The Secret Leaders podcast, hosted by Dan Murray, often recounts the stories of some of the world’s most interesting entrepreneurs, leaders, business owners, and thought leaders. Murray often probes thought-provoking questions, and leads conversations meant to inspire, excite, and draw listeners in a little closer. Recently, social entrepreneur Miki Agrawal visited the podcast, and the two discussed her entrepreneurial journey.
An industry disruptor, Miki Agrawal is the founder of many companies that aim to push the envelope within traditionally taboo spaces, including pizza, periods, and poop. Agrawal is behind Wild, Thinx, and her newest venture, Tushy. In addition to running successful businesses, Agrawal is often revered as a thought leader and public speaker, and can be found sharing her innermost thoughts and entrepreneurial journey via various platforms.
Here is an excerpt from her podcast appearance:
Dan Murray: Why did you stop doing pizzas? What moment comes about where you’re like, “I’ve had enough now or I’m moving on?” What’s the story there? And where did you get your next spark of inspiration?
Miki Agrawal On Moving On
Miki Agrawal: So, I was robbed by literally every manager, pretty much most managers, most workers. Anytime I went from one restaurant and left go to my other restaurant, I finally managed to like save up enough change to open up my second restaurant. I was so proud of myself. I had these small moments that I still can, if I tap back into those moments, I could literally feel it in my body, which is, I remember driving my bicycle from my upper Eastside restaurant to my West village restaurant on my bicycle, and the sun was setting, and it was like this first spring day, and I was like, “Ugh, I made this life.” It was like this imprinting moment of, “I’m choosing my own destiny here.” It was a really powerful moment.
From there, I swallowed a big fat pill of life basically where, when I would go from one restaurant to another, that one restaurant that would do really well, would all of a sudden be half in sales. I was like, “Oh, I wonder what it is.” And then eventually I finally had a friend sent in a friend to just go like, “I doubt. These guys, I got him a car. I bought him a new bike, there’s no way.” I found out that they would take the money, put it in the tip chart, and would it ring it up, and just keep it. So, just stuff, crazy like that, where I just had to learn how to navigate theft and things like that. I had one manager over the course of four years stole like $100,000 from me. Just stuff like that, where I was just like, “Oh my God, how naive?”
So I finally found my restaurant partner who’s still my partner to this day, 2013, where Walid, I met him through Moby, and he was running Moby’s vegan restaurant in the Lower East side and we’d met. He had good energy, and finally, I was like, “Who can I work with?” I finally, after seven years of trying and trying and trying, I was like, “I’m clearly not a restaurant operator. I’m the creative, I’m the person who has the ideas, marketing. I can get people to come in. I get people to stay. I can talk to all the people in the restaurant, but when it comes to the restaurant operations, I need someone.” And so, I finally looked at my room, and I was like, “Oh, Walid, let me just call him.” And Walid was such a divine intervention moment where I was just like, he came to a restaurant, he goes, “Oh, your restaurant’s name is what? My name is Walid. Walid wild Wild Walid.”
Well, again, I was just like, I was the first thing. And then my first question to him, I was like, “Walid, do you believe in karma?” At that point, I’d been so screwed. So he said, “Miki, every time I have a bad thought, a bicycle run over of my foot.” And I was like, “Ugh, great.” I was like, “Are you the genie from Aladdin?” I was just so excited that he really believed in karma and that he felt like even having a bad thought a bicycle runs over his foot, and ever since then he’s been my partner. He’s been so loving and so real. And the one thing that I also learned was the minute he took over my restaurants, within the first week, our numbers doubled. Within the first month, our numbers tripled. And I was like, for seven years, I was working just barely because I was just not aware of how to run it in a way that was operationally sound.
Murray: Yeah. Because you don’t believe in karma. I’m just joking.
On Learning The Tough Lessons
Miki Agrawal: Well, I clearly did, because I didn’t think anyone was stealing from me. I was so naive.
Dan Murray: Yeah. True. That’s actually, I think one of the best interview questions I’ve ever heard. Obviously, it would turn loads of people off, but that’s actually kind of perfect.
Miki Agrawal: I know.
Dan Murray: A great interview question. I’ve got so many interviews to do tomorrow. Genuinely, I’m going to ask it on all of them and let you know how it goes.
Miki Agrawal: Please, I would really love that. I’m curious how people respond.
Dan Murray: I’m 100% doing it.
Miki Agrawal: I can’t wait. I can’t wait. Because Walid was able to take over the operations, it then really freed up my time to focus on other ideas and other big dreams and other things I wanted to do. And in 2005, when my twin sister and I, we were at our barbecue and we were defending our three-legged race championship title, in the middle of our race, my sister started her period. And we were tied to each other because we were a three-legged race, and she started period. Her blood was like running into my sock and it was just like, “Oh my God.” And so, we had to run through the finish line up the stairs into the bathroom. And so she can change out her bathing suit bottoms and wash them out.
As she was washing out her bathing suit bottoms, was when the idea hit for the next company, which is called Thinx. It was like period-proof underwear. We were like, “No stains, period.” We had come up with all these terribly hilarious punny dumb slogans for it. But then I had just started my restaurant, so we tabled it. And then finally, when my partner came in to the space, I was able to re-pick that up and brought in a third co-founder and my sister and we all started working on that again really in 2011. And then 2014 is when we launched the company. 2013, a Kickstarter, and launched a company in 2014, and then really spent, again, the next few years, building out the next business.
