#120. Dame seeks to close the pleasure gap for women. We talk with co-founder Alexandra Fine about how Dame is overcoming the challenges of marketing its products and how big the opportunity is ahead. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below. 

Alex: [00:00:01] There’s a real connection in this space—and it hasn’t always been there—to vibrators and pornography. Like, the people who created vibrators weren’t the same people that created pornography, but then, due to regulation and restrictions, those industries got pushed together and became the same. And now I think we’re seeing they’re splitting apart again. 

Richie: [00:00:22] That’s Alex Fine, co-founder of Dame, a product company focused on closing the pleasure gap for women. Alex started the company with her co-founder Daniel Lieberman after they were both on a journey developing technical products for a range of different sexual needs. After teaming up, they learned that marketing them was a different story, pushing up against the enshrined yet illogical conventions about the discourse around sexual health and pleasure. 

Richie: [00:00:49] I’m Richie Siegel, the founder of Loose Threads, which analyzes and advises next-generation consumer companies, and FaceLift by Loose Threads, a retail incubator and accelerator for leading brands and retailers. For our latest analysis and insights check out our free weekly newsletter at LooseThreads.com. We also just announced Loose Threads Live, our invite-only and entirely off-the-record gathering for founders, executives and investors on October 3rd in New York City. Learn more at LooseThreads.com/Live. 

Richie: [00:01:13] I started the Loose Threads Podcast to spark engaging discussions with leaders across the consumer economy. That’s why I was excited to talk with Alex about how Dame is overcoming the challenges of marketing its products, and how big the opportunity is ahead. Here’s how it all began. 

Alex: [00:01:36] I wanted to make a product that just stayed there, so I took a half dollar coin; I just wanted to know if my vulva can hold something in place, like the way different crevices of your body can. And I took a half dollar coin and I wrapped it in cellophane and I put it in between my labia lips, and I ran around the house. And I was like, “Look what I accomplished!” And my now-husband was like, “Yay. Like, you’re crazy.” And then I started taking apart vibrators that had what are called pancake motors. So it was actually a really easy way to get something that was just a pancake motor that was attached to something that turned on and turned off. So it was really Frankenstein-ing things together, finding products that, based on what I thought their internals were, I could take it apart. I got plastic mold that you like—there are these beards, you heat it up in water and they melt, you mold them and then they set. And I was molding them around the pancake motor and then trying it out. I actually remember the first time I tried out a vibrating one that stayed in place. That was a very validating experience on many levels. And I also started to realize that everybody is different, which I knew, but how different and how do we create one product that’s gonna fit a wide range of people, I realized it just had to move with the body. Also ’cause your body moves during sex so much, so it had to have something flexible about it. 

Alex: [00:03:02] And I started making what ended up being the wings, but that’s where it became really hard because, honestly, just doing it by hand was impossible. I couldn’t keep it really consistent. So I started learning how to do 3D printing, and I joined a hacker space here in New York City. I was really pleased with my progress. And then I met my co-founder, and what she was able to do in a week versus like, what I had been so proud of for the past month, was night and day. She really was able to take this handmade product into something that was testable, so we can make different versions of it, test it with a wide range of people. She knew what we had to design in order so we can mass produce it, ’cause that’s huge when it comes to manufacturing; it’s not just about “can you create it.” It’s like, can you create it in a way where you can create thousands of them consistently—

Richie: [00:03:50] And make money. 

Alex: [00:03:51] And make money. Gotta create that value. Yeah, so she was amazing at that. And within a year of meeting we had shipped over 10,000 units, and then over a million dollars in revenue. 

Richie: [00:04:02] Talk about the inflection point when this went from tinkering to like, oh, this could become a company, or something to sell. And how did you know, or what was that journey? 

Alex: [00:04:10] It was always intended to become a company. That’s what I wanted to do, that was very much my intention when I started out. And ultimately, really, what I learned was that there was this one product that’s a u-shaped vibrator that goes inside of the vagina—and now there’s a ton of copies of it—but it goes inside of the vagina along with the penis, wraps back around to provide clitoral stimulation. And I felt like this was a popular product, ’cause it’s providing control of stimulation during pivoting; pivoting is penis in vulva-ing, right? Cause sex could be so much more than just that. 

