Eloise Hall and Isobel Marshall discuss how social enterprises fit within the startup community
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Eloise Hall and Isobel Marshall are the founders of Taboo, a social enterprise that sell organic cotton pads and tampons, with all profits going towards eradicating period poverty. The Eloise and Isobel were first introduced to the social enterprise model of business in 2016 while students at high school, and began designing what would become Taboo during the summer holidays before commencing their final year of high school. In their conversation with guest host Will Tjo, Eloise and Isobell discuss how social enterprises fit within the broader startup community, as well as some of the considerations unique to social enterprises when considering various options for raising funds, such as crowdfunding campaigns or more traditional venture capital.
Eloise on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/eloise-hall122/
Isobel on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/isobel-marshall-869421135/
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer and welcome to Day One. The podcast that spotlights Australian startups, founders, and the organisations that empower Australian entrepreneurship. We go back to the beginning to tell a story of Australia’s most inspiring founders and how they built their companies. You’re listening to a special interview series as part of a documentary W2D1 is producing about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. This episode was conducted by guest host Will Tjo.
Will Tjo: Hi everyone and welcome back to the Australian startup series interviews. Our guests today are Isobel and Eloise from Taboo. Welcome to the show.
Isobel Marshall: Hello. Thank you for having us.
Will Tjo: So could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you guys are currently doing with Taboo and just I guess a brief background about yourselves?
Eloise Hall: Yeah, of course. So Taboo is a social enterprise. We are registered like a regular company and we sell organic cotton pads and tampons in Australia, and all of our profits are dedicated to eradicating period poverty. That’s our jam. That’s why we started a company in the first place. We’re really proud about the sustainable nature of our product and the delivery. We sell online and in store and we’re about five years old. We’re about to have our fifth birthday.
Isobel Marshall: And just to clear up the different voices, I’m Isobel and that was just Eloise. So we’re the co-founders of Taboo.
Will Tjo: What are you guys currently doing aside from the startups?
Isobel Marshall: So as Eloise said, we started Taboo five years ago and at that point, Taboo, the team just consisted of Eloise and I. We spent a lot of time really laying the groundwork by learning from a lot of amazing mentors that we met through the incredible community here in Adelaide in South Australia. So we kind of laid those foundations, started bringing our idea to life. We had a crowdfunding campaign and then throughout that process started bringing in some more amazing team members. So that’s what we’ve done for the last five years alongside studying. So we’re both at uni and I’m in my fourth year of medicine at the moment. And Eloise is in her fifth year of business and international relations.
Will Tjo: That’s amazing. And take us back. Would you guys say that you’ve always been entrepreneurs and what was the inspiration for creating Taboo?
Eloise Hall: Yeah, I think often my parents remind me of how I was always coming up with little inventions when I was a kid. I would have this little book and I would scribble in all these ideas like dog bowls and back supports for sausage dogs, random things like that. My grandad was an inventor. So I think I’ve always had quite the creative head when it comes to solving the issues ahead of me. And both, as you know, I have always been very focused on other people’s lives. I think we were very well looked after. We had a roof over our head, we had an education and our sTjool was very philanthropically minded, so we were always aware that so many people didn’t have the privilege that we did.
Eloise Hall: So I guess it’s unsurprising that where our hearts were very much attuned to other people’s suffering, our own suffering as well, just really being invested in the lives around us. When we learned about period poverty and we understood how detrimental it is to so many people, we were really quite inspired to create a solution and to create a sustainable solution. And as we grew up as well, we were really getting excited about how business is so accessible in being a sustainable solution to so many issues in that social enterprise model.
Will Tjo: It sounds like a very, I guess what you would call an accidental entrepreneur type story where you were creating these little inventions as a kid and then that kind of just naturally fed into creating your own business when you started university.
Isobel Marshall: As Eloise said, we’ve always been quite people focused and I think the draw card for me personally in terms of starting a business that I probably didn’t recognize until a bit later was just this idea of having a problem and then getting lots of different people, lots of different skill sets mobilized to then solve that problem together. It’s been so incredible throughout the Taboo journey and getting amazing individuals alongside. But also other groups and collaborations and all these sorts of people and community all working towards the same goal. But I guess that the important part is that everyone is contributing different skill sets, different experiences, different wisdom, and that’s been a really incredible journey to be a part of.
Will Tjo: That’s amazing. So as you guys mentioned, you started Taboo about five years ago in 2017. What was it like back then? I know you mentioned you did crowdfunding and you had a team of mentors to surround you. Was it difficult to start then?
