If you’re one of the tens of thousands of people who subscribe to the social media channels of disruptive NYC underwear startup Thinx, you were probably puzzled by the cryptic e-mail that arrived in your inbox on Friday.
Titled ‘A Note to Our Community’, the vague missive reaffirmed the brand’s commitment to “inclusive, all-embracing principles” and insisted readers should know that “it’s super-important that we connect directly with you … before we do or say anything else.” That’s it, thanks for reading.
The ominous note felt like the kind of pre-emptive PR strike sent out by companies that are about to deliver bad news and want to get a head start on the spin. It lacked details, context or any forward-looking statements, but it was clearly a rallying cry to the faithful and an attempt to mitigate the damage from some looming storm.
To get the full story — or what passes for it in the over-sharing online world where brands live nowadays — Thinx customers had to go digging to find the source material: first, a bruising takedown of the brand’s labor practices that appeared on Racked.com two days earlier; then, a personal blog posting from Thinx co-founder Miki Agrawal that showed up online shortly after the Friday e-mail blast.
Bottom line? Agrawal is stepping down, the company is hiring a new CEO and human resources manager, and one of the lingerie industry’s most celebrated newcomers is in the fight of its life following staff defections and a mountain of unflattering press that questioned the company’s feminist mission.
Best known for its patented leak-proof period panties, Thinx has always been driven by an altruistic women-friendly vision and displayed a knack for smashing cultural taboos with its fearless marketing about women’s hygiene.
The company launched in 2013 following two hugely successful crowdfunding campaigns and entered the market with the slogan “Change Your Underwear, Change The World.” Part of its appeal was the brand’s commitment to help women in developing countries overcome the stigma of menstruation, and Thinx partnered with a Uganda-based NGO to provide reusable pads to women there.
“Thinx is not an underwear brand, it’s very much a feminist movement,” Agrawal told Lingerie Talk in 2015. “We have a level of authenticity that you can’t fake and a level of cultural savviness you can’t make up. We understand very deeply what women are thinking about.”
Since then, Thinx has grown at a feverish pace (with 2016 revenues in the “tens of millions,” according to one report). It launched a sister brand, Icon, that sells incontinence underwear aimed at new moms; a portable home bidet kit, called Tushy, that hooks up to your toilet; and last month introduced its own line of organic tampons.
And, to help fulfill its mission of supporting women worldwide, in January the company launched a charitable foundation that will support its new Global Girls Fund. Partnering with local organizations in developing countries, the GGF offers a six-month education for girls 12-18 with a curriculum that encompasses human rights, sexual and reproductive health, financial literacy and entrepreneurship.
All of this activity — backed up by a blizzard of creative social media content promoting its feminist vision — has turned Thinx into a model for socially conscious startups and made Agrawal, 38, an examplar of #girlboss success.
But Thinx’s vaunted reputation came crashing down last week with the publication of a lengthy Racked article titled “Thinx Promised a Feminist Utopia to Everyone But Its Employees.”
Quoting unnamed current and former employees, the article depicted a high-pressure workplace riddled with hypocrisy and bullying. The company’s 30-plus employees — mostly millennial-age women — complained of low wages, poor benefits and the “erratic behavior” of its superstar boss. Most troubling was the workers’ descriptions of their uphill battle to win health benefits and paid maternity leave — a fight that seemed at odds with the company’s avowed mission to support women.
“It was like being in an abusive relationship,” one former employee said of a workplace culture that allegedly expected staff to make personal sacrifices for the privilege of being part of Thinx’s extraordinary success.
After its ‘Note to Our Community’ was distributed two days later, Thinx customers lashed out on social media, saying they felt disappointed, betrayed and heartbroken and demanding the company publicly address the numerous damning allegations in the Racked article.
It didn’t. Instead, Agrawal herself responded later the same day, though in an odd way — her blog post ‘My Thinx Ride’ appeared on a third-party content site and, inexplicably, was not posted on any of Thinx’s social media channels (which reach over 300,000 followers).
In it, she discusses the challenges of coping with “hockey stick growth,” saying: “All I did was the best I could under these crazy circumstances.”
“Yes, I have made a TON of mistakes along the way but I can proudly say that our company has grown from an idea in my head to an innovation that is worn by millions of satisfied women globally in a few short years,” she added. “And we have been at the forefront of the period feminism movement which truly is eliminating shame in the period space.”
Agrawal acknowledges she “didn’t take time to think through” the company’s HR challenges, but points to recent efforts to boost health benefits and pay employee bonuses averaging three-months’ salary.
“Everyone hustled and got paid,” she wrote. “I remember literally crying tears of joy on the days I was able to give out the bonuses because I never thought we’d ever get there.”
Agrawal, who is expecting her first child, told staff on March 10 of her decision to step down from her self-titled role as ‘She-E-O’ while the company hires an experienced chief executive and HR manager. Three other senior managers have been hired and Agrawal expects to stay on board in a new role with “front-facing duties.”
Thinx has always been a brand fuelled by passion and principles, and one that inspired passionate devotion among its followers. But — and here’s some irony — for a brand renowned for its savvy engagement with an adoring media, it’s now in desperate need of some good PR … and an honest conversation with its fans.
Agrawal is far from being the first entrepreneur to watch her business buckle under the weight of its own success and its founder’s managerial shortcomings. The fashion industry is littered with grim stories about DIY startups led by ambitious idealists (remember Sophia Amoruso?) who learn the hard way that you can’t run a business forever through sheer force of personality and good press clippings.
Whether Thinx succumbs to its self-inflicted wounds or manages to engineer its own second life remains to be seen. But Agrawal is optimistic, even philosophical, about the company’s recent stumble.
“It’s SO easy to find fault and complain about what people didn’t get and the things I lacked and I certainly admit wholeheartedly that I don’t have it all. No question,” she wrote. “But what I am calling all of this is an opportunity to learn and grow.
“My favorite saying is ‘iteration is perfection’ and this is simply part of the iterative process of growing a business. My head is high.”