Growth & Customers

The business of breaking taboos

Daye founder Valentina Milanova is driving conversations on women's health and revolutionising the industry with an innovative tampon design.

Valentina Milanova

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Valentina Milanova is taking the women’s health industry by storm with her revolutionary tampon design that is not only absorbent but pain-relieving too.

She came up with the idea for cannabidiol-infused tampons, which could relieve the pain many women suffer during their periods, making their monthly cycles much easier to endure.

However, creating this kind of product proved to be a challenge when both investors and engineers tend to be male-dominated roles.

Like many other female founders, Valentina soon realised the difficulties of finding funding and engineers that were willing to create tampon machines.

In this episode, Valentina explores how she is tackling taboos in business, changing the narrative around women’s health and trying to eliminate the gender gap in product innovation.

Here is her unfiltered advice below:

Unwilling following in your dad’s entrepreneurial footsteps

Kate Bassett:

So Valentina, you are the force behind this incredible women’s health brand, but growing up you’d tell people that you would never become an entrepreneur.

So why didn’t you see yourself starting your own business?

Valentina Milanova:

Yeah, so you’re right. I used to swear that I would never become an entrepreneur because my dad was an entrepreneur, and my mother had a very stable nine-to-five job in a bank.

And I always thought that my dad had the worst end of the deal because he was always stressed, always on his phone, always travelling.

We experienced a lot of financial insecurity as well, because not every one of his multiple little ventures always worked out.

So I always promised myself that I would have a very stable, reliable nine-to-five job.

And then when I was 22, I had the idea for Daye. I took on a lot of credit card debt and followed in my dad’s footsteps, somewhat unwillingly.

How hemp inspired the idea for a revolutionised tampon design

Kate Bassett:

And tell us about the inspiration for Daye, because you started it back in 2018 with this goal of reinventing the tampon.

Where did that motivation come from?

Valentina Milanova:

Yeah, I started in 2017 actually, and the initial idea for our first product, which is a pain relieving cannabidiol-infused tampon, came from me reading research papers on industrial hemp.

I was just really interested in the plant and its properties, and two of its properties really stuck with me. The first one is that industrial hemp has very absorbent fibres.

So I thought to myself, “Okay, that’s great for tampons.”

And a second property of the extract from the flower of industrial hemp is that it can be pain relieving.

There were some early studies with cancer patients in Canada who were applying it topically and experiencing pain-relieving effects.

So I thought to myself, “Okay, well they’re the same plant that produces absorbent fibres and a pain-relieving extract, what if we put them together to create a pain-relieving tampon so that you could both at the same time have your menstrual fluids absorbed and that the tampon can release a cannabidiol formulation into the vaginal mucosa?”

So that’s how I had the first idea for our first product.

And later this evolved to redesigning the tampon altogether and then to redesigning the tampon to serve for a lot more than just soaking up menstrual fluid.

So we now have a second-generation diagnostic tampon that helps women get screened for gynaecological infections like STIs, HPV.

We can also screen the vaginal microbiome, which plays a very important role in your overall reproductive health.

So from this first venture into redesigning one tampon, I realised that tampons can actually do a lot more to break the cycle of poor innovation in gynaecological health.

You have a wealth of information at your fingertips—use the internet to fill the gaps in your knowledge

Kate Bassett:

So the company’s really evolved since those early days, but it was such a bold move because no one had done this before.

You had no manufacturing knowledge, no credibility in the market.

So how did you do it, and who did you turn to for help?

Valentina Milanova:

I think it was a very naive move. I’m not sure if it was bold, but it was just very naive, and I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

And again, I was 22 when I first founded the company, so I had a lot of this just blind optimism. I generally am a person that’s prone to high levels of blind optimism, but when I was 22, it was even higher.

And I was just taking on credit card debt, working crazy hours because I had a full-time job that I partially used to subsidise the development of Daye. I wasn’t getting any sleep.

And I just thought to myself, “Oh, this is so intellectually satisfying. It sparks my curiosity to be working on this company.”

I was also motivated by the people that were using our first prototypes and the first products and finding real relief from the period pain that had been such a prime feature of their relationship with their menstrual cycles for so long.

That’s what drove me initially.

