The Flex Company’s Successful Y Combinator S16 Application
There’s a lot of fake news about the Y Combinator application process. Each application cycle, I receive a handful of messages and phone calls from founders looking to apply; I typically hear the same rumor-based questions:
- Do I need to know a YC partner to get accepted?
- Do I need recommendations from former YC founders to get accepted?
- How can I make sure my application really stands out?
- Is it possible to be accepted as a solo founder?
I’ve written about our positive experience in Y Combinator before: “Why More Women Should Apply to Y Combinator,” but in this post I wanted to address those questions as well as share our successful application.
My cofounders and I hope that this content will encourage more people to apply. Applications for Summer 2018 are due March 24th.
How to Successfully Apply to Y Combinator
- Read content published by Y Combinator: YC has publicly published everything you need to write a successful application. Look to their blogs for advice. They dispel most of the rumors about the application process. YC also generously posts what criteria they look for in companies they invest in. If your company is not accepted, either your company did not meet the criteria, or your application was so unclear that they couldn’t tell.
- The best way to stand out is to keep it simple: Get your point across in as few words as possible. When you need more words to explain, use them. There is no magic formula except to avoid BS, jargon and embellishments. Reading YC’s blog you’ll get a sense of their writing style. Use their writing as your editorial guidelines.
- You don’t need to know anyone on the inside: Your ability to get an interview is dependent upon many factors that have absolutely nothing to do with your network. You’re much better off studying what YC looks for in companies they invest in. We didn’t know any partners when we first applied to YC. We knew a handful of founders who’d been through YC, but I honestly have no idea if they recommended us. Many of our classmates didn’t receive recommendations from other YC founders and they were accepted. Think of a YC recommendation the same way you think of a job recommendation. A recommendation is only as good as the reputation of the person recommending you and how well they know you/your company.
Our YC Summer 16 Application
It’s worth noting that our application is written by me as a solo founder, but I have two incredible co-founders, Erika and Panpan.
I applied (and was accepted) into YC as a solo founder. Erika and Panpan had both been working with me for some time. I asked them to step up as co-founders and join me in the summer batch. I was sure to clear this with Y Combinator first.
Describe your company in 50 characters or less.
We make FLEX, a more comfortable alternative to tampons
What is your company going to make?
FLEX™ is a disposable feminine hygiene product. It’s shaped like a diaphragm, used for mess-free period sex, and can be worn in place of traditional menstrual products.
The menstrual products we use today were created in the 1930’s. They’re uncomfortable, disruptive, and inconvenient. 91% of women say they want alternatives, yet the $15B market for feminine hygiene continues to grow.
FLEX is worn internally, was designed for 12 hours of wear, and has the added benefit of mess-free period sex. It is disposable, is not linked to toxic shock syndrome, and is so comfortable, women tell us that they forget that they’re on their period when wearing it.
Please tell us about an interesting project, preferably outside of class or work, that two or more of you created together. Include urls if possible.
Our team is based in San Francisco but one member (Whitney) lives in L.A. We’re always looking for ways to save money on gas or flights. I came up with a concept for a DJ set and pitched a popular S.F. nightclub. I had never done anything like this but I managed to successfully broker a deal that paid for Whitney’s flight and her time. Plus, we had enough money remaining to purchase product samples and business cards! She played a sold-out show with another popular DJ and we took the opportunity to promote FLEX, gain trial sign-ups, and give away product samples.
How long have the founders known one another and how did you meet? Have any of the founders not met in person?
I’m a sole founder with a strong team of two full-timers, six freelancers, and four hard-working advisors.
AJ Forsythe of iCracked (YC W12) knew I was looking for someone with ecommerce acquisition experience and introduced me to his friend, Erika Jensen, who has 10 years of ecommerce business, most recently at JimmyJane leading marketing and acquisition efforts. She joined us in summer 2015 and has been building our ecommerce website and will be leading our online acquisition efforts.
Panpan Wang has a background in health as an entrepreneur and investor. He’s been working with me on FLEX since January 2015 in a working advisory role and has seen the company grow from pre-pitch deck to what it is today. Over the last two months, he’s taken a more active role. He’s also my life partner and quit his VC role in SF to move to LA and help me grow the business. We’ve been friends for over two years and have dated for one year.
How far along are you?
April marks our 1 year anniversary and we’ve raised $225k.
- We’ve run product trials with over 200 women
- In the last 3 months, we’ve acquired 20,000 signups of customers who want to try FLEX
- $0 spent on acquisition
- We continue to grow with 1,000 trial signups each week
- 25% of our signups are men
If you’ve already started working on it, how long have you been working and how many lines of code (if applicable) have you written?
I’ve been working on FLEX for over 1 year. Our product is fully designed and ready for manufacturing. We have a supplier contract drafted and we’re currently working to close with a North American contract manufacturer.
