Life is unfair for women on road trips. That's what Deep Bajaj gathered from his female friends who refused to drink beer lest they have to use the filthy restrooms on the highway en route to Jaipur. Insensitively designed Western-style toilets on highways and public places are a hotbed of infections, posing serious health risks to women.
Having just moved out of the handmade carpets business run by his wife, to explore other business ideas, this revelation presented an opportunity to Bajaj. He set up First Step Digital with his younger brother Mohit Bajaj and friend Rahul Anand (who left the company last year) in 2013 with a view to provide solutions to women's hygiene woes.
The first of its products was PeeBuddy - a portable urination device that enables women to stand and pee, and avoid the risk of infections. It is made using cardboard and vegetable wax, which are disposable and environment friendly, and has a funnel-shaped design to fit between the legs easily. The product, says 33-year-old Deep Bajaj, is intended at helping women travellers, pregnant women, as well as those who suffer from arthritis or joint pains.
PeeBuddy was launched in 2014, and acquired a design patent in February 2015. It has earned a mention in the Limca Book of Records for being India's first urination device for women. But the most challenging feat for the company has been wading through cultural barriers and taking the product to retailers and distributors, who are mostly men. "Big brands such as Shoppers Stop and Big Bazaar refused to keep our products without even giving us a clear reason," says Bajaj, perplexed. "Some thought I was from a TV show making a bakra out of them." He recounts being trolled on Facebook when he talked about PeeBuddy.
An order of 10,000 packs from sports management firm Procam International, organisers of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, in 2015, was a big breakthrough for Bajaj and co. "It wasn't just the sales but the awareness from the event that kickstarted our product sales," says Bajaj. Since it is impossible to keep the portable toilets clean at such events, Procam has made it mandatory to distribute PeeBuddy to all its female runners.
PeeBuddy is now available at around 300 brick-and-mortar retailers such as Twenty Four Seven convenience stores, Le Marche, Modern Bazaar, Mom&Me and NewU. The product is also being bought on PeeBuddy's own e-commerce website as well as online portals such as HealthKart, Nykaa, Purplle, Amazon, Flipkart and Snapdeal, where it is available in packs of five, 10, 20 and 40 funnels, for Rs120, Rs200, Rs375 and Rs720, respectively. The company sold one lakh pieces of PeeBuddy in the last fiscal. There are similar urination devices available globally - GoGirl and Shewee are two such - but made from plastic. PeeBuddy prides itself on being eco-friendly.
Next step was to expand. The company then launched brand Sirona to cater to other aspects of female hygiene and wellness. "We didn't want to stop at PeeBuddy; we want to be a problem-solving company for women's intimate hygiene," says Deepak Thareja who joined the company as a co-founder in November 2015.
Over the past two years, First Step Digital has launched mosquito patches and bands, and a range of products under Sirona such as Feminine Pain Relief Patches (to ease pain during periods), bio-degradable disposal bags (for hygienic disposal of sanitary products), wet wipes for intimate areas, applicator tampons, and under-arm sweat pads. These products are manufactured at third party facilities across the globe - the tampons are made in Europe, sweat pads in China and PeeBuddy in Delhi.
There are bigger brands in India such as HUL and P&G that cater to women's sanitation needs. However, Sanjay Mehta, an IAN investor who led the company's funding round, says these offer a scatter of products, whereas First Step Digital offers a whole range, and that's its biggest differentiator.
Until recently, First Step Digital was bootstrapped - the Bajaj brothers along with their family friend Vickash Chowdhary together invested Rs1 crore in the company in the past two years. In February this year, the company raised a pre-Series A funding of Rs2.96 crore from Indian Angel Network. This capital boost will be used to expand the distribution network, hire talent to drive marketing initiatives, and rebrand. "Currently, all our products look different. So we are planning a design makeover," Bajaj adds.
First Step Digital has also launched an online service called 'Being Juliet' using which women can get their choice of sanitary essentials such as tampons, panty liners and period pain comforters a week before their period is due. The subscription is available for three-month, six-month and one-year durations at Rs1,650, Rs3,300 and Rs6,600, respectively. "The rationale is to form a community of women, engage them and get product feedback," says Bajaj, adding that around 1,000 women subscribe to the service currently.
In FY 2015/16, the company earned revenue of Rs70 lakh from all its products, of which 30 per cent came in from online channels. Sales from PeeBuddy contributed the biggest share - Rs30 lakh. The co-founders aim to close FY 2016/17 at Rs1 crore. Next on the company's anvil is the launch of panty liners and menstrual cups.
Although a nascent category today, Mehta expects the feminine hygiene products market to be worth Rs2,000 crore in the next few years.