And then you’re right, I don’t have an engineering background. I don’t have a manufacturing background. I’ve never managed teams, or large teams. I haven’t built a direct-to-consumer company before.

But fortunately, we live in the times of the internet and every bit of information that I needed to get access to, whether it was in our quality standards in clean room manufacturing or clinical trial design or regulatory landscapes in different European countries, everything was just a Google search away.

I think we live in the easiest times ever to become an entrepreneur, especially now there’s ChatGPT, so it’s even easier. You don’t even have to Google and go through different links, you can just ask a question.

So I turned to the internet and that’s where I found a lot of the early information that I needed in order to start the company.

As an entrepreneur you must become exceptionally comfortable with discomfort

Kate Bassett:

I mean, you said the reason you initially didn’t want to become an entrepreneur was because you’d seen the levels of stress that your father went through and the financial debt that he got himself into.

So when you were then in that same situation of credit card debt, working long, crazy hours, was there any point where you panicked and thought, this is not the right move for me?

Valentina Milanova:

Yeah, there were lots of times when I panicked, I had lots of panic attacks.

I remember the first time an investor wrote us a term sheet, which is a formal investment offer, I had a full-blown panic attack. I went home, I puked. I was like, “Oh my God, this is so much money that someone’s offering to put into this company, which not that long ago was just an idea.”

There were times when we had some of our trade secrets leaked to huge behemoths in our industry.

There’s lots of anxiety inducing moments in entrepreneurship. It gets easier with time. The highs become less high, the lows become less low, and you develop a really good ability to just remain very calm and stable throughout different tribulations.

But I think in order to be an entrepreneur, you need to be really comfortable with feeling ashamed out of your depth, lacking in knowledge, being embarrassed.

When I was first starting the company, most of my days were just filled with hearing, “No, thank you.” or me just not knowing better and doing huge faux pas.

You need to be exceptionally comfortable with discomfort in order to be an entrepreneur.

With personal discomfort especially.

Kate Bassett:

You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Finding funding for a woman’s health product among predominantly male investors

Kate Bassett:

I want to talk to you about those conversations with investors because you said that one of the most difficult aspects of being the CEO of a company that’s focused on female gynaecological health is those conversations with predominantly male investors.

So can you tell us a little bit about that experience?

Valentina Milanova:

Yeah, unfortunately, the majority of venture capital investors and angel investors and venture debt providers and grant funding providers are still men.

And we still live in a time when cisgendered men feel significantly uncomfortable with discussing gynaecological health.

So what happens to me when I fundraise is, I walk into a room and I start talking about menstruation, tampons, the vaginal canal, the vaginal mucosa, the vaginal microbiome, STIs, bacterial vaginosis, vaginal discharge.

And what happens is most people start feeling fundamentally uncomfortable and just look to the ground, and I can see that they just cannot wait to get me out of the room, so they can feel more comfortable again.

You can see that reflected in the statistics around fundraising for gynaecological health.

In private venture capital, it’s just 1% of venture capital, so private healthcare investments, that went to women’s health. Out of all of the funding, 100% that went to healthcare as a whole, only 1% went to the whole of gynaecological health.

So that includes menstrual health, vaginal health, hormonal health, et cetera. With public funding, depending on the country that you’re looking at, it’s 0.7% to 2.5% of public funding and grant funding that goes to women’s health, despite the fact that one in three women will experience a chronic gynaecological health issue in her lifetime.

And this 0.7 to 2.5%, that includes all of the funding that goes to breast cancer, all of the funding that goes to endometrial cancer.

So you can imagine how little funding is available for less common and less publicly discussed conditions like endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, menopause.

It’s really sad that the majority of female health companies today are created in conditions of extreme scarcity.

And that’s very much has been the case for Daye as well. Even though we have been successful with fundraising, we’ve raised a pre-seed round, a seed round and a Series A.

We’ve recently been successful with grant funding as well. The only reason why Daye has been successful is because we’ve pitched to an insane number of investors for our seed round, for our Series A round.

Most recently, we contacted over 420 investors for our Series A round.

So what I see in the industry, what I see among my other female founder friends is that they’re building their companies with unusually high levels of hardship and scarcity because the funding just isn’t there.

And the sad thing is that this will inevitably have a negative impact on the quality of the final product, which is then provided to women and to patients and brought to market.