Eloise Hall: I think the first year of designing and developing Taboo was quite exciting more than anything. Neither of us had started tertiary study yet, so we had quite a lot of flexible time at our hands to have coffees with different people and throw ourselves into the opportunities that came about. And the beauty of the Adelaide ecosystem is very much when you introduce an issue to just one person, they might not be the person to solve that problem, but they would definitely have someone to recommend you. So we were kind of going from one recommendation to the other for a whole year really.
Eloise Hall: We were both fortunate enough to go traveling and do a little bit of life learning as well with different part-time work. So it was really quite dynamic, exciting and it really allowed us to grow our passion further as well when we kind of discovered answers to a lot of the questions we had. Slowly, the idea we had became more and more achievable and attainable and that’s really what led us to that crowdfunding campaign at the end of that first year.
Eloise Hall: And I think especially having 57 grand worth of other people’s money in our hands was the point of going, “Okay, there’s no turning back. This has happened. People trust us and now we have the funds to make it happen.” So it was a really great way to finish the year, to be honest.
Isobel Marshall: And I think it really helped that we were very young at the time, we were 17 and 18 and so we were fresh out of high sTjool. And so much of actually reaching our mission, regardless of whether we had product to sell or not, was all about starting the conversation about period poverty and addressing that stigma straight away. And so much of our conversations were with other young people and sTjool groups, sTjool classes, classrooms, assemblies, and we were I guess able to enter those spaces because we were there not that long beforehand.
Isobel Marshall: So we had all those connections with our friends and our teachers and the other sTjool system in South Australia particularly as well. And that sort of just started this domino effect of conversation starting, but also creating this community around Taboo that would then become really our customers and people who were joining us in our mission.
Will Tjo: That’s amazing. So Eloise, you mentioned that in the Adelaide ecosystem it was very much, I guess, very welcoming. There was one recommendation that led to the next and so on. Who were some of those, I guess, movers and shakers that had a big impact on your journey?
Eloise Hall: And there were plenty around, but the first mentor that we really had to help us out was Mike Chalmers, who is a social entrepreneur himself, who now runs a cafe called a Cafe Outside The Square in Whitmore Square in Adelaide. And I think it really helped that we knew him when we were young through a friend of ours. And it really helped that he had already laid the groundwork to take us seriously. I think that was the hardest thing to communicate to any mentor was have them take you seriously. But because he had known us for many years, I think he did quite instantly and then he led us to a handful of other mentors.
Eloise Hall: Geoff Kwitko was one. Michaela Webster has been really helpful in the past. And I think just so many people in and around. We’ve also been a part of a couple of ecosystems that are specifically designed to take care for startups, so Thinklab, and there are a couple of others in South Australia that are really wonderful. We’ve met a lot of mentors around the traps there and a lot of people as well. It’s really nice to be inspired by other startups that are around you because you’re all in it together. You can really understand the difficulties and you can also really help one another.
Eloise Hall: So the general domino effect of maybe learning about a grant. Then someone will pass that information onto you because it’s been kind of fed to them. I love to think about [inaudible] , it’s Goldilocks city. It’s not too big and it’s not too small. You really do understand things quicker.
Will Tjo: It’s just right because when it’s too big, there’s a lot of people, there’s a lot of competition and so on. When it’s too small, maybe the infrastructure’s not there quite yet. So what you said just then kind of peaked my interest when you said that it was quite difficult at the beginning to get people to take you seriously. Can you tell me more about that?
Eloise Hall: I think both Izzy and I have felt the frustration of perhaps being not taken seriously from first glance or first sound. We don’t sound very mature or we don’t sound very old. Maybe we do now, I’m not sure. Especially when we started, we were very young, we sounded young, we presented young. Obviously we didn’t have a career’s worth of experience in entrepreneurship and we were really honest people. We definitely wore our knowledge on our sleeves, is that a fair term?
Isobel Marshall: And sometimes lack of knowledge on our sleeves.
Eloise Hall: But that was really good intention because we wanted to absorb the information we didn’t know. So we were never going to, yes, there was an element of maybe nodding away at acronyms, you have no idea the meaning.
Isobel Marshall: Absolutely.
