The original story behind TOM Organic is well-known: founder Aimee Marks, fresh out of university, has an idea. She wants to start an organic tampon business. A family friend loans her $10,000, and within a year, TOM Organic hits the shelves of its very first stockists. Now ten years in, Aimee shares a new story: how the business has grown in the past decade and the most important lessons she’ll carry into the next ten years of business.
TOM Organic first began as a business not long after I left university, but I’d already been thinking about it for many years by then. It was an idea that stuck with me; I knew I needed to do something with it.
Fast forward ten years and TOM Organic has grown from me working in my bedroom to a team of 18. We’ve launched new TOM products, such as our applicator tampons and overnight pads, to a new eco-nappy and wipes brand in tooshies by TOM. I’ve had three children, and my leadership role in the business has evolved.
Most importantly, I can say that everything we’re doing today is everything I’ve always dreamed of for this business. As we celebrate 10 years of TOM, there are new stories to be told. Stories that I haven’t shared before.
In reflecting on the past decade, I wanted to share the key lessons I’ve learned, for ourselves and others to use as a blueprint in the future.
1. Passion is everything
It’s been great to see conversations about careers led by passion rather than working for the sake of working evolve over the past decade. As Maya Angelou said “nothing will work unless you do”, and I believe we do our best work when we’re passionate about it.
We’re rarely taught that sense of possibility at school or university, how to recognise and pursue what your passion. Studying entrepreneurship at university helped me identify my passion for business. Still, it was my obsession with an idea that led me to create TOM Organic.
Passion is what first encourages you to take that leap – and it’s what keeps you going when things are challenging. I remember early on I was reaching out to potential suppliers, stockists, collaborators, advisors and I got nothing back for a really long time. It took two years to even find a manufacturer that I trusted to work with me on the product! I would do as much as I could each day to keep the momentum going, treating every step as a step forward. Eventually, those suppliers and then stockists began to return my emails.
So if you have an idea you can’t get away from, just do it. Write that list and go. Sometimes you simply need to put one foot in front of the next and take it forward. My approach is the same today, with a little bit more momentum and scale.
2. Be of service
In bringing an idea to life, you need to be able to interrogate and challenge your assumptions about it. Be clear about the problem that you’re solving and make sure that solution is purposeful, not just to you but to the community it is for.
Being of real service connects you to a higher purpose. It is more rewarding because you’re creating a solution to a problem or need instead of creating something superfluous or wasteful. A necessity product (like tampons) will always be purposeful and useful. Still, ultimately, a product that solves a consumer need will stand out from the rest.
Being of service also means working closely with your suppliers and community to reflect what is valuable to them. Meeting with the groceries early on, their insights and the feedback from our early partners was invaluable to the development of TOM Organic.
One of the things I’m most proud of is how our community of women are so invested in the business. Our customers truly own our story and brand, and it’s become a real movement. It all started from us being of service to them and providing something of real value.
3. Get resourceful without resources
Whether your business is new or established, you should be able to be resourceful without resources, solving the most critical problems within your limitations.
Early on in TOM Organic, I would go and present to potential stockists. I didn’t have a fancy presentation – I would set up two glasses of water, one with a conventional tampon and one with a TOM Organic tampon. The visual of the fibres coming off the conventional tampon was a powerful way to explain our purpose and point of difference, even if it wasn’t a particularly sophisticated presentation. Challenging how we could most effectively tell our story meant questioning our assumptions on pitching and connecting to customers.
This approach can also apply to your literal resources as a business. Capital is one of the key factors holding women back from building businesses. I always believed that to prove our concept; I had to put my money where my mouth was. From the beginning, TOM Organic has been (and still is) independently owned. This allows us to be creative and try new things – the limitations of our funding have helped guide our decision making.
While we’re a decade in, there are still many women who don’t know about us. As a still relatively small team, we will continue to find resourceful ways to tell our story and connect with women who align with our values.
4. Stick to your values
From the beginning, the integrity and values of our brand were non-negotiables of the business. I had the company values for TOM Organic outlined from the outset – even though I had no idea how to build a business, or get the products made.
Product quality, health, environment and accessibility were our foundational business focuses, and remain true today. Our values are alive in the way it feels to be part of our team, to buy and use our products, and how it feels to connect with our community.
When we’ve had things go wrong – hires that weren’t right, decisions made more by short term profit than long term gain – these have usually been from misalignment with our values.
Sticking to our values has, in some ways, become easier over the years because some of the values we hold have become more mainstream – which is only a good thing! It reaffirms what we’re doing and why we do it every day.
5. Surround yourself with good people
(who will also challenge you!)
At the core of TOM Organic is our relationships – from our partners when the business first started to the suppliers and staff who we still work with today.
Starting, one of the very first things I did was to connect with a mentor who is incredible in product and product design. I quickly learned that it doesn’t matter what product it is, whether it was a tampon or muesli bar; the process is the same.
Many of our founding manufacturing partners took a gamble on us in the beginning because we invested the time in building the relationship. For people looking to start a product-led business, you can’t underestimate the value of your manufacturing partner and their value set to help you get there.
As a $60,000 business with 80 health food stores in the early days (we’re now in over 2,500 stores), our initial business partners took a leap of faith in trusting my vision. TOM Organic was a blue sky business at that time. I’ll always be grateful to them for taking a risk.
Getting the right business advice and partners is crucial, and having an incredible team is equally important. There are team members at TOM Organic today who have been there from the very early days, alongside me in the trenches of a startup business. More recently, I’ve been adjusting to the changes to my role in the business as it evolves and having the right people around me has been crucial. You need a support network, but also people who can push back on you and challenge your thinking for the betterment of the business.