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August Founder Nadya Okamoto on creating a community of 2.4M followers on TikTok

Today we’re learning from Nadya Okamoto, the founder of August, the lifestyle period brand that makes sustainable period care that actually works.

Nadya is one of those women that is impossible not to be impressed by and excited about, she’s a Harvard grad, author, speaker, NGO founder, gen z marketing agency founder and now august as well as a Tiktoker that’s grown to 2.4 million followers. Crazy stuff.

The gem in this episode is when she steps through her thoughts on Tiktok. It’s pretty crazy!

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

I'm Nadya Okamoto. I'm based in New York city. I just graduated from college in june and I'm the CEO and Co-founder of a brand called August. We are a lifestyle period brand, making more sustainable period care and trying to make periods a little bit more fun. I love it also by the way, love the biodegradable pads, which is kind of like blowing my mind. Did that exist before or did you invent that? We didn't like completely invent it, but they weren't readily available when we started that we started introducing them. But yeah, it's kind of crazy like most pads take 5-8 centuries to decompose and have a lot of plastic in them and ours are fully biodegradable within 12 months and they work better. Yeah, you kind of blew my mind when I saw that video on Tiktok of you dissolving it and I was like, shut the front door.

00:03:37Edit Like this seems like crazy stuff that I've never seen before. So wow, congrats on that, love that you have all sorts of cool things on the go. You've been at Harvard, you are an author speaker. Tiktoker, you've built an NGO gen Z marketing agency now, august, where do you like to start your entrepreneurial story? I think for me it really starts at 16 at 16 was when I like officially like legally incorporated the first nonprofit that I worked on and I ended up leading that for about six years. Um, but I think 16 was when I really started, I think prioritizing my work outside of school, you know, and really thinking of like, okay, who am I? I am someone who likes loves and lives and breathes this work. So I think 16 is really the start of it. That is some crazy stuff right there, wow, so inspiring. And just crazy to me that you've already been doing this for so long, where does august start? Like what actually kind of transitioned you to be like, let's build this into a consumer product brand.

00:04:43Edit Yeah, I mean the nonprofit is still growing and it's totally separate. Um, I think that it was a lot of different things along the journey. I think first and foremost when you run a nonprofit for six years focused on distribution of period products, you're dealing with a lot of period products, right. I think in my time as executive director we were, you know, collecting as donations and then moving around like upwards of 25 million units of period products during my time as executive director. So I was handling a lot of period products and at the same time, I think you kind of de facto become a spokesperson for these brands as you're distributing a lot of these products. And I just kind of was learning more and more about the values of the brands that we were working with and the quality of the products. And I think while I was super thankful for the partnership, there were a lot of things that I disagreed with and there are a lot of things that I think we're easy paying points, right. Whether it be, you know, why is it impact directly embedded into all of the purchases? You know? But period products can be more sustainable. Why aren't we talking about it? They can be more gender inclusive and we can talk about periods a little bit more boldly.

00:05:47Edit And so I think that along my nonprofit journey, I had a lot of questions about like the role of brands and impact. Um, and I think that that's something that our whole society has been really reckoning with, right? Like in a capitalist system, what is the social responsibilities of business, especially in the consumerist culture. And as gen Z sees like the obsession with brands. And you know, then I wrote a book called Period Power and through the research of doing my book, was learning a lot about just the commodification of period products and how they've been mass marketed and really kind of building a thesis on why I think that these, the stigma has been perpetuated by the markets as well. Um and so I think that was a huge part of pushing me to really think critically about the power of and and potential of running a brand differently? And then I, you know, was on gen z marketing side, working with a lot of these brands and just feeling more and more that there needed to be some change in the industry. So it's really like all of that led up to the beginning of 2020, I stepped away from both my positions that I was working on elsewhere to really focus on this.