Don’t hesitate to send out cold emails

Kate Bassett:

I mean, the solution of course, is to have more female investors putting their money behind brands like this and really understanding the products.

But given the number of investors that you pitched to, and you were successful then in raising funding, what would be your advice particularly to female entrepreneurs on raising money?

Valentina Milanova:

Just keep going. Keep reaching out to investors.

The conventional fundraising advice says don’t do cold reach outs. Only reach out to investors if someone has introduced you. Which is all well and good if you know you have a huge Oxbridge network, or you went to Eton or whatever.

But I didn’t have anyone to introduce me to these investors, yet I kept hearing, “Oh, no, no. Do not contact them on LinkedIn. Don’t just send them a cold email.”

I was like, “Well, how am I supposed to get in touch with them then?” So I just did it anyway.

And the majority of the people that have invested in Daye were completely cold reach out people that I had met at events or met through LinkedIn or just sent a cold email to.

So don’t hesitate to do that despite the conventional wisdom saying that you should have a warm introduction.

And don’t take no’s personally.

One of our investors, Leila Zegna from Kindred Capital, she always says, “You should be grateful for the no’s because they’re carrying you closer to the yes. Every time someone gives you a no, you’re just getting one step closer to the yes.” And when I heard that, I visualised it, I internalised it.

So every time someone said no, I was like, “Okay, next one.”

Kate Bassett:

Yeah, pick yourself up, keep going.

Regulatory and recruiting challenges of creating a woman’s health product

Kate Bassett:

And once you got some funding in, what were the other initial challenges you faced in building the brand and building the business?

Presumably there were some regulatory challenges around using CBD in your products.

Valentina Milanova:

Yeah, lots of regulatory challenges because medical devices for women are not super clearly regulated.

So for example, tampons and pads, even though they go inside or around the human body and are very close to the vulva and vaginal canal, which is highly absorbent, they’re not regulated as medical devices.

They’re regulated as general hygiene products, so in the same category as toilet paper, for example.

So we had to design our own quality standards.

We had to borrow from the pharma world, borrow from the medical device world in order to create quality standards and clinical trial standards, so we could then present to regulators, so they could assess our product.

The first product we brought to market was particularly challenging because it’s a pain-relieving tampon. It’s a completely novel concept.

No one has done this before.

No one has brought it to regulators before.

And there’s no clear framework that we fit within because cannabinoids are not regulated. They’re not considered medical devices, they’re not considered drugs, they’re not considered supplements. It’s just a huge regulatory vacuum.

Then on the other end, you have tampons that, in my opinion, are under-regulated and should be regulated more stringently.

So regulators initially thought, “Oh, why are you trying so hard?”

And we still keep getting these questions.

A lot of, “Why do you produce in clean rooms? It’s not part of the standard for tampon manufacturing, so why do you do it?”

Or, “Why do you sanitise your products? Sanitisation isn’t a mandatory step in tampon manufacturing. So why do you do it?”

And for us, the answer is always, “Well, because we want to guarantee consumer safety.”

And no one questions the fact that we sanitise our food. No one questions the fact that we sanitise plaster band-aids.

Why do we question the fact that tampons that go inside your body need to be sanitised?

But outside of the regulatory challenges, another key challenge that we faced was with engineering, hiring design engineers. Building design engineering teams for women’s health is very hard.

There’s a huge gap in the availability of female design engineers. The majority of design engineers and mechanical engineers and automation engineers are men.

And the design engineering industry in a lot of ways is quite old school.

So it’s very much a boys club of, “We do important things like cars and engines and ships. And tampon machines are lame and boring.”

So it was really hard for me to find design engineers in the first place. So I don’t have an engineering degree, which makes me a complete nobody in the eyes of engineers.

And then I had this weird ask of, “Hey, can you build me a tampon machine rather than like a motorcycle engine?”

Finding and funding female design engineers

Kate Bassett:

How did you go about finding those female design engineers? Did you have to partner up with universities, or what did you do?

Valentina Milanova:

Yeah, what happens actually is that a lot of female design engineers drop out of university because they find the environment to be so heavily male dominated and toxic in some ways.

