Somerville startup launches online brand for adult diapers

Kelly J. O'Brien 
Source: Willow 

A new Somerville startup wants to apply the strategy of direct-to-consumer brands like Warby Parker and Dollar Shave Club to an overlooked segment of consumers: Older adults struggling with incontinence.

The new company, called Willow, is set to launch its website and online marketing campaign on Tuesday. Willow will sell packages of 60 pairs of disposable underwear at a price of about $.80 per pair, and buyers can sign up for a subscription that delivers a package every one, two or three months.

Willow founder and CEO Will Herlands estimates people in the U.S. spend about $4 billion on adult diapers every year, but he says most of the options are bulky, noisy, and uncomfortable.

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Willow aims to emphasize its garment's more stylish design, hopefully taking some of the embarrassment out of the buying process.

"It's such a taboo issue," Herlands said. "The products almost tell you, 'Be embarrassed about this. ... Don't tell anyone about this. This is something infantile.'"

More than half of women and one quarter of men over the age of 65 have dealt with at least occasional urinary leakage, according to a 2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control.

About 85 percent of adult diaper purchases still occur in store, according to Herlands, but he says online sales are growing quickly. Part of Willow's early goal with its launch is to see whether it can build an online brand that garners trust among an older age group.

"Honestly it's going to be a bit of an experiment," Herlands said. "One of the exciting things, but also one of the risks, is that people haven't really targeted this demographic with (direct-to-consumer)."

Herlands, who is in his 30s and still finishing a dual PhD in machine learning and public policy from Carnegie Mellon, acknowledges he's not the ideal salesman for such a product, but says the team has compensated by focusing on customer research and feedback during the design process.

Willow is advised by Ben Cogan and Jesse Horwitz, two of the three co-founders behind Hubble, a New York-based startup that sells contacts directly to consumers online. Willow aims to follow a similar blueprint in the sense that it will advertise primarily via Facebook and will take orders directly on its own website.

The company currently employs three people in New York and two people, including Herlands, in Somerville. Herlands says he plans to move the company entirely to the Boston area in the coming months because the city is cheaper than New York and has many talented workers in the healthcare industry.

Willow has raised approximately $2.5 million across two fundraising rounds. Investors in include FirstMark Capital, Two River and Wildcat Venture Partners, which also invested in Hubble.