In this episode, we speak with Olivia Cotes-James of Luuna, about the company's journey and how they are changing as new opportunities and ideas arise. Olivia is a classic entrepreneur, navigating markets, creating amazing products, and pursuing opportunities that appear before her. What inspires me about Olivia is the journey she has taken to build a company that is growing beyond its initial idea, giving women around the world healthier, happier and confident lifestyles at home and in the workplace. Stay tuned to hear Olivia’s journey and learn about where she’s going next.
I'm really happy to have my friend Olivia Cotes-James on the Founders Life podcast today. Olivia is founder of Luuna, a company that creates healthy and environmentally friendly menstrual products. Olivia is a classic entrepreneur, navigating markets creating amazing products and pursuing opportunities that appear before her. What inspires me about Olivia is the journey she has taken to build a company that is growing beyond its initial idea, giving women around the world happier, healthier, and more confident lifestyles, at home and in the workplace. Stay tuned to hear Olivia and Luunas journey and to learn about where they're going next.
I am, as you said, the founder and CEO of Luuna we launched in 2019. And today we create healthy and environmentally friendly menstrual and hormonal wellness products. And we pair that with expert health resources, and pioneering menstrual equity programs basically designed to give individuals you know, healthy and confident lifestyles, as well as tackling menstrual stigma that exists in organizations today.
Really interesting. I'd love to find out. You know, before we get into Luuna, what were you doing before you started Luuna? And you know, where were you? What were you working on? And what was the call to action? But may you start Luuna?
Well, the first thing I will say is I did not have a long, illustrious career before starting Luuna, I basically started it sort of in my mid 20s. And at that time, I'd been living between Hong Kong and Shanghai for around five years. And at the time, just before I started the business, I was actually working in a branding agency in Shanghai, I had worked for a big global agency. And then I'd been hired by an entrepreneur in Shanghai to basically launch a boutique agency supporting global brands in the China market, as well as new startup businesses as well. So, you know, it was exciting, the person I was working for was incredible. But around sort of 2015 2016 due to a couple of personal experiences, I started for the first time to think about menstrual health and my relationship to that part of my life. And I'm very quickly concluded that it was a part of my life that I was very much in the dark around. And that led me to start having conversations with friends around me. So initially, people within my direct network around the topic of menstruation and started to see that so many of us are inhibited by this same kind of fear and shame and negativity around this shared experience. And that wasn't necessarily something that was new to me, I had grown up knowing that menstruation wasn't something that was a positive experience, or, or knew that it was something not necessarily to be talked about. But for the first time ever, my eyes were open to how absurd this was that this was the status quo for so many of us. And that led me to then expand these conversations into I guess, more structured research and community building. So I was this by the stage in 2016, living mainly in Shanghai, and started to advertise on WeChat for people to come in and chat to me about periods after working on the weekends in exchange for like free tea and coffee. I was basically bankrupting myself buying tea for strangers to talk about periods. And it was really through that this incredible community was formed. And through that, that I was able to see that actually with the right community and support periods don't have to be so shameful they ultimately don't have to be so negative. But really, the idea to start a company came together when that research started looking at the role of the traditional so called feminine care industry and in deepening this stigma and, and being complicit in that negativity that I just described. So that really became a key focus for me. And that resulted in actually me learning that the pads and tampons I've been using for over a decade had actually been causing my recurring yeast infections, which sort of plagued me for many, many years. And it was only then through that, that I sort of thought, you know, this community, this education that I love, has to be married with now physical products, physical products that I need that my friends need that ultimately anybody who menstruate actually deserves. And so that was when the idea for a company came together. And we'll talk more about this later, I'm sure But fast forward, you know, a year or two. After fundraising and product development, we eventually officially launched the business in Hong Kong in 2019. That's an amazing, inspiring story, you know, talking about how your experiences built a trajectory for for Luuna. But I mean, after the research and after considering, you know, the business and whether to start it, what were the first steps that you thought about when you went onto your journey. So without intending to those years of research and community building, ultimately, those