“Failure should be rebranded as learning ” and four other things we learned from the Founder and CEO of THINX

Serial entrepreneur Miki Agrawal wants to debunk a taboo or two. She is the founder and CEO of THINX, maker of absorbent underwear designed specifically for menstruating women. When it first launched in 2014, the startup courted controversy for its display advertisements that used the word “period.”

The brand found itself the epicenter for a global conversation on women’s rights, and today helps support the 100 million girls in developing countries who cannot afford tampons and miss school every month. I met the spunky Agrawal at a recent talk she gave at WeWork on the Lower East Side, where she sported a DIY-looking tank top stamped with the words ‘REAL MENSTRUATING WOMAN’ on the back.

Here are five of her most rousing startup commandments.

  1. Only bank on ideas that suck

As an entrepreneur, Agrawal is a natural idea generator, but not all great ideas become executable, marketable, saleable products. When she has a light bulb moment, she asks herself three questions to test commercial viability:

  • “What sucks in my world?”
  • “Does it suck for a lot of people?”
  • “Can I be passionate about this issue, cause or community for a really long time?”

THINX itself has no peer in the feminine hygiene industry, which is worth $15 billion and dominated by just three major brands — none of which manufacture underwear. Never one to compete in near-saturated markets, Agrawal is all about providing solutions to problems in untried ways. “People need to solve problems,” she said. “So if you find that problem to solve and you’re so into it, then just stick with that for the next 10 years,” she warns. “But know that you are settling into discomfort for the next 10 years.”

2. Never be too proud to put on a bunny costume

Pandemonium ensued when Agrawal opened her first business: a small, gluten-free pizza shop in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Unprepared for the lines that wound around the block, the little eatery’s service flopped, with the pizzas being either undercooked or overcooked. Agrawal lost most of her customers that day. Over the following week, she personally hand-wrote and delivered apology notes to around 5,000 apartments in upper Manhattan bearing the following entreaty: “Please come back with a slice on me.”

Agrawal says she regained 90 percent of her clientele. But the guerilla marketing didn’t end there. She became a fixture at local gyms, amusement parks and playgrounds, disbursing pizza samples to passersby. “I very much could have been too proud to do any of that stuff, but it doesn’t matter, whatever it takes. It doesn’t matter if you have to stand outside in a bunny costume with a sign in your hand,” she said. Even as Wild’s reputation grew over the years, Agrawal kept the free samples flowing.

3. Listen to the universe

After a near miss with fate on 9/11, the rare morning Agrawal slept through her alarm clock, she began to soul-search. “My subway stop every morning was 2 World Trade Center. And I was supposed to be there on that day,” she recalls. She began to listen closely to her inner dialogue and take risks. She played professionally on a women’s soccer team and shot music videos for Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake and other music-industry bigwigs. But the entrepreneurial calling won her over. “My favorite saying is necessity is the mother of invention,” she said.

4. Stand for what you feel is right

THINX fielded pushback from the MTA after submitting its first display ads in late 2015. MTA officials protested use of the word “period,” and rejected the ads on the grounds that they were “provocative,” despite the model sporting relatively modest clothing compared to the ads for breast augmentation and body shaping currently displayed in NYC subways. Women’s rights activists, celebrities and the media began protesting what they saw as a “period taboo” or discrimination against the brand for selling feminine hygiene products.

Eventually, the MTA relented in deference to First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. But Agrawal says the controversy supercharged the company’s brand recognition by plonking it at the center of a political conversation. “It was a huge victory for womankind and it put us on the map — so thank you, MTA!”

5. Rebrand failure as “learning”

Agrawal’s favorite saying is self-coined and contains three words: “Iteration is perfection.” As technology vanquishes time and cost barriers to prototyping, executives have extolled the virtues of “failing quickly” by testing an MVP (minimum viable product) on the market and then “tweaking” it based on feedback from the prospective end consumer.

“It’s like you’re constantly listening and fixing, listening and fixing. When you stop fixing is when you die,” Agrawal said. When she opened her first restaurant, she spent seven years working in the restaurant seven days a week until 2am, — but that’s the level of commitment required to listen and fix, then listen and fix again.