Founder of tabú
Interviewed on February 18, 2018
tabú, founded by Mia Davis in 2016, is a website that provides sex education to all people, with a primary focus on 17-24 year-olds. The company partners with doctors and experts in the industry to create content covering all topics from period problems to relationship heath. Unlike traditional sex education websites, the overall design and language make tabú interesting, fun, and easy to read. With tabú, Mia encourages more people to join the conversation about sex and raise awareness about the importance of sexual health.
What is your background before founding Tabú?
Originally I wanted to become a lawyer, and then I decided to pursue engineering, so I went to Stanford University and studied Product Design there. I was involved in a social entrepreneurship club and guided underclassmen on starting their own social ventures, so I was always socially conscious and wanted to make an impact. After I graduated, I started working at Salesforce as a UX designer. I was on the Community Cloud team and worked on building the moderation and management experiences for the community platform. During this time, my friends and I had a conversation about the portrayal of sex in the media and how it was not very representative of sex in the real world. I grew up in a really conservative family where there was a huge lack of information. I also had a lot of shame around my body. For example, I had very irregular periods, and I was not able to use tampons due to a pelvic floor condition, but I had no idea about anything at the time. Even though my friends were a lot more candid and comfortable and had more sexual health education, they still had many confusing moments and questions as well, and no one would really talk about the different awkward moments during sex. We realized that there was clearly a gap in the market for these real, authentic conversations.
Everyone at Stanford was very entrepreneurial and pursuing some sort of idea. I always knew I wanted to start something too, but it had to be something that I was 200% passionate about and could drive me to solve a genuine problem. So after I realized the problem with sex education, I interviewed doctors and talked to college students and asked them what issues they had and how they learned about sex. There was a lot of brainstorming about how to address the problem before starting to build anything. I stayed at Salesforce for another 9 months and decided to take it more seriously, so I left to pursue tabú full-time in February 2016.
How did you come up with the name tabú?
tabú (a variant spelling of the English word “taboo” and the actual word for “taboo” in Spanish) means things people don’t want to talk about, as in “too taboo to say out loud.” I added an accent on the “u” because I always add accent to words when I text, and I just think it’s funny.
How did you come up with the logo?
The logo is biting the lips. Originally it was a conversation bubble with an asterisk in it to represent things people don’t want to talk about. It later evolved into lips. I then teamed up with a graphic designer, and she made a series of lips. I thought biting the lips was a very sexual gesture, but I showed it to a friend, and he said it indicated that the person was nervous. So I thought that would be perfect because it could either mean someone was too nervous to ask a question, or it could just be a cute and fun symbol.
What is your business model?
It has evolved over time. Originally, we created a community where people could ask questions and experts would answer. Then we realized it had limits in terms of scale. People were answering questions and we didn’t want to perpetuate misinformation if people from the community were not giving factual responses. Now we focus on content, so it’s a very search- driven experience. There are 21 articles on specific topics, which we call the “basics.” They are research-based, medically accurate articles, but written in a friendly way and structured in Q&A format. We also have regular articles on different topics that are all tied in with each other. We still have experts who answer questions. There is a chat bubble in the lower right corner of the website for people to ask them. We plan to synthesize all the questions and deliver a more streamlined experience. We also try to incorporate sponsored content and different brand partnerships from companies and organization/ we trust.
How do you monetize?
We have generated some revenue through affiliate marketing campaigns. So, for example, we offer our users 10% off if they used our code, and we get a percentage of the sales, but that’s very limited right now until we have a larger audience. Until then, it’s not really a lucrative source of revenue. We are trying to do more branded content. Monetizing content can be challenging without sacrificing the quality of the content, and I definitely don’t want ads all over the website.
How did you find your writers?
Early on, when I had limited funds, if someone was willing to write something for free, even though it was not written that well or if the content didn’t fit well, we still published and hoped someone would be interested in it. But now we’re a lot more strategic about the content we’re producing and make sure it’s always on-brand and high-quality. For the “basics”, I’ve reached out to different organizations that specialized in specific topics. For example, for relationship health, I reached out to One Love Foundation, and we worked with Project Consent for consent. That was a way to have a brand partnership but also get content for our website. I also reached out to a lot of educators and doctors with specific focus areas to see if they were willing to contribute content. Because of the company’s financial situation, there were definitely times when we were producing a lot of content and times when we only published one article a month.
What kind of sponsored content and brand partnerships do you do?
There are a lot of social media collaborations, which I think are very beneficial to grow our audience. They allow us to connect with people who are already following us, but also audiences who are seeking the content but who don’t yet know who are. We do a lot of Instagram takeovers, so we have an expert take over our Instagram for a day and answer questions. We also do giveaways. We’ve also created video content, such as a video with the Flex Company. They created a menstrual disc that’s similar to a disposable menstrual cup but made of different materials. The video concept was “Sexpert Sundaes” and we filmed their sex educator talking about periods and the disc. We educate people about new companies and products as well.
How did you get these brand partnerships?