There’s a relatively equal number of men and women that apply for engineering degrees and get into these engineering degrees, but then they either don’t graduate, or when they graduate, they don’t actually get into the field of design engineering, they refocus on other fields.

So the way that we did it was we went to the art world, and we hired engineers that were working on galleries and displays and rain-making installations, and we found that those types of engineers have more openness to working on women’s health.

Now we’re sponsoring programmes for female design engineers, and we have really good relationships with the universities, and we invite women engineers from year one to start doing internships with us, and then we guarantee a spot for them once they graduate so that they know they have a place that they can go to.

And that’s what we found very, very successful. We’ve been doing this since 2019, so for the past four years.

Other marketing techniques you can use if Google and Meta block your ads

Kate Bassett:

And of course, one of the other challenges that you came up against was marketing and advertising because social media sites and Google block adverts that contain terms around female health.

So how has that impacted growth and what clever ways of marketing did you use to get around that problem?

Valentina Milanova:

It’s really hard. The censorship of women’s health products on Meta and Google, it’s such a disgrace.

It’s exceptionally hard to get around.

We constantly have our content being classified as porn or political content, and it’s almost impossible to grow your business if you can’t rely on the main tools for growth that everyone else is relying on.

And it’s incredibly unfair because erectile dysfunction companies that sell Viagra pills, they can happily advertise on Google and Meta and all of these paid channels.

But the moment you start speaking about the vaginal microbiome or menopause or breastfeeding, you get classified as porn or adult content.

We haven’t cracked that nut yet.

We’re doing extensive lobbying efforts with Google and Meta, but there’s rarely actual people that you can speak to within these companies.

Because we don’t spend millions per month on Meta and Google, we don’t deserve an account manager, so we always have to explain ourselves to a bot.

And it’s a little bit of that situation, like “Computer says no.”

So what we’re doing instead is we’re focusing a lot on having strong ambassador programmes whereby we reward our community financially for generating sales for Daye.

I love that model.

We’d love to make it more scalable because I would much rather pay our community rather than pay Meta and Google.

Another thing that we do is we have a strong referrals programme whereby every time you bring a friend to the Daye platform, they get £5 off their next box, you get £5 off your next box.

We also have invested a lot in SEO through content.

One of the first products that we brought to market actually was our Women’s Health blog, Vitals, which helps women learn about different gynaecological health conditions in great depth.

So having medically vetted information but doing it in a very digestible way.

One of our key values as an organisation is that you shouldn’t see the medical degree in order to understand the workings of your body.

And we really try through our social media presence and our blog content, make it very easy for people to understand what’s causing them their gynaecological pain. Those are some of the three tactics.

So referrals, ambassadors, SEO. We’re now doing a lot more with email as well.

Cost implications of having your ads banned

Kate Bassett:

I mean, even just listening to you, I’m filled with rage at the double standards in the industry.

Do you find it frustrating that you have to spend so much time on lobbying and trying to change these narratives?

Valentina Milanova:

Not just on lobbying, but there’s a real economic penalty to having your ads be constantly banned.

Because the whole premise of working with Google and Meta is that you invest, you let their algorithms learn, and then they find the right audience for you, and they position your ads to them.

But every time you have an ad banned, the learnings of that algorithm get wiped away.

So say you’ve invested £50,000 a month or £70,000 a month in letting the algorithm learn, and then the algorithm decides that your content on the vaginal microbiome is actually porn.

So all of those investments that you have put in throughout the months to understand what the best audience is for you and what the best ads are for you, get completely wiped away.

So there’s a huge economic penalty to trying to innovate in women’s health and then find people who struggle with the issues that you have found solutions for.

Providing employment opportunities for people from disadvantaged or difficult backgrounds

Kate Bassett:

There are other brilliant ways that you are innovating within the industry. I know that your products are produced by women who used to be part of the criminal and care system.

So what are your tips on recruiting and retaining people from disadvantaged or difficult backgrounds?

Valentina Milanova:

Yeah, so our mission at Daye is to make a really positive impact on women’s health as a whole and gynaecological health as a whole through research and innovation.

And we want to create this evergreen source of funding for continuous R&D into gynaecological health by creating commercially successful products, and then reinvesting the revenues from those commercially successful products into additional products and services that bridge more gender gaps in healthcare.

So that’s the long-term plan.

