Gone are the days when sextech companies were talked about in hushed tones, relegated to the corner, attracting a minority of customers and minimal support from the tech industry. In recent years, particularly during this pandemic, they are enjoying a boost in sales and mainstream popularity, which can be attributed to heightened consumer awareness and a need to connect in more creative ways.
One such company is MakeLoveNotPorn (MLNP), a user-generated, human-curated social sex platform, which is referred to as the ‘Facebook’ of real world sex. MLNP allows the sharing of that one area of all our lives no other social platform will allow – its social sex videos aren’t just something to watch but also provide inspiration and self-help.
We spoke with MLNP’s founder and CEO, Cindy Gallop, who is known as a pioneer in the sector. Cindy spoke candidly about her experience launching MLNP, the opportunities and challenges in the industry, and her predictions for the future of sextech.
We recently interviewed several EU-based sextech startup founders and they shared that their user traffic increased significantly from the start of the Covid pandemic, as people combat social isolation. Is it the same for MLNP, and how do you believe the pandemic affected sextech in general?
Yes, I am happy to report that our traffic, revenue, and social sex video submissions have all increased during the pandemic. Our video submissions have doubled, and this month (October) they have tripled. The pandemic has disproved what everyone had said for years previously – the future is NOT digital. What we are all desperate for on the other side of this is love, intimacy, physical touch, human connection – all the things MakeLoveNotPorn celebrates, facilitates, and improves, in our role as real world sexual self-help. This excellent TRIPTK study published in May on ‘Intimacy And Sex Through The Great Touch Deprivation: How physical isolation is breaking down barriers, tightening bonds and making space for the Social Sex Revolution’ is even more true today.
Do you see a shift in the sextech landscape – how it is viewed by tech in general, or how it is perceived by traditional institutions like investors, banks, etc.?
Yes, I do, and it’s gratifying – because for the past eight years, since I launched MakeLoveNotPorn as the world’s first and only user-generated, human-curated social sex video sharing platform, I’ve had to parallel path two things: building my startup, and actively working to change the cultural context around it. When you have a truly world-changing startup, you must change the world to fit it, not the other way round. I realized early on that I would have to get into the Steve Jobs business of ‘reality distortion’. If reality tells me that I cannot grow MakeLoveNotPorn the way I want to, to scale it to the unicorn I know it can be, then I am going to change reality. That’s why I began defining, pioneering and championing sextech – if you Google sextech, the definition I wrote for HotTopics six years ago is result one on page one and why I’ve spoken for years at tech conferences around the world on Why The Next Big Thing In Tech Is Disrupting Sex, in order to legitimize my own category. I do not wait for things to change; I make them change. And I am happy to report that my and every other sextech founder’s efforts have paid off. Today, sextech is a legitimate category, widely covered, and we are finally making inroads on the way we are perceived in the tech, business, and finance worlds.
In your opinion, what must sextech industry insiders/players do to gain a wider acceptance?
The single most important piece of advice I find myself having to give to other sextech founders is, “Take yourself out of the shadows.” What I mean by that is, people building sex-related businesses often unconsciously internalize society’s disapproval of what they’re doing, in a way that then negatively impacts their ability to do business, and to do the kind of business they want to do.
I remember, years ago, a young woman talking me through her sextech startup. She wanted to redesign sex toys, make them cool and sell them online. She said to me, “The thing is, Cindy, people are really embarrassed to be seen buying sex toys. So, we are going to package them very discreetly, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that…” I stopped her, and said, “You need to re-concept your startup from the ground up. Because you need not to say to me, “People are embarrassed to be seen buying sex toys.” You need to tell me, “We’re going to make people not embarrassed to be seen buying sex toys.”
When you concept and design a venture around existing societal bias and prejudice, all you do is reinforce it. I refuse to bow to existing bias and prejudice – I am out to change it. People need us to do that, and people want us to do that.
At MakeLoveNotPorn we are spearheading the Social Sex Revolution. The revolutionary part isn’t the sex, but the social – the fact that we’re socializing and normalizing sex in the real world, taking the guilt, shame and embarrassment out of it, to make it easier for everyone to talk about, in order to promote consent, communication, good sexual values and good sexual behaviour. So, everything we do is social – out in the open, out in the sunlight, unembarrassed and unashamed. (That is also, by the way, why everything we put out there is SFW – everything on our social channels, our site homepage – the only thing NSFW is our actual videos.)
I always remember something Larry Flynt, the founder of Hustler, said to me years ago when I was booked to interview him as the opening session of an entertainment conference in LA. I was running through my questions with him in the green room beforehand. One of them was, “Larry, you pioneered in an industry that nobody is ever encouraged to pioneer in. What would you say to entrepreneurs today to encourage them to do so?” Larry responded, “I never saw myself as a pioneer – because I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.” I loved that reply. The way to gain wider acceptance for sextech, is to refuse to believe you are doing anything wrong.
Aside from sextech, do you see other “niche” sectors with great potential to disrupt the growing femtech/female tech sector?
I have two semantic issues with your question. First, nothing we are talking about is ‘niche’. Sex is a universal human experience. It is the biggest market there is. Not least because what I tell people is that MakeLoveNotPorn operates in the single biggest market of them all – not sex, not porn, but the market of human happiness. We are talking about something universal that dramatically impacts the happiness and fulfillment of every person in the world. That is the exact opposite of ‘niche’.
Secondly – and I can say this because I was part of the discussion about this category term years ago, at a couple of salons led by the wonderful Ida Tin, founder of Clue – femtech is a term coined by necessity by female founders who found male VCs and investors shying away from anything to do with the female sexual health and wellness experience, including such fundamental female facts of life as menstruation, fertility, and menopause, and therefore needed to do what I did with MakeLoveNotPorn and sextech: legitimize those ventures.
