by Y Combinator1/27/2016
The founder of all-natural personal care products company L. on turning an idea into reality, learning the ropes of manufacturing, and creating a company that does good.
The Macro : L. has made a big impact since its launch: Your condoms are currently in Whole Foods, Target, and CVS, and you’ve garnered tons of positive attention for your one-for-one business model that donates a condom to a female in a developing country for each one sold.
To start, can you tell us a bit about your background? Did you always aim to start a company?
Talia Frenkel : I wasn’t in the tech world or consumer space whatsoever. Years ago if you asked me, I wouldn’t have foreseen myself starting L.
I was a photojournalist, and my job was to document disasters and humanitarian crises for the Red Cross and the United Nations. When events like earthquakes, floods, fires, and tsunamis would occur, my job was to get there within a matter of hours and photograph what had happened. I was also involved in fundraising efforts afterward, speaking on behalf of non-profits.
The Macro : How did L. arise from that?
Talia Frenkel : I took a particular interest in women’s issues, having met so many women through my work and seeing how things like war impacted them and how they suffered in refugee crises. I learned that there was still a big problem with condom availability in developing countries: The number one killer of women of childbearing age globally is still AIDS. The number one reason girls drop out of school around the world is teen pregnancy.
I grew up in California, and personal care items were always available to me. Eventually I realized I was being sort of a hypocrite: I was talking a lot about women’s empowerment, it’s become sort of in vogue topic. But when girls all over the world reach the point of being sexually active, we’re not supporting them with the tools they need to protect themselves and control their destinies. Why aren’t we making this very simple, very cheap tool very available to everyone?
I started talking to friends and family about this, saying, “There are one-for-one shoes, with TOMS. Why aren’t there one-for-one condoms?” I’d almost joke about it — saying that we could make the tagline “Give a F&*k.”
But the more I thought about it, it became serious. Why isn’t there a business model like this applied to health products? Why wouldn’t that work?
The Macro : What made you realize that this was not just a good idea in theory — it was something that you could implement as a founder?
Talia Frenkel : When my parents said, “You should do this.”
I was in their kitchen in L.A. I had just told them about the idea, and I laughed about the silly tagline with them. Then my dad was like, “But no, seriously, you should do this.”
Can you imagine your daughter saying she wants to start a company with the motto of “Give a F&*k”? I thought, wow. If my parents think this is a good idea, maybe it really is.
To this day they’re so proud. My dad wears an L. wristband that says, “Make love, give love.” He talks about the concept to everyone.
The Macro : How did you approach turning the concept into a reality? Making a physical product is no easy feat.
Talia Frenkel : That was entirely new to me. I had no experience in working with the FDA, sourcing products, international shipping, and so on. There was a steep learning curve, and there continues to be. I think the key to that process was surrounding myself with people who are a lot smarter than me, people that have much more experience.
The Macro : How did you find those people?
Talia Frenkel : Just a lot of cold calling and cold emailing and asking for help. That’s a big thing in startups in general. When I interview new people, a key thing I look for is if they’re able to be resourceful — how to find the right person that can help you, how to find the answer to a question. At a startup there are constantly questions every day. I remember in the early days sitting in a room asking, “Ok, how do you get a UPC code?” None of us knew. You just have to figure it out and do it.
Nowadays there’s so much at your fingertips. There are incredible tools online. We joined YC, and they had a great community to tap into. But in general I think my background as a photojournalist helped a lot. You become adept at storytelling, and that’s key to building a brand and a product and a company. You learn how to be extremely resourceful, how to build something out of nothing.
I’ve been told that I have a calm demeanor in stressful situations. I’m relatively young, but I’ve seen a lot of things in my life. That’s helped me put things in perspective.
The Macro : You were entering a space with established incumbents. How did you build the product with that in mind?
Talia Frenkel : It’s great to have a mission-driven business, but to make it work, you have to make a great product. You’re not going to get anywhere if the product itself isn’t awesome.
At the start, I listed everything that L. condoms would have to be: Sustainably made, vegan, unquestionably all-natural, non-irritating ingredients, better branding. Most of our customers buy L. because they like it better. The information about our business model is on our box and our website, but the core value proposition for our consumers is a better quality product. Giving back is a perk.
The great thing is there was a big opportunity. There’s a huge lack of innovation in the condom industry. You look at what was in the aisles, and there was nothing like what we wanted to create. The branding has all these references to conquest and war, it’s really out of touch with a modern view of human sexuality. And the ingredients are often obscured and synthetic. There was nothing out there that I wasn’t slightly embarrassed to bring to the cash register. I don’t have any issues with the clerk knowing I’m sexually active — it was more the weird cheesy branding that didn’t align with who I was, these mysterious ingredients.
