The startup striving to make talking about vaginal wellness as normal as discussing skin and hair care
This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
When Daniella Levy cofounded Happy V in 2017, a line of probiotics that target women’s vaginal health, she was focused on extracting ingredients from natural sources that are scientifically proven to improve women’s health. She was also adamant about opening up the conversation to talk about women’s vaginal health.
After struggling for years with bacterial vaginosis (BV), a condition where there is an excess of bacteria in the vagina, Levy decided that it was time to take her health into her own hands and start the conversation about vaginal health. According to the CDC, approximately 21 million women between the ages of 14 and 49 have bacterial vaginosis.
Levy is quick to point out that not talking about our bodies and health can be more hazardous than helpful. Yet the only remedy her gynecologist gave her was a continuous prescription of antibiotics for four years to combat an “abundance of bad bacteria.” After doing her own research, Levy found that long-term antibiotic use can do more harm than good. So with her partner she formulated Happy V’s probiotic supplements, developed to balance bacteria counts, which she says have kept her BV-free for several years.
Fortune recently spoke with Levy to learn more about the business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome, as well as plans for the new year.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Could you share a bit about your background and what you were doing professionally prior to launching Happy V?
Levy: I actually started research and development for Happy V during my last year of college while I was getting my degree in marketing. During that time I also had the opportunity to work on the social media marketing side for a couple of direct-to-consumer sports nutrition brands where we had partnered with some of the largest influencers back then. This was during a time when there wasn’t much data or analytics on how to measure campaign performance with influencers. Basically, we thought if an influencer had 14 million followers, that would equate to at least a 10% conversion rate, which was not valid. So there was a lot of trial and error.
However, the lessons I learned from that experience were so valuable that I later on applied them to Happy V’s strategy: build the foundation of the brand first before implementing partnerships and influencers, while also making sure that the partnerships align with the brand’s vision and mission, as well as asking for the right deliverables.
What inspired you to launch Happy V?
Like many women at a young age, we are taught about periods, but they never actually go in depth about the other million reproductive health issues that can happen in your lifetime. Toward the end of my college years, I started to experience unusual discomfort and vaginal health–related issues that no one had ever told me about; even to speak about it in social settings—it was definitely seen as a taboo topic. Behind closed doors, I started to research my symptoms and try to figure out exactly what it was that I was experiencing. Of course, every diagnosis I found on WebMD led to either cervical cancer or an STD.
So I did what any woman in my shoes would do: schedule a visit to the gynecologist. This is where I found myself month after month for three years in a never-ending battle with bacterial vaginosis, the vaginal infection you’ve probably never heard of. During this time in my life, I felt as though I didn’t have control over my vaginal health. I had been prescribed every antibiotic and cream and tried every natural remedy, OTC, and supplement on the market.
At one of my visits to the gynecologist, I asked, “Why do you keep prescribing antibiotics? It’s clearly not working.” And her response was, “There are no other treatments on the market for bacterial vaginosis.” This is when I had an epiphany that I had to find a solution to this problem.
There are supplements delivering everything from extra vitamins to CBD. What went into the research and development process for Happy V to ensure the products offer the kind of care promised on the bottle?
Adhering to our label claims is one of the most important parts of the Happy V business. Luckily, we own our manufacturing facility. This gives us complete oversight and control over every step of the process; from sourcing and purchasing the raw material, all the way to packaging and proper storage of our products.
At Happy V, we make sure that all of the raw ingredients we source have clinical studies to back them up. And not only do we ensure there are studies, but we also do our due diligence to ensure that every batch we manufacture has the correct dosage per serving, based on that study. For example, if a study was conducted and shows that 8 billion colony-forming units, CFUs, were effective in minimizing symptoms of BV, we do not manufacture with 4 billion or 12 billion CFUs per serving. We manufacture our products at the clinically tested dosage—8 billion CFUs, in this case—to always ensure product efficacy.
We also work with in-house formulators and biochemists, who help us combine ingredients, so we can maximize the health benefits of each of our products. Owning the manufacturing facility where all of this takes place gives us the unique advantage to be as precise and meticulous as we want, because our Happy V consumers deserve that quality of precision and dedication.
The past few years have seen a number of new businesses emerge to better serve women’s health, from menstrual cups to period underwear. How do you see the public conversation around vaginal health, in particular, evolving?
One of the first things we did when we launched Happy V, was define our short-term and long-term goals. Interestingly, one of the things we collectively as a team decided to focus on was minimizing the stigma around vaginal health and normalizing the conversation. While it takes a village, Happy V played an integral role in creating a comfortable and safe space to talk about vaginal health and wellness. We’ve done Instagram Live, podcasts, TikTok videos—you name it; Happy V has been a conversation starter and facilitator.
We agree that this category and topic of conversation has been considered taboo for way too long, and we’re thrilled that the public conversation is finally shifting. We still have a ways to go, but it’s remarkable how much things can change in just a couple of years, and we’re excited for what the future holds.
It’s no secret that women have trouble securing funding, with female founders raising only between 2% and 3% in venture capital funding over the past few years, on average. What has fundraising been like, before and since the start of the pandemic?
It is true that women are having issues securing funding, but there are other sides to the story that make it very interesting. First off, consumer research website CB Insights shows significant expansion on their fem-tech market map regarding women-owned brands since 2017.
Also, with the ever-growing call for inclusivity and diverse ownership in startups, we have personally seen more opportunities for female founders to get funding, before and since the start of the pandemic—especially brands that are wellness-tech–driven. It’s a great combination.
That being said, Happy V is in a unique position where funding is not a requirement for success at the moment. We have found that most companies ask for funding for two reasons: the first is to “scale,” and the second is to buy inventory needed in order to do so.
Happy V owns and operates its own manufacturing company, which allows us to more closely control the cost drivers associated with having a direct-to-consumer product. And with no middlemen costs, those savings in costs of goods sold are used for marketing.
Last, Happy V is in no rush for exponential growth; we believe that getting the foundation right is of the utmost importance. We spend so much time getting the basics done right and focusing on the education aspect rather than purely selling. So many times the idea of “grow fast” seems attractive, but is not necessary in all business models.
Looking forward, where do you want to see Happy V in five years?
In five years, Happy V will be at the forefront as a wellness brand that is not only creating highly effective scientifically backed products but is also an educational platform. This is a platform that helps women understand what is going on in their bodies, and informs them on how to reach their wellness goals through lifestyle changes at every stage.
Happy V was started because of the lack of education around occurrences in different stages of life, such as vaginal infections, menopause, menstruation discomforts, etc., and how those pertain to dietary supplements. There is so much frustration around the unknown and so many unanswered questions, specifically in this category: vaginal wellness.
The expectations of our customers must be addressed and managed. That means being far more diligent in mapping the actual experiences these women are going through, listening to them, and having empathetic conversations that promise to help them solve their wellness challenges. Happy V is and will continue to be a brand you can trust and that is there for you at every stage of your life journey.
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