Whether you’re building a dating app for disabled bodies, a gender-neutral twist on the traditional bullet vibrator or a virtual reality pornography platform—all of these products fall into one distinct category: Sex Tech.
The sex tech industry has seen an unprecedented surge in recent years, and especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sexual wellness, while only a fraction of the industry at large, is predicted to be worth $122 billion by 2024. According to Forbes, investors also agree that there are huge business opportunities in sex tech, describing the industry as “overlooked” and “ignored” despite the desirable valuation.
Berlin in particular also has a growing number of notable sex tech startups, includingAnatomy of Pleasure, 2D and 3D modeled educational resources, andVEDRA, a CBD-infused lubricant.
Given this expansion, many founders are keen to carve out their niche in the industry.
The challenge with sex tech
Pitching a sex tech company is similar to any other startup—with a few key exceptions.
Because sex is widely regarded as a sensitive or even taboo topic, there are some additional considerations that sex tech entrepreneurs have to make while preparing their pitches.
We spoke with Lex Gillon, founder of sex tech research firmModality Group, to find out what those can include.
Know your customer
Most people are having sex in some form or capacity. This is great from a business perspective.
But these humans also have varying demographics, religions, disabilities, experiences, and reservations. Even the definition of “sex” can vastly differ as you move throughout the world.
“Talking about sex with a straight European white guy is going to be very different than talking to a non-binary person from the United States,” she explains.
“There’s no real one way to talk about sex and that’s what makes it difficult.”
Invest in user research early on
According to Gillon, investing time (and even money) early on into researching your audience is critical.
“If you don’t talk to them the way they expect to be spoken to, that’s problematic,” says Gillon. “If you’re using the wrong pronouns or discussing the pain point incorrectly, that’s going to put people off and make them not trust your brand.”
Gillon recommends not only researching who your audience is, but also learning how they speak about the problem(s) your product is addressing in their social circles. Join online spaces, conduct interviews—whatever you can do to be close to the source.
Use graphics strategically
“We have an obvious challenge [in sex tech] where you can’t be explicit otherwise it gets pornographic real fast,” says Gillon.
“I’ve seen people be successful with a mix of animations with fruits, vegetables, negative space, and playing with how they position things with shadow and light.”
Another style Gillon mentioned working well is IKEA-style graphics that breakdown the product composition piece-by-piece.
Build an open-minded and respectful team
Consider who you’re surrounding yourself with. What is their expertise? Are they filling knowledge gaps? Can they be empathetic when discussing a topic typically considered private?
“The team is the most important thing for small startups,” explains Gillon. “You don’t have a product, not really. You’ve got a concept. And you might have a pitch deck and maybe a website if you’re feeling ambitious—but that’s it. So you really only have the people you work with.”
Think about team composition
Gillon uses the example of designing a health and wellness tool for disabled sexuality. She points out that you’ll want someone on your team with context and perhaps lived experience with disability—it’s important to know how to engage respectfully and effectively. You’re going to want someone who is business savvy who can handle numbers and logistics. Maybe you’ll have another teammate who is a physical therapist, sexologist, or another position in the health space who understands the mechanics of the body and how particular disabilities can affect them.
Work it into your pitch
Most importantly, Gillon emphasizes, work this into your pitch: “Investors aren’t going to take you seriously if you’re not able to say ‘ok I see what my weaknesses are’…. Highlight the people you have, highlight their experience, and why they are the perfect people for this problem.”
She continues: “Then you’re also going to talk about how you work together. What’s the glue?”
Having a clear crafted story of how you met and how you allocate resources or generate ideas helps investors understand why you’re the perfect team for the job.
Consider using a health and wellness angle
While some sex tech products can get away with selling pure pleasure (such as fantasy-based audio erotica), many early-stage startups are blocked by the societal taboo around sex.
Putting a health and wellness twist on your pitch can help negate this taboo.
“Heath and wellness is sometimes more palatable to people than sex,” says Gillon. “Trying to explain [to people outside of the sex industry] that pleasure is ok… is difficult. It comes from a place of shame, from a place of insecurity.”
Use wellness as an accessible entry point
For customers and investors who are less comfortable discussing sex and pleasure, this angle offers them a more accessible ease into the industry.
To articulate, Gillon gave the example of an educational platform: “Maybe that’s equal parts of sex ed and pornography. Then it’s about how do I communicate the value? How do I let people know that we’re not only talking about pleasure, but also education and the implications of that? Taking [a health and wellness] approach can offer that.”
Don’t force it
Some companies are a natural fit in the health and wellness space. But if yours isn’t—Gillon suggests not to force it.
“For some products, it’s going to be obvious to take this angle because it’s relevant,” she says. “For example, an intersection of femtech and sex tech working on a pelvic health app—sure. Nipple clamps? Not so much.”
Try not to get discouraged if you run into obstacles
“People will often hit a wall when they [pitch their sex tech startup], but I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” Gillon explains.
“The more we push, the more we expand the industry—and the more we force people to really connect with their sexuality and really connect with what that means for them in their lives.”
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