Robyn McLean is the co-founder of Hello Cup, a company that creates high-quality menstrual cups that last for at least 5 years, saving the user the equivalent of over 2000 single-use tampons.
But Hello Cup is not only saving waste – it’s changing the way people talk about periods. Their taglines include ‘bloody brilliant’, ‘no strings attached’ and they even have a feature on their website where you can swap the word vagina out for a fun nickname of your choice, if vagina sounds a bit too serious.
The brand’s cups are designed by Robyn’s co-founder Mary Bond, who’s a registered nurse, and they recently won a Good Design Award for, in the judge’s words, ‘turning a functional product into something fashionable and joyful’.
In this episode, you’ll learn how to turn a side passion into a full-time gig, just how long pesky pads and tampons take to break down in landfill and how to stand out from your competitors and make your customers giggle through clever branding.
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🎧 Full Podcast Transcript Below
Elly: Hey Robyn, how are you today?
Robyn: I'm well, how are you?
Elly: Good, good. Here in Auckland, we're in a level three lockdown, which has meant a bit of a change to the recording studio in my spare room. But here we are.
Robyn: I feel for you guys.
Elly: You're in the level two lockdown. Right?
Robyn: We're in level two. But we're with you.
Elly: So noissue’s community is spread out across the globe, but you happen to be where I'm from, and where noissue HQ is, which is New Zealand. So tell us a bit about the corner of the world you're from and what's great about it?
Robyn: Well, the Hello Cup is based in two parts of New Zealand. So in Hawke's Bay, and also in Wellington, we do our dispatch from Wellington. And so, yeah, we feel very lucky to be based in New Zealand, it seems like, sometimes we feel like we're so far away from every everyone else. But in recent times, that's been, you know, relatively beneficial for us in terms of COVID-19. We've been able to close off, as you know, close off our borders relatively easily. And really from a business perspective, being in New Zealand has actually been really beneficial for us over the last year.
Elly: Yeah, it's almost an advantage to be so isolated right now.
Robyn: Yeah, I mean, obviously, this throws up challenges in terms of things like shipping and logistics, getting products further afield, but in terms of safety, and in being able to operate relatively normally, we're very blessed.
Elly: Yeah, definitely. And let's get to know you a little bit better as a person. So from what I've seen of the Hello Cup brand, it seems like the people behind it are a bit of a character. So what's an unexpected fun fact about you, or what's your party trick?
Robyn: My party trick? Oh, God, honestly, I feel like I'm so old that I haven't been to a party for so long. But when I was younger, I used to be at my party trick was – and it sounds quite horrific, and I'm sure it's very bad for you – but my party trick used to be freaking people out by tuning my eyelids inside out.
Elly: My brother can do that, actually. I can contest that it's very creepy to see in person.
Robyn: Yeah, it was definitely my go to icebreaker.
Elly: So tell me about your career journey and what you were doing prior to Hello Cup? Can you share an experience that shaped you and set you in the direction of this industry?
Robyn: I used to be a journalist, and the key stone to being a good journalist is to be able to break things down and deliver your message or the story in really simple terms. So one of the things you were often told was, you know, you want to aim your story at a level that a nine year old would understand. I've always loved words and marketing and I worked mainly in print journalism, and how that has shaped the Hello Cup is when we started Hello Cup, the other brands that were already in existence, didn't really appeal to me. And the way they got their message across about the benefits and the amazingness of menstrual cups – it was pitched wrong. So I thought I could use my skills as a writer and a communicator, to make it more fun and simpler. And, you know, we started by just going well, what would appeal to us? I think sometimes businesses forget to actually make it that simple. You can really over-complicate your messaging and you Yeah, for us. We just wanted to reach as many people as possible and get them going, huh? What is this? How does it work?
Elly: With some of the other brands on the market, were they taking a bit of a medical or serious approach to the language and the branding?
Robyn: Yeah, they were or maybe an overly eco-approach. So kind of forgetting that, you break it all down. They just, they just, you know, one of their taglines is bloody brilliant, and that's kind of what they you know what it is what they are. They, they are bloody brilliant. And so yes, they're good for the planet. And yes, they save this many single-use products from going into landfill and all that sort of stuff, that’s really great messaging to put around your story once you've got the basics across, which is, you know, they're easier, they're comfortable, and they're cute.
