Claire Coder On The Biggest Challenges & Opportunities As A Young Impact Entrepreneur
Claire Coder is the founder and CEO of Aunt Flow. On a mission to ensure everyone has access to menstrual products, Aunt Flow stocks hundreds of companies across the world with their 100% organic cotton tampons and pads.
Coder launched her first company at age 16, designed a bag for Vera Bradley that sold out in 24 hours, and has her own line of GIFs. The 21-year-old founder has been featured in TeenVogue, Forbes, and starred in TLC’s Girl Starter Season 1. When she is not jamming out to Macklemore, she is pretending she knows how to run Google ads.
Claire discusses her experience in founding Aunt Flow, sharing key insights, resources and tools to help other entrepreneurs take the leap and start something they love.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Rachel Stevens] - I want to kick things off by getting a bit of an understanding about you. Can you tell us a bit about your background? [2:07]
[Claire Coder] - Of course, yes! A little bit about myself, I'd like to say that I'm a lifelong entrepreneur. I started my first "business" when I was seven years old and it was actually a lemonade stand. It was a hot summer day, I was seven years old, my babysitter had her boyfriend over, so who the hell knows that they were doing. But I realised that down the street there were construction workers and it was a hot day, so I was like, oh my God, I have my target audience. So here I am, I'm mixing up some Crystal Light packets from my Mum's stash and pouring it into little cups. My Best friend Dana was actually with me that day and we go out to the side of the road, we put up a little cardboard box and we had our lemonade stand. Then I realised that I have never seen my Dad drink lemonade and these construction workers looked a lot like my dad. They were white and bald, my Dad is a construction worker, but what I did see my Dad drinking a lot of was beer! So at seven years old I was raiding my dad's beer fridge, bringing this beer out to the side of the road and selling it for $5 a can. That was the first $5 that I made. So in terms of my background, I think that that's the perfect description of my energy towards entrepreneurship and how I have always loved to sell shit. Now I do it legally, but I always love to put smiles on people's faces and just sell things to change the world or change somebody's day for that matter. So that's a little bit about my background in terms entrepreneurship.
I can definitely see why you've been an entrepreneur from such a young age. It seems like it's very ingrained in you and great user research by the sounds of it. [03:45]
We always have to understand our target audience.
Absolutely. You're the founder of Aunt Flow, which is an organisation committed to making sure everyone has access to menstrual products. I'd love to hear a bit more about what's going on there at Aunt Flow. What's the purpose? What are you guys doing? What's going on? [03:59]
Right. After I'd finished selling beer when I was seven, I ultimately started a second business when I was 16. It was a button company, so I would design, make and sell buttons and magnet and compact mirrors. I became a top seller on Etsy while I was in high school and for no other reason that people just love kitschy shit, they would just buy it all and I was making oodles for a 16 year old. I did that for a little bit and as I was going through high school, I was always asked this question, ‘where are you going to college?’ It was never a question of what are you doing after high school? It was always that presumptive, where are you going to college? And that of course forced me into the typical American way of graduate high school, go to college, get a job, get married, have a kid, get a dog and all that stuff. So after I graduated high school, I went to university in Ohio in the states and I was there studying comparative religion. While I was there I realised that I was not enjoying university. Ohio state was a party school. I hate drinking beer, although I'm good at selling it, I hated drinking it. I really don't like football and this school was all about American football, so I tried to find myself in the greater community. I attended a Startup Weekend. Have you heard of Startup Weekends before?
Are they kind of like a hackathon style thing? [05:43]
Yeah. So it was a three day long hackathon and on the Friday night while I was there, I actually got my period unexpectedly. I had switched birth control, so my hormones were entirely out of whack and I didn't have anything with me. So I go to the bathroom in the place where there was this hackathon, it was a corporation and the corporation offered free lunch for their employees. They had kayaks that you could borrow to kayak on the river for the weekend, but they didn't have tampons and pads in the bathroom. You think out of all of the employee benefits, that is just such a necessity. So I thought to myself, if toilet paper is offered for free, why aren't tampons and pads? That was really the defining moment for the next, now three years of my life, where I decided that I wanted to commit my life to ensuring everyone had access to tampons and pads. That was my starting moment for how we have now come to grow, what is now known as Aunt Flow where we stock hundreds of companies with our 100% organic cotton tampons and pads.
