I first met Alison from Flocowear at a funding event organised by the Scottish Government several years ago, back when the company was actually called ‘Lilypads’. Lilypads came about when Alison was in Kenya teaching sexual health to a group of school girls, where she learnt that the reason there was such a high teenage pregnancy rate in the local community was all down, would you believe, to the lack of available and affordable sanitary products. How are these two things connected I hear you ask? Well the answer really shocked me (Alison explains all on our podcast), and even more unbelievable was that this particular problem isn’t local to this specific area of Kenya, or Kenya alone – women in countries all over the world come across the same terrible choice to afford sanitary products.
Flocowear is a mission led business. They sell reusable and environmentally friendly sanitary products in the UK and for every pack bought, they donate a pack to a charity, individual, organisation that distribute to areas of the world where sanitary towels and period products are too expensive.
Our conversation not only opened my eyes but she touched upon a way of viewing her mission, which is that striving for perfection isn’t always the best way to work, as often very little gets done. Sometimes we need to think about what ‘better’ looks like. Better is still problematic. Better could use more research or funding or help. But better is still more than what we currently have.
Her words really inspired me – as a fellow ‘chaotic leader’ Alison shows there is not only one way to create change. Often the power of perseverance and passion can be more useful than experts in the field…
Alison is offering 10% off her product range. Listen to the end to get the discount code!
Take a listen to Alison and let us know your thoughts on our chat.
Suzie Millar 0:17
Hi, everybody, welcome to this week's episode of Think outside your hive. This podcast is all about realism and how people run businesses with busy lives. So I think it's completely appropriate that I have my three year old sitting in the background, attempting to be quiet whilst I tried to record this introduction. Today's guest is Allison from Floco wear. She has recently changed the name of the company. And when I interviewed her and her company was called Lilypads, and that's how I knew her for the past few years. I met her when I was going through a funding course in Edinburgh a couple of years ago. And it was just obvious from the very beginning how passionate she was about the project that she has taken on in starting lilypads. Her business is all about creating reusable sanitary products, then donating like for like to people in need in Africa. It started off as a project to try to improve sexual health in third world countries. I think what you'll find is really interesting is the connection between sexual health and reusable sanitary products. I couldn't quite understand or make that link in my head when I first found out about her. I think it'd be really interesting for you to find out how those two are linked and she talks about that today in her podcast. She's super passionate about what she does. She's on a mission to try to improve sexual health in third world countries. I think that's obvious from the way that she speaks that it's not really so much about the business for her it's about the purpose behind the business – I think that's kind of where we're we're quite aligned. Allison's also offered everybody 10% off of her products so if you listen to the end of the episode, then you will be able to get the discount code. I really hope you enjoy listening to her she's absolutely fascinating and I absolutely love her products.
Alison thank you so much for coming on to our podcast. I am ridiculously grateful because I know that you're a really really busy woman. Just as a bit of a background to people we met at the investment pathway thing, I can't remember what it was properly called no idea - Business Gateway something. And your business is just so fascinating I just think people would be really interested to find out quite a lot about it, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Alison Wood 2:41
That's such a nice intro to hear. So at Lilypads we do comfortable reusable period products. We started out in Kenya, I was one of the few people that went export first and then import which I don't actually recommend as a strateg! We started making affordable products when we realised that actually in the UK most people hate their period products, but just don't like talking about it and find them really uncomfortable and so through a lot of digging started making our own here. And now for every one we sell, we sponsor one internationally so we're selling them in the UK finally and been shipping them out the last couple of months here there and everywhere. So I feel like my export knowledge has gone through the roof and probably not in a great way.
Suzie Millar 3:27
We definitely need you to come on board with us and and give us some advice, it's a totally different world isn't it? Exporting rather than selling the UK? Although you may find that the other way around? Because you've obviously been doing that first?
Alison Wood 3:39
Oh, both ways, just like level of regulation and random things that pop up that you're like, hang on, is this a thing? 'What do you mean we need this bit of paperwork, that bit of paperwork doesn't exist!' Yeah, just prepping people for that kind of stuff is not the most fun and being like, I need you to do 10 minutes more admin so that we can get this bit of paperwork done. I'd actually rather you did the important stuff, but this bit needs to be done.