I personally consider femtech and sextech all part of the same, gigantic, market opportunity: women’s needs, wants and desires, historically deemed too embarrassing, taboo and shameful to even acknowledge, let alone support, help with and fund, by a patriarchal society and business world.
Which other sextech startups are in your radar, so to speak?
So many! You can find a lot of them in our wonderful WomenOfSextech community. To highlight just three – check out the amazing Glenise Kinnard-Moore, founder of VDOM, a wearable prosthetic that is a hugely innovative strap on upgrade for anyone experiencing anatomical restrictions. That term applies to an incredibly broad range of consumers – lesbians, people experiencing erectile dysfunction, paraplegics, etc. Then see the amazing work brother-and-sister team Heather Morrison and Andrew Gurza are doing at Handi – sex toys by and for disabled people. Both startups, by the way, demonstrate that accessibility makes things better for everybody, especially with sex. And then, I’m biased because I’m a board advisor, but I only agree to advise ventures I wholeheartedly believe in – the amazing Frances Tang, founder of Awkward Essentials and their first product, the Dripstick. Only a woman would have had THAT idea!
How do you see the sextech sector in 5 years?
Never, ever ask that question in the passive tense. The sextech sector will be what I, and you, and everyone else make it become. As far as I am concerned, sextech is the next trillion-dollar category in tech. I have spent eleven years working in it with the determination to make that happen. So, in five years’ time, sextech will be five years closer to being the next trillion-dollar category in tech.
Since the foundation of Make Love Not Porn in 2009, what have been its biggest milestones? What challenges are you still trying to overcome?
MakeLoveNotPorn’s biggest milestone is that we are still here. In a world where 70% of all startups fail within the first five years, that makes a huge statement about the traction and proof of concept we have despite our challenges. Those challenges are threefold – but the ability to overcome the first, would solve the second and third.
1) Access to capital: my biggest obstacle raising funding is the social dynamic I call ‘Fear of what other people will think’, which operates around sex unlike any other area;
2) Access to infrastructure: Every piece of business infrastructure that any other tech startup takes for granted, we cannot, because the small print always says, ‘No adult content’, being all-pervasive across every single area of the business – funding, banking, tech services, tech build, payments;
3) Access to advertising: Female-founded, female-lens sexual health and wellness brands are blocked from advertising in a way that male sexual health and wellness ventures are not. Check out Biird’s campaign – you will be gobsmacked!
You started your career as a theater publicist and marketer. What was the single defining moment that made you decide to become an entrepreneur, and start MLNP and IfWeRanTheWorld?
Everything in my life and career has happened by accident. Both my startups were accidents. IfWeRanTheWorld came out of my belief that the future of business is doing good and making money simultaneously, and therefore that the business model of the future is Shared Values + Shared Action = Shared Profit (financial and social). IWRTW is co-action software that enables brands and businesses to implement this model. MLNP started as a little side venture born out of my experience dating younger men and realizing thirteen years ago that when we do not talk about sex, porn becomes sex education by default. I was the first person to publicly identify this issue when I launched MLNP at TED in 2009. The extraordinary response made me realize I had uncovered a huge global social issue, and I turned MLNP into a business to solve it. I knew that to counter the global impact of porn as default sex ed; I would have to come up with something that had the potential, one day, to be just as mass, mainstream and all-pervasive in our society as porn currently is.
What advice can you give to entrepreneurs who want to venture into sextech?
When I speak at tech conferences, I say to the audience, “I’m going to ask you to do something nobody else has ever asked you to do before – start a sextech venture.” Because nobody is ever encouraged to be entrepreneurial in this area – and precisely because of that, the opportunity is wide open. Every one of us starting businesses in sextech, is doing so born out of our own personal experience. Whatever your personal experience that you want to turn into a sextech business, I guarantee there is a huge market for it. We have not even begun to see what this category can be when we are as welcomed, celebrated, funded, and enabled to do business the way everyone else does.
What is next for MLNP? What is next for Cindy Gallop?
The thing that most motivates me – that has kept me going through eleven very long, hard, tough years of building MakeLoveNotPorn – is the dynamic I call, “I’m going to fucking well show you.” Tell me it cannot be done? I am going to fucking well show you. Put an obstacle in my path? I am going to fucking well show you.
I am especially inspired by the fact that if female sextech founders had access to the same amounts of capital that male sextech founders do, we would be minting unicorns in very short spaces of time.
Male sexual health and wellness platforms Roman and Hims were both founded in 2017, and had no problem raising huge amounts of funding from male VCs. Roman raised $88 million (approx. 75.1 million) in their first year; Hims raised $197 million (approx. €168.2 million). They faced no advertising barriers, and so were able to scale rapidly, expand into more areas of health and wellness and raise more funding. While female founders can’t get funded, Hims was able to expand into Hers for women. Roman raised a further $85 million (€72.5 million) in 2019 and $200 million this year (€170 million) at a $1.5 billion (€1.2 billion) valuation. Hims raised $100 million (€85.4 million) in 2019 at a $1 billion (€854 million) valuation and is preparing for an IPO. From startup to unicorn in just three years; that is the potential I and my fellow female sextech founders have with access to the same levels of funding, and the same ability to advertise.
So, I am setting out to raise my next round of funding for MakeLoveNotPorn. And I am setting out to open the ability to advertise for MLNP and all my fellow female founders in female sexual health and wellness. Investors with whom all of this resonates, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. And female sextech founders frustrated by our advertising ban – watch this space.