What would you do to promote your start-up? Interviews, the occasional stunt? For Farah Kabir and Sarah Welsh, co-founders of sexual wellness start-up Hanx, they decided to take part in the new series of Supermarket Sweep to spread the word about their company.
“I used to skip school to watch it,” laughs Kabir. “I emailed them saying it’s my childhood dream to go wild in the aisles and when we mentioned Hanx they were so fascinated.”
Using a TV gameshow’s return as a guerrilla marketing campaign sums up Kabir and Welsh’s approach to start-up life: a bit cheeky, a bit radical, with a mission to have as much fun as possible.
Hanx is part of the current wave of female-focused health start-ups, including Elvie, which creates pelvic floor trainers and smart breast bumps, and DAME, inventor of the world’s first reusable tampon applicator. With a focus on sex care, Hanx is the first firm in Europe to create condoms for men that are designed for women.
Kabir and Welsh have been inseparable since they were 15, attending Durham University before jobs in finance and the NHS respectively, Welsh going into obstetrics, gynaecology and sexual health.
The lightbulb moment for Hanx came after Kabir bumped into a friend buying condoms. After getting over the initial embarrassment, she felt angry that women should feel self-conscious about buying contraception. Welsh’s work in sexual health clinics in London also highlighted what happens when people don’t use condoms: “I saw a lot of women with difficult to treat, recurrent STIs. It’s a huge public health problem but people are embarrassed to use condoms.”
Part of the problem is a lack of innovation. As they are a product conceived for men, the packaging and messaging centre on a man’s conquest, down to the fact some condoms use spermicides and anaesthetics such as benzocaine (to help men last longer) that can cause irritation for women. “We felt there were no brands speaking to women. It’s such an under-represented market and a huge educational gap,” says Welsh. “So we got quite excited about this.”
Hanx launched in 2017, with Kabir and Welsh redesigning the condom from the ground up. Their version is vegan, swapping animal protein casein for thistle extract for smoothness, and made with fairtrade latex, so workers get a fair wage for the rubber. Following feedback from thousands of women, they ensured the product is ultra-thin and ditches the rubbery smell. Throw one on a compost heap and it will decompose after three months.
Customers can use Hanx’s subscription service, delivered in discreet white and gold packaging, or pick them up in places like Glow Bar. A partnership means Hanx is now on sale in Boots, a major coup. And 30 per cent of customers are men. The firm has raised £1 million and today it releases its newest product: a lubricant. Like the condoms, the lubricant is vegan and water-based, free of chemicals including parabens which can cause allergic reactions. “We want to create products that we would use and are proud of, as well as being medically endorsed,” says Kabir.
The other focus is education. There’s Hanx Life, a community platform akin to a Reddit for sexual wellness, where women can talk about their sex lives, gaining advice, knowledge and support. Naked Truths is a blog focused on all aspects of sexuality, including relationships. A podcast is in the works too, discussing topics like dating and the psychology behind sex.
“With female health issues there’s a lot of noise out there and we want there to be a focus for female health. Sex is part of our wellbeing like everything else and it often gets overlooked,” says Welsh.
Upending the global condom market is tough, and a lot of time has been spent packing contraceptives to send to customers. But work can be fun. A peek at their Instagram Stories sees them stress-testing condoms, blowing them up in a padded room, or visiting Greece for WPP’s thought leadership retreat.
“We have at least one roaring belly laugh a day,” grins Kabir.
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