Amrita Saigal of Kudos doesn’t mind if you steal her idea: “the idea is such a small part of it.”
Amrita is the founder and CEO of Kudos, the sustainable disposable diaper made with a 100% cotton liner and plant-based materials. A self-described nerd with a background in mechanical engineering, she’s a leader in the movement to get plastics out of baby products and reduce our use of fossil fuels in the process.
Earlier in her career, Amrita founded Saathi, a biodegradable, compostable sanitary pad made with banana tree fibers. She launched the company in India with the mission to provide menstrual hygiene products to women in rural areas, where taboos around the subject persist. Amrita has also worked at Procter & Gamble, headed up optics manufacturing for Google Glass at Google X, and served as head of business development at Thunkable, a no-code tool to build Android and iOS apps. She’s an alumna of MIT and Harvard Business School.
Here she explains her philosophy of “elegant sustainability,” why founders shouldn’t be scared to share their ideas, and how her work with Saathi taught her the importance of early customer research.
Tell us about your journey to Kudos.
I joined Procter & Gamble right out of college, working as a manufacturing engineer for Always pads, Gillette razors, and for their new business creation division.
At P&G, I saw first-hand how much plastic we put into sanitary pads, diapers, and tampons. Believe it or not, baby diapers are the third largest contributor to landfill waste — which is crazy. Every child, from the time they’re born until they’re potty trained, goes through about 7,000 diapers. I saw that we needed to do things differently.
So, I left P&G. I moved to India to start my first company, Saathi, which is now one of the leading eco-friendly sanitary pad brands, making pads out of waste banana tree fiber. I’m no longer involved with Saathi on a day-to-day basis, but it’s very much growing in India.
Later on, as I entered my 30s and my friends started having kids, I kept hearing that they couldn’t find an eco-friendly diaper that they felt performed at the same level as Pampers and Huggies. People felt they had to make a compromise if they opted for a sustainable, eco-friendly brand. I also learned that the eco-friendly brands are not as green as people think.
While eco-friendly brands have taken a step in the right direction, in that there’s no added dyes, fragrances, and chlorine, the material that’s touching the baby’s skin is still 100% petroleum-derived plastic.
So, we wanted to solve both these problems with a disposable diaper that: (1) had no plastic touching the baby’s skin; and (2) actually worked and could hold up overnight.
We didn’t want to just focus on getting rid of the added dyes, chemicals, and fragrances. Again, it’s a step in the right direction, but to really protect our children’s future, we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel-derived plastics.
What was your solution?
We set out to make the first diaper where everything that touches your baby’s skin is 100% cotton, sourced from farmers in Mississippi. Why cotton? It’s naturally soft, sustainable, and it’s the #1 doctor-recommended material for those suffering from rash (like diaper rash) and eczema. Unlike plastic, cotton has naturally short, twisted fibers which allow for maximum air circulation and breathability of the diaper — that’s why it’s so great for sensitive skin. Furthermore, wherever we could, we substituted in plants for plastic, and the majority of the other components in our diaper are made from cornstarch, sugar cane fiber, and sustainably harvested wood pulp.
Though what was inside the diaper was extremely important to us, so was not compromising on performance. It makes us so happy to see so many reviews on our website from new parents who are getting more sleep because of Kudos diapers and raving about the absorbency of our diapers overnight. A lot of this is due to our patent-pending DoubleDry™ tech which builds in two absorption layers into the diaper instead of the traditional one.
In a nutshell, we’re the first and only diaper brand with 100% cotton touching your baby’s skin and double the absorption layers to provide superior overnight protection.
How did you connect with Xfund?
Brandon and I were friends at Harvard Business School; we were both in the class of 2014. He’s always been a supporter and cheerleader. I didn’t start working on this until four and a half years post-HBS, when we were both in the Bay Area. I’d always run my ideas by him.
I just have to say that he and Xfund were the first to really believe in the vision and what we were trying to do. I’m extremely thankful for their early support. They’ve connected me to tons of other investors and to a bunch of events. I’m so grateful for all the help. Brandon and Patrick both have been super great to work with.
What did you learn at Saathi and how did that inform your work with Kudos?
I learned a lot in terms of product development and understanding the consumer. You may think, “Well, I talked to five of my friends. I understand the problem. I think this is the solution.” But you really have to take the time, early on, to do qualitative 30- to 45-minute interviews with 20 to 30 potential customers whose pain point you’re solving.
People often assume that because they’ve talked to a few people, they have a solution for some problem. But that’s not always the case. It’s time-consuming and expensive to run surveys and get people to agree to talk to you, but it’s really worth it to do a number of qualitative interviews and then a very large number of quantitative scrapings.
At Saathi, one of the first things we realized was that our product was not 100% biodegradable. The core of the pad was biodegradable, but the outer covers were not. When we took the product to women in rural villages in India, they loved it, but they weren’t using it, and I couldn’t understand why.
In rural India, there are many social taboos about menstruation, so these girls could not just take these pads and throw them in the trash. They had to bury or burn them, and they told us that if the pad is not completely biodegradable, they can’t use it, because they can’t be burning plastic.