Elly: And when you started developing the idea for Hello Cup, talk to me about where your head was at. How much did the direction for the business grow and change in that initial period?
Robyn: So Mary (Hello Cup co-founder) and I have been best friends since we were at school. I tried a menstrual cup, and I was like, Oh my god, this is just so amazing, but I wanted one that was actually made in New Zealand, because one, I'm a very loyal shopper, and two, buy local if possible. But also, I have a real faith in things that are made in places that I know of and that have genuine traceability. So what I found when I first tried menstrual cups was that one, the shapes didn't all suit me. And also, some would say that they were medical grade, and they clearly weren't because when they arrived, they smelt like chemicals. So I said to Mary, look, this is great. But there's not there's no one making these in New Zealand, I don't feel like I've found the perfect design, why don't we do this is it even just a side hustle? I was working in marketing and Mary was and always has been a registered nurse. So we just thought we'd start it, we’d design something that was comfortable, comfortable for us. We've both got teenage daughters, so they were kind of in the forefront of our minds as well giving them a better period choice in the future. And so, so in terms of kind of how we got going in our thought process, it was, it was very – oh god, fluid’s probably the wrong word! But it's kind of what it was, it was let's, let's take this idea, roll with it, let's not overthink it. We worked out that you know, we could put the money in ourselves. We didn't really do any huge forecasting or really think where the caps might end up in terms of retail space. We just assumed the market was probably like minded New Zealanders and that we would be sending direct-to-consumer. But we very quickly had to learn that you know, a good idea is actually a good idea. And what we found was that Hello Cups took off, literally, sort of overnight. People had been waiting for someone to bring out a menstrual cup that was thoughtfully designed, designed by women, designed with comfort in mind, just all these things that we’d just gone, ‘As a consumer, this is what I want, this, this and this.’ And who knew?
Elly: Yeah, and what a perfect marriage between the two of you, you and Mary, to have a nursing background and a media journalism background to come together on that one brand.
Robyn: Yeah, totally. And funnily enough, you know, people were like, oh you’re best friends, don't go into business together. So that was kind of one of the main things that people said: Oh God, you know, avoid that, it's gonna end in tears. Touch wood, three years in, it's been amazing. And we don't live in the same cities, maybe that kind of helps, we've got our own space, and we get together. And, you know, we speak on the phone, well on FaceTime several times a day, sometimes that's to do with work, sometimes it's to do with, you know, Mary's new kitten or whatever, you know, so we've still got our friendship is still there and completely intact, which is probably, I don't know, quite rare.
Elly: And how many hats did you have to wear initially to get the business off the ground? What kind of skills did you pick up along the way you didn't expect?
Robyn: I mean, hilarious, because we, you know, we wore all the hats. And plus, neither of us having any background in business. So we were learning as we went, and again, a gut instinct just was at the forefront of everything we did. We would send our cups out beautifully packaged, because that's what we'd like to receive. So it always came back to what what would we want if we were buying something, but initially, I stuck to the sort of the wording and the writing copy for the website and Mary had it a kitchen table at home, it was picking the orders and sending them and you know, setting up things like a label printer, which we had no idea what to get what to buy and sourcing all the things that we needed to send boxes out. We had to Google, how do you register a company? You know, we were there that that was how it, you know, literally started, Google was our friend with everything. You know, how do you register a company? How do you save money on postage?
Elly: And you mentioned earlier that Hello Cup became almost like an overnight success when people heard about it. So at what point did you think we're onto something good here, or I think I've found my true sense of purpose in this business?
Robyn: It was pretty instant. Because I said to Mary, and she takes the piss out of me now, but I said to her it would be great if we sold five a week. And we assumed that we would both keep going with our other jobs, then this would just take up a few hours of our time. And I think probably within the first you know, month, definitely, we were like, Okay, well, we're not gonna have time for our other work anymore. Mary does still do some shift work, nursing shift work because she loves that but I completely stopped all that other work I was doing and yeah, the orders just started rolling in. The conversation started quite early on, Seven Sharp, a New Zealand Current Affairs show did a piece on us, and our website literally crashed after they did that show and I think then it was really just word of mouth. We got a cold call email from Urban Outfitters probably about after, I don't know about a year asking if they could stock us. And it was a real eye opener because for us, we then realized that our business reach was global. So, so word was out.