Suzie Millar 4:05
And how have you been affected by Brexit then and pandemic?
Alison Wood 4:10
Bits and bobs. So we manufacture in Lithuania and bring it into the UK. We're about to have that fun for the first time this month as we bring in products and in theory, the manufacturer has done it multiple times so everyone is prepped, the paperwork should be in order. But in practice, I just know there's gonna be something somewhere that goes completely a mess, and I'll be like - but we prepped for this! So in some ways, it's nice because we've already been doing a lot of exploiting that we're just kind of swapping Europe onto the same system for everyone else. So that's about to cause a little bit of mayhem, and we're about to ship like 10% of our sales out to the EU, but that's going to have to go on pause because we haven't quite sorted how we don't either pay ridiculous amounts of shipping or ridiculous amounts of duty and VAT when it lands.
Suzie Millar 5:12
And it's really hard with that, because that's the thing that we've experienced. You sort of think, okay, well, we've got all the paperwork in place, and everything's gonna be okay. And then it's, but it's the shipping costs and it will be prohibitively expensive because of Brexit, but also because of the pandemic. And sometimes 10 times the amount of what you would be paying before. I don't think people realise that's just really really hard for small businesses. Is that is that what you're finding?
Alison Wood 5:42
Haha, the shipping is astronomical, because I mean, to get products in and out of Europe is one thing, and then to get it halfway across the world is another. And trying to get things out to Kenya at the moment, we're paying, like, half of the cost of shipping. But no, there there isn't really another route at the moment because all the shipping has gone off. It's not like one specific sector has. So I'm really hoping COVID is gonna you know, come to an end, that would be nice one, and then shipping cost geos down to a more reasonable level. And we can all start breathing again.
Suzie Millar 6:17
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, same here. Going back a little bit, how on earth did you get started - you were on holiday in Kenya?
Alison Wood 6:24
Yeah with my school, my secondary school used to work with a charity out in Kenya. And so I knew of them, I've done lots of fundraising. They were an orphan support trust, and the founder came to speak at our school, and was very, like, get up and go, we're not waiting for anything. What can we do now? What does a little bit better look like, rather than what is perfect? And how do we get there? And I love this approach. Yeah. And then I got to university and found that we were doing the exact opposite. And we were doing that, 'What does perfect look like?,' and to me, it's like, well, we're never gonna get there. And I find that really frustrating. And so I went out to the charity and was like, Can I can I come and experience? How did they carry out an activity and know that their work wouldn't be perfect, that there might be a problem along the way, but go 'this is better than what we're doing right now'. And when I arrived they went "well, do you want to help teach us sexual health because that is the living embodiment of this is better than nothing as we don't have the time energy resources to look at that." And I never knew it, but I actually love teaching sexual health. I find it fascinating. Yeah, but I was looking at all that stuff. And I was like, Oh my god, this is what the US made and like the 70s US not being known for their ability to teach sexual health as well. This is not great kit, but you're right, what do you do that's better with the same amount of time, energy and resources you have. And so I went back out there and literally taught loads of different sexual health classes. I wanted to know how does it splitting students by age groupsor by genders change the response. It's very cool and looking at the results was really fascinating to see what people do with information. So you tend to, if you think of your 16 year old self, they all act likethey've been there and done that, whether or not they have. The cool kids in the classroom will say things that are completely wrong, but because everyone has a perception that they're the cool kids, they must have obviously been there. And so you end up with this dynamic where you have to tell them the cool kids are wrong. It's going back to the basics and saying 'that is not how the birds and the bees work'. I loved it, but was like, my God, this is bad. But long story short, I was in a classroom with the girls in that school, who have very high teenage pregnancy rate. But none of the girls would ever say who the father was, which is quite weird. Normally, if you're pregnant and really don't want to be, you would be open about who got you into that state. And so I said to the girls, what, what is it? What are some of the reasons that this happens? And if we know what's causing it, then at least we can start talking about that. Is it that you don't have the ability to say no? And it turned out it was that they couldn't have what period products
Suzie Millar 9:52
And that was why they weren't... what? Why did that, why did that... I don't understand why that would translate.
Alison Wood 9:56
So they used to get told of men in the village to spend the night with, and the men would give them period products.