Alex: [00:04:39] But, from my experience, I’m like, 5’1″. Inside of you, it’s a lot. In order to get the clitoral stimulation you’re also getting this internal stimulation that maybe you and or your partner don’t want. So, one, that product I was able to find articles that said it was doing about $35 to $45 million dollars in revenue on that product alone. And I was like, okay, that’s enough, where when I’m doing the math it seems like it would work out. It also seems like the profit margins were pretty solid. This was worthy of my time, but I think it became super-worthy of my time when I got fired. My mom really wanted me to apply for other jobs but I was living in my grandma’s pool house, which also helped. And I just really believed in it. I was about to move to Philadelphia. They had more tech gyms there where I can learn more. Machine shops. They had C&C mills, and it just seemed like a better maker space. 

Alex: [00:05:33] So, I was about to move and I got an email from my co-founder, ’cause I had been going to all of these meet-ups, trying to meet engineers. I was really trying to meet an engineer with a vulva, proving to be very challenging, and got this email—like, the day after I kind of verbally committed to a sublease in Philadelphia that I ended up pulling out of—from Janet who was just like, “Hey this is what I’m interested in, this is what I’ve been working on, and I keep on getting mistaken for you. People keep on thinking like, we’re the same person or we’re already co-founders. Like, we should probably meet up.” And we went out to breakfast and it was so obvious to me that she had this huge knowledge base on just how to actually make products, and actually how to make consumer electronics. She was already really, really passionate about it. I’d been looking for somebody like that for six months, nine months, and had essentially given up. So I was like, probably trying to play it cool, but I was like, we’re gonna have to figure this out, we’re gonna have to work together. 

Alex: [00:06:33] We went to some trade shows. My dad gave us conference space in his office so that he would be like, “Oh, what’s going on upstairs in the conference room?” He’d be like, “Oh, my daughter’s making vibrators.” We had some 3D printers, so we started making prototypes, doing sketches of the wings, trying to understand how the wing is working labia, and how what that interaction’s like. Of course, there’s a lot of, I think, extra layers of silliness and uncomfortableness and all of that, ’cause we’re talking about sex, and we’re talking about our genitalia in the workplace, often, and so we definitely got close pretty quickly. Then we launched on Indiegogo. 

Richie: [00:07:13] So, how did you choose that I guess as a launching, of all the different ways to launch?

Alex: [00:07:16] So, right. Before I met Janet. I was like, okay, I’m gonna get this thing to a proof of concept, and then I just need a few investors to believe in the concept, and then launch the product or figure it out from there. And then when I met Janet and realized, oh, we can get this to enough of a proof of concept that we can really launch it on a crowdfunding site, and that we would have the knowledge base and ability to deliver on a crowdfunding site. I mean, it’s always hard to say it was like, one of the better decisions we made, because who knows what the other way would have looked like. But I think the earliest equity that you sell is the most expensive, especially when you’re 26, trying to make vibrators and, you know, never started a company before. So for us being able to just validate the concept I just thought, okay, this would be shadow-proof. Like, it will show people that people really want this type of product and maybe we’ll still need to raise money in order to deliver. 

Alex: [00:08:10] And we ended up raising $575,000 in 45 days, which was… 

Richie: [00:08:14] Through the campaign. 

Alex: [00:08:15] Through the campaign. Which was more than enough to get us to deliver, which we pretty much delivered on time, and start our second round of production. So we ended up bootstrapping. 

Richie: [00:08:26] Was there a moment where you’re like, “Okay, this is working.”? Did it take the full 45 days to like, start to build confidence?

Alex: [00:08:31] So, they say on crowdfunding sites that you should hope to be able to raise a third of your campaign through your friends and family network. They also talk about the first few days being really important. I think the first day we did about $10 to $15k. 

Richie: [00:08:45] How much is it selling for, at that point?

Alex: [00:08:47] We were selling them for $95, which was $10 off. Yes, we sold 15, and then, I think, something like that again the next day. And then we got some articles, and then the press just blew up. Then we did like over 70,000 in one day. I remember the first week of the campaign it just started to take off, and Indiegogo’s awesome in that they’re very democratic, both in letting us come on the platform—Kickstarter would not let us on the platform at that time—also, I imagine this is how they still do it, if your campaign is doing well, your campaign moves up the page. Our campaign was doing well. So we moved up the page. 

Richie: [00:09:26] What was the early press like, in terms of like, sentiment and so forth?