Elly: And you talked about the bloody brilliant language earlier, which I love. Another one that I really like, is the ‘vagina switcharoo’ your website? Could you talk a bit about where the idea for that came from? And how you're flipping the whole chat around periods on its head, because I know all the women out there wouldn't know that periods aren't talked about that much in society. It's all very hush hush and kind of labeled women's business. So how do you have fun with that?
Robyn: Yeah, I think, again, early on, because Mary was a nurse, she was very much you call it a vagina, it's a vagina. And I was very much like, Oh, my God, no. I think because I'd been a journalist, I was always playing with words. And so for me, I was always like, Vajajay, fufu – vagina to me always sounded really harsh. So it was the one thing at the start, I was like, I cannot build a website with that word throughout the text, it's not my word. And so we thought about words and then I said, let's have a compromise. Because I know I'm not the only one who has a friendly term for their vagina – vagina just sounded too proper. So, I said, let's have that option on our website, and so you can put in your name, but the name that you call your vagina, and it will change the text throughout the website. So if you call it Fufu, then when you're reading about how to insert your cup, it will say, you know, insert your cup into your Fufu rather than vagina so it breaks the ice a bit. One of the aims was to get people talking about periods. Our taglines bloody brilliant no strings attached as another tagline you know, play on not having any tampon strings hanging out. Just giving people a bit of a giggle and being like okay, we can have this conversation there, but it doesn't need to be overly serious.
Elly: What was the best switcheroo you'd heard of?
Robyn: Some of them I couldn't even repeat. We do. We do see that. We do see what people enter, we don't see who's entered it. God, what's one that I can repeat? Oh, gosh, of course I can only think of the really rude ones. Things like pink panther and you know, Lady garden. But yeah, there was one that just had a reference to Donald Trump, which was just not nice. We won’t go there.
Elly: We won't go there. But you're impressed by the creativity coming through.
Robyn: Yeah, it's amazing. And it's really cool to see people trying to come up with different terms.
Elly: And from the beginning, what were your non-negotiables in terms of the values that informed Hello Cup and the brand that was going to be?
Robyn: Non-negotiables were treating customers with kindness. To do that do the best we could, in terms of packaging, customer service, our staff. Well, initially we didn't have staff, but when they came on board, From a staffing point of view, we wanted Hello Cup to be a place where people really wanted to work. So if we put trust in our staff, then we get back that kind of X Factor from them. And we are a small business, and money's really tight but that doesn't mean that we can't value our staff and treat them really well. And we implemented something called a duvet day, which basically, I don't know – is that an Australian, New Zealand term?
Elly: Is it a doona? I can provide a translation for our international listeners. Quick sidebar for our international listeners: a duvet is called a comforter in the US, or a doona if you're in Australia.
Robyn: Essentially, staff can call us and just say ‘I'm having a duvet day’ which is essentially a day where they are having time out for themselves. They don't have to ring up and fake being sick. It's just like, actually, I'm staying in bed today and watching Netflix. And just little things that we can do to show our appreciation for the work they do. And, yeah, so it's kind of that thread, I guess, of kindness and inclusivity. And not so not putting, not putting profit first. Mary and I could not run a business that was cutthroat.
Elly: Yeah, I remember a company a friend worked at one of the execs got up and said that everyone is always replaceable. And I think this is such a terrible perspective to have on a very, you know, like big corporate kind of mentality. So it's great to hear how you value your staff and how you give them those incentives. And those mental health days, basically, right is what a duvet day is essentially?
Robyn: Yeah, it's a mental health day without the onus of them having to say that. There's no commentary around it.
Elly: Brands like Hello Cup, but also Allbirds, Patagonia, and us at noissue show that to influence human behavior, you can't just be the sustainable option, you have to be the best option in every way, which includes the quality and the design and the convenience factors. So how have you seen people's behavior to be changed and looking at sustainability differently after they interact with your brand?
Robyn: I think people do take a look at the product and then think, Okay, well, this is I'm making this change in my period life, but also this, this company has come out and they've designed our box to be really cute. It's a paper tube box and it's really beautiful on the inside. And so what we wanted was that people would open it, and go, I don't want to throw this out. I want to reuse it for something else. So while it's fully recyclable, we see photos of people using it to hold their pencils and or makeup brushes and things like that. We use noissue for our stickers and everything is thought about, from the tissue paper – we also use your tissue paper – and it's just beautiful, but it's not coming at a cost for the planet. We know our suppliers, you know, so it's not coming at a cost for someone making it and not getting paid properly, things like that. It's really, really important.
Elly: And talking about being from down under, from New Zealand. How much of your customer base is global versus local, and how do you choose to portray yourself in terms of that New Zealand back story?
Robyn: Yeah. Again, we knew our customer would be New Zealand and then we got this interest from the US. So our main customer, our main customers, most of our customers come from New Zealand, Australia and the US. We're lucky that there's not really a major language difference. But there are some spelling differences between New Zealand and the US and we have to stay true to our language in most instances and just hope that people know that we're not spelling a word incorrectly, it's actually we just spell it differently down under. So, you know, an obvious one is color and we have a U in color at the end, there's no U in the US spelling of color. But one funny difference that we've found is that we say ‘Fannytastic’ as a hashtag, you know? ‘Hello Cup’s are fannytastic’. In New Zealand and Australia it’s a colloquial fun term for your vagina. In the US, that means bum. So, we go, Oh, my God, did they think that we're insane over there when we use that hashtag? It's probably lost in translation for our USA followers and fans. So if anyone's listening, hopefully that will explain craziness and we’re not referring to bottoms.
Elly: But I'm sure that hasn't deterred your US customers. They seem to still love the brand, so...
Robyn: Yeah, that’s right. We're now on Amazon, and so it better allows us to to be able to fulfill orders to customers who it was completely cost prohibitive for us to send orders from New Zealand. There are some places where the cost of postage outweighs, and more than outweighs the product, we're just taking a huge loss on sending orders to certain countries. So being on Amazon allows us to have a wider reach.
Elly: And what does that mean, in terms of competition for the Hello Cup, because suddenly challengers can be from all around the world, not just New Zealand. How have you managed that?
Robyn: Maybe this is a little bit anti-business of us, but we have to rely on having a product that's exceptional. And that, that, in itself will help reputation and the reviews are genuine. And so the word-of-mouth aspect of our business is really, really important because what's frustrating for people who try a menstrual cup and it doesn't work is that they then think they don't work as a blanket, you know, they don't work in general. And like everything in life, there are cheap versions that don't necessarily last or work or aren’t made of quality materials, and then there are more expensive versions and as definitely isn't the cheapest, but there's a reason, you know, again, you often find that, you know, you buy a piece of furniture that's, you know, $20, it breaks. So it's instilling that, do your research by, by ethically by consciously and think about how long a quality product will last over something that is essentially designed to be single use.
Elly: And I just wanted to share some facts about waste and the menstrual care industry because some people out there might not know just how huge it is. But 45 billion single use tampons or sanitary pads every year are thrown away globally, which is about 3.2 million kg of waste. So with Hello Cup, if someone's purchased, they're built to last, how long, if someone's taking care of it? How long does it last them?
Robyn: So a single Hello Cup we say will last five years. And some people choose to replace them sooner, some people will use some for longer. But essentially, if you’re comparing a cup that lasts for five years to the average use of tampons per month, it's one cup is comparable to about just over 2000 tampons. So in terms of being able to make a difference to waste on the planet, as an individual swap out a menstrual cup can have a huge impact. So over your lifetime, you only need say 8 menstrual cups. If you were using a menstrual cup from the start of your, when you first got your period, compared to 1000s and 1000s and 1000s of single-use products that even organic tampons and pads do take quite a while to break down in landfill. So, we think, they appear to be made from cotton and cotton is a natural fiber and it will just disintegrate. It doesn't, and the ones that aren't organic contain microplastics in them, so the first tampon ever used is still on our planet.
Elly: Still hasn't fully broken down?
Robyn: No, the non-organic ones will take around 500 to 800 years.
Elly: It's incredible, isn't it? Because you think maybe if it was on the fine print of the box somewhere, you know, people would be horrified and they steer away from that. But people don't know those sorts of figures 500 to 800 years is crazy.
Robyn: People don't know those figures. People don't know there's no regulations, there is a movement to enforce force companies to declare what's in tampons and pads on their packaging, but there's no requirement to list what they're made from. So the awareness around the fact that there's microplastics is virtually nill.
Elly: Sustainability’s meaning does sometimes get confused. So at no issue, we say that it's true meaning is the ability to exist indefinitely. Because if we go back to the beginning, it comes from the Latin word sustinere, which means to support, maintain, or endure over time. So, that long term perspective hasn't been there in the menstrual care industry until now with these menstrual cups. How long-term are you thinking with your business goals, and the change you want to see with Hello Cup?
Robyn: Well, for us, our goal for us as a business would be for menstrual cups to be fully mainstreamed, whether it's Hello Cups, or a reusable product that people use, that they're fully mainstreamed – we also offer reuse washable liners. So again, panty liners are a massive waste product. They are marketed as something that you use and you chuck out and it just doesn't need to be that wasteful, when you can use something that is washable, and save yourself and the planet so much. I always said our overall goal would be for tampons not to exist in the future. And we appreciate that there always will need to be an external period care option. So whether that's period underwear or washable pads, you know that they're needed too. So people have a choice. We will never say to someone you must use a menstrual cup, because sometimes we see sustainable products being pushed too much. Well, we don't think that that is fair when it comes to period products, because it's such a personal thing having a period and how you manage it really needs to be up to you. But to allow people to access reusables is really important. So a case in point is there in New Zealand. Recently, our Prime Minister announced that the government will be providing period products to all school children for free. Amazing, it's so amazing. It's a bit of a tear jerker moment for those of us in the industry, because we know that people that we know that they're expensive, we know that tampons and pads are expensive. And we also appreciate that menstrual cups are expensive. and managing your period, when it's something that happens to you naturally shouldn't be expensive, because some people aren't able to look after that cost themselves. We know around the world, not just in New Zealand, school aged children who have a period often do not turn up to school because they cannot afford the products needed to manage it at school. So they just stay at home and use toilet paper. But – there's always a but – what we would really like to see, because these are our future generations, what we'd really like to see with these kids is with this program is to see reusable period care options in the mix as well. So, you know, again, that they have the choice, but because sustainability is – is our goal as a planet going forward, you know, thinking about what we're producing and making products that are better. We think that, yeah, one menstrual cup If you provide a school child with a menstrual cup, it will last their entire secondary schooling. It's one thing, it's just so amazing.
Elly: Yeah, it's a bigger investment at the start, but it actually does last a lot longer.
Robyn: It saves so much.
Elly: And what would be your advice for other people who want to start a purposeful business, but have no idea where to start, or how to scale that idea?
Robyn: When you're researching, just take your time to work out what you need, and who is doing it. Who’s making products that tick the boxes that you require in terms of, can I answer all the questions you have about? You know, how does this break down? When people say it's recyclable? Is it really recyclable? Or is it number 9 in the recycle chain, which means that it's kind of recyclable, but not really. When they say it's compostable, is it compostable in your home compost, or is that compostable in a commercial situation? And if it's a commercial situation, then how, how does that work? Find the answers to the natural questions that pop up in your head. But I also think the key to starting a sustainable business is to follow your heart and just do it. If you're able to just start, start small, and work your way up. You don't need to open your business and be selling huge volumes – if you're able to set up a website and continue with your current job, test the waters and teach yourself.
Elly: Yeah, because there's the side hustle, it's almost testing if it's commercially viable, right, if there's enough to get it going. And my final question for you today, how do you define success in your business at Hello Cup, but also for yourself, personally?
Robyn: I think success is having people who write to us and say, You've changed my life. And that happened really early on, as soon as we started. I remember Mary calling me and she was crying, and she was just so overwhelmed that we'd started this business and that people were writing those things to us, and that this idea was completely validated, even if we've changed one person's life. We'd both had really heavy periods at school and struggled to manage them. And then to come up with a solution that we would have liked to have had ourselves when we were younger, and for people to go, I can swim without worrying, and I can go horse riding, I can go on a horse trek for eight hours, and not have to leave a tampon behind in a bush and all that sort of stuff. Success is measured completely for us on customer feedback, and staff satisfaction.
Elly: The impact you're having on people's lives. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Robyn.
Robyn: Thank you!