Suzie Millar 10:04
Are you kidding? That's awful. And it's actually a surprisingly common thing. So like in Kenya, there's a word in Swahili that explains that you are engaging in transactional sex and got pregnant and dropped out of school. There's a word in South Africa we've just found, there's like a blessing which is an older man exchanging sex and giving blessing for something that they need - whether that be school fees, or uniform or period products. I was like, why is this a phenomenon? Why don't we have research papers on this? Why don't we have proper bloody
Solutions? Yeah, absolutely.
Alison Wood 10:47
And I just thought this is ridiculous. I'm now going to write another piece of academic research basically saying that you can teach them the best flipping sexual health in the world. But the summary of it is if you want to stay in school, you need period products and this is the way you get them else you need to drop out, and I'm not writing that.
Suzie Millar 11:07
Yeah, and then either way they need to drop out because they either don't have sex, or get pregnant with these people. Yeah, is that right?
Alison Wood 11:18
Yeah, it's uh, most of them are boarding schools. And so it was it's not even like you can miss a couple of days of school - let's say you're either here or you're not, which is also fascinating because there's lots of logic right behind putting students in boarding schools and kind of helps if they're in very rural areas. It means you can have a bigger school and people aren't commuting really long distances.
Suzie Millar 11:41
Oh wow. So these poor women are just not getting any access to education unless they have sex with these men who will give them period products and that means that they can stay in school, but then they get pregnant so they can't stay in school.That is so sad. So basically what you're doing by setting up this, what would you call it? A charity? It's not a charity, it's a charity and the business though isn't it? Okay, so by doing this you're basically supplying them with period products which means that they don't have to have sex with people and they can continue to go to school. That's amazing. Well done you.
Alison Wood 12:19
Thank you. It's been a long journey. So we now do both, we sell the products to different organisations or directly to the woman at as low a costs as we can get, at the manufacturing cost. Or we donate them to charities, organisation, random people who get in touch who don't have the money and it's like, sure we've now built the network that works, let's let's get balls rolling.
Suzie Millar 12:43
So is that just still in Africa then? Or is that in the UK as well? And is it... it's not a charity, is it a social enterprise?
Alison Wood 12:55
Just in Africa. Yes, depends whose definition you go by.
Suzie Millar 12:59
Yeah, so what do you call it then? =
Alison Wood 13:00
We go with we're mission led. And at some point the international aspect may become a charity, it's just never made it to the top of the to do list. So it functions as a not for profit. I say we're mission led we've got a mission this is what we're attempting to do.
Suzie Millar 13:20
Yeah, great, because we had that problem with our company. So we obviously set up the company, and then we were doing all these good things. But people didn't understand that that's what we were doing so we set up the Repollinate as a charity, so our company then feeds into it (we give 10 p from every jar to the charity). And anything that we were doing as part of a company, was now under the charity thing, because we just felt like that it just wasn't very well understood. I completely understand what you're saying because that's exactly what we were trying to do, we're trying to say that we're a company that are mission lead, that you're socially and environmentally responsible. And I think that actually does come across with your company, because you're saying that for every period product that someone buys from you (and you do make money from), that you then sponsor... What do you sponsor? A pack? One pack?
Alison Wood 14:16
It's one for one. This has been the the whole thing of starting now rather than getting it perfect. A lot of the, especially areas and Kenya, but around the world get very used to charity being an unstable resource. It's there one month and it disappears the next. How do you build something that isn't reliant on charity money, because that would be my biggest fear is having to turn around to all these places and go, 'we can't we can't help anymore sorry'. Which is why a there's a business in the UK, because the idea is that pays the bills that keeps everything going. And that's a little bit more of a secure resource, but also asking, how can we set up distribution lines in other countries where we do sell really affordable products. And so one of the things is trying to train up women in the areas to become like, commission based sellers. Which is a lot more common in some areas of the world. And so we were going with, we'll sponsor one because either it will get given to one of those women to resell. And if she doesn't, she doesn't, we accept it as a cost. Or it gets given directly to a girl to keep her in school.
Suzie Millar 15:30
That's amazing. And so which countries are you in now?
Alison Wood 15:34
We are now in Malaysia, Cambodia, which don't help my Africa thing, but you know. and Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa.
Suzie Millar 15:44
Obviously, you made the move to start selling it in the UK, how has that worked out for you? Because you I know when I met you that you were doing all the prototypes for the reusable sanitary towels. What was that experience like?
