A crazy idea that gave birth to a purpose started with just a simple question: “What are the things you carry around?”
This was a question that Mia Klitsas, a marketing intern at that time, tossed to her then colleague, Jeff Gore, who was her senior in the company where she worked before, as they were talking about packaging designs. It was a lighthearted conversation, even bordering to bantering and exchanging jokes, but out of that discussion, a business partnership was born that became the foundation of Millie and More, the venture that Mia and Jeff later built.
The young and fearless Mia was doing her internship at the multinational company where Jeff had been working for more than a decade. In the middle of a discussion about tin packaging designs, that question floated and Mia suddenly thought of the tampons that women usually carried around – a functional and emotional thing for women – which she herself considered as a personal pain point.
Since the industry was dominated by large corporations, the way those products were packaged had remained stagnant in that area. The solution seemed simple but nothing had been done about it. “Clearly, there is a need for better packaging of those items,” Mia thought, “why not put tampons in tin cans?”
It was a eureka moment that snowballed into Mia deciding to tread the entrepreneurial route rather than sticking it out as an employee. Apart from the excitement over the thought of having her own enterprise, Mia’s job was making her feel under-appreciated and she struggled with it. An environment where the culture would allow her to execute her creative ideas without having to go through a strict approval process was what she was craving for. There was no way for her to achieve that other than to create that culture herself, where she can be her own boss.
One day, she went home and told her family the news: she was quitting her job to start a hygiene company with Jeff. Her father, also an entrepreneur, and the rest of the family threw their support on her decision of becoming an entrepreneur and told her to give it a go. Even her partner, who later became her husband, was very encouraging of her pronouncement.
Whilst her family understood her drive and were behind her all the way, there were people telling Mia how ridiculous and crazy her idea was. Others even told her it would be stupid to leave the comforts of her job and risk everything on something that wasn’t sure to take off.
She remained unfazed and went ahead and established Millie and More with Jeff. They worked on developing their brand, Moxie, which they launched a few months after they started their business. The starting line in their entrepreneurial journey was a very tough one. Pooling their savings together, they bought a laptop, their first asset, and camped it out at a small space above her father’s factory. “That place had no air-con, so it was too hot in summer and too cold in winter. At times, we had to head over to Starbucks where there’s free Wi-fi so we could work. So, when we finally moved to our first office in Richmond, it was a little bit of a shock,” Mia recalled.
Two marketers that banded together to build a business was great. They knew their products really, really well, but they weren’t good in numbers. So, within the first 12 months, they hired their first employee, an accountant, to look after their books because cashflow just boggled Mia’s mind. “They didn’t teach this in school and we just had to figure things out as we go.”
Though the idea of their tampons in tin cans started as a funny conversation, Mia found out, as she carried on with her entrepreneurial journey, that running a company was no joke. There were so many intricacies to managing a business that she didn’t know about, such as procurement and manufacturing.
Mia was glad she has a business partner with whom she could share these concerns and frustrations. “I wouldn’t have done it on my own. It’s the same with Jeff; we cannot do without the other,” she retorted. Mia has heard many horror stories about partnerships, but within the three years that she and Jeff worked together in their previous jobs and despite being at completely different stages in their career, they found out that they clicked really well creatively.
And she was also relieved she had her business partner beside her during a big pitch. It was the initial meeting with Woolworths and Mia could feel butterflies in her stomach. She distinctly remembers that moment, which she considers the scariest one since she started the company. Mia had no doubts about their capabilities or their product but it was a moment when fear just gripped her, as she contemplated the potential impact of the meeting on their business. “It suddenly became very real. It could go south. What if it doesn’t work?” she thought then.
Before they launched their products, Mia ordered a container of tampons without any assurance of dispensing the items, which was a huge business risk. Good thing that the Woolworths presentation resulted in an astounding “yes”, which also paved the way for them to distribute Moxie nationally. Given the success of their meeting, Mia couldn’t resist taking a photo of her and Jeff wearing their watermelon smiles on their flight back home. “It could have gone another way and we would have been stuck with a container of tampons,” she chuckled.
This created inroads for Mia and her company. With the deal they clinched, they went to the bank and loaned for money to further their business growth. But the path ahead was not at all filled with candy stripes, as Moxie tin cans are attractively designed. There were times in the business when they had crappy moments, comparable to what women endure regularly. One particular moment was when Mia and her team launched in the UK and the business there didn’t work out well. It was really a challenging market and retailers were very notorious. Without the right support, they lost a lot of money which took a long time to recover.
Apart from cash flow and expansion problems, product development was also a difficult process. Wanting to enlarge their range of products, Mia had come up with several new items. Sadly, there were products that weren’t received well as they didn’t resonate with the market. Not all ideas are bad ideas, but she also noted that not all ideas are well-received either. There were some that were off the mark, but that had hit a sensitive part in Mia. “It was emotionally difficult because I took it personally,” she confided.
Moments like this when she felt a bit of a void, Mia appreciated the presence and support of her EO Melbourne Forum. With just a small team in her office, she felt there was “something lacking in shared experience.” She was also reluctant to discuss her business concerns with her family because she didn’t want to bring her work home. So, EO Melbourne became part of her support system that sustained her through her business struggles.
“When I went to my first EO Christmas party, I had never felt so much welcomed because everyone was so friendly, evoking an immediate sense of comfort. I love my forum, especially with our amazing forum members, because we are a tight group. There are so much trust and respect in the room,” Mia cheerfully said.
Her learnings in EO and her experiences in her business have transformed Mia. Throughout those 12 years, she realised how much she has evolved – the young girl interning in a company has developed into a leader, and with less ego now. “At first, it was cool and fun having my own business and being in a magazine. But a big realisation came to me in 2013,” Mia recounted.
That was the year when someone sent her information about the high rate of absentees among girls in developing countries. Young girls, given their limited access to resources, couldn’t manage their periods. Mia went to Uganda herself to see what was going on. That’s when she launched her Pads for Pads project.
“We don’t fundraise. We use our own profits for this project,” Mia interjected. They got a partner in Uganda and they asked women to make their products, providing livelihood to them, and then donating these products to the community. One time, after they were done giving out their kits to young girls, Mia was sitting on a log outside of the school and it dawned on her how everything has come into place. “It was an iconic moment and I get it now,” she remarked. “I have never imagined starting a business, and sitting there in Uganda, I would find a simple mission out of my venture. It was more than just putting tampons in tins. It led us to something important.”
It was an exhilarating sense of fulfilment for Mia. She has worked hard and now she’s giving back. Her Pads for Pads project has benefited about 15,000 girls and her dream is to see this expand and grow. Alongside with it, she also aims to make Moxie as one of the top three brands in the world when it comes to personal care.
“People think that when you have your own business, automatically you’re making tons of money. It’s not. It entails lots of sacrifices, both financially and emotionally, because the business goes with you. It’s not at all sunshine, but it’s important to take risks. Be comfortable being uncomfortable. And be relevant as a brand,” Mia shared.
Mia has definitely found her relevance as a person and as an entrepreneur. Besides her business, she takes pleasure in providing consultation and guidance to other startup founders. And then there’s her program, Pads for Pads. It has come full circle. From her personal pain point, she now helps ease the pain points of other people. Mia readies herself for more as she continues to be challenged because these challenges motivate her to keep going.