Leah Remfry-Peploe + Nikki Michelsen of ohne

ohne make organic period products and champion hormonal and physical health through informative content and cycle care products.

Interviewed over email, October 2020

Leah; “I’ve always wanted to start my own brand. I’d been trying to convince Nikki to start a business with me from pretty much the moment we met – but she wasn’t having it! Nikki’s passion was global development, so after her masters she went straight into working for NGOs, one of which was School Club Zambia who are now one of ohne’s partners. Meanwhile, I was dabbling in business and opened a small café and hospitality space in Devon. I’m lucky now to have an amazing manager who runs it so I can focus on ohne.

It wasn’t until late 2016 that Nikki and I contemplated a company together, and it was through a shared frustration at the menstrual health industry and a desire to do better.”

Initially, our goal was to create a brand to crush the taboos that surround menstruation. We hated that everything was so gendered, shrouded in shame, and that we were encouraged to hide our periods and period products. It was only later, doing our own research into the period industry, that we found out that those pearly white tampons lining supermarket shelves are not so ‘clean’ after all. A mainstream tampon actually contains an array of nasty toxins and chemicals.

From that point on, our vision for ohne just took on a life of its own. We also realised that the serious need for eco period products options – regular, mainstream tampons take longer to biodegrade than the lifetime of the person who used them (or even that person’s grandchild!) and there’s the equivalent of four plastic bags worth of plastic in a single mainstream pad. After doing all this research, we just had to quit our jobs and shake up the industry!

Nikki and I were in Austria at the time we chose the company name; we wanted something bold that resonated with our ethos and products. The word ‘ohne’ means ‘without’ in German, and it struck us that there was something powerful around playing with the concept that our products are without the things that the industry successfully hides: the toxic materials, the plastic, the taboos. We also pronounce ohne as ‘on’, as in “I’m on”. We’re not here to shy away from periods, so saying it straight is something we love and looked to embody in the brand name!”

Our products 

We started off with a tampon subscription. However, a cycle typically lasts for 28 days, and originally, we were neglecting the 23 days that people aren’t bleeding. Our research showed that people were looking for more support across their whole menstrual cycle, so we launched two CBD products (one to support hormones, the other for cramps). We’ve since launched  Yin & Tonic, a plant-based ingestible alternative to painkillers for period problems such as cramps and nausea. Over the next 12 months we’ll be expanding on this further, ensuring that people have all the products they need for their entire cycle, not just the days they bleed.  

yours hormonally– our ingestible CBD supplement is hands down our best-seller. Lots of moody babes out there looking for balance! 

yours, hormonally is the second addition to the ohne CBD range. When your hormones are out of whack, your whole life is affected. From confidence dips to mood swings and skin problems to stress, unbalanced hormones can have a lot of effects on you. yours, hormonally is a daily CBD supplement designed to help people with uteruses maintain hormonal zen and support them throughout their entire menstrual cycles.”

How we use CBD

“CBD broad-spectrum extract comes from the flowers of the Hemp Cannabis Sativa plant – yup, the same plant as marijuana. Don’t worry though, CBD (or cannabidiol) is one of over 100 cannabinoids found in cannabis and THC is the only one of these that is psychoactive. CBD is perfectly legal and won’t get you stoned!

There’s a system in the human body called the endocannabinoid system, which basically supports every important function we’ve got. It helps to regulate everything from pain and mood to things like appetite and sleep. Cannabinoids such as CBD work just like the endogenous cannabinoids naturally made by the human body, which evoke cannabinoid receptors found in various systems such as the gut, skin cells, reproductive organs, and the brain, helping to promote natural balance and skin healing.” 

Regulations around CBD are changing dramatically in March 21, when it’ll become a ‘novel food’, which is a change for us.”

Raising investment 

“We had to raise investment before we could even launch. Despite tampons being a relatively cheap product, the minimum order quantities are huge! We hustled hard and met some amazing suppliers, but in order to produce to our standards (100% organic, biodegradable applicators and wrappers, GOTS certified), we had to show them we were serious. We therefore raised a small amount for proof of concept, where Nikki and I also invested every penny we had to fund research and development and build the tech. We then took on multiple roles ourselves to keep costs down – we did all the branding and early stage marketing ourselves, hustled for support in the areas we didn’t have experience, learnt a hell of a lot and spent every evening packing boxes. By early 2019, we saw ohne growing rapidly, and at this point we knew it was time to expand and grow our team, so we closed our first large round that spring. 