Alison Wood 16:00
That was one of the hardest things I've had to do, to find someone who could manufacturer and get someone to help with the prototyping. I realised a lot of was better done by me. I could research it and be more dedicated than giving it out to someone else who might have more background in the area, or a degree in it. But they actually didn't have the level of depth we needed because there isn't a solution. I wasn't going, I want you to replicate this, I was going, I want you to find me a material that does this and does that. And they're like, Well, that doesn't exist in your industry. That took me a long time to realise, and then get the confidence to go, No, I can do this, I do know what I'm doing. I don't need to feel like I need a degree to prove that I'm a materials expert. And then finding a manufacturer, getting that all up and running. But it's now there, we have one that I love, who have gone over and above to help us. And in that way, I think, COVID helped, because the manufacturing industry took a massive blow, especially clothing. It made them a lot more open to working with smaller brands than they would have been beforehand. So that helped us find a great manufacturer who could build with us, and weren't so concerned at how small we wanted to start. And yeah, it's still one step forward, and three sideways. But product is now selling on the website. And we're just learning as we go.
Suzie Millar 17:44
And so the product itself, what's it made up wasn't made ever you like to say?
Alison Wood 17:50
I mean, I'm just going to give you the like, overview I give everyone. We have very cool materials that don't tend to talk about, but basically it's three layers of material. Your top material is one that's designed to take in moisture and then dry really quickly. Because that was what, if you think about your period product, the last thing you want is be aware that there is something wet and cold. But we don't tend to make this kind of material for period products. We make it in sportswear and other types. But then that's not designed to be sat in your underwear. Yeah, so trying to find something that's soft. Our middle is something very absorbent but very thin. You can get really absorbent things - we've designed really absorbent materials - and so we found material (again in somebody else's industry), which compresses and holds it. I had, I think one of my favourite conversations with a very technical engineer, who I'm not sure had been briefed we were talking about period products. And so he was like, Oh yeah, we've like, we've got something that will do compression and it can be washable and it is very absorbent. So what are you using it for?
Suzie Millar 19:01
i mean, a lot of that industry is quite male dominated as well. So it must be Yeah, must be really hard. But then I guess also good, because it's opening up their minds to stuff like this as well.
Alison Wood 19:25
Yeah. Because then they get really excited. To him, it was like a technical problem, we're not talking about water we're talking about blood which has a different consistency. So then you're going to be wanting to look XYZ. And I was like, I love how your mind just got so excited!
Suzie Millar 19:41
I can just imagine that that is absolutely hilarious. And so then how many do you get in a pack?
Alison Wood 19:48
We started off with four and a pack because that to me seems like a logical first number to realise that people like choice, and so you can now buy anywhere between two and ten in a pack. If you don't do your washing during your period you're gonna need like 10, so that you can just whack them all in the laundry basket and in the washing machine together. But at the same time, it's quite a big starting point. If you've never tried reusable before, you can try one or two be like, Okay, this is a doable change for me. I'm just going to slowly stack up, which is what we find most people do and I'm like, Ah, this makes more sense.
Suzie Millar 20:24
Yes, absolutely. So they start off with a few and then they go right okay, I'm going to I'm going to do this and then they commit to buying buying more, which is which is actually quite good, isn't it? Because at least you're not getting waste from people buying 10. How long do they last?
Alison Wood 20:42
If you look after them nicely, they should last wait two years.
Suzie Millar 20:45
Okay, great. And then what happens to them after that.
Alison Wood 20:54
So we've just literally just been awarded innovate UK funding to go and do that piece of research for what happens next. All the materials technically can be recycled, but is it A) do we collect them into recycle? B) Does any kind of cleaning have to happen to them? C) Can consumers do it at home? And so I'm very excited to be like, okay, now I get to like sit and actually research this.
Suzie Millar 21:27
You don't actually have that many members of staff do you know do you have any?
Alison Wood 21:31
There's two of us, Mary and I. When I met you last year she was still at uni, and so she didn't have that many hours in a day and now she's finally graduated and I was like yes great, you finally got a degree but now she does all of our like socials and blogs - stuff I hate doing and it's so nice to be able to pass them somewhere else.