00:06:57Edit I read that in the beginning you spent like a year to a year and a half just focusing on building the community and I wanted to know like specifically or like tactically speaking, how were you building that community, where were you finding people to join your community? What did that actually look like at the beginning? Building our community which we call our inner cycle. It was super word of mouth, right? It was like me bringing in a few close contacts texting our friends saying, hey, you know, we were paying a lot of attention to the demographic information so we wanted to make sure it was like diverse and political views and geographic representation in um age and race. And so for a lot of it, it was like, let's really intentionally build a community that is hyper diverse, hyper inclusive and um word of mouth. And then naturally as we grew now it's like anybody can join our community right through social and we slowly let people into that digital home. It's like, it's off of social media on an app called Geneva, which is kind of like slack for gen z and that's really where we're building a lot of it.

00:07:59Edit So I think that it was kind of progressively, how do we grow a community while maintaining that like special sense of intimacy? Mhm. Mhm. Mhm. Could you go a little bit deeper? Like in those kind of early months, the kinds of things that you were doing relating to the brand? Like were you actually developing the brand with the community asking them kind of like to play a part in it or was it more of these like just conversations in general, It was kind of a mix of everything, like honestly, so we are most of our team members we hired from directly from the community like we were on phone calls with and we're like wait you're amazing or okay, this person keeps reaching out with interest and being more involved. So I'd say that like about half of our team, our commute former community members and current community members, right? Um but I think that a lot of it was like we really followed the lead of our community. There was never like, oh this is exactly how we're going to develop the brand and product with the community. It was like, well let's just see how they want to be involved and like learn from them. And so a lot of it was, you know, we would do these surveys, these paid surveys just trying to figure out like what are the pain points we would do like longer deep dive calls and then you know, we would maybe bring on a few other people like try the product before we made any final decisions on the brand side.

00:09:11Edit It was like we presented the three different name ideas and um you know the different logo concepts before choosing, we would like present to them and kind of hear their feedback. Um and so I think a lot of it was listening and then coming up with different proposals and then like kind of feeding it back and saying like which ones work, which ones don't work. Um like before we even decided on like how the products we're gonna be branded, we sent the like unbranded sample products to some of our like 20 of our community members and we're like just try the tampons and like let us know if they're better, you know? And so I think that a lot of it was um you know, kind of also following the lead of the community on how they wanted to be involved and that was really intentional because I think that you see a lot of brands who, you know, kind of forced community to be involved and it's not the most authentic thing and for us, we were like, we just, if we, we don't want to make anyone uncomfortable and we want to just really follow the lead and there are very clear examples of people who are on one call with us and then get so excited and then we're talking to them every week, you know? So I think it really depends on the individual as well totally.

00:10:12Edit And how big in those early days was the community when you were sending out packages and getting people involved in pitching and all that kind of stuff. Was it already quite big? Or for a little bit, it was like 50 and then it was like 100 you know, and so I think that now it's like over 2000, oh my God, wow, It's definitely like progressively grown, but at the beginning days like we were dealing with the community maybe like 20-40 people um and then it became like 100 and then over the last six months it's going to be like 2500. And I love to ask that because it's like obviously people can look at things now and be like, oh yeah of course you have thousands of members, it makes so much sense, but like everyone starts somewhere, a community start, a community can just be five people getting together, like you said with a WhatsApp group and and just chatting and sharing and seeing how it evolves, it doesn't need to be like overnight 2000 people, you know? Yeah and it can't, it kind of like it can't grow that quickly because I think that the beauty of the community now is like I really cherish the days that we spent like really focused on just growing the community intentionally, because now like I log on to the community home and people are having these really deep conversations and I think it still has that intimate feeling and that's something that I never want to lose and I don't think you really get that if you grow from 0 to 2000 overnight because people don't really get to know each other.

00:11:32Edit I think also growing slowly, thoughtfully allowed us to really give the time to think about how do you do community moderation, How do you give space for organic community discussion but also like maintain the psychological safety of people who are joining the community, especially when we're talking about things that do you know, do get really intense around like mental health and things like that. So I think that for us, like it was really important that we spent those early days focusing on like what is our community, what's the purpose of the community? How do we interact with the community? How do we navigate building a community and how do we maintain the intimacy of it too? Absolutely, it's so true. I just wanted to also say a quick shout out to Geneva because they are so great. I love that platform. It's so fun to use so much better getting like off facebook groups and like off slack and into this new space. That's very like, I don't know, visually pleasing. Yeah, for sure. For sure. Before we get into like the marketing side of everything that you're doing and kind of like now building your community through, I want to talk about the money piece, to launch the brand, it's something that we always love to ask on the show.