The process of pitching is exhausting. You’re essentially selling small parts of your company, so you take on a sales role – telling the story of ohne, sharing your passion and explaining why it’s a good investment. Some people get it, lots of people don’t – and the nature of the fact that most investors are older men who aren’t used to being confronted with period talk makes it harder. That being said, there are some incredible people out there who love seeing women run companies who continue to inspire us, challenge us and always have our back. We’re so lucky to have a group of investors behind us who fit this description, but we’ve had to follow our guts and actively refused investment from some individuals along the way – which definitely isn’t easy.”

Nikki: “My advice for people fundraising is; if you’re getting turned down for investment and hearing the same reason over and over, you probably need to spend time exploring this. That being said, it’s so easy to feel deflated hearing feedback from countless individuals on your business – especially when every person has their own unique opinion on what they think you should be doing differently. Just because they have money, it doesn’t mean they’re right. Be strategic about who you listen to; find the people who’ve had experience in a similar type of company or who have achieved something you admire and listen to them.”

Leah: “And to add to that, twist a ‘no’ to be a positive thing. Statistically, the more ‘no’s’ you get, the closer you are to a ‘yes’. Feed off them and enjoy the journey. 

In terms of workload, the months spent fundraising are always tough, not only due to the nature of raising investment but also because of the additional time it takes, always at the expense of the company. We’ve come up against some real challenges being two young, female founders in an industry dominated by men. I’ll never forget what it was like for Nikki and I during our fundraising period – pitching a tampon brand to a room full of men blushing and refusing to make eye contact is never going to be easy! Fundraising is a full-time job and we’ve had to learn pretty fast to just roll with the punches – to power through every difficult meeting and still find the energy to work late into the night to get our other work done.”

Gender diverse approach 

Leah; “We speak to our customers as ‘people who menstruate’ rather than using a traditional approach. We’ve actually received some backlash from doing this, from people who don’t understand or don’t want to educate themselves about gender diversity, but mostly the response has been positive. We’re passionate about trans inclusivity and are always striving to do better – every day we’re learning more about creating a safe space at ohne for LGBTQ+ people and we can’t imagine that education will ever stop. Our goal is to just keep doing our best.

I honestly couldn’t say whether it’s helped sales – I sincerely hope LGBTQ+ people feel welcomed by our brand, but conversely some of the messages we’ve received from Trans Exclusionary people suggests that we’ve also lost potential customers by our language choice too. That’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make to fight for what’s right!”

Highs and lows

Leah: “Nikki and I are lucky in that we came into this as best friends. We’ve had our challenges but working with someone so close to me has been absolutely amazing. We’ve given up most of our social lives but we’ve had each other throughout the process, so there’s always been a best friend who knows what you’re going through – I imagine solo founders must feel that void quite keenly. We’re so lucky to have friends and family who are patient with us when we work long hours, come home feeling stressed, or screw up and forget a birthday because we’re too engrossed with ohne. All our loved ones share our passion for creating change and forgive our mistakes all too generously. 

I don’t think I could narrow this down to one thing. We’ve had countless moments where we pause and look at each other and say “wow, look at what we’ve done… how did we get here?!” Looking back over the last two years, we’ve gone from having very little business experience and little more than a great idea to having a full-time team of seven, providing thousands of people with organic period products each month. Seeing what the ohne team has achieved in the last 12 months makes us so excited about what’s still to come. 

Working with our partner organisation, School Club Zambia, is a huge privilege. They’re a grassroots social enterprise, whose Girl’s Programme was set up to improve the lives and education of young girls living in rural Zambia. Rather than donating single-use, disposable period products, for every box of ohne tampons bought, customers are directly contributing to long-term change in rural schools.

There have been a few [tough moments] but they’re always surface level. We’re really committed to making change, doing good for people who bleed and working to unfuck the planet.”

Nikki: “There are definitely countless challenges, just when you feel like you’re over one, the next hurdle appears! We’ve had moments of supplier mishaps, investment deadlines being scraped by, huge tech fails, the list is endless. But Leah and I are determined, persistent, and fuelled by the positive impact we’ve already seen and the desire to take that further.” 

Parting words

Leah; “If you want to make change in a specific industry you’ve got to truly believe in what you’re doing. You face a lot of ups and downs, it takes a thick skin, and a commitment to carry on even when things get tough!”

OHNE  

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