Suzie Millar 22:03
It sounds like you really are into the product development, so to have somebody do this kind of marketing. Who does sales?
Alison Wood 22:15
The pair of us together which is that the bit that's the harder bit.
Suzie Millar 22:19
It is really hard. I find sales really really hard and yet the person that owns the company is quite often the person that's the best person to do it, because like a lot of people want to speak to you to find out what your story is. Which bits don't you like?
Alison Wood 22:37
Well until I got rid of the social media stuff, that was by far my biggest 'I don't feel comfortable on this'. I don't know what to say. I feel very awkward chatting and I feel really salesy which is funny because everyone was like, you so can't tell that you're trying to sell, it's like you are just having a chat. I like to get stuck in and do things and the idea of sat in a lot of like logistical planning meetings is not my idea of fun. I'm like okay, so let's let's strategy more tomorrow, what are we doing? How do we do it? I have realised my ability to communicate with the team, but I don't drive that much energy from it. I like to be able to like sit and focus and get really nerdy on fabrics, and thankfully Mary is a natural motivator and keeping people in the loop.
So you're buzzing around and you're doing all your own stuff, and that that's completely essential for the business because it needs you as the sort of thought leader and innovator I guess. But then also what's needed is the structure behind that which maybe you don't have. Yeah, so that's exactly the same as me. Yeah, I have absolutely no... I call it 'organised chaos' in that I can drive things forward and achieve things very quickly, but I have limited ability to provide my staff with the structure that I now know they need. Because I don't need that structure. So that's when you get other people involved with you don't you?
It's so bizarre because I feel like it's not... everyone kind of went 'you're going to need to learn finances and legal and marketing and sales' and I mean yes, you do need all those buckets. And these were really easy, obvious buckets for me, but you are going to need someone who can create processes so everything runs seamlessly. You are going to need people who can communicate with every member of the team and keep them all on board and on track. These were the bits that I did not realise are such skill sets.
Suzie Millar 25:03
And they really are. So my husband's very good at that, and then Jim, who we work with as well is also really good at that. And when you find people that are like that, you think, oh, wow, you're you're actually quite amazing. You're amazing. And I'm really rubbish in that area. And I didn't know that I was so bad.
Alison Wood 25:22
Yeah, I got that nailed. No. And now I see the alternative way to do it.
Suzie Millar 25:29
Yeah, well, that's great that you have that isn't it? So what has been your biggest challenge or failure within the business so far?
Alison Wood 25:37
So the money has definitely been one. And the other one is the manufacturing? We started with one manufacturer on a very like, oh, you're lovely, we're lovely, let's work together. And then realised they weren't performing to the level that I needed them to. How do you tell someone actually, this is not working? Do you pull the plug? Do you give them another chance? Do you let it fester and see if it gets better? Turns out option three is a terrible option, do not go with option three. And so I did and I kept trying to improve it and explain that it wasn't quite what we needed, and the price point still wasn't there. And by literally a stroke of luck, I met someone who also knew a clothing manufacturer and explained our problem. When you get a second opinion, there is nothing wrong with saying to someone I'm getting two quotes to compare - that is how business works. Got the other quote, realised the manufacturer was a much better fit could do it with a much better quality and timing and everything. And then I had to go back to the first and be like this, this isn't working, we're going elsewhere. At which point it all became quite horrible. "Well, you said you would and this has gone here and bah bah, bah". And "Are you pulling out of a contract?" to which we all realised the contract didn't make any sense. This could end us because it's quite a big problem to have. But if we have to go through with them, the product is not going to be what I need it to be. What the hell do we do?
Suzie Millar 27:33
So did you have to get legal advice?
Alison Wood 27:35
Yeah, yeah, which costs, right? It's just not it's not fun, right? And thankfully, the lawyers were really lovely. And there was something about it that made me go, you guys deal with this a lot, don't you? Like? Yes, this is a very standard thing. You are not the first person to have made this mistake. Actually, you're probably like the billion this month. And there was that moment of like, okay, like, I'm not the sole problem here. There's been multiple problems that most people make. Actually, this is this is not new. And it did eventually all end itself. And we went with the second manufacturer who have been a godsend. I'm now really upfront with people. I also get laughed at by being like, I'm going to go and get a couple of other quotes and come back to you. And when I come back to you, it'll be about making a decision and I have not actually made any to date.
