I have been in the business of female sexual and wellness and reproductive health for close to 15 years and those businesses that affect women for even longer. I am a Vagipreneur®, a person in the business of female sexual and reproductive health as well as a vocal advocate and frequent contributor to the conversations and growth of businesses in this space. I have always strived to be a positive role model and voice in this space. I try to keep my eye on the prize, working within the ecosystem of founders, investors, and health care practitioners in the space, believing that “a rising tide can raise all boats.”
This is an ongoing battle that I continue to fight. I started “fighting City Hall” in 2009 and 2010, when ads for the female wellness company I co-founded were rejected by 95 out of 100 outlets. An article on the topic about the disparity between men and women’s advertising and our company was published in the New York Times in September 2010 talking about the same challenges we are facing today in 2021.
According to TechCrunch:
In 2019, less than 3% of all VC investment went to women-led companies, and only one-fifth of U.S. VC went to startups with at least one woman on the founder team. The average deal size for female-founded or female co-founded companies is less than half that of only male-founded startups.
And fully armed with this knowledge, the companies and leaders in the space have responded by boldly digging in, improving business plans, showing traction, building partnerships, demonstrating leadership and literally moving mountains. But right now, today, this minute — the gaping irony (or disparity or inequality)– is really bugging me.
Over the past few months, I have found myself spending time pondering the question, “What if Hims had Been Born a Hers”. Hims, described as a one-stop telehealth service for men’s wellness and care, providing treatment options for hair loss, ED & more, was launched in 2017, followed by its female companion, Hers, in 2018.
Similarly, Ro (Founded as Roman), a healthcare technology company for men, was founded in 2017 and launched its women’s health products aimed at menopause, including hot flashes and vaginal dryness, under the brand name Rory in 2019. It is critical to note that both of those companies had raised significant capital (tens of millions of dollars) before the launch of their female health businesses.
Always one to hit a bullseye when it comes to identifying the challenges in femtech and sextech, firebrand, thought leader and femtech founder Cindy Gallop described the irony of this phenomenon at the end of last year:
Male sexual health and wellness platforms Roman and Hims were both founded in 2017, and had no problem raising huge amounts of funding from male VCs. Roman raised $88 in their first year; Hims raised $197million. They faced no advertising barriers, and so were able to scale rapidly, expand into more areas of health and wellness and raise more funding. While female founders can’t get funded, Hims was able to expand into Hers for women. Roman raised a further $85 million in 2019 and $200 million this year at a $1.5 billion valuation. Hims raised $100 million in 2019 at a $1 billion valuation.
And then came the announcement at the end of 2020 that Hims & Hers filed to go public through a merger with blank-check company Oaktree Acquisitions Corp. In January 2020, the merger was completed, valuing the company at $1.6B.
I have no doubt that both Hims and Ro will continue to provide important services including telehealth, prescriptions, in-home and diagnostic services for millions. Better health is good for everyone. I really applaud HIMS and Ro for achieving their success and their ability to keep customers and drive growth. Without a doubt there are plenty of growth opportunities, customers money and exits to go around. Although there are companies funded like HIMS and Roman who have started with tons of capital, which creates influence, the ability to advertise, and more capital, acquisitions and liquidity.
The truth is that it is hard to catch up when you start behind the eight ball when it comes to funding. According to Crunchbase, Pulse, Gennev and Unbound had raised $8.7 million, $1.3 million and $3.5 million respectively by 2019, compared to the hundreds of millions raised by Ro and HIMS during that same time period. Polly Rodriguez, CEO and co-founder of Unbound, a sexual wellness company as well as a thought leader and advocate in the space commented, ““When you have that kind of money, Facebook is going to work with you.”
Sadly, this story is old news– at least since 2010 in my experience. Facebook consistently insists that it bans ads that “promote the sale or use of adult products or services, except for ads for family planning and contraception.” In an interview with CNBC in 2019 (no not much has changed), a Facebook rep shares the company perspective,
“All ads are equally subject to our advertising policies, which are stricter than our community standards. Facebook has long had a policy that limits ads with adult content and adult products in part because we take into account the wide array of people from varying cultures and countries who see them. We continue to review these specific ads.”
So how do you explain that Hims and Ro could consistently run ads for erectile dysfunction, but companies like Pulse and Gennev focused on women in menopause are not allowed anything in the same latitude.
Take a look at the tweet Polly Rodriguez shared earlier this week hims’ advertisements on vibrators…
Dame products made headlines for their lawsuit against the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), accusing the MTA of being sexist for not running a $150,000 ad campaign that featured their sex toys, while Ro and Hims were running ads for erectile dysfunction medications — posters that included a close-up photo of a man’s crotch and shots of droopy or rigid cactuses (get it?). And don’t forget that Unbound and Thinx, the creators of the period underwear category also had high-profile scuffles with the MTA over the same kinds of issues. Dame and Unbound ultimately launched a campaign, “Approved, Not Approved”, bringing attention to the different standards around approving Facebook ads, their company and others organized a protest in front of Facebook’s NY office.
So, I am left to ponder, If Hims had been born Hers, today, would Hers be a multi-billion dollar public company? Would the company be continuing its rapid growth creating new partnerships with health care organizations and pharmacy fulfillment services, supported by the money to do it?
Unfortunately, female wellness brands — define them however you wish as sexual, reproductive, gynecological health companies- are clearly not competing on the same playing field as their male counterparts. As they say, this too shall pass. With effort, time, smarts, conversation, investments, the amazing founders driving women’s health companies will be the Hims and Ro’s of tomorrow.
As the GOAT, Michael Jordan said, “If you are trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks…But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” Obstacles, roadblocks, challenges — we are putting you on notice. WE are coming for you.