conversations had all then allowed me to essentially sort of prove the need and prove the demand for what it was that I then set out to do on the business side. So there was so much data I had around the problem, there was so much data I had actually around people, you know, looking for better solutions, but not being able to find them. So I had all of that work, which was brilliant. But one thing that was a real bottleneck for me, was funding. So I know so many people have been able to bootstrap their businesses. And you know, had I been in that position, I absolutely would have done, you know, I think I encourage anybody to bootstrap for as long as they can. But I was not in a position to do that, for many reasons. I mean, I was in my mid 20s, I really didn't have any savings. Like, you know, my version of Bootstrap. It was all the money I spent, again, on those focus groups and, and the initial research and conversation. So I suppose I did a little bit of bootstrapping. But when it comes to production, you know, Mo Q's in this business aren't small, when it comes to production of products. And so having to raise capital was was never a question for me. And for somebody who hadn't done that before, I, I actually wouldn't say it was an overwhelming prospect at the beginning, because I was, I would say, beautifully naive. At the time, when I started out, obviously, that that quite quickly, it became apparent to me that it wasn't going to be so easy. But when I first set out, you know, it was just something that I was like, Well, I've got this incredible idea, there's such a problem, there's such need by this stage, I was completely obsessed with it. You know, and I think that kind of obsession and passion really does, you know, drive you forward with a lot of confidence. And, and I'm thankful for that. But I guess the biggest challenge then became raising that initial seed round, because, you know, there I was, again, in Shanghai, you know, I had my friends, but I certainly wasn't able to raise a family and friends round. So I didn't have that capacity. So it really was a case of going out and speaking to ultimately total strangers reaching out to people on LinkedIn, speaking to anyone, I could go into any kind of startup ecosystem event that I could, and building that investor network, absolutely. From Scratch, which, you know, again, takes a lot of work and requires so much passion and commitment to your cause.
Yeah, I mean, that sounds like a real challenge. I mean, how did you get about? I mean, how did you feel when you this is all happening, right? Like, you're kind of just a kind of a foreigner in China trying to raise money, like, how did you feel when, when when trying to raise money? And also those initial successes when people said, Yeah, I want to be involved?
Yeah, well, honestly, it's all a bit of a blur of I think that but there are some, some real sort of key moments. I remember, I suppose the first was when I eventually got to sit down with some I'm not in touch with them today, but some pretty high, high profile, I guess, entrepreneurs, local entrepreneurs, seasoned entrepreneurs. And and I can't even imagine what my my deck looks like at that stage. But I certainly know I hadn't had any help with it. It was the result of a you know, a number of Google searches, like how to write an investment deck, certainly no GC, my financial models, which I quickly realized were really necessary. But I didn't go well. It really didn't go well. And I just thought, you know, at that stage, I just remember the overwhelming sensation of impatience and frustration. Like I have this amazing idea somebody is going to launch it if I don't do it soon. There's so much need for it. I need it right now. Like I need these physical products. Now I want to bring this to market as soon as possible and that I found quite overwhelming. But that that sort of failed first investment pitch really opened my eyes to just how how much support I probably needed from from somebody who had done this before. So the best thing I ever did was go back to LinkedIn and rather than then look for more investors to reach out to I changed tactic When I started looking for what I really don't remember what I searched a financial advisor or, you know, a CFO type figure who could not come on board as a CFO, but helped me crack that index, investment proposal, structure, all that work that I'd done all the research and put it into a digestible format, with the right obviously, financials and projections to go with it. And, yeah, I've met with a few people. And one of them was this incredible woman, seasoned CFO had done so much fundraising for various different local startups in China and internationally. And just amazing, we connected so well. And she decided to come on board and help me with that initial piece of work. And I'm really honored to say that she is a friend and a board member today. So she's been on board with me absolutely, since day one, which is amazing. I laugh sometimes when I when I think back to those early days with her and how far she's seen me grow and the business grow. But you know, the the thing I recommend to any any entrepreneur is it kind of sounds like a tired old cliche, like find the right team and the right people. But, you know, you can't, I can't sort of emphasize that enough. Like she is the reason I was able to raise that initial capital, and we wouldn't be here today. I don't think without her.
