Taking a playful approach to a typically dry product or service to make it more consumer-friendly is a tactic that’s served businesses well over the years. But what about the flip side? Here entrepreneur and sextech pioneer, Cindy Gallop, explains the difficulties of growing not just a business, but a whole industry, in one of the world’s most playful sectors.
I date younger men. Ten years ago this led me to realise that when total freedom of access to hardcore porn online meets our society’s equally total reluctance to talk openly and honestly about sex, porn becomes sex education by default. This is not a good thing. As a response I launched MakeLoveNotPorn.com, a tiny, clunky 'Porn World vs Real World' website, in 2009 at TED.
The world soon responded. I realised I had uncovered a huge global social issue and saw an opportunity for what I believe is the future of business - to do good and make money simultaneously. So in 2013 I launched MakeLoveNotPorn.tv - the world’s first user-generated videosharing platform that celebrates #realworldsex as a counterpoint and complement to porn, with a revenue-sharing model for our contributors, or MakeLoveNotPornstars.
We are Pro-sex. Pro-porn. Pro-knowing the difference. We’re building a whole new category on the internet - social sex - with the aim of socialising sex to make it easier for everyone in the world to talk about, in order to promote good sexual values and good sexual behavior. We call MakeLoveNotPorn the Social Sex Revolution. The revolutionary part isn’t the sex, it’s the social.
The challenges of taking taboo topics mainstream
We fight a battle every day to build Make Love Not Porn (MLNP). Every piece of business infrastructure that any other tech start-up can take for granted, we can’t. Why? Because the small print will always read: "No adult content". It took me four years to find a bank that would allow me to open a business account. Our biggest operational challenge is payment processing; Paypal won’t work with adult content and Stripe - the gold standard for taking credit cards online - can’t. Every tech service we need to use, from hosting to encoding and encrypting, all have terms of service that also read: "No adult content". We had to build our videosharing and streaming platform from scratch ourselves as proprietary technology, because existing streaming services won’t stream adult content.
Despite all this, at five years old we have 500,000 members globally, over 200 MakeLoveNotPornstars, over 2,000 videos submitted to date and nearly $1,000,000 in revenue (that figure would be much higher minus the payment processing barriers - people won’t pay for porn, but they pay for social sex). We achieved all this with only two full-time employees, one of whom is me, unpaid. Scaleable or what?
I set out three years ago to raise just $2million to scale MLNP. And found that I couldn’t. The key obstacle is the social dynamic I call "the fear of what other people will think", which operates around sex unlike any other area. The three huge disruption opportunities in tech today are sex, cannabis and the blockchain - yet investors flock to the other two in a way they won’t to the first.
If there isn't a thriving industry for your business to enter into, you best make one
I realised I had to break down the business barriers in my own path to scale MLNP to the billion dollar venture I know it can be. I got into the Steve Jobs business of reality distortion. If reality won’t allow me to grow my start-up the way I want to, I’m going to change reality.
I did that by defining, pioneering and championing my own category: sextech. I literally wrote the definition of sextech - Google "what is sextech" and I’m result one on page one. Sextech is any form of technology or tech venture designed to innovate, disrupt and enhance in any area of human sexuality and sexual experience. I coined the hashtag #sextech - I didn’t invent the term, but I’m responsible for propagating it - and I began speaking at tech conferences around the world on Why The Next Big Thing In Tech Is Disrupting Sex. I figured if I just said that loudly enough, often enough, in enough places, people would start to believe it.
This had two unintended consequences. I began seeing the huge potential of this category, not least financially, and as I gained a reputation as a global sextech champion fellow sextech founders began contacting me from all around the world. I quickly realised I had unique access to extraordinary sextech dealflow. So I decided that to get my own start-up funded, I was going to get the entire category funded. So alongside the $2million for MLNP, I’m now raising $200million to start the world’s first and only sextech fund.
Years ago Chairman Mao said "women hold up half the sky". I think that’s relatively unambitious, and named my sextech fund AllTheSky Holdings - deliberately, because I want to fund two specific areas.
The first is radically innovative sextech ventures founded by women. Female founders get the enormous market that is women’s needs, wants and desires historically deemed too taboo to address in business (plus, tap that huge primary market and you tap a huge secondary market of extremely happy men).
Second, the infrastructure of sextech. Every business obstacle I encounter is a huge disruptive opportunity in itself - the first payment processor, hosting provider, video streaming platform, general tech services that embrace legal, ethical, transparent sextech ventures, will clean up. Funding the sextech 'full stack' not only generates huge revenue - every sextech venture globally needs this - but will also build out the underlying ecosystem to turn sextech into the next trillion dollar category in tech.
I shared all of this with our original angel investor in MLNP, which reinforced his belief in our potential, and delivered a happy surprise - he was so frustrated with other investors’ lack of vision, he decided to put up the $2million we need himself. So I can now make my own sextech start-up a showcase for the potential of AllTheSky and the category as a whole.
Four key takeaways
Needless to say this whole experience has taught me a lot. Here are four tactics that may help others trying to find serious support for subjects that people aren’t used to discussing in a business context.
1. When you have a truly world-changing start-up, you have to change the world to fit it - not the other way around.
You can redesign the playing field. By framing and contextualising my start-up as a pioneer in the previously non-defined category of sextech, and by doing the due diligence on the category myself to build the case for investment, I’m not only legitimising sextech for investors but legitimsing every other sextech start-up. The more each one of us wins, the more we all win.
2. Stay away from people, places and things that make you feel bad about yourself.
I consider it no bad thing that I can’t even get across a VC’s threshold with sextech. As an entrepreneur, you don’t need any more thoroughly depressing meetings than you absolutely have to have.
My investors are self-selecting, so I usually find myself pitching only to people who at least have some measure of genuine interest in what I’m doing and 'get it' to some degree. These people will provide constructive feedback, versus decimating my start-up and destroying my confidence. I need all the confidence I can preserve to scale MLNP into the sextech unicorn I know it can be.
3. When you concept your start-up around existing societal bias and prejudice, all you do is reinforce it.
Years ago a young woman was telling me about her sextech start-up, she wanted to redesign sex toys, make them cool and sell them online. "The thing is Cindy," she explained, "people are really embarrassed to be seen buying sex toys. So we’re going to package them like this, send them out like this...". I said, "Hang on, you need to reconcept your start-up from the ground up. Don’t tell me "people are embarrassed to be seen buying sex toys". Tell me "we’re going to make people not embarrassed to be seen buying sex toys". At MLNP we don’t internalise existing bias, we’re out to change it by effecting a huge sociocultural, attitudinal and behavioral shift through social sex - because that’s how we grow our own business.
4. Channel frustration into motivation.
The dynamic that keeps me going is the one I characterise as "I’m going to fucking well show you". Tell me it can’t be done? I’m going to fucking well show you. Put an obstacle in my path? I’m going to fucking well show you. Fund everything else except sextech? I’m going to fucking well show you.
When you’re a pioneer in a category no one else believes in - yet - you have to find resilience, persistence, passion, conviction from within yourself. Keep telling yourself, "I’m going to fucking well show them".
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