00:12:36Edit What kind of capital did you need to invest kind of pre fundraise to get the brand off the ground and what was your approach or your thoughts towards funding in the beginning? Well, this is my first time, this is not my first time raising capital, but it's my first time raising capital for a company, you know, I think that like I raised on my nonprofit, probably raised like $6 million over six years to really support the organization, but this was my first time like working on a for profit venture social enterprise that was and also recent capital and I think also being on the product side, you people don't realize like how, how much money you need, right? Like we needed to raise a lot of money simply because of the product brand that was making a new sort of product. We have to put in a minimum quantity order, which was like a few million tampons and pads, right? Which means that like upfront initially to have product or do that development in general, you have to put cash up front, I think similarly, like, well me and my co founder weren't paid for a while, everybody else who was involved was paid, you know, and I think that was really important to us from the very beginning and so, You know, for us, I think that before fundraise, it was just me and my co founder, honestly developing the brand on our own.

00:13:48Edit I think we spent maybe $5,000 on a graphic designer to really focus on like developing the brand with us and trying out different names and things like that. And so I think that at the beginning, like we were self funding that little bit and just like we took over a year to fundraise and over the course of a year. Um, and having so many conversations, we ended up closing our pre seed round at nearly $2 million. So we raised two mil and that was really meant to last us through like the first 8 to 10 months of business and also to cover the first, if you purchase orders right, which honestly is already like a lot of the cash. Um, and so for us, it was like really focusing on kind of figuring out like making sure that we had a really stellar product, developing a supply chain that we felt really good about. And I think, you know, for those of you who know august now that we're carbon neutral, so we offset all of our carbon footprint and like that's a really big part of it and making sure that we have a supply chain that we can be super transparent about and proud of, which also took capital right, taking capital to do the third party investigations or inspections and making sure that we have the capabilities to build out a really thoughtful website and a really thoughtful customer experience.

00:14:55Edit Um, and uh, and yeah, I think a lot of people direct to consumer brands are raising a lot of money for paid media and that's not something we really did. Um, we spend very little on paid media and instead we've leaned a lot more into Tiktok and um, like organic channels like Tiktok and instagram. But yeah, I think that for a fundraising perspective, we ended up raising from a few really values aligned venture capital funds, Hannah Gray letter around which is like, uh, you know, women run venture capital fund in the consumer space. I had some follow on from some other really cool funds but raised a lot of it from angel investors. That's so cool. If you're on the lookout for ways to make your business sail smoothly from one quarter to the next look, no further, hubspot helps your business get shipshape with an easy to use crm platform that aligns your business and delivers a seamless experience for your customers. Other serums can be cobbled together, but hubspot is carefully crafted in house for businesses like yours, its purpose built suite of ops sales and marketing tools work together seamlessly.

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00:17:07Edit When you tell them I sent you find more info in our show notes when you were doing the fundraise for their kind of instances because you're saying, you know, you wanted to raise specifically through value aligns. Um, you know, investors were there times where it just didn't match up and you had to go in a different direction. Yeah, So many times. I mean, we turned out actually a lot of money along the way and for a number of reasons, right? Sometimes there were funds that we talked to who just weren't founder friendly, meaning that they wanted terms that we're just not fair as, you know, early founders at all. Sometimes it was, they were kind of wanting to give us money on the contingency that we don't show period blood or you know, we immediately come out with other period products, right? Like I think that there was a lot of pressure on like how we were going to market the brand. Um, I also think that people think of direct to consumer brands in really different ways. There are some people who thought, no, you have to spend like five x what you're planning to on paid media the way you win and directed consumers pay to play right, which is very typical in the direct consumer side, right?