Dan Murray: So with Thinx, you started in 2013, launched a Kickstarter in 2014. Take us on a little journey. What happened with the company? How did you grow? What happened afterwards? What led you to your next journey?
The Power of Crowd-Sourcing
Miki Agrawal: My goodness, it was such a crazy story, but we, in 2013 and 2014, when we really started to try to fund rules, we raised a big fat donut because all of the investors were like, “Ew, bleed in your underwear, that sounds like the worst idea I’ve ever heard of my entire life. I would never know where I would buy this.” All the women were like, “I would never bleed in my underwear, this makes no sense.” And we were like, “Yeah, but it uses backup. It’s not just straight bleeding.” Although now everyone just bleeds right into them and they wash them out. But it was just such a foreign thing back then. And so we raised no money. And so we had to launch a Kickstarter campaign.
And the Kickstarter, we raised $65,000. And that was by contacting my kindergarten teacher on Facebook and whatever, anyone who would buy, we were just like, “Hey, I haven’t talked to you in 30 years, but check out we’re about to Kickstart.” It was just like such a… People were like, “Oh, she just launched a Kickstarter.” Kickstarter in and of itself is like a marathon of selling your product. And it was a first real foray of like, “Wow, this is really hard.” But we sold 3000 units, we raised $65,000 on Kickstarter. We then entered a few competitions. We won one competition, won a $25,000 cash prize. And then we launched an Indiegogo campaign, raised another 20,000 Indiegogo. Then we launched a 1.0 website and raised another 25.
So we basically cobbled together about $130,000 just from no fundraising whatsoever, just from these kinds of presales. And then we were able to basically manufacture our first 3,000 units. And our third co-founder had met a potential manufacturing person on the plane randomly on our way on a trip somewhere. And he was half Chinese, half American. So he had a contact in China that can make the underwear. It was just like this, again, the universe just throwing us these bread crumbs to make this possible.
We then finally raised… So then we sent out these 3,000 pairs, and then we sent out a survey monkey to all of our customers finally, after we delivered these pairs in the most crazy way possible, because it was like from Kickstarter of Indiegogo, from presales, from our website, it was so labor-intensive to shipped them all by hand ourselves. And then we basically… We sent a survey monkey, got some survey responses from customers, which 99% of them were like, “This is the greatest thing ever, it changed my life.” And that’s where we’re able to take those survey responses to friends and family and be like, “Hey, like, look, can we? It’s a business. It’s a thing.” And so, we ended up raising, cobbled together just around $400,000 to start the business, which was still not that much money to really get inventory, but that was all we could raise.
And so, we were like, we’re starting, we’re going to launch a website and we’re going to get some inventory and then figure out. And my first two employees were barely getting paid. One was still in school and the other one just graduated. And I was still a first-time direct-to-consumer brand founder, and besides my restaurant is a very different type of business. And so we ended up hiring a lot of, pretty much young, 20-something types, and a lot of young epic creatives. The first hires for me were creatives. Because we needed to really crack the code on how to present this product to customers in a way that was palatable because it was like, “Again, ew, period underwear, what the hell is this?”
And we grew, and then all of a sudden 2015 came and we had this huge opportunity to do our very first subway campaign. We put these beautiful artful ads together and the New York Cty subway system, basically the MTA said, “No. You can’t say the word period in the subway. You can’t have a halved grapefruit on the subway, because it looks like a vagina.” And we were like, “It’s a grapefruit.” And they were using…
On Raising A Few Eyebrows
Dan Murray: Yeah, what are you talking about? That’s definitely not a vagina. It’s a grapefruit guys.
Miki Agrawal: Right. And also they were using the exact same fruit, the grapefruit to represent augmented breasts. They had little oranges to represent a sad woman with small breasts. And then using these big grapefruits to represent these big breasts and a woman on a big smile on her face. You could use them for that, but you can’t use them to represent the thing that creates human life, a woman’s period, it doesn’t make any sense. And so, we basically said, “If you don’t let us advertise in the subways, we’re going to press and we’re going to tell this story.” And they were like, “Go to press.” And I was like, “Oh, you called my bluff. I don’t know any press.”
So I found two people who I knew through people, one from the Forbes and one from at the time, mike.com, and I sent them an email subject, heading, Scandal with the MTA. Both of them decided they wanted to write the story. And I was like, “Oh my God, perfect. You both get the exclusive.” They were like, “That’s not how exclusives work.” And I’m still such a green person in this field, in the field of PR and press, and all of that, that I just was like, “Oh, oh, I’m not going to give it to anyone else, but both of you could write this story.” Anyways, mike.com ended up taking the story. The story went viral internationally. And that’s what put us on the map. And it really changed the entire storyline of our business. And we went from a tiny business to all of a sudden doing 1 million, 2 million, 3 million, 4 million, 5 million a month and just growing so fast. And it was just like, oh my God, holding on for dear life, obviously never experienced anything like this. We were just dying to hire people.