Travel, online meetings and a virtual office space help Femmi co-founder Esther Keown stay on top of startup life from Tauranga.
As an elite teenage runner, Esther Keown was exposed to training regimes that caused her to lose her period and created other serious health consequences. Such personal experiences led her and her Femmi co-founder, friend and fellow elite runner Lydia O’Donnell to set up Femmi in 2020.
The company began offering one-to-one running coaching for women, aligned to their menstrual cycles and in other ways that support women’s physiology and wellbeing. It has since developed an online education course, called Femmi Theory, with medical experts such as endocrinologist Dr Izzy Smith, which is used by National Sporting Organisations (NSOs) Athletics New Zealand and Rugby New Zealand to help them better work with female athletes. And in November 2023, Femmi launched an app that offers women personalised running guidance, including how to train in alignment with their menstrual cycle.
Both co-founders have associations with Nike, particularly Noosa-based O’Donnell who has been Nike’s head running coach in the Pacific region for the past six years, and Femmi has formed a partnership with the company in Australia.
Here Keown talks about her experience of co-founding the company from Tauranga, as part of Femmi’s geographically dispersed team of six, which is also spread across Auckland, Wellington and Melbourne.
I was actually based in Sydney when we started Femmi but for the majority of the time that Femmi has become a full-blown business – when we employed people and went down this route of creating an app – I’ve been in Tauranga. My partner became a kidney donor to his dad and that led us to move back to New Zealand.
I'm originally from Auckland, but my partner is from Tauranga. I used to come down here all the time in summers and I just love it. I love the beach, I love the running down here – it's beautiful. Although it’s definitely getting busier now, I like that it's more chill than Auckland, which can be quite full on. It was just a lifestyle thing.
Our first round of funding was when we got into the Startmate accelerator programme in October 2022. That was when we brought on our first hire.
[Then] we opened a safe note. We've had angel investors and a couple of VCs come in. Even Capital has come on board with us, who are incredible women who back women founders in Aotearoa.
For us it's finding people who align with the purpose. Most of our angel investors are people that absolutely love what we do; they have someone that may have been affected similarly to Lyds or myself, or have been through it themselves. Those connections have really come from who we know – people who are part of the community, people who we've worked with and are really passionate about what we're doing.
But we have really struggled to get funding. We've applied to so many VCs – hundreds in Australia and New Zealand…[but] now that we're in the market [with the Femmi app], we're hoping it's going to be a different story. We're opening our seed round early 2024.
(Following this interview, Femmi co-founder O'Donnell posted an open letter to investors in response to news of a pivot by male-founded startup Kiki to develop a New York "girls' club". When approached for followup comment Keown responded: "I agree with all points Lyds has raised and back her 100 percent with her letter.")
The two major sporting partnerships we've been able to secure are with Athletics New Zealand, and we're also working alongside Rugby New Zealand. Those partnerships are very much around the online education course that we created that hopes to educate those who work with women, or women themselves in sport, around female physiology and psychology.
We spent a lot of time and effort building this course with our medical experts, and then we went after relationships with NSOs, and [they are] the two that got behind the mission and see the potential and it's been awesome working with them.
We’ve had hundreds of conversations with different NSOs and they all agree that it's a massive problem – that lack of education and the impact that's having on women's health, mentally and physically. We just reached out to people that we knew, explained what we had created, kept knocking on doors and eventually got through to the right people who could make those decisions and make the change. But it was a very long time until we had those words said to us: ‘this is a partnership and we agree to work with you’.
Yeah, pretty much all of them. It was only recently that I met the Rugby New Zealand people who I had been speaking with online.
Not as many as I probably should have. Because everything is online and we're working very digitally, it’s maybe reduced the in-person connections I've made.
But we do run eight Femmi Friday run communities across Australia and New Zealand. They meet every Friday morning, go for a very chill, super-easy jog anywhere between three and five kilometres, then go for coffee and have awesome chats. It's a safe space for women to connect. I plan to kick one off in Tauranga in the new year, so that's going to be an awesome opportunity to also connect with local businesses: the coffee shop that we choose to run from, potentially running shoe shops – anything like that.
I do travel a lot. Last year I did maybe 12 to 15 trips, generally to Australia. We do a lot of activations and events, especially in Melbourne and some in Sydney through our partnership with Nike, and for Femmi events. For example, we did a few activations with Nike retail staff in Australia where we taught them all about the menstrual cycle, brought some of our medical experts and even had our physiotherapists talk about getting the right bras for women and how important that is for running.
We've changed the way we work so many times to find what works; we're always coming up against challenges because of this remote working environment. But we've found a really good balance at the moment where we have much more regular catch ups with the team. We have all hands every fortnight, and we have stand ups every morning for each team.
The marketing and product team have also come across one of the most amazing online tools, called Gather. It's basically a virtual office where you've all got your own desks; you can go up to people's desks and ring the bell and they pop up straight away, and you can talk to them as if you were in an office. That's so beneficial because before we were having to schedule meetings and lock in times in advance, whereas now, like in a normal office, you can just go and ask someone, ‘can you help me with this?’ or ‘what do you think about this?’
Connections are so important. The more you can connect with other founders or other people who have been in similar spaces or gone through similar journeys to you, the more you can learn from them and be connected to the right people. Starting a business is scary. Both Lyds and I have had times where we've questioned whether we deserve to be where we are and the more we talk to other founders, the more that we realise that everyone is in a pretty similar boat.
We've also put a lot of effort into investor updates and we send out weekly updates to our external team – our medical experts and our coaches – about what we've done that week. Keeping people in the loop means they're more likely to be involved and invested and want to help you.
As told to Caitlin Sykes
Freelance business writer and editor; former NZ Herald small business editor and Unlimited magazine editor
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