I think it’s important to communicate with other brands what audience we have. Even if their audience is larger, they still want to grow their audience, and if we have people that they don’t have and can become their potential customers, they might want to work with us. A lot of people also just believe in our mission and like what we are doing, so they are willing to collaborate.
How do you know how much to charge them?
There is a website called InfluencerFee that can calculate how much an Instagram post is worth, so that’s a rough idea for Instagram. Usually it’s calculated based on the amount of followers or subscribers and the amount of likes and interactions. It really depends on the brand and their budget. For example, someone might reach out to me and ask if I want to run an ad for $400; I might say no, but maybe another brand would say yes. If it’s a brand with a lot of money, then $400 is probably nothing. Of course, you also have to consider the value. I also track everything to find patterns. There is one link in an article that got 1000 clicks, so that was helpful for me to learn how many people are converting and on what content. The more metrics we have about people’s behaviors, the better. It’s also helpful to use percentages to explain growth to our brand partners. Instead of saying they got X new followers, I can say we increased their audience by Y%. That’s more compelling.
How did you start the college ambassador program?
We have college students from different universities who host workshops and discussion groups and champion these conversations. I was in a sorority in college. One thing I did was that I looked up my sorority in other colleges and emailed the president. I reached out to other sororities as well and looked on LinkedIn to find people involved in sexual health on campus. The goal of the program is not actually to target students who are already educated, but to make more people who might not be engaged get excited about these topics. I feel like on a lot of college campuses, the network can be really insular, meaning if you are already interested in sexual health, you might only reach the other people who are interested as opposed to reaching a larger student body, so that’s why we target students who are not necessarily involved in that way.
Why do you have an online store?
We don’t rely on selling products in any way. If someone wants to buy it, they can buy it, so why not have it? For our merch, we design the products and use this website called Teespring to print everything. It’s definitely hard to sell merch unless you have a community who’s really into the brand. Unless you are a recognizable brand, nobody wants to necessarily wear your logo. For our brand, our logo is lips, so people are more willing to wear it. We are not maximizing our profits with merch, as we want to make it inexpensive enough for people to buy. For example, our mug is $9, so it’s affordable.
BUILDING THE TEAM
How are the works divided? How do you manage the team?
I have a team of freelance writers. We had an editor-in-chief, but she had to step down to pursue another full-time opportunity and couldn’t balance both, so I took over all of her responsibilities. It’s not my primary skill set, so that’s something I’m spending a lot of time on. I am always finding writers, reading their pitches, editing the content, and figuring out the schedule for content. I send out a weekly email newsletter, run all the social media, and manage the college ambassador program. My background is in UX, so I also designed and maintain our primary website. I work with Marcy Gooberman to design the graphics. She is joining the team full-time. It’s a lot of work for us right now, and we definitely need more hands on deck. At this time, we are not able to offer competitive rates. The goal is to raise money and hire more people full-time.
How did you find your intern?
I posted on WayUp. I did a free month trial and got a bunch of applications.
What are your marketing strategies?
We want to build our community organically. I briefly tried Facebook Ads and spent $5, but it wasn’t very effective. Also some of our content has been banned because we talked about sex. Then if you’re someone who comes to our website because you feel uncomfortable, you are probably not going to share with your friends on social media. We recently just built out our insider’s program. If they share with their community and get more people to sign up, we will send them free swag to incentivize them. For a lot of branded content, the brands we feature will share the articles on their own channels, and their audience would check out ours.
What are you social media strategies?
Instagram is our largest channel. Twitter and Facebook are just not as engaged anymore. I just use Buffer, which is a Chrome plug-in, to schedule posts on Facebook. At first I made a lot of connections through Twitter with educators and doctors. We are not necessarily getting readers from it, though we do get a number of retweets, but we are definitely getting collaborators from it. For Instagram, I try to do collaborations with other brands so we can reach each other’s followers. I also try to leverage Instagram stories more because that’s how people get content now. I try to put informational content on Instagram stories and not rely on someone to check the link in bio.
I looked up things online. I clicked around and played around. I talked to a ton of people. You need to know your strengths and weaknesses. People are willing to help in general, but they don’t know how to help you if you don’t tell them. I admit my weaknesses and ask for help.
While we have guidelines about our brand voice, it’s harder for it to come through when we work with outside writers and brands. We just have to define what our voice is and communicate that better, so people can understand exactly what it is.
I need to be patient and honest about what I can handle. I know we can’t be successful overnight. It takes time. I worked at a few startups in college and have had friends start companies, so I was familiar with the startup life. But you can only be so familiar with it until you are actually the founder of a company. Working for a startup is very different from starting a company, and if something goes wrong, it’s on me. I have to do a lot and constantly think about it. It takes lot of emotional and physical energy.
Know what your goals are and what you are willing to sacrifice. You have to stay committed to it. Talk to other entrepreneurs that you trust. Be honest. You don’t want to sound like you don’t know what you are doing because you want people to believe in you, but at the same time you need to be honest, otherwise you can misleading and not get the help you need. It’s a balance.