00:18:12Edit I think that we've seen examples like Casper I think is especially highlighted as an example of these brands that raise a lot of money to spend to convert people to ordering right. And I think for us, we knew that if we were going to build a brand that really had brand loyalty and authenticity, um, and like long term potential, we needed to authentically build um like recognition and that trust, which meant not buying, you know, followers buying attention. So that meant from a business perspective having as low of a cost of acquisition as possible because we're focusing on organic growth in community and that's something that not a lot of people believed that we could do right. And you know, to be honest, like I definitely felt like we could do it, but I have been really proud of how well it's gone like, uh, you know, I started on Tiktok About 6-7 months ago and I'm about to 2.5 million followers and like that is not something I expected, you know, so I think that there was a lot of pressure and kind of things that we had to work through and it took a lot of negotiation and a lot of turning the other way if capital didn't make sense.

00:19:14Edit Um and yeah, I think in the end it really worked out because we were able to get a cap table of majority female investors, which is really hard to do in a space where the majority is definitely not women, but also a cap table of people who really understood and I think gave us the freedom to create this brand in the way that felt authentic to us. Absolutely. And I also read that you were raising through the pandemic, which also added like another layer of interesting challenges to, uh, to tackle. You mentioned paid marketing certain Tiktok. So let's kind of like transition this into the marketing piece of this episode. I'd love to know kind of like if you're just to drill down, you're kind of like launch plan and what your approach to marketing was to getting the 1st 1000 customers and just a general kind of overview on like Tiktok in the early days for you. Like how often were you posting? What was the strategy? Is there a strategy, that kind of thing. So like the strategy from the beginning was like, let's just test as much as we can. Right? I think that like, I honestly hadn't spent time creating content myself.

00:20:21Edit And so I think from the very beginning it was like, I need to just play around on this platform and you know, I'm like three years late to the Tiktok game. So I just need to like play around with it. But it but like I felt really late to it. So I was like, I need to play around and figure out what works. I need to like understand even how to edit the videos. So from the beginning there was lots of a strategy, it was like more of a mentality, like I have a lot of catching up to do and just like learning the platform, you know, And I think it's kind of like The whole 10,000 hours situation you have like, you know, perfecting something. And first it was just like we haven't spent any time on Tiktok lets just like spend as much time on it as possible because there's a lot of potential here and you know, I think that kind of quick faster than we thought. We were getting like a few viral videos and then we realized we could kind of replicate that morality, like following and a lot of it is like, I think our marketing strategy is that like we don't plan ahead like six months or a month of content calendars were like kind of day of what are people talking about? What are the trends today? And I think that's where we have advantages, like a younger Team two is like we really understand that from a high level marketing strategy, we can't be, I think the old ways of doing things is like building out a 6 to 12 to 18 month content calendar and then building backwards from it and I think while there are those like really fixed moments that you should build around when you're thinking of how you actually build content and the trends and like the aesthetic even it's a lot more in the moment, you know?

00:21:46Edit And I think that that was something that was really important, I think it was also something that we were well positioned to do because we're so clear on our values, on our differentiators, on why our products are better, how we talk about it and we spent probably months like working on long google docs that were just like reasons, we like august more reasons, you know, our sustainability is better and like going over these google docs that essentially became kind of like messaging guides, but in the moment it was just like kind of a messaging exercise, I was like let's just kind of keep reiterating, like how do we alter the sentence? How do we make the sentence shorter? How do we make it more clear and concise? So a lot of it, like our strategy was just like let's play as much as possible and be hyper aware of feedback and I think that that's something like now I do consulting on the side, you know, on my weekends and stuff around social strategy and I think that the biggest mistake people make is like, they put content out based off of what they think will do well. It doesn't do well, but they keep doing more of it. And I think that's the biggest mistake because it's like if something is not performing, it means that like it is not engaging.

00:22:49Edit So you should probably change your strategy rather than like hating on the algorithm waiting for people to engage. Right? It's kind of like, you need to back up a little bit. And that's, I think something that like, we're also really aware of That's so interesting. Yeah. Like don't try posting the same variation of a video 50 times if it doesn't work, do something completely different the next time when you said you spend a lot of time on the platform. Like how much time on the platform are we talking? Like, how many videos were you posting? Maybe more like when you were starting to kind of like pick up and go viral? Like 50 plus, What 50, 50 videos a day. Yeah, I'm like crap. Are you kidding me now? It's more like 20 a day, I would say. So like I literally was making, you know, six as I was waking up and like, I can literally like make it right now and it just becomes like, okay, I'm drinking like my brownish smoothie on this podcast. Talking about making Tiktok and you know, it's like, I, it becomes kind of natural and like, that's literally a tiktok.