Eloise Hall: But apart from that, we were really honest in, “Oh sorry, can you explain that? We’ve actually had no experience in this area.” And that was the best thing we could have done because we ended up learning far more than we would have if we pretended we knew what we were doing. So I think that was lost on some, but it was more so I think valued by others because they recognized our honesty and they wanted to respond with their scar tissue. They wanted to share their experience because they believed in what we were doing. That was the really easy part was explaining to people about period poverty and instantly they wanted to give us their time.
Eloise Hall: Because it’s not about us and it’s definitely about the mission and what we can achieve through our business model, and that’s I think how we attracted so many wonderful mentors. But there’s only been a handful of people that haven’t really taken us seriously per se, and you can’t blame them. That’s that. It’s business. And we continue to work hard to prove ourselves to opportunities that might have not been interested back then but now they are.
Will Tjo: Absolutely. I guess one of the main focuses of this podcast is to reach everyone in the ecosystem just so that we can look to the future, change policies, how can we better support our founders? And would you say that people not taking you seriously, would you say that that’s a gap in our ecosystem that should be addressed?
Isobel Marshall: I think it’s probably a gap that’s narrowing over time. And I think time and time again, young people are proving that their perhaps lack of experience is a huge strength. That means that they’re asking the questions that perhaps people haven’t thought to ask for a long time because they’ve learnt a certain thing in a certain way. And so they’re asking the new fresh questions. They’re providing you fresh solutions. And more often than not, kids are so smart and so young these days as well. They prove themselves time and time again that if there’s a problem, they can apply themselves to the solution and provide that perspective that’s needed.
Isobel Marshall: It’s been a real honor in the last couple of years to be recognized as young people who have some interesting ideas to solve some problems. And that has meant that both Eloise and I have had amazing opportunities to be a part of, whether that be panels or groups or whatever that is providing that young perspective. And people are really taking that seriously and making a space for young people, which is really encouraging and it really, it’s a good model to show other young people that their voices can be taken seriously.
Isobel Marshall: That’s obviously not the case in every single situation, in every single demographic or community, but for us it’s been a huge encouragement.
Will Tjo: That’s absolutely amazing. And it’s good to hear that the gap is narrowing in a practical way that gives a voice to the young people. As you mentioned, you’ve been invited to talk on panels and so on just to get your voice out there.
Eloise Hall: I do think that’s something that we’ve been really lucky with though. I think there is a bit of luck in play there because there are so many other voices that I would love to see on panels similar that maybe don’t get there cut. And I think the opportunity we have with policy shift is around the social enterprise discussion because still there’s no really structure for social enterprises to fit in in a really succinct way. The language is very different across the industry. The grants are really quite fluid or you don’t really fit into the category of being a successful commercial business because you don’t have any investors that profit from your import. Or you don’t really fit into a charity spectrum because you are selling a product and you’re making money.
Eloise Hall: So that discussion really needs to be refined and I think there’s definite opportunity for policy to shift there. Because in my opinion that’s the only way we can kind of address the world’s to-do list is to really reshape how our economy works and where our investments sits. Because it hasn’t proved to be very sustainable or helpful in the notion towards equality. So I’m excited to see policy shifts towards social enterprise more and I’m really confident that it will because there’s a lot of pressure to have something change.
Will Tjo: Absolutely. Do you think that the middle box that social enterprises fit where we don’t really have a structure per se, is that specific to Australia? Or have you seen some, I guess examples in other geographies where this has been implemented successfully?
Eloise Hall: There are some wonderful kind of third parties or middle ground representatives that help social enterprises to be more secure like B Corp and Social Traders. They’re really good examples of how social enterprises can be supported. But realistically, it’s a global economic discussion and I think there needs to be a global movement in support of that. In a global economic sense we don’t really reward businesses that have social outputs as much as they do or financial outputs, not even economic outputs, but financial outputs. So I don’t think it’s really something that we can address nation by nation. It’s very much a shift that we all kind of need to sign up to at once in some capacity at least.
Will Tjo: I know what you mean. It’s not something that should be restricted to a specific geography per se. Is venture capital on the table for Taboo?
Eloise Hall: There’s a lot of discussion about what types of investment you can have, where your capital comes from matters. But I think there’s still like a broader economic discussion to be had. I don’t think we’re really getting the point if we’re wanting… The wealthy’s wealth shouldn’t be… We really need to simmer down, I guess not just where and how our capital is measured, but the long term effects and who benefits still is the kind of pain point in the typical access to capital that we still have. Even if it is for venture success or social success, I’m not sure it really fits into the social enterprise longevity discussion completely.
