As an 18-year-old student, Aimee Marks was assigned by a teacher to find a product category on the supermarket shelves that needed an overhaul.
She checked out the feminine hygiene aisle, and concluded that a tight group of big-name brands had been selling the same products for years, in brightly coloured packaging that was largely unchanged.
“I thought, there is a real problem here,” she says. “It started from a packaging and visual perspective… then the realisation that if I can reinvent the product from a packaging perspective, what is most meaningful is what is inside the packaging, and what impact that can have on people and the world.”
With a lifelong interest in health and organics, Marks was “astounded” that there were no organic cotton feminine hygiene options available. From that day, the seed was planted for what has become her escalating business, TOM Organic.
Marks, now 27, works from charming headquarters in Melbourne’s trendy suburb of St Kilda. TOM Organic shares office space in a mansion with other likeminded creative and environmentally sustainable companies. The space is run by the Small Giants group, an investor in her business.
We meet in the picturesque drawing room filled with vintage furniture. Burning candles send calming scents throughout the space, a six-burner cooktop takes pride of place in the shared kitchen, and there’s even a beehive on the roof to make honey – creating a sense that home and work-life blend seamlessly.
Marks’ husband Chris is a property entrepreneur and works in the office next door. The couple married earlier this year and he drops in to say hello during our meeting. In the early days of TOM Organic, Chris crunched the numbers, but now Marks has five full-time staff on hand facilitating the company’s steady growth.
Good ideas need nurturing
Marks nurtured her business idea throughout a three-year entrepreneurship degree at RMIT. Believing that great ideas can’t be rushed, she researched the feminine hygiene sector, learnt the ins and outs of business from willing mentors, and focused squarely on setting up her company after graduation.
Her passion was to create a product range that was non-toxic and sustainable. She wanted the offer to be pesticide, bleach, chemical and perfume free. She also wanted to create packaging that was artistic and attractive, to contrast the bright, bold products from other brands.
“It was more of a personal journey for me. I had this information and I didn’t ever want to use a product that has polypropylene on the outer wrap. I thought, I use over 12,000 of these (tampons) in my lifetime, and that can’t be good for me,” she says.
“There was the whole process of learning where the cotton was sprayed – cotton is one of the most toxic crops on the planet – so even if it doesn’t have polypropylene and it is just cotton, it is still being sprayed unless it is certified organic.”
Practicalities and purpose
Armed with a business plan, it took Marks another 18 months of solid work after university to get TOM Organic off the ground. A major barrier to entry was finding a cotton supplier that had unquestionable organic certifications.
“That was incredibly challenging… because organic cotton is such a rare, special crop,” she says.
“It was a huge process that took me years, with consistent research via the internet, connecting with the right people, and finally I found the right person to produce it.”
A European supplier met her standards, and TOM Organic is now approved by Australia Certified Organic.
“It was really important to me that with every single touch point in the business there was an aligned intention – people had to come first.
“It was my mentors that reminded me of these things. It can be such a blur, you wear many hats when you start a business and it is very tempting (to take shortcuts) to get a product on the shelf. But I think taking the extra time, and doing things with intention allowed us to be at the finished result with something that we are so incredibly proud of.”
Once Marks secured her cotton supply, transport, manufacturing and packaging issues had to be dealt with. Business Victoria proved helpful with advice on logistics and international relations.
“You can connect with some really great customs brokers as well. If you are working with a supportive company you should not be afraid to tell them ‘I haven’t done this, what are the things I should be doing and documenting?’
“Be vulnerable, as that is really powerful, as people want to see you win.”
The products are imported to Australia in bulk, ready for packaging at the TOM Organic warehouse.
“There were 50 (packaging) prototypes – I was testing it in my handbag, opening and closing the pack 14 or 15 times, to make sure it was serving the practical purpose,” she says.
Heartbreak to triumph
It appeared TOM Organic was off to an enviable start, with supermarket chain Woolworths keen to stock the brand on its shelves from the get-go. But elation turned to stress when Woolworths knocked the brand back – a situation Marks now describes as a “gift in disguise”.
“It was a really emotional rollercoaster for a long time…I was then challenged to go out with the product in the boot of my car to my local health food stores, and my local supermarkets. I built relationships with customers on the ground, with store owners and purchasing mangers who I still have incredible relationships with.
“I had this opportunity to trial without a huge risk, and really understand what women wanted.”
Marks spent time in every facet of the business, from sending mail to invoicing, and processing orders with her mum in her bedroom, always with the vision of taking the range far and wide.
“It was inevitable that we had to be where the mass was, and because it was organic, and no other mass supermarket in the entire world has ever offered a product like this before – (we thought) why can’t we be the first?”
Her dream came to fruition. Just three years on, TOM Organic is stocked in over 3000 stores nationally. Woolworths soon jumped on board, along with Coles, and the brand is set for expansion into New Zealand. In the first year, the turnover was approximately $60,000. In the third, it was approximately $1.1 million and it is forecast to double in the next 12 months.
In 2012, the company received B Corporation certification, which is a stamp of approval for its environmental and social efforts. It is one of only 11 companies in Australia with the honour.
“Last September I went to the US to attend a B Corporation retreat. I was able to stand up in front of 300 other certified B Corporations – we are talking companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Etsy – with all the CEOs in the room.
“It was an inspiring moment, to have this sense that you are part of something much wider, with some of the most influential people in the US.”
Spreading the word
Marks doesn’t view selling and promoting her products as a chore, but rather as a chance to share them and educate consumers about organics. The company engages brand ambassadors such as nutritionist Lola Berry, as well as public relations and social networking to market the range.
“I believe in driving word of mouth through credible recommendations, I think this is the most powerful way we can do that,” she says.
TOM Organic has alliances with the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation and the Sacred Heart Mission Women’s House in St Kilda, which Marks explains share the same social conscience as her company.
Marks says people often ask how she can ‘get out of bed every day for tampons?’
Her answer, she says, is the desire to bring women a product she believes they deserve. She recalls a conversation from her early career which serves as motivation. A woman explained to Marks that she had severe allergies to plastic, and she reacted harshly to conventional feminine hygiene products.
“She was shocked to learn there was an organic range of products that she could use without suffering.”
Her next goal is to expand into the US. She is also launching new product categories, but remains hush for now on what they will be. Building stronger support from pharmacy stockists is also a focus.
“It makes sense (for pharmacists) to recommend women use a 100% pure cotton product,” she says.
Marks confesses that much of her downtime is spent mulling over ideas for the business, drafting new packaging designs, sharing news about the product or pondering expansion ideas.
“I don’t refer to it as a job, I don’t have this disconnect, as it is an extension of all my values in my own world. What I’m trying to do is activate my role in the business in a more balanced way,” she says.
“I do enjoy gardening, knitting, simple things, getting out into the mountains, sports and yoga – anything that can allow me to unplug and tap into my own mind.”
She acknowledges the responsibility she has for the livelihood of five full-time staff members, but is confident in her business model and the advice she receives.
“It’s really important to maintain the idea of still being vulnerable, taking risks and still challenging the status quo in everything we are doing.
“Comfort and courage are mutually exclusive – you have to choose one.”