Alex: [00:09:29] The early press was like, this product is really smart. Two women creating a product for women to close the pleasure gap. We were really clear, and especially that product’s mission, it’s people with vulvas generally prefer clitoral stimulation, even while they’re having penetrative sex. We believe in society, from movies and lots of things, that we’re supposed to orgasm together from this type of intercourse, which is not the case for so many women. And people feel a lot of, you know, insecurities, whatever it is. This is just a tool that can then help you have more pleasurable sex in that particular way. And all the press was just like, this idea is so innovative and unique, and we had a really silly cartoon—that we’ve now, I think, created a more elevated version of—that explained how the product worked. People loved that. 

Alex: [00:10:20] In our video we were really clear, honest and frank about what we were trying to do. We weren’t salacious. I think humor is an amazing tool to have slightly uncomfortable conversations, but we weren’t making a joke of it, either. I mean, I remember crying on the first day ’cause I was worried that it wasn’t gonna—we set a goal of $50k but, between us, what we put down on our internal goals board was $250k. We did $575,000 so, yeah. I mean, I cried on the first day ’cause I was worried that like, maybe I had set my expectations too high. And then I cried on the third day because I felt like I had believed in myself and it was worth it. 

Richie: [00:11:02] So 45 days closes, you now have to go make all the product and so forth. Talk through that. 

Alex: [00:11:05] We had already started cutting tools. We were committed to doing this, and like, we had some money. We believed that we were gonna get money from the campaign. I actually think we started cutting tools or committed to it maybe a week in, but we were really committed to doing this. So we were prototyping using 3D printers and some ordered parts. We did everything from making really scary works-like prototypes to dummy prototypes. We were most concerned, like, can we get this product to stay in place? We were sending them out with surveys for both partners, and we did our best to get a diverse group of people. We also had some very awesome friends come in and drop their pants and try the products on and give us visualizations, which is some of the most helpful data we got. 

Alex: [00:11:52] You know, I have my Master’s in Psychology, so I really like experimental stats. I definitely learned it is a little different in product development. It’s a little bit art and a little bit of science. So we got feedback, we launched, Janet went to China. I think sometime during the campaign, during those 45 days, I got our first manufactured articles off the press. I cried then, because it looked so good, like it just started to feel so real and I was really proud of what we were creating. 

Richie: [00:12:21] On the manufacturing side, was it a challenge to find someone who would do it? 

Alex: [00:12:26] Yes. Oh my God, yes. It was such a challenge to find. For Eva, specifically, it uses RTV silicone, which is room temperature vulcanized silicone, which is different than injection molding. And it has the products all inside then has this full encasing of the silicone, and in order to do that you have to use RTV silicone, which nobody really wanted to use. It’s a lot more time-intensive and labor-intensive. 

Alex: [00:12:49] So we definitely got some no-quotes from manufacturers, people who were just like, “We will not make this product.” 

Richie: [00:12:55] And where those manufacturers in the space? Or not necessarily? 

Alex: [00:12:57] No. Some were, some weren’t. Some in the space were just convinced that they could do it differently, and Janet really knew how she wanted to get it done. So it did take us time to figure it out and I would also say that like, you know, our supply chain for our first runs, we had to rework it over time. It wasn’t perfect. We had a contract manager that was managing subcontractors, and then a few months and we realized we were managing the subcontractors. You know, in order to get everything done the way we wanted it done, we were just doing it, and it was just costing us so much more. So we started working directly with one of the subcontractors. 

Alex: [00:13:31] And it is hard to make these products. Silicone’s a challenging material to work with. Like, we use medical grade silicone and a lot of people in the space use food grade. So, that was actually also [an] added additional challenge. 

Alex: [00:13:46] I think when you want to be innovative and you’re purpose-driven and you care about certain things, it is, of course, harder to then find manufacturers who want to take on that additional challenge of what you’re trying to create. But we found one, and they’ve been fantastic. And part of our supply chain is in the industry and part of it isn’t in the industry, which I think is helpful. 

Alex: [00:14:06] We were really hoping to hit Valentine’s Day. We said delivery’s gonna be in February. And then, you know, it wasn’t, and we were able to get some out in February but most people got them in March. And then we started taking some wholesale orders, and just trying to get more manufacturers. At that time it was taking us about four months from deciding to order to actually having finished product, and that was very challenging. And inventory management was tough, especially then, ’cause you’re growing so quickly, so you think you’re gonna continue to grow differently, but it changes on you, of course. 

Richie: [00:14:43] Why wholesale, that early on? 

Alex: [00:14:45] Wholesale was just coming to us. I really wanted to be a digital-native brand, I wanted to follow exactly what all these other D2C companies were doing, even though of course now a lot of them are in retail. And I’ve learned, I think partnerships are really, really, really powerful, especially because we are not given the privilege of using a lot of marketing channels the direct-to-consumer companies are given. So we started to realize that and learn that. 