Suzie Millar 28:47
So, I asked a question a lot on the podcast because of the theme of it being about bees and hives, and it's, who's in your hive? So who do you trust, find inspiring - it might be somebody that you've never met could be somebody that's in your team already.
Alison Wood 29:02
So I have like the people that I love that are on my vision board. Sara Blakely as one, she started Spanx. She has a very no prisoners attitude, which I love. So she kind of went, you know we're starting a product that's all about making people look like they want to look under their trousers, or whatever it is. What can we do? How can we help and I love that she is also a standard human, she hasn't run multiple businesses before, she hasn't come from a family with a hell of a lot of money who set her up. She was a fat sales girl who clawed it tooth and nail and I'm like - I want to be you because I truly feel like if you can do it, the rest of us can. I really like her for that. And then ther's my soundbox people. I'm very good at listening to people and following their gut, and not following my own. And actually, I need to find my own, which took me down a really weird and wonderful journey of looking at like, who, who do I want, and realising that, to me, Edinburgh feels like a tech hub. Everyone's blinking building software. And software is very different from a physical product, it scales differently, it builds differently. And so I need to talk to people who've built products, because they have similar pains, and they understand similar things. And we've just found Alice from socialbite, who has had to build something from the ground up, which has a physical product and sells and also helps as she's a young female, and I'm like, okay, we're in similar boats. Great. And then in the hive 100% is Mary, who is like my other half right now, we are attached at the hip. And actually, it was the thing that drove me mad, everyone kept going. Having a co-founder is so much easier. And now I'm officially able to join that group and be like, having someone is so much easier. Can I tell you how to find your other person? No, I'm sorry. They just fall out the sky. And it will, it will be great.
Suzie Millar 31:37
That is true, though. They do just appear in your life. You know, like, obviously, Ian and I were bonded, but we didn't meet Jim fortuitously. Jim was running the fulfilment centre that we used at the time. And then because you're working with each other every day, you suddenly think, oh, actually, we just work well together. Why don't you just come on board because I think it could continue, this relationship, but if I'd gone out looking for that person, I don't think I would have found them.
Alison Wood 32:08
It is the same as if you were like looking for a husband or looking for a best friend. You don't find them when you're looking, you find them when you stop looking. When you do weird things. Yeah, no way I would have find Mary if I'd been to a 'find your co-founder' meeting. Because actually it took us like a year to get to the, yes I do trust you and we do get along and this does work. And I was never going to establish that over a glass of wine. When I needed to be in Kenya when we'd had mess up number four and she was the person there going, what do we do now? How do we fix this and what does one step forward look like?
Suzie Millar 32:54
What do you do for fun? You're busy. You're so so busy. Do you have any fun these days?
Alison Wood 33:01
This is my personal mission for the next three months, to find more fun. So I have taken up like yoga and journaling. And I still can't say that in a normal voice! And I volunteer at a food shelter, to help pack food on the weekends, which to me is quite like relaxing thing because you're doing the same task over and over again. You know, someone else tells you what to do and it's beautiful!
Suzie Millar 33:30
Thank you so much for coming on to this podcast. It's been an absolute delight to chat to you. I have learnt a ridiculous amount about period products and Kenya and the fact that all this awful stuff is happening. But it's great that there's someone like you and Lilypads and Mary obviously that are doing something about it. What would be your ultimate aim from all that then, do you want to completely eradicate period poverty over there.
Alison Wood 33:55
I want to get to the stage where when a girl begins a period, if she can't afford products and is faced with the older men, she can go no I'm sure there's a Lilypad person in my community that has really subsidised products that I can go and get. And it doesn't really matter where she is, she can go find that person. They know there is a Lilypads person there that has products that are much below market price... is the dream.
Suzie Millar 34:20
Yeah, that's that's amazing. If there's anyone that's going to be able to achieve it, then it's you. So good luck with it all and, and thanks again, I'm really, really grateful.
Alison has also offered all of our listeners 10% off in her shop. So if you go to flocowear.com you will be able to use the code bee10. And for all the information that you need, you would find that on our webpage. So if you've enjoyed listening to Alison's podcast, then please like us and subscribe to us and share our podcast for other people so they can enjoy it as well.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai