The road to financial freedom can occur in many different ways and for one mother, her rise to financial success came through an invention for an aggravating issue that most women share: leaks from periods. In 2015, after failing to find a modern in-market solution to stop leakage from her heavy menstrual flows, Crystal Etienne invented PantyProp, a leak-proof underwear and swimwear brand for women. Many of the products that she found when she started inventing her product didn’t completely prevent leaks, had antiquated designs or felt uncomfortable on her body, which ultimately motivated Crystal to engineer a prototype of her own.
Today, Crystal’s brand is one of the top in its market and she has become a self-made businesswoman who grew her company with very little investor funding. Her business surpassed $1 million in revenue in 2017 and is on schedule to gross $18 million by the end of 2019. In this interview with BAUCE, Crystal shares her invention process, what it was like to work with an angel investor and competition can actually be good for your business.
Let’s take a walk back in time. Tell us, how did you get the idea for PantyProp?
Crystal: One day I was just aggravated with my sanitary pad. It was sticking out of my underwear while I was laying on my bed trying to relax, and I remember feeling gross. I thought to myself this period life is just so ugly, there has to be like a better way.
I drew a picture to figure out a way to keep my sanitary pad in place. I live in New York, so I just went down to the Garment District, and I started walking around looking for a factory to make what I had drawn. That wasn’t very helpful because I realized after speaking to a few factory owners that I needed to do more research and create a sample first. So, I took the information I learned from the factory owners, went back home and found Maker’s Row online. Through Maker’s Row, I found a bunch of factory people that I could contact and call.
It’s great that you leveraged online resources to get started! Today there are other brands that compete with your brand, most comparatively, Thinx. How is PantyProp unique from its competitors?
Crystal: When I first had the idea years ago, I had looked online and I didn’t see other period-panty brands. There was one company I had found that first created “period underwear” years ago, but at the time I didn’t feel like I had too many competitors to discourage my progress. I did do my research though and I tested out the products from any company at the time that was marketing period underwear while I was waiting for my product to be created and they just were not what I needed. Most of the competitor products just provide layers that you still have to use with a tampon for backup. I suffer from PCOS so I have a very heavy flow and I only get my menstrual cycle two times a year. But when it comes, it’s very heavy. So those items were not for me. I was an avid sanitary pad wearer and I needed something to support that.
So, when I had finally launched [PantyProp] that’s when I realized Thinx was actually one of my competitors too. Like we have similar products and missions, buts different solutions. I wanted to solve the problem for almost everyone and wanted to make it clear that you don’t have to actually insert a foreign object into your body to have a leak-proof period experience, which can be a deterrent for people of different ages, religious beliefs, or backgrounds.
The invention cycle can be brutal. How did you go from your initial prototype to the successful products that you are selling today?
Crystal: It took about a year and a half to actually get the prototype right. The first product that I [designed] only lasted like a month. The first design had no absorbent liner. After a quick test, I went back and decided to add some tech inside of it. So, I started to play around with science see what actually could work. I discovered some companies use chemicals and plastics that actually make your period situation more uncomfortable or smelly. That pushed me to start looking into different textiles for my product so I wouldn’t have those issues; I went to different factories perfecting PantyProp to what we sell today, which is leak-proof period underwear with an absorbent liner built in.
I also made sure to listen to what sanitary pad wearers were complaining about when it comes to their biggest period issues, which was back, side and front leaks on their underwear. Our built-in liner is not only absorbent, but it also angles correctly under the cavity of your body to collect your flow immediately on onset, which helps stop leaks that often occur with wearing winged or wingless pads.
Today, I have taken things a step further and truly evolved the product to be one that can support you in your regular everyday life, for example when you get your period right before your vacation and you’re wondering how you’re going to make it work with your swimsuit! Life happens and I just wanted to create a solution around the life happening.
Inventing a product, getting a patent and starting a company is not cheap. Where did you get the money to initially build PantyProp?
Crystal: So, in the beginning, I did not seek out investment. I just used $35,000 of my own money. Since I was young I’ve always saved my money; I’ve always had money saved to make sure that I was always two years ahead of myself. So, I just used my own funds. I just did that and I’ve been saving like since I was sixteen. I also didn’t know how to build a website, but once I knew I wanted to make this a reality, I found Wix, built a website, and kept researching online to figure it out. They made it really easy for me with the drag and drop templates.
At some point in your business journey though you did receive angel investment in your company. At what point did you realize that you needed more money to grow?
Crystal: Yeah, so that time came when we were overwhelmed with orders and I kept reinvesting the money back in [to the company] but I could never keep up with orders, especially big ones. This was back in 2016 so it wasn’t only the manpower, it was actually the inventory that was the problem. My first angel investment came from Chuck Pettid. He is an angel investor in New York and he gave me my first investment of about $25,000 said to use this to get yourself caught up to date with inventory and that’s what I did. That investment truly helped because I was able to stay ahead on my inventory after that. Sometimes people just need like that one time…that one person to believe in you.
And I would say [angel investments] are very different from raising funds from VCs.
Tell us more. How did you find an angel investor?
Crystal: So, I met Chuck in 2017. I think I sent a cold email to him and talked to him about money. He has a fund called Rain Make Me, and I remember reading on his website that he likes to invest in things he believed in. So, I took a chance and shot him a note and from the first conversation, it was cool from there. He brought in two other angel investors later on who provided funding but I never really touched their money because I had gotten better at leveraging my own funds to grow the company. The other investment mostly sat in the bank as working capital.
What is your advice for someone interested in launching an e-commerce company today? What is your advice on things NOT to do?
Crystal: I would say not to worry about the fluffy stuff. Not to worry about branding or spending a bunch of money on marketing in the beginning. You should more so focus on your product, whatever that is, and get it right.
And never see anything as an obstacle. I’m a trier and a tester. A trier and a tester never see obstacles. We just pick back up and keep going. I never try to mentally put obstacles in my way. Some people might say that my biggest competitor is an obstacle, but I actually don’t view it that way. If they are number one, we’re number two in the market because we’ve never done any big branding or major marketing campaigns as they have. We didn’t raise a bunch of money like they did, but by people researching for them, they find out about PantyProp and it helped bring us to the forefront. You got to turn your floors into ceilings if you’re going to be successful. See obstacles as lessons to move you forward, not things to hold you back.