Richie: [00:15:14] In what ways? 

Alex: [00:15:15] Like, I can’t do Facebook advertisement, I can’t do Instagram advertisements, Twitter advertisements. I can’t really do re-targeting. I have to do a lot of direct buys now, it just takes a lot more money and time, and it’s taken us time to build up to have the money and time and resources to do those kinds of partnerships. And the wholesale orders, just, it was helpful for cash flow. We were really specific. We knew what distributors we wanted to work with in the category. I would say that the adult channel, it’s easier, in that it’s so siloed. So we opened up. 

Richie: [00:15:51] Right. You’re just a normal company to them. 

Alex: [00:15:53] Yeah, but I mean it’s funny, ’cause it’s a decision that, at the time, I was really not excited about. I really wanted to be this cool, like, direct-to-consumer brand. Now, with the volatility of e-commerce, for us, I mean wholesale has really carried us through some months. It’s just, it’s more consistent, we can rely on it more. Like, I’ll have an advertising channel working and things will be looking great. And then somebody will decide to cut it. That’s happened to us numerous times. 

Richie: [00:16:19] And is that because of who you are? Is it the content of the ads? 

Alex: [00:16:23] It’s literally because we sell vibrators. So, usually the rules and restrictions are about the actual product, specifically. And it’s interesting because if I sell to Urban Outfitters and Free People, they can advertise our products much more easily because their brand isn’t centered around vibrators. That’s why. Which is, I think, infuriating, a little bit. And I think, I mean, everything is, it’s all an illusion. It’s all made up. Where we’re drawing this line around vibrators, specifically. Why we’re okay with things that are deemed sexual health versus sexual pleasure, you know? And we really view what we’re doing as sexual health and part of sexual wellness. We started with vibrators but are starting to expand beyond that. We want to continue to do so. 

Alex: [00:17:08] But yeah. Like, Facebook regulations are specific to adult products. There’s a real connection in this space, and it hasn’t always been there, to vibrators and pornography. The people who created vibrators weren’t the same people that created pornography, but then due to regulation and restrictions those industries got pushed together and became the same. And now I think we’re seeing kind of, they’re splitting apart again, which really makes sense, because if you think about most of the people who are using sex toys versus most of the people watching porn is a different demographic, although that is excitingly changing as well. 

Alex: [00:17:41] Yeah. It’s just been viewed as vice. When we view sex as vice, like, our whole existence is problematic. 

Richie: [00:17:49] After you start building that piece out, where does your focus start to shift to? Is it more products, is it more distribution? I guess we’re in 2015 now. 

Alex: [00:17:56] Yeah. So in 2015 it was a lot about inventory management and product development. We ran out of stock, things like that. And then we started developing another product, and hiring an operations of customer service, and we hired a second engineer. And we started developing another product. Getting emails, doing the website, doing some branding work. I think it took us time to really settle in on what that brand was gonna be. 

Richie: [00:18:20] Talk about that process. 

Alex: [00:18:22] Well, it’s funny ’cause, I think, one, having two founders can be really powerful, because in some ways we had this really overlapping vision and in some ways we had some tension that helped us really narrow in on what we were trying to say. We were trying really hard to move quickly, and I’m really proud of how quickly we moved, but on our Indiegogo page, like, the brand that we put forth there is not the visual brand that we have now. 

Alex: [00:18:47] And so, we worked with a friend of mine who helped with, almost like some therapy for what are we really trying to say, what’s really important to us. We knew we wanted to close a pleasure gap but, you know, like, by women for women, it’s so powerful. On the one hand I have 70-year-old women who tell me that they’ve known these categories existed forever but just seeing our brand and it feeling a little bit more femme, and knowing that women made it, it just felt like it was for her instead of for somebody to use on her. And that was like, a really big distinction. So I see the power there, but we also were like, it’s really about couples, too. You know, we’re creating something that a lot of it has helped couples. And eventually we realized we just want to elevate the sexual experiences. 

Alex: [00:19:34] We want to cultivate positive sexual experiences, yes, for all, and it’s centered in the women’s experience, ’cause I think it’s an under-served challenge. We’ve put so much money into Viagra but I think women’s sexual dysfunction is much greater in the world. 

