Kristy Chong took her own personal challenges and created a high-tech, protective apparel range that’s revolutionised the feminine hygiene market and brought a touchy subject into the mainstream.
Setting out to revolutionise feminine hygiene
How do you take a taboo subject many people shy away from and turn it into a successful global business?
That was the challenge facing Australian Kristy Chong when she set out to revolutionise the multimillion-dollar feminine hygiene market.
Chong is the founder of Modibodi, the high performance underwear brand she launched back in 2013 to help solve issues women face managing menstruation and incontinence in their busy lives. She also wanted to minimise the impact of disposable products on our environment.
The inspiration for Modibodi came from challenges Chong faced when living in Seattle. The former senior public relations and marketing executive began experiencing incontinence after having two children. “I was training for a marathon and started having some light bladder leaks, enough that it caught me out a few times,” Chong says.
She began to worry that she’d need to start wearing liners regularly. “I thought about the environmental impact of using liners every day and that made me feel uneasy.
“Something just clicked. I thought there must be a better solution, something sustainable and functional.”
Chong discussed the issue with family and friends who shared their personal stories about the challenges they faced around periods, incontinence and sweat, and how it affected their lives. “So many women had stories they just weren’t sharing. I knew this was something that could improve women’s lives.”
Living in Seattle surrounded by innovative technology companies, Chong decided to apply that tech mindset to create some “highly technical underwear” that could replace disposable products. “There had been so many advancements in technology I thought it was time to start applying that to this area,” she says.
Chong began investigating what fibres and fabrics existed. “I talked to textile engineers. I looked at performance sportswear, the nappy market and areas operating around the edges of what I wanted to produce.”
Eventually, she ended up finding part of the solution within the equine area.
“I took a scientific approach and it was a lot of work involving more than 1,000 tests and, because it was so innovative, I was also able to secure a standard patent.”
Eighteen months on, Chong had a prototype and enlisted friends to test it. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. “That gave me confidence to take the next step,” she says. Returning to Australia, she imported her fibres and found a manufacturer who could do small runs locally, launching her flagship Modibodi underpants range in 2013.
Tackling taboos online
Even as an experienced marketer, Chong was surprised by the hurdles she faced when she began trying to spread the Modibodi word. It was clear menstruation was still a taboo topic among mainstream outlets. “I remember TV presenters calling them ‘comfortable undies’. They wouldn’t mention what they were for, so it was useless promotion.”
Ultimately, Chong was “blessed with good timing”. Her launch coincided with the rise of social media and that’s what she turned to.
“Social media allowed us to talk directly to customers and speak openly and unashamedly about these supposedly taboo subjects.” They, in turn, were happy to champion Modibodi and helped spread the message.
Chong’s company also worked with a lot of influencers who were already busily breaking down taboos in other areas: “[They] were more than happy to talk about menstruation and incontinence!”
Chong says 2015 was a turning point for the business.
She took on a small amount of investment, enough to take production overseas and get a bigger stock of product.
Meanwhile, taboos were weakening. “It was the time when there was more noise in the market, movements like ‘axe the feminine hygiene tax’ and Share The Dignity’s campaign to help provide homeless women with access to products were getting some publicity. Even #MeToo helped drive a momentum for people to open up about things and not hide away in shame.”
Going for growth
Today, with a team of 12 and revenue growth of 300 per cent anticipated this year, Chong’s focus is on overseas expansion while still growing her Australian business.
“Thirty per cent of our revenue will come from overseas – the UK, France and Germany and the US being big markets,” she says, adding that Australia will remain a significant market.
“There are still lots of opportunities here. We really want to own the market because we’ve had inferior competitors come in trying to confuse the market. We want customers to try us first, because if they choose to use a product that doesn’t work it will not only damage their view of the category, but their confidence as well.”
Chong is also keen to diversify her product range and her customer markets. “We’ve recently launched our teen range, called Red – an important one for us,” she says. “It was a natural progression for us because mums were already buying Modibodi for their daughters. But we could see that the marketing language could be alienating that younger market.
“We needed the designs to be more suited and we needed to speak to teens better both from a product perspective and the brand, and then they would grow into Modibodi next. We realised early on how important that customer journey is.”
Meanwhile, Modibodi is in the process of upscaling its platforms and systems, all part of the aim to deliver outstanding customer service.
Chong’s proud of all she’s achieved – for the sisterhood and for the environment.
“Women and girls are telling me it’s really beneficial to their lives. And [then there’s] the environmental impact – I feel daily that this is creating something better for our planet and my children.”
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