Will Tjo: I know what you mean. Just because if I’m hearing you right, it’s that venture capital has just, I guess tunnel vision on what the end outcome is and that is a purely financial sense, a financial outcome. Whereas Taboo, it doesn’t necessarily align to that vision or that goal per se.
Eloise Hall: No. Our success will never make an individual rich, and that’s the beauty of it. That’s the beauty of social enterprise. Yes, we can have a great amount of employees that are looked after, but we’re not going to be procuring more wealth for someone that just… We had a lot of time on our hands. That was the main investment that is important to Taboo. That’s not going to be a rewarded with a million dollar paycheck in three years. That’s never how our company’s designed. And I don’t think social enterprises will be that effective, businesses, sorry, will be that effective in a social realm unless they really reconsider where their wealth is ending up. Because the wealth gap has a lot of, well, wit’s one of the biggest fields into the inequality that we see.
Isobel Marshall: And I guess from guess maybe a simpler perspective, just bringing it back. We’ve always considered that with privilege comes responsibility and we knew that. As Eloise said, “We had a roof over our head. We were privileged to have access to amazing education. We were safe and fed.” And so that meant that we wanted to invest that time and at the cost, I guess, of becoming richer and richer and richer. Because that was coming from a place of already experiencing privilege enough to be safe and secure and developing but then passing on that time and the effort and the energy and what otherwise might be considered an opportunity to gain financially.
Will Tjo: I know what you mean, Isobel. And it seems to me that for a social enterprise to grow and scale, it requires founders to, in essence have lots of time to be invested in it and perhaps go through what you guys have done with crowd funding. And I guess is that the secret source to grow a social enterprise?
Eloise Hall: I think at the time it was our only option because we didn’t owe anyone anything after the crowd funding had wrapped up. People got some hats and some stickers, but-
Isobel Marshall: That’s our currency.
Eloise Hall: … I think it’s a beautiful example on how business can work without direct investors, without people expecting a profit. It’s so reasonable to hold the expectation as consumers on a company that you get what you pay for. So I think the typical crowd sourcing or crowd funding design is great because I want this watch, I’ll pay for this watch three months in advance, but I’ll get my watch eventually and this company gets to start the way to start. And again, it’s this big economic discussion because then you’ve got issues with growth capital and that’s something that is really helpful to have an investor on board. So I don’t think there’s a perfect option or opportunity to create your capital yet. And I think that’s why so many social enterprises come up with their capital in creative ways.
Eloise Hall: No social enterprise I don’t think starts the same way. And it’s very much dependent on what you’re trying to achieve and how. And it worked for us, but it might not work for everyone. And our startup costs were, I guess, thanks to the time we had, dependent on where we were in life being quite young, we had that time available to invest and we were willing to and we were excited to. But no one should work for free either. So there definitely needs to be some work done in that area.
Isobel Marshall: And I think the crowd funding was particularly effective for us given our mission, overarching mission of eradicating period poverty, which as I said before, relies on sparking the conversation, reducing that stigma as well. So having a community around Taboo was so important and the people that were our financial contributors then became our customers and felt that sense of, I guess, responsibility to Taboo as a company, but not only that to the mission as well. And as soon as you get started and you get involved in a crowdfunding campaign, the natural thing is to maybe tell someone else about it because you are obviously passionate about it already. And so that [inaudible] effective. Just getting the message out there really served us well, not only just to financially, but also as a company.
Will Tjo: Absolutely. And I love what you said about this idea of building a community around you because as you mentioned, you were just outside of high sTjool for example, and a lot of the supporters from high sTjools came on board because it was not long after you had just left. So that community building aspect seems to be an important part of your journey as well. I think it was Eloise that mentioned this, by way of grants, is there anything out there for social enterprises or is it really just one big caffafel?
Eloise Hall: There are grants around if you dig for them, but I don’t think there’s a certain, there’s not so much security around I’m going to start a social enterprise and this money is potentially accessible. It’s very much you really have to fit the bill and the bill is very different depending on which state you’re from, even how state governments view social enterprise. A lot of people who would typically, for example, businesses who might offer charity discounts, they’re starting to incorporate social enterprises into that, I guess, qualification of receiving that discount. So yes, the conversation’s very much picking up.
