Introducing: Womaneer, our new series that highlights and celebrates the oft–overlooked women of our day who are making waves in the fields of politics, crypto-currency, not-for-profit, and design. Each of these women have something in common: vision, grit, and a heavy dose of persistence that keeps them going despite the odds.
Becoming an industry disruptor is no small feat. Founding and then growing a successful brand is hard enough (remember: most small businesses in Australia fail within the first three years), but completely changing the way consumers think about and shop a category of product is on another level entirely. To do so requires foresight, courage, self-belief and, probably, a healthy dose of moxie. (Rare—which is why innovators of this caliber are so few and far between.) Imagine then dreaming up an industry disrupting idea whilst still a teenager. Because that's exactly what Aimee Marks of TOM Organic did.
Inspired to create a company that produced non-toxic pads and tampons and also educated women on why they are the healthier choice (vs the conventional alternative), Marks inevitably faced push back from people who just.didn't.get.it. But, womaneer that she is, Marks powered through, and went on to win over major grocery partners taking her message to the masses. Today she continues to build awareness, and has also launched an organic baby range, tooshies by TOM.
Keep reading for Marks' full story.
I came up with the business idea for TOM Organic whilst working on a design project in high school—I was trying to solve the problem of loose tampons falling out of my handbag. After I finished school I went to RMIT to study entrepreneurship and then started the brand with the vision of creating a product that would empower women to live healthier lives through both buying and living more consciously. TOM Organic was founded in 2009, and tooshies by TOM, our range of planet-friendly nappies and baby wipes, came along in 2016 as my post-maternity leave project.
After looking at the ingredient lists of conventional tampons, I was shocked to discover the products I’d been using for years were made of everything but cotton. I looked into it further and found they contained bleach, synthetics and dyes. Not to mention that of all insecticides used in the world, a whopping 25% of those go to conventional cotton crops. I felt an overwhelming responsibility to women to share this information and to find an alternative. On average, a woman uses over 12,000 tampons in a lifetime, so I became committed to creating a product that ensured only the purest organic cotton would come into contact with that most delicate area of a woman’s body.
There have been times I’ve seriously had to ask myself, "Do I love what I’m doing?", "Is there a need for this?" and, "Is this really good for people?". Starting the business wasn’t the biggest leap, but getting TOM Organic stocked in major Australian supermarkets was a huge challenge. We were knocked back several times when trying to sell to the big stores—I was down to my last $1000 before winning over our first grocery partner. Part of the challenge was that despite every other department in supermarkets offering organic products, organic feminine hygiene was considered a premium offering. To convince the everyday customer they should upgrade to organic feminine hygiene is our next challenge.
There’s so many things I wish I knew before I started! One in particular is that going with my gut is key. I’ve learned that in important moments, if an annoying sick feeling is coming up, it’s best to not go through with it. It’s also important to combine insight from key stakeholders and experts with your own intuition. Sometimes too much information can crush creativity and bury the wisdom of your instinct.
I think one of the most important steps when starting out for us was going the extra mile to gain our ACO (Australian Certified Organic) certification and B Corp Certification. These mean we choose to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency and demonstrate that ethical values are ingrained in our DNA.
Word of mouth was also really powerful for us early on because pads and tampons were and continue to be seen as “secret women’s business” and knowledge is often passed on from mother to daughter and between friends, rather than via big advertising campaigns. The women in our TOM community were pivotal in driving and growing the brand—right from the outset they helped get our product into stores through the positive support and testimonial. Taking their feedback to buyers to demonstrate the positive impact of our products was so important when selling our brands into the major supermarkets.
A lot of the time I feel like my courage comes from a place of being passionate and believing in my team. Despite the best planning, you can’t always predict what’s going to happen next…but you can conquer seemingly insurmountable challenges if you pull together and let your conviction drive you.
I think it’s easier now than when I began—there are so many more avenues available to begin businesses and also to seek support. 2018 seems to be the year of the woman and as the year goes on we’ve seen plenty of examples; like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern having a baby, greater representation for the AFLW, and most recently India has removed the GST on sanitary products, and Ireland have opened up a referendum on legalising abortion. It’s also not only female entrepreneurs but "mumpreneurs" that we’ve seen on the rise. For us as a brand playing in the baby space we’ve interacted with more and more women who’ve sparked incredible new business ideas while on maternity leave and are bringing new solutions to market. There’s a real sense of solidarity and women supporting each other, particularly in the business realm, which is great to see.
You can give 150% to anything before you have children, but going from being the chief doer—able to do everything and anything in the business—to having to be efficient with my time was a huge change. I had a bit of a luxury around choice and was able to recruit others to cover some of my role, and always felt empowered to do that. I never felt I needed to hold onto it all and knew intuitively this was a process of ensuring I wasn’t holding TOM back. But my passion absolutely did shift because I had to figure out how to lead without physically being there every minute of every day. I almost had to go on a journey of feeling unapologetic and living the true TOM values to figure out what that looked like for me.
After having twins, I slowly introduced work into my life layer by layer, giving it enough space to ensure I could give equivalent value to both work and family. I find I work best in short bursts, often once I’ve exercised. Now I’ve got Jack Bear, the latest addition to my tribe, I find I can have really productive work sessions while the girls sleep. I also have designated office days where I pack in as much as I can.
It has taken a bit of time to experiment with what works for me, to find my momentum and learn to use my brain and time in a different way since having children. I’ve found that being a parent and dividing my time between home and office has given me a valuable perspective and the creative space to grow outside of the office.
For me, it’s feeling like you’re at your optimum from a health perspective, having space "in-between" to be passionate, and having the time to learn and evolve as an individual.
- Never change or bend on your values, ever. Regardless of what happens. I promise you’ll be proud of that.
- Be selective about the people you want to work with every day.
- Mentors are one of the most important resources you can have.
- What you think are weaknesses are often your strengths.