How a smart, sustainable approach made Yoni a serious player in a closed, traditional market

Wendelien Hebly co-founded Yoni. Yoni makes tampons, pads and liners made of 100% organic cotton widely available. The company was started to give women the option to make a conscious decision about what they use next to or in their bodies, whilst doing something about the waste problem, footprint and overall environmental impact of this sector. Their unique and bold approach has changed their entire industry. And that’s a good thing, because ‘chemicals are not for pussies’ as Yoni puts it.

As an experienced marketeer and strategist in the corporate world, Wendelien launched Yoni in 2014, with her co-founder Mariah Mansvelt Beck. Their story is one of sheer determination. Yoni has successfully nestled itself on the shelves of large drug stores and retailers and its success is reflected in the fact that main stream competitors have started to copy them. Quite an accomplishment in a very, very traditional industry.

3 key lessons

The story of Yoni is impressive. If any (starting/scaling) company takes these three lessons at heart, they are set to thrive. Please scroll down for the full interview;

  1. Measure every critical element of your business’ performance, whether it is Profit, Planet, People or Participation related. Doing this at the earliest stage, allows for better decision making in the near future; turning tough dilemmas into manageable puzzles.
  2. Select partners who have a connection with your mission and strategy and create future-proof relationships with them. Having the right metrics in place enables you to show them the impact of your business on every level. Only by showing that it can have a positive impact on every player in the value chain, you can generate trust and build true partnerships.
  3. Focus on how you position your product: even a ‘boring’ product in a very traditional industry can be positioned in such a way that others want it. Even if the product itself is not innovative, the positioning can still be very innovative and successful.   

Wendelien embodies a rare combination of sheer entrepreneurial drive and a strategic mind. We hope you enjoy learning from her experiences as much as we did.

1. SUSTAINABILITY what does it mean and what are the benefits for Yoni?

For me, sustainability is about using the commercial element of doing business as a force for good. For Yoni, it meant providing a choice to women (the social element) and reducing the environmental impact of a very traditional industry. Our approach to this product allowed us to talk about much more than just the product itself. This is a huge benefit in such a traditional market. It was still a taboo product. Nobody really talked about it. So we did: talking about the mission, our purpose – about much more than menstruation. We could do so much more than use blue fluids to show how well the products absorb. It was even easy to talk to men about our company, because our mission was so much bigger than the product itself.

We had set ourselves social and ecological goals, and we measured our progress. So we know exactly how much plastic and water we saved. But when we started, we also measured the transparency of the market: how are the big players in this industry informing their customers about their ingredients and manufacturing process. We did so, because our mission transcended our own company: we wanted to change the entire category.

2. WHY – You are a Purpose-driven company, how did this come about and what is the impact?

We never dreamt of building a tampon business when we were young. My co-founder was advised to switch from synthetic products to organic cotton products to avoid (further) irritation. This was the first time she had ever thought about the content of the products she used so intimately, every single month. She soon learned there were very, very few (organic) cotton options available.

I myself was working for a large multinational, launching product after product. And I realised that this wasn’t contributing to the greater good – it only fattened the pay check of my managers. I love the ‘commercial game’ of doing business: creating something that someone else would love to have. But I believe you can create products that put a smile on someone’s face without leaving the world a messier place.

In fact, you can achieve that whilst making the world a better place. I was looking for a consumer product to launch on my own, that does just that, when my business partner opened my eyes to this product category. We found out about the opacity of the female hygienic product market, that most of the products offered are made of synthetics, and that women aren’t aware of this. Plus: the impact of women’s hygienic products is enormous: the ecological footprint, the plastic waste that is being amounted. It is unbelievable.

3. HOW; which element of your business’ structure is most differentiating for your sustainable impact?

Our mission was leading in all of our endeavours – so in a way that provided and shaped our leadership. It opened doors and made it crystal clear for us what we had to do – even when times were rough. Our strategy was a translation of our mission: how can we make it happen? That is also where we were innovative. The product itself wasn’t innovative. The way we positioned it and made it mainstream was innovative. And now the big brands are trying to copy it.

etrics enabled us to see if we were achieving our goals. They were the hardest to get to the level we wanted them. First you must decide what you want to know, and determine if the metric you have in mind actually is the best indicator of that particular element. Then you must figure out how you can measure it. It starts with estimates and gradually you become better at measuring the real data. You completely knuckle it down and then translate it to what people want to read and relate to. It has to be interesting for others to read, otherwise your metrics remain meaningless numbers and fail to trigger action.