That's, that's amazing. And having the right people on the team, especially on the finance side, really can open a lot of doors. But how about on the product side? I mean, did you have a background in product development? Or even factories in in, in China? And like, how did that all come about? You know, with this initial product development? I remember you were telling me before that you started out with one product, but had to switch to something because of the quality, right? How do you learn about all these issues related to product?
Yeah, and I suppose. Well, it's important to note, I guess that our first product was actually a product, we never ended up launching, not for quality reasons more for environmental reasons. So we designed the first product, I wanted to launch with a plastic applicator tampon with an organic cotton cord. And the reason for that is I realized that the non organic cotton tampons, were giving me yeast infections, I read so much about what those that material that's typically in those those big brand tampons can actually do from a health perspective. But I really have to admit, like, I wasn't thinking so much about the environmental implications at this stage, it was, you know, very much health and comfort first and foremost. And my research at the time indicated that plastic applicator tampons were the easiest to use, the, the most widely adopted. And so marrying those two things in that product was was that was where my head was at, basically. So when it came to production, now I don't have a background in product development. And of course, in the exact same way that I did with the financial modeling and the investment raising, I went out to find what I consider to be the very best partners that I could. So the for example, the product developers that we worked with, were an amazing company with an international footprint medical devices. So tampons technically don't even fit in that category. But for me, I wanted to treat it like a medical device in terms of, you know, quality and regulations. And, you know, of course, I had, when people found out what I'm doing, I had loads of people coming to me and pitching to me, but if anything, I was a bit wary of those people. So I think, a trend that you will see from my early days of product creation, it's not only whether the and I have to convince those those product designers to work with me because they were a little bit like we don't normally work with startups, like who are you, this feels all a bit random, you know, normally working with huge, huge clients, the same can be said from the factory, like I had to pitch to their entire management team to actually get that first factory to agree to work with us for that product, rather than just kind of, you know, taking the easy route to go with factories that would have been faster and easier to get over the line. But because, you know, I hadn't done this before because of the nature of our products. That was really the way I was I was intent on going about this. But to explain why we didn't launch that product, eventually, you know, by the time we'd done the design, the feasibility testing, gone through, you know, actually spent so much time and energy on product. I by that stage had learned more about the environmental implications of the period cat industry. And you know, that product was a product that it it's still not widely adopted in the market. So we were launching in the tampons. It was a product that we would have to have not only invested so much in production for but also so much in educating people to explore and try and adopt that product. And it just felt to me that I didn't want to bring a product like To market, I couldn't fund, you know, education and marketing schemes that, you know, encourage people to adopt that very thing, damaging single use plastic product, I didn't want that, that it just wasn't something I could ethically get behind. So I'm obviously really lucky that the investors we got by that stage were supportive and understood the vision and were able to say, Okay, fine, this was the product that we invested in bringing to market but we see that you've got a game plan, we see that you've got a vision, we believe in you. And they, you know, they followed my lead on that front, which I'm really pleased about, and as a great example of why it's so important to have the right investors on board.
Yeah, for sure. And, you know, when it comes to investors and continue to capitalize the business, it's an ongoing relationship, I'm sure, right, like, how do you what are the different ways that you continue to capitalize Luuna and push for even greater growth?
It's a great question. And I'm just trying to figure out how I answer that, because I think when we talk about growth, for any business, particularly when that started in the last three years, we have to acknowledge the sheer amount of challenges that so many of us who have faced, you know, Luuna has not been able to escape the COVID related challenges. And I think that's, you know, that's, I don't have experience running a business in non COVID time, so who knows where we'd be now. But I think, you know, that goes back to having the right investors on board, I even now, in the markets that we call home, lots of the world has moved on, when it comes to COVID. But, you know, Becky will know, we're seeing things, you know, come back and forth. And I think it takes a lot, I think for investors who aren't on the ground there to still kind of get their head around the situation. And communication, as with any relationship is so so important. I have to say, I'm back in London now, for the first time in almost three years, and I met with shareholders last night, I've met with shareholders throughout my trip. And I think I underestimated the power of that, that personal connection, in terms of, you know, getting people on board. Understanding the vision, especially when you're going through changes, like like we are at the moment, you know, with new visions and new directions, which I'll come to later. But communication, it can be done remotely, of course, but I just emphasize so much having had this trip that seeing people in person being able to take them through through what you're planning, and there's nothing that can compare.