In the short term, as we’re progressing towards that goal, we want to leave a positive social impact behind.

And part of our commitment to nurturing the community within we exist today, not just the community that we will serve tomorrow, is to partner with charities such as Working Chance and 821 who help people from the care and criminal system as well as sexual trafficking survivors reintegrate back into society and find meaningful work.

So we’re the industry partner. We provide employment opportunities that are fairly compensated, but also very flexible so that people that have childcare responsibilities can take advantage of working a day.

People who maybe are still recovering from trauma and cannot work an eight-hour day can still use Daye as a way to gradually get back into work.

It honestly is the most satisfying part of my job, working with our production staff. It gives me lots of joy.

Being a leader will teach you new levels of empathy

Kate Bassett:

And how many people do you employ now?

Valentina Milanova:

So it’s 42 people in total.

Kate Bassett:

And how do you think you’ve changed as a leader, as the business has grown?

Because you talked about that blind optimism in the early days.

How would you describe yourself now?

Valentina Milanova:

Well, I’ve changed a lot because again, it’s just because of the age bracket.

You change the most from your 20s to your 30s, and then after 35 to 40, you’re more like fully established. So I’ve been on a trajectory like this.

I’m still eternal optimist today. I think you need to have someone that has endless drive, endless optimism and is happy to be the engine for the business.

Now I have a senior team as well who help mitigate for my eternal optimism and provide injections of realism from time to time.

I think Daye has taught me to be a lot more empathetic than I would have maybe otherwise ended up being. Because as a leader within the company, I’ve had to help my team navigate lots of complicated situations. I’ve been doing this for the past six years.

When you’re the founder of a company, people come to you with, “My mother passed away. I’m getting divorced. My child has drug abuse issues.”

I think the most important skill that I have learned over the past years of building Daye is just empathy.

Kate Bassett:

And what are the struggles at the moment with the business? What’s keeping you awake at night?

Valentina Milanova:

Growth. We’re at the stage where we have to grow really fast.

We’re so privileged to be a women’s health company that has raised Series A and that has attracted grant funding. I’m just petrified of squandering this opportunity that we’ve fought so hard for, and also, we’ve been very privileged and fortunate to have access to.

I’m just obsessed with how we create this commercially sustainable model where we have sufficient growth to continue investing in R&D. To have that evergreen source of funding for women’s health. That’s what I’m most worried about.

But that’s also because I’m privileged to have a really strong operations team and a really strong product team.

If you look at Daye from the outside, you might think the operations within this company are going to be so hard, or the supply chain is going to be so complicated. The regulatory approvals that they must obtain are so complex.

But the real challenge, because we have really strong teams in operations and finance and product, the real challenge for us has always been growth due to the endless limitations that exist around how and where we can market our products.

Repurposing the tampon to make gynaecological health more comfortable and convenient

Kate Bassett:

And what is next for the business in terms of new products and growth areas?

Valentina Milanova:

The main next thing that we’re focusing on is repurposing the tampon for at-home gynaecological health diagnostics.

Currently, in the UK there’s over 650,000 women on a wait list for gynaecological health screening.

So that’s STI screening, HPV screening. And the majority of women still forego their regularly scheduled appointments because they find them to be unnecessarily invasive and unpleasant.

So we want to create conditions for seamless gynaecological health checkups, but also for the treatment of whatever has been detected.

So we’ve created this telemedical platform that allows you to get screened for STIs, HPV infections, fertility inhibiting pathogens.

But then you are not just stuck with the results, which might be confusing or troubling, you also immediately get recommended next steps in aftercare and prescription treatments that you can take advantage of.

And doctors that you can speak with that are vetted and are empathetic to the problems that you might be facing.

Because we have an issue in the UK, not just with people not getting screened as much as they should, people also drop out of the treatment pathway because you get your results via NHS SMS or a letter, and then you freak out, and you prefer to not do anything about them.

Or it’s time-consuming to have to go to a sexual health clinic and obtain your aftercare.

So we want to make it really easy for people to manage their gynaecological health from the comfort and convenience of their homes.

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Want to know more about Daye and Valentina Milanova?

You can visit the Daye website here, and you can also follow their Instagram.

You can check out Valentina’s LinkedIn.

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