For Valentina Milanova, CEO and founder of Daye, which is one of the first tampon companies to use CBD to soothe the sometimes debilitating effects of period pain, using the word “vagina” in meetings is unavoidable. But it can make many of her male investors (only six per cent of VCs are female) squirm in their seats.
“It’s funny,” chuckles Milanova, who has suffered crippling period pain all her life. “I’ll get asked questions like, ‘Why does your tampon have a string?’ Or, ‘why do you sell 18 tampons in a box – I’ve never met anyone with an 18-day period.’ Some male investors have even felt the need to tell me they’ve never tried the product. Well, yes, I assumed not!”
Growing up, Milanova would always defiantly tell those around her that the one thing she wouldn’t become was an entrepreneur. Her late father had tried to start several different small businesses as he adapted to the economic changes of communust Bulgaria, none of which were particularly successful. “If anything he was a cautionary tale,” says Milanova, who dreamt of working as a business journalist or in economic policy instead.
But after studying economics, business and law at The University of Buckingham, Milanova worked at accelerators Techstars and Founders Factory. In her spare time, she worked on a “project” trying to find a solution to the life-changing period pains she had experienced as a child. “That time was just so painful, shameful and humiliating”, says Milanova, who had been put on contraception aged just nine to regulate her hormones and ease the pain. But this led to such terrible ovarian cysts Milanova then had to take a year off school. “I completely lost agency over my health. I wanted to create a platform that would give other women their agency back.” Nine out of ten women in the UK experience period pain and 57 per cent say it affects their ability to work.
Milanova didn’t think of turning her project into a business until she talked through the idea with her mentor, Eiso Kant, founder of engineering platform Athenian. “At this point Daye was was a series of experiments, a patent, some prototypes and early stage clinical data. And he motivated me to try and fundraise and to put a team together, and to actually start operating as if there was a business. So then becoming an entrepreneur just sort of…happened.”
Once Milanova launched Daye in 2019 aged 24, she kept the company secret from her mother (a bank clerk who would have been horrified that her daughter had left her stable job) for an entire year. “Plus she had always told me never to use tampons. So it took me a lot of courage to tell her I had accumulated £40,000 of credit card debt to start a tampon company!” laughs Milanova. But she needn’t have worried: Milanova raised $5.5m at seed.
How has the wild journey of entrepreneurship been so far? Milanova is refreshingly frank about how bumpy the ride can be. “Nobody tells you how painful entrepreneurship is until you try it yourself,” she says. “So I always tell aspiring entrepreneurs, you need to be 100 per cent convinced that your company needs to exist, and is solving a massive problem, because otherwise you won’t be able to survive. All of the late nights, early starts, being sleep deprived, the costs, and being pulled in 1001 different directions by your employees, your investors…I haven’t had a holiday since 2018.”
Daye, which has a team of 59, of which 90 per cent are full-time, has not been an easy company to build. Milanova decided that Daye would have its production in-house, designing its own CBD-coating machines for its medical grade, natural and sustainable tampons. “It was one of the biggest risks I have ever taken,” she says. “But all the new tampon companies and all the legacy brands manufacture on the same machines, in the same facilities, which is why there is no product innovation. And I don’t want to be an entrepreneur that just re-sells existing product. But the difficulty was that investors don’t like to invest in hardware, and when it comes to production there is always something going wrong.”
Then there is the regulatory side. “You have all of the clinical and regulatory aspects, which are quite difficult to navigate because tampons are not considered medical devices and cannabinoids are not considered medicinal products. So we had to come up with guidelines and quality standards and regulatory standards to follow ourselves.”
Trickiest of all for Daye however has been growth, since social media sites and Google block adverts that contain terms related to female health, so Daye can’t advertise on these platforms. “Our ads get blocked all the time, which really hampers our growth,” sighs Milanova. Even so, the startup — which now has a range of products including a CBD balm and ‘proviotics’ to help protect both gut and vaginal health — has almost 70k Instagram followers and has earned a flurry of praise across prestige media titles from Dazed to Vogue.
And excitingly, these challenges have motivated Milanova to be particularly creative with the way she markets Daye, recently launching educational campaigns such as a period pain machine simulator, which could be hooked up to the lower part of your abdomen and which would create electrical signals that make your muscles contract. “We did that with lots of men on the streets of London, and filmed it, which created a funny, educational and relatable resource.”
Has she thought about asking her male investors to try the machine? She laughs. “I did think about it for our next fundraising round but then I thought, OK, fundraising is hard enough, let’s not lower our chances even further!”
I ask her if she has at all been impacted by the demise of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, whose wild rise and fall has just been brilliantly dramatised by Amanda Seyfried in Disney’s TV series The Dropout. “Yes, well, obviously because both Theranos and Daye deal with blood, we did get some comments, like, beware! But, OK, one woman did something wrong. Is every male entrepreneur being asked to beware of all the past mistakes of other male entrepreneurs?”
While Daye would like more female investors (Milanova says female investors often don’t want to be pigeonholed working with female focussed companies), the company is proud to have an all-female board. Milanova is also particularly passionate about the brand’s social mission: to work with survivors of sexual trafficking within Daye’s production facilities. “Many of our investors and advisors told us it was too risky. But actually it worked out so well. Working with the production operators is my favourite part of my job because the positivity they bring to work, despite everything they have survived, just puts everything into perspective.”
Looking to the future, Milanova is excited about Daye’s innovation. The business is soon to launch compostable sanitary pads, a product for virtual vaginal microbiome screening, and Milanova wants to create a college service platform “that helps everyone look after their health in a really comprehensive way.”
With such growth lies challenges ahead, but Milanova draws comfort from Nike founder Phil Knight and his memoir Shoe Dog, which she reads often. “It's such an honest account of all of the million things that go wrong when you start a company. Of the constant pain and pressure, of team difficulties, product difficulties and suppliers trying to take advantage of you,” she says. “It just made me realise OK, the worst is yet to come. These bad situations are going to repeat themselves time and time again. So you might as well not lose any emotional energy.”