Yeah, and everything changes so much. Right, three years in the last three years, and basically 10 years for Yeah, in normal times. Right. So much has changed. And, you know, I mean, kind of building upon that. How has Luuna changed between yesterday? And today? I mean, and I don't mean exactly yesterday, but how is Luuna changed from when you first started it to what it is today?
I mean, you almost could mean yesterday, to be honest, we are going through a real, a real shift at the moment, one that I'm really, really excited by. And without going into too much detail. I think for us, what we've seen is the value proposition that we launched with was is a value proposition today where we're seeing so much competitors come into our space. So the initial goal for us was to disrupt the so called traditional feminine care industry, right. And we've done so much good work in that space. You know, we've been the first brand to be on shelves and mainstream retailers and many of our markets. You know, we've seen so much growth in so many of those channels. But one thing that I kind of emphasized from the beginning due to not only a really strong business opportunity, but a personal passion of mine is really changing policies and implementing programs that tackle menstrual stigma in the workplace. And in the workplace. I also include schools and universities. And that was something that I really pushed for since around like late 2019, early 2020. And it's it's been a you know, it's been challenging to a proposal like that, especially in the markets that we're in. It just it really hasn't been discussed before. It's very, very much the first of its kind. So it's not an easy proposition to get over the line to begin with. But in the last year, even the last six months, I think actually in some ways helped by COVID where people aren't investing so much more than that people in that physical and mental well being we've seen the So we've seen that that initiative really start to grow. And only in recent months has it have, we started to seeing that actually, that initiative in itself is so powerful, we're so strong in that area, the relationships, we've been able to build the innovation, we've even been able to integrate into that program, um, in terms of technology and enabling us to scale this. It's, it's something that it's really, really exciting. And the shift that we're going through at the moment is linked to the fact that I actually no longer see us as being, you know, in this sort of feminine CAD disruptor space, which as I said, is getting increasingly crowded. There's actually a unique value proposition now that I think is really exciting for Lena that we're that we're pivoting towards, how did you figure out that that was going to be a new, interesting business opportunity for Luuna? Well, as for me, when you're when you're a solo founder, in particular, and especially sort of navigating all the challenges that we've had thrown our way, even in recent months, due to COVID, I think looking back, my head was sometimes a little bit stuck in the weeds, which can so easily happen. You know, I was working so hard on this initiative, we were making so much traction. But truly, it was the support of not only my team, but also partners. And I do need to give a small plug here for gini, because people who are outside of the business is often really, really helpful in opening your eyes to opportunities that you might miss when you're in, you know, you're down in the trenches. And so you guys obviously helped us do the research and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the business a couple of months ago. And it was really through that, that, like I said, my eyes were opened to the fact that all of this hard work we were putting into what was one of many initiatives was actually such an amazing has so much potential to be really the core of the Luuna business. And you know, really part of that, that strong vision for the future. So yeah, in short, I would recommend any founders to take time to not only talk to your team, who obviously are there in the day to day and understand the intricacies of the business, but also seek advice from trusted external parties as well. So advisors or partners like gini, because you never know what opportunities you might be missing in the day to day.
And I mean, it's been a journey for you. And you mentioned that for you actually, policy and changing kind of rules and stigmas and kind of social norms, it's kind of a very important factor for you. And, you know, I'd love to learn more about you know, your own personal values and how you translate that into the visions and expectations of your own business. How important is like culture for you.
