Crystal Etienne never expected to be grateful for having issues with bladder control. But three years into her blossoming business focused on helping people with incontinence, PantyProp, she's exactly that. These days the New York-based founder may also be grateful her biggest competition recently saw its reputation tarnished.
That company, Thinx, which was founded in 2014 and bills itself as the "period proof" panty maker, recently parted ways with its star founder and former CEO, Miki Agrawal, after she was accused of sexual harassment and fostering a toxic work environment. While the company is reportedly now on sounder footing, as the new CEO this week told Racked, the PR crisis that ensued has no doubt given founders like Etienne room to stretch within the increasingly crowded absorbent underwear market.
"We have more options [than Thinx,]" says Etienne, describing how PantyProp sets itself apart from the competition with its lines of swimsuits, panties, and sleep pants. Plus, she notes that as the CEO, she takes a different type of approach: "There are no gimmicks in our marketing. We just tell you what our product is, what it will help you with it, and we're straight to the point."
Of course, Etienne didn't wait for Agrawal's fall before dreaming up her business idea. Just weeks after giving birth to her first child, the entrepreneur became a statistic: Etienne is one of the roughly 200 million people globally who experiences urinary incontinence, but like many of them, she was too mortified to seek help.
"I would laugh or sneeze, and realize I had no control," Etienne says. "But who in their 20s wants to wear an adult diaper?"
It wasn't until more than a decade later, when her daughter felt ashamed of her own period--fearing others would notice her blood-soaked swimsuit and laugh--that Etienne took matters into her own hands. In 2015, she launched the New York-based e-commerce seller of liquid-absorbent swimwear, activewear, shorts, and undergarments. Unlike traditional sanitary pads, which are often infused with polyethylene and polypropylene, Etienne says her patent-pending linings are completely chemical-free. "Right now, there are a lot of people shifting away from sanitary pads," she tells Inc. "We are a health leisure brand that you can just wear, and not have to worry about."
Customers seem to agree. Last year, the company more than doubled its revenue, notching $1 million in sales, up from just $300,000 in 2016. Heading into 2018, PantyProp is preparing to launch a wholesale arm, and it recently scored distribution at select Macy's locations. What's more, Etienne insists that PantyProp--which to this point has been entirely bootstrapped--is profitable.
Despite the competitive landscape for period-proof undies, Etienne insists hers is a different type of company: Whereas Thinx is uncompromisingly feminist in tone--and launched as a menstrual underwear brand, specifically--PantyProp targets both men and women, feminine care, and incontinence alike. She notes men currently account for roughly 5 percent of the customer base. PantyProp also offers a wider array of products including leggings, swimsuits, pajama pants, and more.
The competition aside, there are other challenges that Etienne sees as unique to her company, and particularly as an African American--and female--founder. When pitching venture capitalists she says she experienced outright discrimination. "Investors [said] they loved me, they loved the company and the solution, but they couldn't give me a straight answer about why they wouldn't invest," she explains. "It goes back to, they're not comfortable with an African American woman running the show on [her] own." While unfortunate, she says that experience has only hardened her resolve and made her a stronger entrepreneur in the process.
Ultimately, though, Etienne has needed to keep to a shoestring budget, and to that end she has spent nothing on marketing to date. "We only spent exactly where it was needed," she adds, referring to manufacturing in particular.
Of course, it's still early days for PantyProp. Etienne may need to raise capital eventually, especially as she continues to ink partnerships with big box retailers. Her projections, which include lassoing $25 million in sales over the next two years, should help. And though Etienne continues to distance her company from the competition, she remains self-assured. "I've always believed women can do anything," she adds.