Underwear for the problem no one wants to admit they have

The founder of Willow, a new line of sleek, direct-to-consumer underwear for those with incontinence, says startups underserve older generations.

By Rina Raphael

“It’s kind of a taboo topic,” Will Herlands says of his newest venture. “Understandably, people don’t like to talk about peeing in your pants.”

He’s talking about adult incontinence—and while it may not be dinner conversation, it’s more common than you may know. Bladder leakage affects 30%-40% of older women and 15% of men. That’s about 25 million people in the U.S. and 400 million worldwide. And those with it have little to turn to beyond what amounts to bulky, unflattering adult diapers. From the design to the feel, even the shopping experience (85% of sales are in-store), it’s far from ideal, despite being an $8 billion global market.

The lack of adequate offerings motivated Herlands to found Willow, a direct-to-consumer line of affordable and disposable leak-free underwear for both men and women. The new company offers a more discreet and fashion-forward approach, delivered right to one’s door.

“You can get 10 different types of super-fancy socks that do all sorts of things these days,” laughs Herlands. “Why can’t you have that same type of experience for incontinence, a huge issue that totally shapes your life?”

WHY UNDERWEAR?

Just last year, Herlands was working on his dual PhD in machine learning and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and consulting with Hubble, the direct-to-consumer contact lens startup that’s amassed more than $73 million in funding since 2016. It was there that he witnessed the possibilities of the e-commerce model—one he thinks isn’t utilized nearly enough in the general marketplace.

How’d all that lead to leak-proof underwear for baby boomers? Herlands admits it was an unexpected twist, but says he noticed Silicon Valley founders tend to focus on younger demographics and ignore audiences with just as much buying power. Seventy percent of disposable income in the U.S. is controlled by baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964)—there are more than 74 million of them, reports Nielsen—and they are increasingly making their purchases their online. So, where is their Glossier, their Dollar Shave Club or, perhaps more aptly, their Thinx?

“In some ways, [the direct-to-consumer market] really left out whole generations of older people,” says Herlands, contending that a strong portion of founders sell and/or produce things for people they know or with whom they interact. He sees great opportunity in expanding e-commerce to all generations, so when by chance he learned about the gaps in incontinence wear, he whipped up a business plan and alerted the Hubble cofounders. They signed on immediately as advisers.

In 2017, they founded the New York-based Willow with Herlands serving as CEO. The company raised a seed round of $2.5 million from investors led by FirstMark Capital, Two River, and Wildcat Venture Partners, who are also Hubble’s investors.

In creating Willow’s underwear line, Herlands found great dissatisfaction among the bladder-challenged with existing products. Protection pads, for example, cannot accommodate heavier leakage—and can fall out of underwear. Most active older adults with incontinence use disposable pull-up underwear that act, essentially, as diapers. They’re traditionally thick, visible, and even noisy as users walk. Poor design, Willow’s research team found, impacts their social life. The risk of embarrassment can supersede the need for human companionship.

“One of the biggest issues [we heard] from people is feeling that they can’t leave their homes because they don’t want to wear these necessarily, but they also don’t want to be stuck in a situation where they’ve soiled themselves,” says Herlands. “So, they’re always thinking: ‘Where’s the closest bathroom?’”

DISCREET DESIGN

Most adult diapers were built by the medical community out of function rather than form, and the design ultimately affected compliance rates. Herlands sought to look at it anew, putting utmost importance on design so that “you feel normal wearing it,” he says, “and have it in a service that’s convenient and comes directly to your door.”

Herlands prioritized design and manufacturing, having talked with more than 70 worldwide manufacturers. The founder envisioned an undergarment that was as functional as it was fashionable; something a customer “would feel good wearing to the office,” he says. It needed to absorb liquid, but also keep a “low profile fit” under clothing.

For that, he needed it to look seamless. Herlands searched for the thinnest yet most absorbent material that also offered odor control. The Willow research team settled on a combination of natural fibers and synthetic polymers that gave way to a super-soft touch, almost like cotton but with more stretch. It’s breathable and wicks liquid away, much like sportswear.

Construction was another issue: Underwear usually comes with constricting elastic bands glued to fabric at the waist. The elastic then stretches and de-stretches, which can sometimes produce a bulky appearance–and dig into skin. Willow’s underwear, in comparison, is fully stretchable.

The debut collection comes in muted neutrals like charcoal, sand, and light gray for both men and women. Each underwear costs less than traditional competitors because there isn’t any markup by stores. Willow charges 80¢ per pair—about 40% less than comparable products—that are delivered in recurring subscription boxes.

Once Willow was ready to market, Herlands contacted Worn, a creative agency founded by women to oversee branding, marketing, and packaging. The New York-based firm got to work talking to those who live with incontinence as well as doctors and medical professionals who could offer insights.

Carolyn Rush, Worn’s VP of creative strategy, says that while she generally works with female-led teams, she was compelled to work with Willow in part because of their dedication to design. “We really felt like Willow was coming at it from [a perspective of]: Let’s innovate the product for women,” says Rush.

For Willow’s branding and social campaign, the Worn team insisted on using real people to model the underwear styles. In lieu of perfectly svelte, younger models, Willow ads feature men and women in their 40s, 50s and 60s posing against minimalist backgrounds.

Herlands says the campaign attempts to capture the essence of “a wiser, older woman,” in the hopes of reflecting age as a source of pride. In that sense, the models are meant to portray confidence and grace.

“We wanted to go with dignity,” says Rush of the campaign. She notes incontinence’s similarity to issues like infertility or menopause. While most shy away from the embarrassing topic, Rush wanted to approach it from an altogether different perspective: one that shifted public perception. “We are trying to show strength in posing.”

GETTING THE (FACEBOOK) WORD OUT

Willow is starting with social media marketing, specifically Facebook ads. While baby boomers trail both gen-Xers and millennials in technology adoption, that is quickly changing, according to Pew Research. More than 70% of those over 50 own a smartphone, and nearly 60% use social media. Facebook remains their most popular social media site.

In the coming months, Willow plans to roll out Facebook groups around incontinence issues in the hopes of further expanding the company’s educational and support platforms.

“Older generations of Americans are among the most engaged group on Facebook,” says Herlands. “We found through a bit of experimentation that people are really willing to talk about these issues if you engage them properly.”

With that comes the hope that satisfied customers might potentially share their product online. It’s a tall order for what is undoubtedly still a sensitive topic, with privacy usually trumping shopping recommendations. Herlands concedes it might take a bit of time, but he’s confident “that if people don’t feel embarrassed about the things that they’re wearing or buying, they’ll be more comfortable talking about it publicly.”

Next, Willow will tackle of host of incontinence products that, as Herlands promises, “will continue to push the edge on what people think can be done [in the category].” The U.S. incontinence market has seen 7% annual growth (and 14% annual e-commerce growth), suggesting there’s far more than just underwear. For the new founder, it’s all about serving communities in new ways other startups have not.

“There are a lot of products for older people,” says Herlands. “The question we ask is: How can this be the best type of experience [for them]? . . . We wanted to see how we can bring these types of [direct-to-consumer] services and products to people who are traditionally kind of left out of the (e-commerce) revolution.”

Click here to go to the Willow website.

This article originally appeared in Fast Company.

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