Alex: [00:19:50] Yeah. So we just start talking about our brand behaviors, what was important. How sexy did we want to feel? How techie did we want to feel? We wanted to be human. You know, we didn’t want to feel like what was already out there, we didn’t want to feel like this nighttime sex brands, we wanted to feel like a daytime sexual wellness brand, but we didn’t want to feel super-health or super-tech because this is about like, a joyful experience that you should just love. And it’s continued to evolve, but then some core features really stay strong. 

Alex: [00:20:24] Honestly, for us it really happened over time. I feel like we were always making these small tweaks and pushing it forward and pushing it forward, versus like, other companies or friends who maybe have raised more money or had more capital to begin with were really able to work with an agency and kind of nail all of those things out in the beginning. I think that we had a strong enough passion and purpose that there was like, this one driving force there, but it took us some time to get to a real strong visual identity. We had a different logo for a second. This was the plan-B logo, and then all of a sudden one day we were both like, the second logo is so much better. 

Richie: [00:21:00] Interesting. So that was kind of an ongoing piece. Talk about the second product, bring us into 2016 and so forth. 

Alex: [00:21:07] Earlier I was talking about how we had this amazing community of testers. Then we had this amazing community of feedback, users who were giving us so much feedback from Indiegogo. And we started having this thing internally that we called Dame Labs that we—eventually, anybody can sign up now to be a member of Team Labs. But we just relied on our consumers to help guide us. What are the white spaces, what are the real needs? You know, and at the time we had just made a product that were for couples and what we were hearing from them, too, was like, “Okay, this product is great because it’s almost invisible. But what about a product that is more playful in action?” And we were hearing that also from partners. 

Alex: [00:21:43] So there [are] finger vibrators and, you know, we wanted to make another really small product that can seamlessly integrate into your play that was a little bit more active. So we looked at all the finger vibrators that were out there. We tried a bunch of them. We then sketched out a bunch of different ideas. It was interesting ’cause I think the first product was like, Alex had a hunch and was starting to build it and then things kind of piled on. And then for the second product it was like, okay, we have consumers, what do they want, what do they need besides this product? And really using this human-centric approach that we kind of did the second half for the first product—we gotta start from the beginning for the second one. 

Alex: [00:22:22] We made all these, really, again, pretty scary looking sketch prototypes of different types of ways you can play with touch, to have more sensation there. And like, just walked around the floor of our office. There was a co-working space in the office building and we’d go up there, too, and ask people to just try them and interact with them. The finger vibrator was also so much easier ’cause we could do that. You can wear it. It was about that experience and feeling it on your arm versus like, does it stay in your vulva? That is much more challenging to get a lot more feedback on. 

Alex: [00:22:56] We narrowed it down. We started developing in-house that product which ended up being called Fin, ’cause it’s a finger vibrator. And yeah, that product, we sent out again to over about 75 different couples to test out, give us feedback on what was working, what wasn’t. It has a detachable tether for extra support. We launched that product on Kickstarter, I think ’cause at that point we started to have a brand. We had launched a website that we felt great about. It was clear what we were trying to say and do in the world that…when people hear “sex toys” something pops into their head. You have a specific view of what that is and how that makes you feel, maybe your retail experiences of buying it, and we are doing everything in our power to change it to like, we like to think we make tools for sex, or toys for sex. And hopefully that slight change in language helps you re-approach the old category in a different way. 

Alex: [00:23:56] Anyway. So, we wrote this letter to Kickstarter which happened to also be in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which is where our offices were. We had met some people there. Janet had actually then worked with people at MakerBot who went on to work there. We wrote them a letter, we said, “Hey, we’re just entrepreneurs and makers trying to solve a problem that we experience in the world, trying to make our lives better. We’re like everybody else on your platform just trying to create value in the world.” We read their mission statement and their purpose and what they cared about, and were able to really just lay our mission out on top of that. And like, in 24 hours they called us back, and they’re like, we think we can figure this out. And then there [were] all of these funny things, too, that happened like, I think some people there thought that their payment processing wouldn’t work. You know it’s not just like, will you work with me, it’s will your partners work with me. 

Alex: [00:24:42] So much of what we do has become activism and advocating for this category, period. So, we launched on Kickstarter. We raised about $400,000 in 30 days on that product. 

Richie: [00:24:53] How did that meet—or exceed, or not—your expectations?

Alex: [00:24:57] It was really hard to set second expectations. I think we can do more. That company, remember that first thing I did like, We-Vibe, the other product, was doing $35 to $45 million dollars in revenue. I really felt like this was a huge category. I was really, really pleased. I mean $400,000 is amazing. It was great for us. It was a huge spike. It helped us continue on to double year over year which is predominantly what we’ve been doing. Cash flow is so challenging in an inventory-based business and bootstrapping this has been really tough. I was really happy, and I was like, what else can we do? 