That's exciting. It's so nice to be able to see such a clear line in the sand for you as well. You're like, "this is the moment. This is what has to change. Here's the problem". It's really cool. I know that for every 10 tampons and pads sold Aunt Flow donates one to a menstruator in need. So far, Aunt Flow I think has donated over 350,000 menstrual products to organisations across the US, which is some pretty awesome numbers, so congratulations for that. From your experience, what's been the best way to approach those partnerships and collaborations with the other organisations?
I have always wanted to create a sustainable solution to ensuring people have access. So what that means with our company is we really positioned tampons and pads to be the equivalent of toilet paper. Just like businesses purchase toilet paper, they purchase tampons and pads from us to put in their bathrooms to offer for free, just like toilet paper. So from a sustainability standpoint, our business model is very sustainable because it's a facilities item, it's a body necessity, so that's how we pitch it. But there are still people that may not have access to our products because of their proximity to a business that offers it, because they don't work at a place that offers them. We are starting to talk with more middle school, high schools and universities. So the access is becoming broader, but for people that may not be able to reach our product for some reason or another, we did create a partnership with an organisation called Period Inc. For more information it's just period.org. What they do specifically is they donate menstrual products to individuals in need. What's also awesome is they have chapters at universities that advocate for access to menstrual products. So when we thought about a sustainable solution to giving, we also thought about the strategic partnership. Our partnership with Period is that we donate products to them so that they can distribute products to menstruators in need. We've also created a relationship where the students on campus are now advocating for Aunt Flow products on campus. So that's how this giving can continue.
If we're just giving, giving, giving, then we won't be able to be a sustainable, for profit company.
So that's how we had to think about our strategic relationship with that organisation.
So many of the people that we speak to on the podcast are in really similar positions. That's what a social enterprise is essentially. It's looking for that balance of profit and being able to make a livelihood, but choosing how to create a business that creates much greater impact. So it absolutely makes sense. What have been some of the biggest barriers for you with the journey with Aunt Flow? The business, not your period! And how have you dealt with them? [09:23]
Well, ironically we're actually at a very large impact in our business and we have a large decision coming up tomorrow. As a reflection, I was looking back at my journal. I try to journal just a little bit a day and I tag each journal entry with a different note. So it might be like entrepreneurial woes, or hard decisions, or big wins. So today as I was reflecting on a big decision that we're creating, I looked at all of my biggest decisions in my past journal entries. So many of them, like what manufacturers do we go with? How do I fire this person that I just hired two months ago? How do I make sure that I can meet payroll? Should we raise money. So all of these small things I thought were the biggest thing but now looking back, I'm like, oh, that's so simple compared to what I'm trying to decide today. But in terms of, I think our biggest struggles or hurdles that we have faced, I think there are a few. So first and foremost, I suck at numbers and logistics and everything operations. I don't have a co-founder, I'm a solo founder, so I don't have somebody that evens out my creative brain. I've had a really hard time hiring that person. In fact, we're two and a half years in and I still don't have somebody managing all of that, I'm still doing it all! But because of that, our business has really been stunted in growth. So now we're strategically trying to hire somebody to fill that role as the Director of Operations.
Looking back, I think that that has been the hardest part, really identifying the skills that I am lacking and feeling comfortable hiring that role.
It can be really hard sometimes to find the right person to fill that role, finding someone that you can entrust your baby, your business with, because you have to trust them on that. Now they're the expert in that new field, so I think that's definitely a really a big barrier that probably takes a lot of self reflection and a lot of time. [11:43]
Definitely. I think what's also difficult too is, in the hiring process. It's easy to hire for what you know because you can understand if the candidate is good or not. Particularly in operations and logistics, now I've become an 'expert', for the past two and a half years so at least I have some basis to understand if the person is good or not. If I hired them two and a half years ago, I would have had no idea because I did not have a skill set so it was hard to hire that skill set.
You're only 21, so you've done a lot by this point. What advice would you give, particularly to young people looking to make a startup or to create a business but to do that, to create impact in the world?