00:23:52Edit And so I'm like four ready to go as of like the last hour and I posted maybe like, You know, I didn't post too many yesterday, maybe like 16 yesterday, but I think you kind of like get the hang of it, you know, got it. So you're really integrating it into like every moment within your life versus like planning something kind of thing. Wow, that's amazing. Is there anything that you can share? Like what the impact of that has been on the business? Like, do you see direct sales from a viral video? I mean, I'm sure you do, but like versus your account versus your brand account. I mean, I think that the biggest difference and like is, and people ask me a lot like what's the strategy behind how I balance my account? Because this is august account. And the thing is like, it's more just that like as a business account, august cannot use trending audios. So like I just have an advantage as a personal account to be able to go viral. Got it. That's so interesting. So because it's a business account, like I probably spent, Yeah, I probably spend 1-2 hours on Tiktok today. Like I don't spend a lot of time on it. I just like to make content really quickly Now.

00:24:57Edit You've like mastered the art of the content. I love that is Tiktok your kind of most important focus now for 2022 and what you just tell everyone to focus on or is there something else that you like to tell people? No. I think if anything like we spent the last six months really figuring out Tiktok and what resonates and now it's kind of using that as a vehicle to really figure out other channels. Like I'm really obsessed with S C. O and ECM right now, um because it's something I don't understand and I'm really curious about. So I've been really like fascinated by that. I'm really fascinated by Youtube and really figuring out longer form content. So I think that if anything, like I've looked at it more like, let's like, these are all platforms to kind of game, right? And like in thinking about it that way, it's like now I'm really comfortable and people would say maybe I'm too comfortable making Tiktok like showing my period blood and stuff. Like now I've gotten comfortable with that and I feel really confident about where we are and how we're growing. And I kind of have an understanding of like what works for our community. And so now it's kind of like, how do we take that learning and think about other platforms?

00:26:00Edit Because I think like it's also just that we don't get bored, you know? I think that like, it's like, I don't want to be, I don't want to spend all my days on Tiktok, like that's just not, it's not gonna make any of us happy. So I think a lot of it is just like really maintaining the momentum that we have on Tiktok while also being excited about exploring other platforms. Yeah, absolutely. What is the challenging part or what are the challenging sides of building this business right now? Oof! Um so many. I think that, I mean, I think that right now, like fundraising is, is what, right? Like we are, we actually just signed a term sheet. I can't share any details about it, but we just signed a term sheet for our seed round and like that's really exciting, but I think that like it is really nerve wracking to see like how quickly we grow. And like, again, I think as especially as like a 24 year old founder, like I'm really aware of my blind spots and like I'm really aware of the things that I'm not good at and I think that for me, one of the challenging things is as we grow, there's less room to funk up, right? Like there's more pressure and there's more at stake and that can be a lot to take on and I have experienced burnout before and I think that fundraising is really exciting, but it's also really daunting, right?

00:27:11Edit It's like there's more pressure when suddenly raising 6, 10 million than when you were raising two and pre launch, right? So I think that like for me a big challenge and like our team is like We're a small team of six people and I think sometimes we have these moments where we look at each other and we're like, what is happening? Like things like this is a real thing in the world and it's really exciting, but it's also can be really overwhelming and it's something that I think that that's where our company culture is so important and like really being in it together because it can feel really scary. How do you like manage the overwhelm? I think for me, like sleep is everything like I have to sleep at least eight hours a night. Also really being better about taking time where I'm not thinking about the company where I can also kind of like remove myself from it um like I'm going on a trip with my sister's this weekend, I was hanging out with them last weekend and like to me that was space where I could just like kind of just be with them and get back grounded and like who I am and I think that that's really important because at the end of the day, as a ceo I have like an imposter syndrome so I have like no idea what I'm doing and I feel like I don't really know who put me in charge, but then like hanging out with my sisters and really spending time with the people I love reminds me of that like, okay, I'm doing this because I'm a big sister in every part of my being and this is kind of like my in service and like what I feel so fulfilled doing for all my other little siblings out there who have periods and I think that having that space to get really grounded and why I do what I do and also feel really grounded, like my values and my sisters keep me very grounded, like we never talk about work were like very like who we are, what we've gone through and like our value system and I think that that's honestly just really important because then I'm able to come back to my work with a newfound sense of like, trust in my instinct and at the end of the day, like that's what you need as in leadership, It's just like you kind of just need to trust your gut, like you, especially in a fast paced startup environment, it's like you have to be making big decisions, it can be really scary, but if you have trusted who you are and who your values are?