Eloise Hall: I think social enterprises can often be still kind of put in the silo of charity or business very distinctly. I wouldn’t say that there’s a social enterprise category of opportunity for grants, but I think as well, if you’re applying for a business grant, a traditional business grant, and you have the social output as well as a financial or commercial opportunity, that’s appealing. So I think people’s criteria are shifting towards more socially focused business and charities maybe shifting towards more sustainable charities, which is just a social enterprise so really, they should be its own category. I don’t know, it’s encouraging to know that some things are going to happen because both areas are kind of bending in the same direction of the middle.
Isobel Marshall: It’s like a spectrum. And it’s really, it is encouraging to know that their expectations around social environmental output of just your regular company is changing a lot like the expectations on what the impact of that company is. So it’s, I guess seeing those big for-profit companies demonstrate a bit of concern about the society around them or the environment around them is encouraging. But of course, then you can get into that murky water of virtue signaling and claiming to be doing all these good things for the sake of promoting that in itself. So there’s a lot of, again, that comes back to the importance for clear vocabulary as well and expectations and standards. That will only come when social enterprises are better understood.
Will Tjo: So, Isobel and Eloise, as you know, what we’re trying to do with this podcast is reach all corners of the ecosystem just so that we can better support our entrepreneurs in the future as well as social entrepreneurs. We want everyone from policy makers, academics, founders, investors to hear their story. What’s something that they need to hear from both of you?
Isobel Marshall: We’ve probably repeated it a few times, but just this understanding around what exactly is a social enterprise? What are the financial models, the legal models that people who are entering that social enterprise space for good reasons and with a lot of passion and enthusiasm, how can they go into that space knowing what the template can look like? Obviously social enterprises are inherently very unique and they all look very different and they all have different structures, but knowing where you sit is really important. To then communicate that to your customers, communicate it to your stakeholders, all of that. So that language needs to be refined. Those structures need to be refined and that will have that sustainable impact on the community and the environment in turn.
Will Tjo: That’s amazing. And lastly, if a brand new entrepreneur or founder came to you, given all your mistakes, experience, wins, what’s one piece of advice you’d give them to increase their chances of success?
Eloise Hall: I think one of the best things that work for us that I always recommend for other people is just to be really honest in all elements of business. So being honest with yourself and the amount of information you think you understand. And then being honest when you walk into conversations with people about what you want to do, be really transparent. I think transparency speaks, it’s so valuable. I think as well, there’s a lot of performance in social enterprise ecosystems sometimes that is perhaps lost. I think transparency is one of the most sharp values that you can bring into this space because it’s very obvious.
Eloise Hall: I also think that the nature of business is really shifting. So having an authentic reason why you are doing what you’re doing. If you’re doing it not just for yourself, then people are really inspired and excited to support that as well. There are too many people on this planet not to think about everyone else. So I think the standards are shifting and if you want to do something good for other people, then now’s the time to do it. I think the environment’s at the right time.
Isobel Marshall: And I would say make sure you spend a lot of time and effort curating an amazing team around you as well. We have this incredible team of very like-minded, passionate, skillful people and the dynamic in the office is amazing because we’ve always sort of had a real focus on the people we’re working with. It’s like, it’s pretty obvious in all kind of realms of life in all workplaces, a difficult dynamic can really affect output and productivity, but also just your mental state and all of that sort of stuff. So I would say just really take those decisions really seriously as well in terms of who’s around you and who you’re learning from.
Will Tjo: That’s brilliant. What’s next for Taboo?
Eloise Hall: Well, we just launched our new tampons. They’re wrapped in paper, so where we have a plastic free period line now completely, that’s exciting for us. So hopefully we can see us growing in Australia. We want to grow our range and we want to grow where we want to be national hopefully by the end of the year in store as well as online. And we obviously want to do a lot with the profit that we generate. So hopefully we can really see the end of period probably in Australia very soon and then definitely overseas in the next five to 10 years.
Will Tjo: That’s absolutely amazing. Isobel and Eloise, it’s been a pleasure to have you both on the show today.
Isobel Marshall: Thanks, Will. Thanks for having us.
Will Tjo: Where could the audience go if they wanted to learn more and connect?
Eloise Hall: Please go to tabooau.co and see our website. Otherwise, you can Google Taboo period products and find us on Instagram and Facebook. And you can listen to our podcast, The Flow.
Isobel Marshall: We’ve got some great newsletters that come out as well, the EDMs, they’re really fun.
Adam Spencer: I hope you enjoyed that interview. More interviews are on the way. Follow the podcast wherever you’re listening right now. Stay tuned for more interviews with many, many more amazing people from the Australian startup ecosystem. Thanks for listening and see you next time.