How four business students secured a Dragon’s Den deal for their tampon brand

Nadia Ladak, Simone Godbout, Harit Sohal, and Kiara Botha met and became best friends while studying at Western University’s Ivey Business School. In their final year, they were enrolled in an entrepreneurship capstone course in which they were asked to identify a problem they were passionate about solving.

A candid conversation about menstruation gave them their answer. The women began to discuss barriers they had observed in the product category, including unrealistic and gender exclusionary branding, sustainability, and, most importantly, tampon insertion pain.

They exchanged personal stories of discomfort, including the inability to use tampons at all, resulting in limited options. Further research led them to learn that close to one in three menstruators experience vaginal dryness (a leading cause of insertion pain), whether due to pre-menopause, post pregnancy, or even young people starting to use tampons.

Godbout told The Kit that during an early conversation about solutions, they learned that one gynaecologist had even recommended spitting on a tampon to make it easier to insert. They were shocked. “That was when we knew that we wanted to make this the problem that we’re solving, and so we created our first product: the very first lubricated tampon,” Ladak told The Message.

In consultation with medical advisors, they developed an application system that pairs water-based lubricant with organic, GOTS certified cotton tampons, and founded their company, Marlow, in 2020. With a focus in management consulting, Ladak took on the CEO role, while Botha, who gained experience in creative direction at Volta Magazine, took on the CMO title.

The main difference between Marlow and other menstrual products is the addition of lubricant. The applicators, which are made from a plant-based plastic material, are dipped into a container of “Marlube” that contains enough contents for all 18 tampons that come in the pack, plus some extra. The products can be purchased separately, or as a package retailing for $23, or $69 for a three-month subscription.

Since Marlow Tampons and Lubricant are considered a Class II medical device, the company required approval from Health Canada before their product could launch. Expecting this process to take four months, the founders began fundraising right away, accepting pre-orders and approaching potential investors.

A lot of the investor profiles they initially encountered were skeptical of the menstrual space, said Ladak. Repeatedly, the women were met with questions like “Isn’t this such a niche market?”

“We got really good at describing the problem for someone who doesn’t experience it,” said Ladak. The women would ask investors how it would feel to shave without shaving cream, or how it would feel to put in a contact lens without contact solution, arguing that the feeling of dry discomfort is what menstruators feel when they use typical tampons. In a pre-seed fundraising round they secured $500,000 in funding from three angel investors.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic had just taken hold, meaning many Health Canada employees—including those responsible for reviewing new device listings—were shifted to Covid-19 support.

The Marlow founders were forced to update investors as they adjusted the timeline, and sent hundreds of handwritten notes to pre-order customers apologizing for the delay. Ultimately, they waited a year to partner with research labs to do the necessary testing, finally receiving Health Canada approval in October of 2021.

Marlow’s products debuted the following December, and the founders quit their full-time jobs to pursue the business. With very little budget for paid media, the Marlow team kept their marketing in-house, creating original content for Tiktok and Instagram, and publishing the “Mar-Lowdown” blog for reproductive health education.

They recruited brand ambassadors and gifted the products to influencers for whom there was a natural brand connection. They also partnered with offices to stock Marlow tampons in their washrooms.

The brand’s TikTok account now has over 100 million views and nearly 10 million likes, and the blog ranks high for key words that consumers are searching for in the space. Ladak said that one of the most popular blog posts, “five reasons why your tampon may hurt,” brings substantial organic traffic to the site every single month.

An earned media strategy has also helped Marlow received coverage from outlets including The Kit, Girlboss, Betakit, The Guardian, and Breakfast Television. By the end of 2022, they had earned $50,000 in revenue from their e-commerce site, and closed another $500,00 pre-seed fundraising round, raising their total funding to $1 million.

They matched their 2022 revenue in the first four months of 2023 (projected sales for the year are $500,000), and in August they partnered with Canadian distributor Purity Life to expand their retail strategy nationwide.

The founders made Forbes’ 30 under 30 list for Toronto this year, with a company valuation of $5.3 million. They also auditioned for CBC Television’s Dragon’s Den. That led to an appearance on the show, where Dragon Arlene Dickinson acquired a 20% stake in the company.

“You’ll always hear that there’s going to be somebody bigger or that other people have tried it and that it’s been too hard,” said Dickinson before agreeing on the deal. “As long as you’re in business, somebody is always going to tell you that it’s not going to work. What you need is a partner that is going to tell you that it can work, and I believe that it can.”

While Marlow is still positioned as a D2C online e-commerce brand, the founders are looking to mass retail as the next stage of growth. They’ve secured distribution deals with Amazon in Canada and the US, and will launch in Healthy Planet stores in mid November. Additional partnerships are secured, but won’t be disclosed until the new year.

Marlow is also preparing to launch new products in 2024. “We don’t want this to just be a single product [but rather] an overall message of innovation and menstrual care that really pushes the boundaries of what is offered on the market,” said Ladak.

Emma Johnston-Wheeler