It's the the most important thing both for us internally. And now as I said, with this new direction, all we talk about is culture and how critical that is in, in achieving business success for any kind of business, your people are the most important asset that you have, and the culture that surrounds them is of such immense importance. I'm so excited that the change that's happening in this space, I can think of so many conversations with investors, who told me that this program was quite fluffy, for lack of a better word, maybe they didn't use that word specifically. But you know, you're going in, you're educating people, they didn't understand it, they didn't think there was a place for it in the workplace. And now we're seeing so much money and investment being poured into quite rightly being poured into that space by both VCs, investors, but also the corporates themselves funding these programs. So something that was nice a few years ago, and wasn't really front of mind, or at least sort of like didn't have the important pay summit that it deserved, is now absolutely finally getting the attention it deserves. So I think that's a really important shift. But in terms of, I guess, my own values, you know, as a as a founder, even your wider management team, like those people shape the entire company, culture, everyone is vital in contributing to that culture. But it really, I think, I didn't I didn't appreciate just how much you though that you know, that core management team really does play a role in shaping the wider company culture. And that's something I'm absolutely acutely aware of. Now, obviously, you have your guidelines, which takes a lot of work and it's something that is, you know, largely constantly evolving as as you are as a startup but it's an Those guidelines in themselves help guide your hiring decisions. But I think I'm really honored to say that, you know, the small management team that we have, right now, everybody is reflective of my own personal values, which are such an emphasis on, you know, transparency, openness, inclusivity. And ultimately, kindness. You know, I think those are still words that a few years ago would, again, have been deemed quite fluffy. But for me, they are so so important in building and maintaining a happy and positive place of work, again, which obviously translates into good business results. Like there's now so much data being brought out to prove the logic behind that, which I think is fantastic.
And not just business results, you know, for your yourself and your investors, but also value for your customers as well. You know, the adjectives to describe, you know, ring so much to me, like the words that people use to describe a community to a family. Right? You know, what, what a lot of the marketing I see that you guys do is about community, and about people in a community within just one company. What does that mean for you to have a community? And how do you use that to build a customer base.
It's interesting, because community, so many brands talk about community these days. And it's it's such a fundamental marketing strategy. So I think it's great that people are acknowledging that. But if you think back to the story, I told at the beginning of this interview about how the business started, it wasn't even intended to be a business, it really did start as that community. So for me, I have seen firsthand how genuinely life changing a community can be. Because I was part of one, I was building one myself, and I've spent, you can think of an innumerable examples of moments within those community events that we did have people having conversations that did really change their life talking about things they've never spoken about before receiving advice, normalizing things that they were ashamed about. So that is something that I work and the team works so hard to communicate through the brand. And as we grow, and I just, I hope and and intend to preserve the authenticity of that, no matter how big the company grows to. And yeah, I'm so glad that it's evident to somebody like you who's observed the brand, because it is, is so important for me. And
in addition to community, I mean, like getting in touch with your customers and, and building a relationship is important for your your growth. I mean, what what were the what are the main strategies you use to market your product in your business?
That is also sort of in an evolutionary stage. But I would say typically, we have, you know, pre pre COVID, actually, we put a lot of emphasis on still community events, I think that was a natural, a natural part of that kind of grassroots beginnings that we had, that we took into those early stages of the business. Now, events obviously take time, and energy, but it was something that I found really, really effective in those early days in creating that really tight knit initial community, I think there is nothing more powerful than that kind of face to face connection. Now, obviously, the challenge with the business is then to take that and find a way to grow it. And with that in mind, then obviously, like social media became so so important to us. So the content that we invest in now is really designed to reflect those those core values of Luuna and, and you know, those events were always those in person events were always centered around. I mean, they were called the no more secret series. So it was around topics around not just periods, but things like body image, even emotional abuse, topics that were really chosen by our community, and then events that were put on for our community. So that's something that we saw to be meaningful and effective, and building that trust and that loyalty, that we then have decided to now reflect into content, which can obviously reach more people, you know, in different markets, and isn't so as restricted as those offline events in terms of reach, but I do hope we can bring those back to life as COVID starts to subside. Yeah, don't we all? Yeah. Yeah. I mean, starting a business is tough enough with or without COVID. And, you know, it's been particularly tough these last few years, especially for people's mental health, and especially the founders mental health. You know, what are the things that you do to prevent,
you know, a complete meltdown? I don't know for me, I'm all Always on the on the edge of a complete meltdown. But how do you relieve stress? Like, how important is taking care of your mental health for you?