00:29:13Edit Like, having that, trusting your instinct can feel a lot more natural. Absolutely. I love the big sister vibe. That's so cool, so sweet. What is the best and worst advice you've received about building a business? I think the worst advice I ever received was like to raise as much money as possible um and you hear that a lot from people. It's like, oh there's so much capital just raise as much as you can. And it's like, first of all, like that's not good as a founder, you dilute yourself too much. And um it's not the most thoughtful way to grow. And I think the best advice is just to like, really take time to focus on taking care of myself. You know, I have burned out. I've like gone through so much mental health stuff from like, losing myself in my work. And I think that, you know, it's cheesy, but it really is like, you have to take care of yourself um so that you can really sustain your energy and I think that's really important. Very true. Thanks for listening to this amazing episode. We are testing out something new here for the next while and we're splitting up each episode into two parts, the main interview part and then the six quick questions part to make them easier to listen to.

00:30:21Edit So that's part one done, tune into part 2 to hear the six quick questions.

Question number two is what's been the number one or your favorite marketing moment so far um going viral on Tiktok for the first time. How many views did it get?

00:01:04Edit I don't even know, but I think one of our videos got like has 30 million and has definitely been one of the faster growing ones. That's wild madness. It's crazy. Question # three, What's your go to business resource in terms of book, podcast or newsletter? Um I don't really follow a lot of business things at all. Mostly because like in terms of consuming media, I I listen to a lot of the daily, the new york Times, the daily, but I would say that for me, like there's actually one of my friends Casey Lewis has a newsletter called after school that's about like youth trends and I really love that one. Amazing. I will link that in the show notes for anyone who wants to check it out. Question number four is how do you win the day? What are your AM or PM habits and rituals that keep you feeling happy and motivated and productive? I just sleep as much as I possibly can at night. I love that. I need to sleep Question # five, What is the worst money mistake in the business that you've made? And how much did it cost? I would say that like at the beginning we kind of didn't trust our instincts around like pr and influencers and we ended up like hiring some outside agencies situations and probably spent about 30 k of costs that at the end of the day, like we got out of those contracts early because we were like, we can do this ourselves.

00:02:27Edit Um and we have been doing it ourselves, but I would say that a lot of it is like it was kind of trusting our gut that we could do things differently than hiring like leaning on external agencies. Yeah, I totally know that feeling. And last question question # six is what is a crazy story positive, good, bad ugly whatever in the business that you can share. I think it's just like, it's just a crazy moment every time. Like I have period blood in my underwear and my first instinct is to make a Tiktok about it. You know what I wanted to ask you actually on this topic just quickly as a final question is how do you deal with like the negative side of Tiktok and the people like the, you know the haters? Yeah, I mean, I think that for the haters who like say I'm gross and disgusting for being obsessed with periods of showing it to me and just use it as motivation. Like I just kind of, it just feels me with this idea of like the fact that you're calling it disgusting kind of reveals that it is so stigmatized and that's what we're trying to work through. And so I think that if anything, it kind of makes me more interested in it, you know?

00:03:33Edit Um, and that's something that I, I spend a lot more time focusing on fuels the fire. I love it. Exactly. Nadia, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show today and share your journey so far with august. I am endlessly inspired by you and your energy and your big Sister vibe. So thank you so much. I'm really grateful. Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.



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