“I wish I started earlier. Don’t wait, start now.” One of the many positions I held was as a host for a web series. My job was to interview people with unconventional career paths. I went to dozens of events talking to amazing, creative founders and always ended the interview asking them for a word of advice. 100% of the time, this is what they said, and I agree 100%.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Frances Tang.
Frances is the founder/Captain Awkward/CEO of Awkward Essentials, a company that makes products that address the unspoken parts of hygiene. She is also the inventor of come&gone — an after sex cleanup sponge.
With a background ranging from hula dancing to baking to wedding photography, she never intended to build a company around post-sex cleanup. However, after accidentally launching in the UK a month before she got married, Frances built one anyway. She’s also a super cheerleader for fearlessness, trying new hobbies, and ice cream.
Frances Tang never intended to build a company around a post-sex cleanup tool. But the Awkward Essentials founder saw a need — and an opportunity — for an entrepreneur willing to go there. Now, Frances is leading a revolution for female founders, showing that fearlessness is a founder’s most important value.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in the Bay Area thinking I would go to college, get a job in a glass office building like they do in the movies, wear suits and heels to work every day, and get married. Instead, I graduated from college during the other recession and had a really hard time finding that picture-perfect job.
I eventually found something “normal” in corporate marketing for the food industry, but I always had another creative part-time job or business idea I worked on. I did everything from hula dancing (check me out in NBC’s Community here) to baking to wedding photography, totaling 12 different jobs over the course of a decade.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
After-sex cleanup was something that bothered me for years. Every time I searched online for a solution, I ended up on a random forum with anonymous people talking about their sacrificial towels. It boggled my mind that so many women faced the same issue, but there was no solution for it.
I hesitantly told some friends about my after-sex cleanup idea, and their overwhelming support drove me to explore the idea further. This encouragement from a few good friends was the catalyst for everything. It gave me the confidence to apply for an accelerator, and, to my surprise, I was accepted. From there, Awkward Essentials was born, and we brought come&gone, a post-sex cleanup sponge, to market.
The social proof from sales, kind DMs from other women, and press coverage proved we’re onto something. We’ve invented a product, created a new category and are talking about it in a way that many brands won’t. Our society still looks at hygiene, bodily functions and fluids with shame and embarrassment. Porn has skewed our understanding of what real sex looks like and for many has become an unhealthy substitute for the true sex education missing from American classrooms.
In addition to come&gone, we have new products in development for both men and women dealing with not only sex but other things people don’t want to talk about.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first pitched my invention, I pitched it as any founder would — with numbers, statistics, and facts. It was an absolute trainwreck. I distinctly remember several faces in the room, with a look of open-mouthed, horrified shock. Pitching an after-sex cleanup invention with statistics apparently was a terrible idea.
From this, I learned to change the narrative to a personal story entirely, addressing the problem that’s solved. It shifted how I talked about the product and our brand, and ultimately changed how I marketed the company. This voice is also what helped us to secure investment.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
This might surprise some people because of the products I sell, but my dad has been one of my biggest supporters. A founder himself (in a totally different industry), my dad has been a source of mentorship and advice — and occasionally a push when I need it.
Almost a decade ago, I’d been planning my first business — a pop-up date night event — for a few months. I told my dad about my plans, and I distinctly remember him interrupting me and telling me I was all talk. My heart dropped as I tried to explain why I needed to continue planning, but deep down I knew he was right. I was scared to actually start. After that night, I made the decision to truly act and only pay attention to things that would move me forward. Within a month, the event happened. Ever since then, I’ve made a more conscious effort to execute before I feel ready because, like many founders, I could plan forever.
In addition to my dad, my friends and even strangers have motivated me through their support for my ideas, encouragement and kind words.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Disrupting an industry is a good thing when it offers a real solution — sometimes the world’s first real solution — to a problem. Disruption is trendy in the startup world, but the intent behind it should always be helping real people. It’s counterproductive when disruption becomes the founder’s only goal. As founders, we should always focus more on the people we’re trying to help than ourselves and what we’re doing.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
#1: “I wish I started earlier. Don’t wait, start now.” One of the many positions I held was as a host for a web series. My job was to interview people with unconventional career paths. I went to dozens of events talking to amazing, creative founders and always ended the interview asking them for a word of advice. 100% of the time, this is what they said, and I agree 100%.
#2: “Read this article, and then get back to me.” Connections are key. Networking and asking for introductions is very common in the startup space. This was a very valuable article and also led me to work with Make Love, Not Porn founder Cindy Gallop as an advisor.
#3: “Frances, what would a straight, white guy do?” Cindy gave me this advice, and it has stuck with me ever since, through every decision.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Now that come&gone is on the market, we’re working to develop new products for both men and women — anything you’ve ever needed help with but were ashamed to ask.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
As a founder of a company helping women improve their sexual experiences, Cindy Gallop’s TED talk, “Make love, not porn” impacted me so much in just 4 minutes. Cindy discusses how hardcore porn has skewed a generation’s understanding of what real sex looks like. Through her company, she’s working to introduce the world to real sex between real couples. Cindy’s success has helped me see the possibilities in this industry, and I know we can have a real, positive impact on women.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love this quote from Lemony Snicket: “If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.” It emphasizes the importance of going ahead and getting started — just trying something when you’re a founder. If I hadn’t taken the leap, I’d still be daydreaming!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I hope that the work I’m doing inspires more women to start companies. Women have a perspective that is unique, and we are over half the population. More female founders will lead to more solutions for the problems women face. I hope I can show other female founders that they can be fearless, too.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!