a new market entry secondment. Having that extra resource to help explore new opportunities is a real game-changer, and I’m sure it will bring extraordinary value to our business.
Most importantly, we want to continue to build a powerful community that helps women through midlife. We hope that The Powder Room will become a knowledge hub that can inform women around the world, as well as the medical profession.
By inviting women to share their experiences, we hope to launch a change in the way we approach “the change” – from lifestyle shifts to supplements.
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