It took us around two years to redesign the whole product to accommodate this. That’s why it’s so important to take the time to interview and understand your customers ahead of time.
With Kudos, we didn’t know what materials we were going to use when we started. We had a number of different options. We decided based on early testing and asking parents, “What are your concerns? What are the challenges with current diapers? What do you currently use? Why do you use that brand?”
These are obvious questions, and that’s the hard part. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, duh. You’ve got to do customer research.” But you really have to spend time with your consumers. Watch them change diapers, because the way you change diapers is going to be different from the way your friend changes diapers.
Product development takes a long time — especially in the time of Covid. From the time we started working on Kudos until the time we launched took two and a half years.
Any other lessons you learned?
I’ve found that just talking with everybody and anybody about your product idea is so important. I know people worry that someone will steal their idea. But no one is stealing your idea! Am I the first person to think of a 100% cotton diaper? No. Am I the first person to think of a 100% biodegradable sanitary pad? Absolutely not.
But is there any other diaper in the market in the U.S. that has a 100% cotton liner? No.
Don’t be afraid that someone is going to steal your idea. Even if they steal your idea, the idea is such a small part of it. So much of it comes down to the execution.
If you talk to people about your idea, you never know when someone’s going to be able to connect you or give you advice. They might not know the first thing about diapers, but they might have a friend who knows someone who does.
I just can’t stress the importance of random connections enough. I was at a conference, and I was talking to this guy in line in front of me. We were ordering pizza. A year later, I ended up hiring him as one of our materials consultants. You just never know.
Don’t be shy — have an attitude where you’re going to talk to everybody about your idea and see what people have to say. You get feedback early on. Even if someone questions, “Is that really needed?” or “Why do people care about that?” at least these questions help you refine your thinking.
Kudos’ website says, “A product can be sustainable, but it is unlikely to be impactful, unless it has elegance in the eyes of the beholder.” Explain that.
For a lot of different products, the eco-friendly, sustainable option does not perform as well as the conventional standard option.
And the reality is sustainable products are more expensive. At Kudos, our raw materials are more expensive. Cotton and sugar cane fiber are significantly more expensive than plastic. Why is that? It’s a chicken and egg problem in the supply chain. There aren’t billions and billions of pounds of cotton processed in a form that’s usable for diapers, because the demand for it isn’t there.
The suppliers don’t want to resolve it — they’re not going to do it unless Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, or another big brand puts in a P.O. for huge amounts. But then Kimberly-Clark won’t do that, because it’s too expensive. So, it’s a chicken and egg problem.
The only way we’re going to make sustainable products mainstream is if prices come down. But the products also need to perform at the same level, if not better, than the conventional options.
Customers are no longer willing to compromise on performance or aesthetics in exchange for sustainability. People want things that work well, that are aesthetically beautiful, and that are made with the best materials.
Sustainable products need to be elegant. They need to look better, feel better, and perform better than their conventional counterparts. They need to be beautiful. Only when that happens will sustainability become mainstream. Then, over time, as supply chains pick up and grow, prices can come down.
Tell us about some of the big challenges you’ve faced.
The biggest challenges we’ve faced in the last two years have been Covid delays after Covid delays. Raw materials have been out of supply. Manufacturers have been overwhelmed. Dealing with these delays and resetting expectations has been a huge challenge. We launched a lot later than I wanted to, but I don’t think we’re the only one.
In addition, diapers is a crowded space. There are a lot of brands, and there’s a ton of greenwashing and misinformation. Some brands claim to be biodegradable, but there is no diaper on the market that’s biodegradable. They all have elastic. Trying to rise above this greenwashing and educating the consumer is a challenge.
We’ve heard people say things like, “Pampers and Huggies aren’t cotton? They’re so soft!” And they are super soft, so it’s understandable you’d think they’re made of a fabric or sustainable material — not plastic. We focus on education and explaining why we use cotton and sugarcane, and why Kudos is different.
Besides this crowded market, there’s also the issue of how parents decide what diaper brand to use. They either ask their best friend or a family member. When it comes to baby products, so much of it is word of mouth recommendation, what the hospital gives them, or what the pediatrician tells them. The education we have to do is time-consuming and challenging, even though we’re confident we have a better product.
What advice do you have for founders, especially those in smaller, niche industries like yours?
What’s worked well for us is getting to know the other brands in the sustainable baby products niche. I’ve become really good friends with a lot of the founders of sustainable baby food and clothing brands. The more you can cross-promote each other, do giveaways together, host events together, and tap into each other’s audiences, the better.
Partnering with a non-competing brand going after the same customer is one of the most cost-effective customer acquisition methods.
It’s harder with Covid. More things are virtual. People are burned out from Zoom, but I think investing that time in partnerships and getting to know those people is helpful.
What’s next for Kudos? What are you looking forward to?
So many things! We’re launching with baby wipes, expanding into retail, and growing the team. We’ve only been live for six months, and it’s been a great start. Now, we’re really putting the foot on the pedal, growing the company, and aiming to become a household name.