- In April, we launch preorders
- In September, we ship to customers
- In 2017, we expand to retail
If you’ve applied previously with the same idea, how much progress have you made since the last time you applied? Anything change?
This is my second time applying to YC. (I was in the Fellowship W16 batch)
If you have already participated or committed to participate in an incubator, “accelerator” or “pre-accelerator” program, please tell us about it.
I received funding from Amplify.LA. They’re not a true incubator; they provide funding and free office space, but no programming or time limit.
Why did you pick this idea to work on? Do you have domain expertise in this area? How do you know people need what you’re making?
I picked this idea for three reasons:
- I hate tampons and like many women, I’ve spent a quarter of my life in discomfort caused by traditional menstrual products. In addition to physical discomfort, I’ve always been bothered by the social stigma that surrounds menstruation and period sex. Couples are missing out on 23% more opportunities for sex, and the great tragedy is that this is the time of month when women want it most. If women weren’t ashamed to talk about their periods, I’m certain we’d have better alternatives to the products that we use today.
- NPR called 2015 the “Year of the Period.” We have reached the tipping point of a global menstruation movement. Women are trying “new” products like menstrual cups, period panties, and tampon subscriptions, but these solutions have come with a new set of challenges and frustrations. Women (particularly millennials) are demanding new product innovation and are open to trying brands that resonate with them more than ever before. 91% of women want a tampon alternative (Journal of Women’s Health).
- In the product development process, we discovered an old patent for a product that’s been completely neglected by a small, private drug company (the company is focused on making a lubricant that’s more profitable for them). This product has 20 years of post-clinical research for us to draw from, and we’ve been able to use samples of this product for user research with over 200 women. We’re using this product for the basis of our product design, which allows us to move very quickly, streamline the FDA regulatory process, as well as expensive design iterations with manufacturers. We’re making a few improvements to differentiate the product (better fit/materials, more environmentally friendly, and made in the USA).
We have the perfect experience building brands and e-commerce platforms to bring this product to market in a completely new way that resonates with millennials.
- We have 30 years’ experience using products we loathe.
- I have ten years of experience launching consumer brands and communications strategies at companies like Coca-Cola, Autodesk and Upwork.
- Erika has ten years of e-commerce experience. Most recently she grew e-commerce sales at JimmyJane from roughly $X to $Y in 1.5 years with a $0 budget.*
- Our advisory team is hard-working and each member has 15–20 years of expertise in related fields: board certified OB/GYN, consumer e-commerce/subscription, healthcare manufacturing and supply chain, healthcare venture, and engineering.
*amount removed for privacy of JimmyJane
What’s new about what you’re making? What substitutes do people resort to because it doesn’t exist yet (or they don’t know about it)?
What’s new about FLEX:
- The distribution channel (e-commerce, direct to consumer, subscription)
- Chic design, high-end packaging, differentiated branding and unique millennial voice
- Product features (fit/materials)
- It can be worn up to 12 hours and it is not linked to TSS
- 23% more sex; it allows a user and their partner to engage in mess-free intercourse (and if her partner is male, he won’t feel much, if anything)
- Environmental impact (fewer changes, less packaging and waste)
This market is extremely underserved; women who don’t want to use tampons or pads have very few options other than menstrual cups.
There’s are a couple of important differences between FLEX and menstrual cups. Menstrual cups block the vaginal canal (don’t allow sex), they fill up and must be rinsed and reused. This makes for an awkward experience at work or in a public restroom. Menstrual cups are also difficult to insert (there are four different ways you can fold it before inserting) and remove (mine got stuck), which are huge barriers to adoption. Finally, menstrual cups are reused for 5–10 years, and this is a huge behavior change from disposing tampons. FLEX is disposable and addresses this important concern.
Who are your competitors, and who might become competitors? Who do you fear most?
Our competitors include large consumer goods companies and menstrual cup manufacturers.
We fear large consumer goods companies most: P&G (Tampax, Always), Kimberly-Clark (Kotex), Playtex Products, Energizer (o.b., Stayfree, Always). They have significant resources and channel relationships, but they also lack a standout brand; they don’t have a voice that resonates with millennials.
Softcup is another competitor* to watch because their product design is most similar to ours. Their awareness is very low, our brand is highly differentiated, and we’ve created an entirely different distribution strategy (direct to consumer, subscription-based with higher margins than traditional retailers).
Major menstrual cup manufacturers are competitors (DivaCup, Lunette) because they share many of the same benefits of our product and they have been in the market since the early 2000’s.
Finally, startups like white-labeled tampon subscription companies (LOLA, Cora) and absorbable period panties (THiNX, Dear Kate) are gaining momentum with millennials. The products aren’t new, but they have brands that engage millennials.
