Quyen Nguyen explores how female empowerment, sexuality and business intersect in the startup space.
At least 90% of startups fail, with some of the most common reasons being funding challenges, poor marketing and lack of passion.
It’s even harder to get started when you add sex and stir. That’s because typical problems faced by startups are magnified in the adult industry, partially due to the stigma still associated with sex. So if you’re going to be an entrepreneur in this space, you better be prepared to be even more resilient and persistent than the average startup founder.
Our exploration into this corner of the startup world is part of a new Hatch podcast mini-series on “innovating vices” — sex, drugs, alcohol and gambling. These are four industries that have been traditionally stigmatised and subject to heavy regulation, so how do entrepreneurs get around the challenges and create opportunity? And what insights and inspiration can the rest of the startup community take from their experiences?
Finding the barriers — and ways around them
In our first episode looking at the adult industry, we found the barriers to startup entry were high, making it a difficult space for entrepreneurs to crack.
Want to get a grant from the government? Sorry, anything sexual is indecent.
Want to reach your target market through social media? Sorry, sex toys breach community standards.
What we discovered was that despite the challenges, a cohort of female founders are stepping up and re-imagineering the adult industry. And one thing they don’t lack: passion. Alex Fine (CEO and Co-founder of Dame Products), Jacqueline Haines (CEO and Founder of Vavven) and Bryony Cole (Creator of the Future of Sex podcast) are all seeking to combat prejudices in the adult industry with their businesses.
So what drives their success? How are these women #killingit in the entrepreneur space?
#1 They know who they’re designing for
Alex Fine was inspired to create a sex toy designed for women to use with their partners, enhancing the experience for women.
“Eva was a total hunch, I had this idea this product was wanted. And I kind of proved that by asking people. We did a survey and were like, ‘if this concept existed would you buy it?’ And so many people said yes… and that validated the concept for me,” says Alex.
Alex created several cheap prototypes, that she tested on herself and on her target market.
At the moment, many sex toys are designed and marketed by men, and miss the mark when trying to appeal to females.
“They still have this real male gaze. They use sexy young women with perfect bodies taking off their stiletto heels or oiled up. It doesn’t resonate with me, I don’t need to be reminded that I’m not this model. So I think that’s why women are kind of fed up with it and they’re ready to own their own sexuality,” notes Alex.
#2 Stick to your guns
Even with the advance of technology, we can’t seem to shake off traditional concepts of sex.
And this has an impact for startups in terms of marketing and funding. Facebook and Instagram, for example, don’t permit advertising for companies that make sex toys.
It’s something Jacqueline Haines has had to grapple with in launching Vavven: “I definitely feel that you talk about sex toys and the everyday Joe on the street says, ‘yeah that’s fine,’ then they’re surprised to find you can’t market these things across Facebook or other platforms.”
Funding is another issue. Bank loans are a no-no in the United States — any product which is of an ‘indecent sexual nature’ is denied funding. Dame Products’ Alex would argue, however, that there’s a difference between a ‘decent’ and ‘indecent’ sexual nature.
“I always say we are of a decent sexual nature and usually I just get some laughs, but I do feel like why did they write the word ‘indecent’ in there? You know they could’ve just said ‘of a sexual nature’, and they chose to put the word indecent,” said Alex.
But even with all these obstacles, these innovators stick to their guns and ignore what others may think of them — an attribute true of any good entrepreneur. They follow their own voices and let it drive their long term visions. More than just creating sex toys or products made for women, it’s about women stepping up in business and crafting their own narrative against the grain.
“I do think there is a strong female force, because women see the power in getting to make the decisions about brands and sexuality. Women want to be making these toys for their own needs, and they want a brand that has a voice that they feel truly represented by,” Alex states.
#3 They are owning the space
It’s one thing to push through all these barriers, but it still takes a lot of courage to associate your name in business with sex.
Bryony Cole of Future of Sex talks about the decision to take the plunge.
“That was the thing that was the biggest barrier for me was the fear of what other people thought. Especially my parents at the time — they just didn’t understand how they’d raised this girl that was suddenly in sex tech.”
For Bryony, the fear wasn’t about the present, but about what it would mean for her future.
“I think people get scared away because it is such a taboo industry, that they think, ‘how will I ever be employed again if I decide this isn’t for me?’”
The movement is gaining traction, and in the true spirit of collaboration, the rising tide is lifting all boats. Women of Sex Tech was launched in 2016, and Bryony is bringing Australia’s first Sextech Hackathon to Brisbane in early 2018.
“I think the best thing for me has been to connect with other people in the industry and watch how it grows,” says Bryony.
“Because the barriers we are facing are all the same, it doesn’t matter if you have 10 other vibrator companies. They are not competition as we’re all trying to break barriers like, how do we get press? Or how do we get funding?
Sticking to your guns is important, she decides, and despite sometimes feeling uncomfortable, the rewards have been worth it: “I feel like I’ve had so many more opportunities because I’ve pursued something that was a little left of centre and a little uncomfortable for other people,” says Bryony.
Every challenge is an opportunity, because you can move into spaces that others have been scared to conquer. And that is exactly what these three women have proved.