Wow. There is a lot of things that I have had to learn by trial and error. I'm very much a learn by failure type of person. I've never learned in the classroom, obviously because I left university. So for me, I think…
the most important part was being open to learning from others so that I reduced the amount of times that I fail.
So now over the past two and a half years, I've built out a really strong network of mentors and I built that network from finding people on LinkedIn, harassing them with emails until they responded to be friends with me. That was really important, because now I have a list of people that I call depending on the business situations that we're having.
You're only 21, so you've done a lot by this point. What advice would you give, particularly to young people looking to make a startup or to create a business but to do that, to create impact in the world? [continued]
So for every young entrepreneur, I would challenge you to surround yourself, surround your LinkedIn and surround your social media with people that are smarter than you.
In addition to that, I think being a young founder has its pros and cons. From a media standpoint, from getting featured in places, being a young founder is the best thing ever. You can tweet at the editor of Teen Vogue and be featured in a day, the headline being 'Young Founder Starts Tampon Company'. As you get older it's not as cool, like 'Old Founders Starts Tampon Company'. That's a terrible headline. So from the media, PR standpoint, use what you got. But from a hiring standpoint and from a raising money standpoint, quite frankly, I've never had a problem being a female. In fact, I think there's a lot of advantages of being female and there's a lot of funds that only fund women. There are no funds that only fund men, they aren't allowed to have that thesis and it's weird. But you can take advantage of the funds that only fund women. So I did that, but I will say the disadvantage is my age, because all investors know that being young, you literally know nothing. I still know absolutely nothing. And the only way of course, as I mentioned before, that I learn is through experience. So when investors are giving me money, they're basically like, ‘here's $1,500,000 but we know you're going to squander half of it because you don't know what you're doing,’ and I'm like, ‘thank you mwah mwah!’ I mean, that's part of the reality when people make investments, they understand that a lot of that money is going towards trial and error because you have to grow quickly, so therefore you are going to make failures or you're going to take failures. I think that in terms of age, those are the two pieces of advice that I would really reflect on and think about as being a young founder.
Yeah, absolutely. I can imagine as well, it'd be really hard from other perspectives too, like hiring people who are older than you and having people take you seriously in the workplace. So it's nice to hear that your input on it is 'yeah, there's downsides to my age, but they're also counterbalanced by the benefits and by that willingness to learn too'. On your webpage, under the section ‘I'm legit’, there's a serious growing list of awards and public speaking events. Is there any one particular event that was really formative for you professionally or personally? And what have been some of the biggest takeaways from those experiences for you? [15:40]
So I think my most formative award is an award that I have not received, and then there's also an award that I applied to 17 times before I finally got. And those are the areas that I've learned the most from. So Aunt Flow recently went through a program called Techstars. We went through the program, Techstars New York City. They have an acceptance rate of less than one percent. It's really prestigious and is 'the best of the best of entrepreneurship'. So I originally launched Aunt Flow at a Techstars, startup weekend. Then I went to a Techstars, startup week and I fell in love with Techstars until all I wanted was to go to Techstars, New York City, which is like the pinnacle of Techstars in my mind. And I applied to tons of different programs across the United States; even international programs. I applied, I applied, I applied and I did not get in. We finally got in the summer of 2018 and we went through the Techstars program.
I had put so much emphasis on this program, but by the time that I got there, it was a wild disappointment. So overall the program was absolutely wonderful. If I did not put so much emphasis on this program, I would have been wowed, but because I was like, ‘this is the pinnacle of my entrepreneurial career!’ it was such a letdown because I put that much emphasis on it. So I think that, that really helped form my understanding of what goals are and how to really think about goals more strategically rather than just, once I get there, I'm done. It's more like, once I reach this goal now what's next? And thinking at least two to three goals ahead, so that I don't like get to the goal and then be sad. So I think that that was really formative. And then the other award that I mentioned that I didn't get, that was also formative. There's a program called the Theil Fellowship and the Theil Fellowship is by Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, and he gives 20 to 30 young people, $100,000 each year to make shit. You have to be under the age of 23 and once you receive the award you have to drop out of university. So I started applying for this grant since I was 15. I am now 21 and I have not gotten it. I've gotten to finalist or whatever, but I have not gotten it yet. My parents told me when I was in high school, ‘Claire, if you get this award, you don't have to go to college.’ And I didn't get the award and so therefore I went to college. I went there only for first semester and I ended up dropping out anyway. That award would have meant so much to me if I had received it. But I didn't receive it.