I knew there were other people like me, that there was this demographic that was being entirely ignored.
The Macro : How did you know that there would be other people out there who wanted this product? Was it a gut feeling, or mostly data-driven?
Talia Frenkel : I might have a unique perspective on this, so I’m glad you asked.
Today we look at a lot of data. All of our business decisions and how we select products are data-driven. But in branding and messaging, we don’t take the perspective of, “Let’s get a room full of people telling us what they want.” I think a lot of times people don’t realize what they want until it’s manifested. It’s more about tapping into a creative mindset and asking what you want to see in the world.
I’m very inspired by MAC Cosmetics. If they were to do a survey 30 years ago when they started and ask, “What would you think if we hired these incredible transgender makeup artists to promote our products and do your makeup?” People would probably say, “Oh no, I’d feel uncomfortable with that.” And then MAC wouldn’t have become the thought leader in the space that they are. There are a lot of things that often a room full of people in a survey wouldn’t be able to reveal.
It’s been important for us in creating this brand to create a new voice that’s refreshing for people. The personal care category of consumer goods has drawn on the same thing for a long time: Women’s insecurities. They’ve provided false promises instead of transparency. We are approaching it differently.
The Macro : It sounds like the vision from the start was for a pretty ambitious type of product — it can’t have been easy to check all of those boxes. Did you have to make any compromises to launch? Was there any kind of “minimum viable product” you had to go with?
Talia Frenkel : When you’re trying to make a physical consumer product that really aligns with your values, at least for us, no. The compromises we had to make were on the timeline, not on the product.
Now, there are compromises we’re making in other aspects. We’d like retailers to be more efficient with the way they’re packaging our boxes for shipping, there is a lot of extra plastic and things we don’t agree with off the bat that we hope they’ll change. The website we had to perfect over time: We didn’t have a subscription backend set up at launch, and we had to figure that out at the same time that our subscriptions were spiking.
But there weren’t many compromises we made on the products themselves. We just had to keep pushing back our timeline for launch until it was ready. We’re taking the same approach with our upcoming products. We’re creating a new one-for-one line of organic sanitary pads and tampons, and we’re not going to compromise there either.
Some founders will say, “OK, it’s never going to be perfect, so start with something and perfect it over time.” But with this, that’s not how it works.
The Macro : What was the reception from the larger public like?
Talia Frenkel : When I first started talking about this, a friend of mine wrote a piece about it in the Huffington Post — this concept of all-natural condoms that would be sold with a one-for-one model. Suddenly it caught on and there as all this press out there: Forbes, Fast Company. All this before there was any product.
I was like, ‘What is everyone writing about? This is just an idea.’ I felt like the emperor with no clothes. But it just resonated with people so much, and that validated the idea. I kind of had to do it at that point!
The Macro : That sounds like a lot of pressure.
Talia Frenkel : There was a lot of pressure. I’d said all this stuff about what the product would be like: It will be vegan, etc. I didn’t know at that point if I could actually make a product that would be all of those things. It took several years to get it right.
Another thing is that I was never comfortable with getting a lot of attention. As a photojournalist, you’re behind the camera, not in front of it. I was used to being unnoticed while doing my work. When you’re the founder, especially of a company with a mission and a product like this, you find yourself being the focus. There’s a crowd that forms around you when you start talking.
The Macro : When did you get more comfortable with that?
Talia Frenkel : When we started getting more distribution and sales, when we were seeing the impact we were having in Uganda. I felt most uncomfortable while people were talking about a product we didn’t have, or we were barely distributing. Now I just want to keep getting our voice and brand out there.
The Macro : What advice would you give to someone who wants to found a company that has a positive social impact?
Talia Frenkel : If you’re building a company, it should almost be mandated that you should want it to have a positive impact on the world. If it doesn’t, then don’t build it. We don’t need it! (Laughs.) And you may burn out, because a startup is a lot of work.
Any founder will tell you that when building a company, there are highs and lows. You have to very much believe in what you’re doing to get through those lows. For me, you have to believe that the world is going to be better because of what you’re making.
If you’ve got an idea and you think the world is going to be better because of it, then start. Just start. And after that make sure you ask for help. You will be so surprised, if you really do have a strong sense of purpose, how incredibly people respond. It’s amazing how much that “pay it forward” mentality exists in the world. That’s my favorite part of being an entrepreneur: that experience of speaking to a total stranger, getting involved in something, wanting to help. It’s been so inspiring. It’s great to see there are all these people who want to put these skills they’ve developed toward good.
Y Combinator created a new model for funding early stage startups. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($150k) in a large number of startups (recently 200). The startups move to Silicon