I want to be really honest, when I talk about this, and it wasn't always something I was good at looking after, especially I think about to 2020, there were some really dark moments, and I was close to burnout or burnt out, you know, you remember what it was like, right? I think we're so numb to these waves now of COVID. But back then you didn't know what was happening, it was really difficult to to kind of plan ahead. And that's obviously really, really damaging for any kind of business, especially a startup in its early stages. So 2020, I would say I didn't do a good enough job at looking after my mental health, because honestly, like, it was just chaotic. So much was coming out of left field, you didn't know what to anticipate. So I hope now if that would happen again. Now I'm sort of three years into the business. And I've learned that a happy and healthy founder is bizarre to me, this didn't occur to me, because I've always emphasized it for my team from day one, but a happy and healthy founder, anything other than that is not going to be able to really make the business grow and thrive and translate into that, that strong company culture that I just talked about. But so I think I would have the tools now to better navigate the kind of chaos that the 2020 brought. And I think honestly, for me, it's just been it's just been a case of practice. Yeah, I used to get sort of physical symptoms of the stress, you know, like, you know, that that feeling in your stomach, even like the feeling sounds? Yeah, it sounds it sounds awful. It sounds so awful. And I guess I need to be honest about this, because I really didn't do a good job. And if that had continued, you know, the implications on your physical health, as well as your mental health is so so can be so catastrophic. So for me, it was just about practice, you know, figuring out, okay, like, how do I deal with this, this wave that's coming over me knowing frankly, knowing that I can find a solution to anything, like, you know, enough bad stuff happens that you weren't expecting, and you get through it, you start to have this confidence that like, okay, it's still unpleasant, but I can get through it, that will be a solution. And my team and our advisors, not active investors are so critical in that as well. And partners, like you guys to, you know, having that network around you, especially as a solo founder, has been so important. And I think one thing I would recognize is probably in 2020, I didn't do a good enough job at leaning on those people. And I was became quite isolated, as we all were quite isolated. And that's never a healthy thing for anybody. So I've kind of sort of rambled on a bit there. But I think I'm better now at knowing that I'm somebody that talking through my talking through my stresses leaning on certain people whose opinions I know. And value is really important and unfortunate to say I have that network now.
Yeah, I can only imagine how tough it must have been for you as a solo founder. I'm lucky I have Ray, my co founder. And, you know, I think I really admire your tenacity and everything that you've you've gone through, you know, you've done an amazing job. I have one more question I wanted to ask, you know, to wrap up this show, you know, what advice would you give to someone who's trying to start a business trying to be an entrepreneur? What's the one big thing?
I think that's I think there's two that stick out to me, which I've already talked about. So the first is, how do I phrase this without sounding cliche, you have to be passionate, you really, really do. There has to be a problem that you are so determined to fix, at least in my experience, because you know, when the odds are stacked against you, and there are so many seemingly insurmountable challenges ahead, had that passion. And commitment is, at least for me, it's been something to drive me to drive me forward every single time. So I'd say that's the first thing. And the second thing is the network that I just talked about. So I'm not saying you're lucky, you have an amazing co founder, but I we're all the solo founders out there to know that you don't have to have an amazing co founder, but you do have to have an amazing support system behind you. And that could be anyone. I mean, obviously, you know, parents and friends, they are so so important in in distracting you and taking your mind off things. But I'd say you have to have kind of a strategic support system as well. People who you really trust who have kind of gone through the same experience. says and are able to say, You know what, this isn't such a big deal or on the flip side, you know what, this is a really big deal. And let's try and figure out how to find the solution who aren't going to sugarcoat things for you. So it's not just people who will kind of, you know, make it fluffy and happy for you. It's it's people who, whose opinion you trust to find the right solutions. Makes a lot of sense. Thanks very much. And if people want to look at your website or get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to do that? Yeah, great. So please remember that Luuna is L U U N A so Luuna with to use. And if you just follow us on Instagram, which is Luuna dot naturals, you'll be able to find our website and all the other platforms are important. Wonderful, Olivia Cotes-James, thanks so much for coming on the show. Thank you