At the age of 18, Claire Coder dropped out of college to start Aunt Flow, a company on a mission to increase access to period products. Six years later, Aunt Flow has convinced Google, Princeton, Netflix, and more to provide tampons and pads for free! Read about her lessons as a young entrepreneur and how she pivoted during the pandemic to save the company.
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Give us a summary of your business in 200 words or less.
On a mission to ensure everyone has access to period products, Aunt Flow is the most efficient solution to provide such essentials for free to employees, students, and guests. Aunt Flow offers a variety of 100% organic, high-quality period products as well as a free-vend menstrual product dispenser system that is now stocked in thousands of bathrooms in locations like nationwide K-12 schools, Princeton University, Google, Viacom, and more.
Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, we are a remote-based team across the US. Over 900 businesses have joined the menstrual movement with Aunt Flow! Our patented period product dispensers are internationally acclaimed, receiving the ISSA Show 2021 Choice Award and The Sustainable Company of the Year 2021. Aunt Flow has been recognized as the Best Woman-Owned Brand by NBC.
How did the idea for your business come about?
After getting my period at an event without the supplies I needed, I thought to myself “Toilet paper is offered for free, why aren’t tampons and pads?”Ⓡ This question just kept popping back into my head. After doing some research, I discovered that nobody else had truly solved this problem. So I decided to start what is now known as Aunt Flow!
How were you able to fund this venture early on?
At the onset, I was able to raise $25,000 in order to fund my MVP and began to sell tampons and pads directly to consumers. This set me up for three months of $20,000 recurring revenue, yet my “good luck” quickly came to a halt after that. I’ll forever be grateful for that funding, but the nearly $50k that I saved after dropping out of college really helped me fund my idea for Aunt Flow and gave me the bandwidth to not pay for myself for the first two years of starting the company.
What did the early days of Aunt Flow look like?
After dropping out of college in 2016 to start Aunt Flow, I was a wandering 18-year-old with no degree and little direction. I had to start somewhere, and the first place to start was just talking about periods. I hosted crowdfunding campaign events, Period PartiesⓇ, baked brownies that looked like vulvas, filmed videos of regular people sharing their first period stories, and made lots of buttons with pictures of ovaries.
What was the turning point for your business? Was there a moment you knew you had something special?
When people tell us that they got their period unexpectedly in a public place (restaurant, school, work), and our product was able to save their day, that’s when we feel awesome about what we do. We follow the motto #PeopleHelpingPeople!
What does it mean to you to be an entrepreneur and business owner?
Founding a social enterprise that would be a sustainable solution to help women has been a dream of mine, and I am proud to say it is now a reality. Being a successful CEO of a for-profit company with a mantra of “People Helping People” really makes me feel good about what I do. What makes it even better, is that I get to enjoy what I do every single day.
What does the city of Columbus mean to your business?
SO many people have lifted this business up from our first customers to volunteers to investors. We are successful because of our Columbus community. It truly takes a village.
Are you from Columbus? If not, please explain what brought you here and ultimately what made you stay.
I was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, but moved to Columbus for college. Though I dropped out after my first year, I stayed in Columbus to start Aunt Flow. I go back and forth between New York and Columbus now, but Columbus will always be home for me and Aunt Flow.
What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to anyone wanting to start a business?
Always set the bar high for yourself.
What do you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before starting your business?
You don’t have to go to college to be a successful entrepreneur. The idea that only college graduates are successful is not real.
What’s the most challenging part of your business?
One of the challenges we face is the stigma around periods. Periods are looked at as “gross” or “unnatural.” And when you are trying to run a business with this stigma around your products, it can be difficult. But we like to be positive and surround ourselves with Period Positivity. Also, we are big on educating people that periods are not gross, and they are a normal part of life for menstruators!
Since most businesses are run by men, how do you convince them to give these products away for free?
For those who don’t get a period, it’s often difficult to understand the specifics of getting a period, and why it’s so important for period products to be freely accessible in bathrooms. That’s why we choose to include everyone in the conversation, both menstruators and non-menstruators. I find that with increased education and inclusion, we can all move the needle on progress together.
Every business owner has a flaw. What’s yours?
I suck at numbers and logistics and everything operations. And I don’t have a co-founder. Looking back, I think that that has been the hardest part, really identifying the skills that I am lacking and feeling comfortable hiring for that role.
Why do you think most business owners fail? What has made you different?
When bringing a new project to life, it is all about execution. I often hear people talking about how they “want to do something.” Just do it already!