I think it was really good for me to experience not getting something that I want and reframing because there are a lot of things that I can control in business, but they're also outstanding circumstances that I will never have control over.
So as a control freak that was really humbling and forced me to learn and understand how the world really works.
They definitely seem like two really important takeaways. Viewing your goals in that more stepping stone sort of orientation rather than like, this is the pinnacle, I can just do this and then I've made it! But then also, if you do reach that pinnacle or if you don't, to recognise that not as a failure but just another opportunity to learn. So I can see why they're really important for, you. Now the gears of social enterprise have been grinding along before you and I were born, but it seems like in the last few years, the general public and the business world, are beginning to really give the sector the recognition and the legitimacy it deserves. I'm also seeing a lot of young people breaking into the sector and I wanted to ask what do you think is creating growth amongst people our age, to start their own socially motivated businesses? [19:51]
As a young person, I see the world with a lens of fear, knowing that if we don't change the climate our next generation might not be able to experience this earth.
Based on my personal perspective on why young people are both motivated to create companies, and motivated to embrace social enterprise companies, is we really recognised that our world is dramatically changing.
We have say with our dollars, and as a generation that's quickly moving into the generation with the most power within our hands and in our wallet, we know that we have the capability to make change and we can make that change just by purchasing from organisations that matter to us.
So I think that is why companies are overall focusing more on social enterprise, because they recognise that they have to, or else they'll go out of business.
Absolutely, and people's buying power is so strong. Like you say as well, the younger generation now I think has more money, and more ability to spend it, and has more transparency in the choices that they have as well. So it is really affecting businesses and they do really have to think more about how to appeal to consumers. Thankfully that's coming forward in the way of social enterprises focusing on impact and sustainability and all those good things. Are there any particular business or design tools that you've found really helpful in the development or daily running of your business? [21:39]
Yeah, I love tools. So in terms of tools that I think aren't talked about enough and what I appreciate a lot, I love Mailshake. Mailshake is an email service that we use that allows us to send sequence emails and it's only like $20 per month. You can send hundreds of thousands of emails in a sequence so I think Mailshake is absolutely wonderful. We use that all the time for email campaigns.
I love Calendly for booking meetings and being in control of my schedule. And then, when I was first starting, I used Canva a lot. They really help with design. It's a free service and you can just put together social media posts on Canva. I feel like they should all sponsor me because I talk about these companies all of the time! But anyway, those are my three favourite companies.
Awesome, it's always good to have more tools and resources. Especially from someone who is a self proclaimed organisational freak. Are there any other inspiring projects or initiatives you've come across in your work or just in your personal life you think are creating some really awesome social impact? [23:15]
Oh, there's so many! There are a few that come to the top of my mind. One of them is called Point. It's an App that helps connect volunteer opportunities with people. Pretty simple concept, but they've done it really well and their execution has been stellar. Right now, that's only available in the States, but I think that they're expanding pretty rapidly. So that's a lovely social enterprise that I truly believe in. Then in addition to that, there's also a company called Khana underwear. They took a very simple product, underwear, they didn't add anything and they didn't jush it up at all. Khana is very simple, black cotton underwear that actually just feel amazing, but for every underwear pair that they sell, they donate a pair of underwear, to a woman in need. So I think that what’s really beautiful about organisations that are coming up right now that are focused on social enterprise, is they're all thinking strategically about how they can make a change for the customer but also make a change for somebody else. So I love that both of those organisations are really focused on positive impact in the world.
Are there any great books or podcasts, documentaries, or any other content you can think of that our listeners should check out? [25:04]
Oh yes, so I'm not a reader. I'm dyslexic and reading is not my thing, but podcasts! Which is why I agreed to do this podcast, are my absolute favourite thing. So aside from listening to this podcast, some of my other favourite podcasts I love are Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell. I love Serial. You've probably heard of Serial, but their most recent season was based on Cleveland, Ohio, which is two hours from where I'm from, so I love Serial. It's all about true crime and things like that, so those are probably my favourite podcasts that I love right now. And then of course we love Freakonomics and Hidden Brain and this podcast.