*We would go on to acquire Softcup while during the Summer 16 program
What do you understand about your business that other companies in it just don’t get?
Women (and men) love our branding and positioning. 25% of our signups are from men. We’ve found a way to stand out amongst the cheap, pink-and-purple packaging of traditional feminine hygiene products, and our messaging (mess-free period sex) has been an effective hook to get women to try our product for the first time.
Once women try FLEX, they want to switch to FLEX permanently for a few reasons:
- When women wear a pad or tampon, it’s a constant reminder that they’re undergoing this really uncomfortable experience
- FLEX is so shockingly comfortable that women tell us that they forget that they’re on their period when wearing it
- Instead of running to the bathroom 4–5 times per day to change a leaky tampon, FLEX requires changing only once every 12 hours
- It’s very easy to use
In addition to a high-quality product, we’ve created a quality customer experience online. Most menstrual product purchases happen in drug stores, but drug stores don’t facilitate discovery of new feminine hygiene products. Millennials read and shop online, and we’ve created an e-commerce platform that educates them with peer-generated reviews and content.
Women learn about feminine hygiene products from their friends. The bulk of our early traction (20k organic signups) have come from word-of-mouth. On average, every person that signs up to try FLEX, recommends us to at least 1 additional person. Our campus ambassador program is one great example of our grassroots marketing efforts.
How do or will you make money? How much could you make?
We’ll sell monthly subscriptions of FLEX through our own e-commerce website; subscriptions will include free shipping for subscribers.
The global feminine hygiene market is over $15B and growing; the U.S. tampon market is $4B and growing. We aim to capture $3M in revenue during our first two years and see ourselves as a $100 million company in 5 years (similar to Dollar Shave Club).
How will you get users? If your idea is the type that faces a chicken-and-egg problem in the sense that it won’t be attractive to users till it has a lot of users (e.g. a marketplace, a dating site, an ad network), how will you overcome that?
Distribution: starting online/direct to consumer; we’ll also leverage existing relationships with online retail partners.
Earned: media & influencers — we’ve given samples to well-known women (media, bloggers, Instagram, founders) and we will run a hero campaign featuring them, and seek a celebrity endorsement; we’ll run an aggressive PR campaign for earned media
Paid: traditional online advertising (social media, Google Adwords); content networks
Owned: content & social — we’ll continue to write original content and contributed articles and share on social media
Grassroots efforts are the most important part of customer adoption; 79% of women say they’ve made purchases based on the recommendation of a peer, and 82% of women say they share brands and products with friends (Ladies’ Home Journal). This includes campus ambassador programs (sororities, sports teams, clubs), and direct selling
Samples and referrals: every new subscriber gets a free sample to give to a friend with discount code; we run frequent contests for online friend referrals
Please provide any other relevant information about the structure or formation of the company.
We are incorporated in Delaware as a C-Corp.
Are any of the founders covered by noncompetes or intellectual property agreements that overlap with your project? If so, please explain.
None of the team is under an overlapping non-compete.
Was any of your code written by someone who is not one of your founders? If so, describe how can you legally use it.
All code and intellectual property has originated from The Flex Company team members.
Is there anything else we should know about your company?
When making a purchasing decision, 73% of consumers care about the company, not just the product. Once we are profitable, we will donate a percentage of our profits toward a non-profit partner that furthers our social mission.
We’ll undergo B Corp Certification to hold ourselves to higher standards of transparency, accountability and performance. This designation is much like a Fair Trade or LEED certification and signals that we’re committed to making a profound social difference and safeguarding people and the planet, while remaining profitable.
While this will not change our legal standing as as a Delaware C Corp, B Corp Certifications are often confused with legally recognized Benefit Corporations. Other examples of certified B Corps include Patagonia, The Honest Company and Plum Organics (now owned by Campbell’s).
Please tell us something surprising or amusing that one of you has discovered.
I’ve always gotten yeast infections for a full week after my period when using tampons, and I learned through speaking with hundreds of women that many have the same issue; a dirty secret tampon companies and women themselves don’t talk about.
After using FLEX many women — including Erika and I — no longer get post-period yeast infections.
This isn’t so much amusing as it is amazing.
Many of the women I speak with about their periods tell me that their mom started them on pads… because if they used a tampon, they “wouldn’t be a virgin anymore.” Women are always surprised at themselves for saying that. I think we don’t realize that period stigma is so deeply ingrained in us.
What convinced you to apply to Y Combinator?
Several of our friends have founded YC companies (e.g., StyleLend, iCracked, Airhelp, Her). We’ve seen the positive impact that their experience has had on their businesses. Our desire to accelerate growth of the business and the strong recommendation of these founders motivated us to apply.