We took this beyond our own business performance. We even measured the way our competitors disclosed their product information on packages. Because part of our purpose was to really change this industry and make it more transparent, we measured it all: packaging materials, advertisements, etc. But we did it in the simplest way possible.

We agreed that we’d never point fingers to competitors. We don’t want to make others look or feel bad. Plus: we never focus on the negative. We focus on the positive. And then we allow our customers to make a conscious decision.

Sell & use was our entry point. The product already existed, so our challenge was: how can we get this product to the right customer? And the other way around: how do we get them to really want it? Since Yoni is still very much focused on scaling, this element will remain very important to us. Every new country brings its new challenges. Every new competitor forces you to adjust.

have always focused on local sourcing and manufacturing (as local as possible). Even our packaging location was located right in the middle of our two main factories, to make for efficient logistic lines. The raw material was sourced by the manufacturers. We chose organic cotton. We do realize that this requires a lot of water and land to be farmed. But it was the only option for us to make a product that fits our quality standards. We did make sure that the suppliers were certified – we are also certified. This means that we can track and trace every batch of raw cotton.

Revaluing our products is hard for us – what could you do with the remaining fibres after they’ve been collected? Sanitary towels are, together with diapers, one of the main fillers of landfills. So it is an interesting topic. Just not one that we decided to tackle (yet).

5. WITH WHOM – What did you encounter in the stakeholder field, when it comes to supporting and perhaps opposing forces?

We started to work with companies that could still be our partner when we would grow. So we were looking for sustainable relationships. This goes for suppliers, lawyers, advertising agencies and so on. We did not want to start small and then switch to different vendors once we reached a certain scale, as your vendors depend on your loyalty, too. This did mean we had to invest at an early stage.

We were looking for win-win-win: good for the retailer, our customers and our business. Therefore, we looked for a major retailer that fit our ambition. We chose the retailer that was focused on quality and service – so they have very few sale events, which would have eroded our margin.

Plenty of people thought we would never make it against the big companies. Some however, got it immediately. They were pivotal for our success. These people include a partner at a lawyer firm who offered to first work pro bono for us (when our company grew we started to pay them more), investors who believed in our idea and a young and ambitious category manager at a huge retailer. For the latter, we investigated her targets, margins and other KPI’s. So we could offer a little bit more than what she really needed. This meant that she was willing to take the risk, which resulted in a win-win situation.

6. TRADE-OFFS – how are you balancing the 4-P’s: Planet; People; Profit; Participation?

Embracing sustainability in our business model never limited us. But it did bring some challenges. There is a reason why the traditional players in our industry operate in the way they do: manufacturing synthetical and plastic products is much cheaper, and the negative effects to the environment does not cost them. Our moral compass led us to a more expensive production method. As a new entrant, we lacked the scale benefits of our multinational competitors, causing our products to be even more expensive. But to make our products available to every woman, we had to make them affordable. This is a common dilemma for new entrants in a competitive market.

We created an integrated dashboard that allows to keep track of traditional measures such as sales and revenue, plus social and environmental metrics. Having this from the get-go allows you to keep track of your progression and it makes it easier to make trade-off decisions, as you have historic data to revert to. More importantly it allowed us to communicate on a much deeper level with our stakeholders, as we knew exactly what we were talking about for every element of our business.

We still faced plenty of tough decisions. For instance, we wanted our product to really stand out in the supermarket shelfs, without having to create additional advertising materials. Our packaging was as sustainable as possible. But the ink, that was required to really stand out, was not the most sustainable option. At that moment, our social mission (‘know what you use’) outweighed the environmental mission. Once people are aware of our product as an alternative, we may no longer need these bright colours to get their attention.

7. NEXT HORIZON – what are future sustainability ambitions and desired impact?

We have looked at alternatives for organic cotton – for instance looking at hemp. But that wasn’t feasible yet as it didn’t meet the quality requirements. But finding an alternative for cotton, might be a next step. And our packaging can still be improved.

But maybe most importantly we need to continue to scale, as this will increase our positive impact and enable us to further improve the footprint of our company. And in doing so, disrupt and help drive change in an entire industry.