What gave you the confidence to believe you could bring your vision to fruition?
I’d like to say that I’m a lifelong entrepreneur. From starting my first “business” at seven in the form of a lemonade stand to my button company at 16, I always knew that I was pretty good at selling things. These experiences ignited my passion for building companies from the ground up, but it was truly my vision to change the world that gave me the confidence to bring Aunt Flow to life.
What was your biggest mistake and what did it cost you?
One of the biggest mistakes I made at the onset of my business was not reference checking a new manufacturer and wiring them $15,000… It was undoubtedly a scam and when I tried to file a report with my bank, they suggested I file a report with my local police department… We still have not gotten this $15,000 back. I definitely learned from this, but it still was a hit to the bank account.
What tool has helped you the most for your business?
The Rakuten Google Chrome plugin is so great to gain personal cashback for all of your business purchases. There are so many awesome plugins like Honey to keep you saving! Can you tell that an important aspect of running a startup is bargaining?
When did you know it was time to expand your business, make your first hire, etc.?
More and more people that I introduced myself to would say, “Oh yeah, I know that company!” I knew that increased recognition would bring increased work, and I couldn’t keep running the company by myself.
One of the proudest highlights of my career thus far has been building such an awesome team over the past few years. I am so thankful to be able to walk away for a week and know that the business will flow forward. We are a growing team, and each member plays such an integral role in helping to further our mission of making the world better for people with periods.
What is something that you did that was a game-changer for your business?
In February 2020, my back was up against the wall. Although periods don’t stop for a pandemic, Aunt Flow relies on people menstruating outside of the home. One of our largest customers was planning to announce “remote forever.” I knew Aunt Flow needed to do something and fast.
My one goal was to not furlough anyone on my team. So I thought about what Aunt Flow is truly great at and used it to build a strategy and pivot the business. I wired almost all of our money to begin retooling our pad production to make FDA Approved 3-ply masks. My team linked arms, and we started building Work Flow. While Work Flow has since discontinued, we were able to donate over 1 million masks to people in need!
What is something you’re working on now that you’re very excited about?
We recently launched our newest innovation, the Model R free-vend period product dispenser. This dispenser is stainless steel and recesses into walls. She’s a beauty, and we poured all of our learnings and love into it.
What form of marketing is the most valuable for you?
What’s driven the most sales for us is customer referrals. It lets us know we’re doing a good job when our loyal customers recommend us to other companies or businesses.
Who do you vent to when you have a business problem?
My dear friend Katlin Christine, Founder and CEO of the first digital health solution for breast cancer awareness, education and detection, Gabbi. We are both college dropouts who run our own companies, so we instantly hit it off and could relate to one another. We challenge each other to level up in business and is always a great sounding board for any and all business problems I may have.
Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?
Being at the forefront of pads and tampons being freely accessible to all.
When you’re stressed or overwhelmed, what do you do to overcome this feeling?
In order to run a successful business, I have to make sure I am taking care of myself and in the right state of mind. My self-care acts include starting the day with a run, which is my outlet for all of my pent-up stress, anger, or pessimism. I am also an unapologetic lover of sweets and baked goods. A delicious sweet treat keeps me going, especially on the really tough days.
What’s one component of entrepreneurship that’s much different than what most people think?
A lot of people think that CEOs work an average of 40 hours a week, but companies typically require far more dedication and time from their CEO than that. There is also the myth that CEOs are rich when in reality, you are making the least amount of money in the company when you start out. The lifestyle of a CEO is not all glitz and glamour as many people think.
What’s your end goal with the business?
The end goal is for every bathroom to be stocked with free pads and tampons, of course!
What other entrepreneur do you look up to most?
Two amazing women in the business world immediately come to mind: Jeni Britton Bauer and Carey Jaros.
Jeni Britton Bauer, founder of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, strides around with pink hair, did not go to college, leverages her ice cream company to make positive change, and she is also from Ohio. Jeni, along with her delicious ice cream, helped me get through a really tough time as she became a female founder figure in the Columbus community who I really resonated with as I embarked on my journey to start Aunt Flow.
Additionally, using LinkedIn, I connected with Carey Jaros, the president and CEO of GOJO, the parent company of Purell. Carey became a woman leader in the industry that served as a mentor and peer support to me. She has worked on and in over 50 organizations, some of which being startups just like Aunt Flow is. I’ve talked to her about her experience being a CEO and even more recently being a CEO during a pandemic, and her insights continue to be invaluable.