Richie: [00:25:31] So after that we’re in in 2016?

Alex: [00:25:34] Yeah, so that was in 2016. We started shipping that product in 2016/2017, the end of that. Then in 2017 we got a lot of press. We were in the New York Times twice. 

Richie: [00:25:48] Why was that? 

Alex: [00:25:48] I think we were just building up our reputation. We were just getting a lot of word of mouth and organic traction on things like, I was doing a press thing with Hannah Bronfman who was working at PopSugar, and she really loved what we were doing, and thought it was really cool, and posted it on her Instagram and then some journalists saw that. And that worked for The New York Times. 

Richie: [00:26:13] Just connecting the dots. 

Alex: [00:26:13] Just connecting the dots. Like, if you just keep on getting out there and try, and talking to the right people. And we think of influencers as this one specific way—which Hannah Bronfman is totally such, such an influencer—but influencers exist off of Instagram. And you know, you just keep on building those partnerships, going to the trade shows. I worked with this press agency and I really just kind of tied myself to one of the associates—and wherever she went, if she went to a different agency I just like, went with her—and she really believed in the purpose and mission of what we were doing, and helped us get more and more mainstream press. 

Alex: [00:26:45] There really weren’t women creating these types of products. I think BuzzFeed, Refinery 29, Cosmo, they were already championing this category in some way, and they were really excited to champion us, and what we were doing, and our mission and purpose in what we were trying to do versus, “Oh, we used to sell porn and now we’re just selling sex toys and making sex toys because like, it seems like we can make a little bit more money there because of the internet.” And we just had like, I think, a real female gaze, it was so obvious how we were approaching this topic. 

Alex: [00:27:17] Then we almost ran out of product again. And we’re making more product. And then we launched Eva II. We felt like we can make Eva better, and we did. It’s fully waterproof, it stays in better now, it’s a little bit smaller. And last year was when we started really ramping up. I think my experience has maybe been a lot more volatile than, maybe even more so than other entrepreneurs, ’cause there have been parts of my company where we are growing, scalability, cash flow positive, profitable; I’m like, I’m never talking to another investor again, everything is working and we’re efficient. You know, we haven’t raised that much money. We have been really capital efficient. But then on the flip side, you know, we could do more. There’s so much to do in this space. This is a huge category. It’s a $25 billion industry just for sex toys, that’s not even sexual wellness; sexual wellness is over $50 [billion]. And it’s an important category. It matters. 

Alex: [00:28:16] You know, I think people want to find a brand that they can trust, that they know has their back and cares about their health, both in the product and in how they’re marketing that product, so they feel good about themselves. But it’s challenging ’cause the taboo, it’s like, twofold. It’s not just like, investors with their taboo of like, oh, maybe their LPs aren’t gonna be interested in what we’re doing. It’s also the taboo of the advertising. 

Alex: [00:28:42] On the flip side, as we’re getting better at advertising and doing more direct buys, finding more places, they’re just more expensive. There’s so many places for us to advertise. We just need the capital to do it. 

Richie: [00:28:54] Did you raise money last year? Or it was more contemplating?

Alex: [00:28:57] No. We’re looking to raise money now. It frustrates me to talk about my business and the past five years, and to think about all the things that happened to us. I hate complaining. Like, you know, you start a business ’cause you think you can change things, and we have, and I’m so proud of what we’ve changed, but if I’m being honest, last year we were killing it. Facebook decided that the articles we were promoting, which was like, The New York Times article… 

Richie: [00:29:25] Right, your content syndication. 

Alex: [00:29:27] Right. We were pushing out just, articles that we were in by very prestigious publications. Facebook decided that like, those articles were inappropriate. Mind you they’re letting like, lots of other things—like, Manscaped can advertise to you. 

Richie: [00:29:42] The double, quadruple standards are abundant. 

Alex: [00:29:46] Yes. Abundant. So then, you know, we wanted to do a New York focus. If we’re gonna do out-of-home, now this is where we are, we already have some brand awareness here, we wanted to see if we can create a lift. We wanted to do subway, because that’s, if you’re a New York brand, that’s the place to do it. I think it has a lot of power. And also you have to sit there and see it. So I think that there is value there. 

Alex: [00:30:04] So we went to go do that and they said we could do it. They approved our ad. They didn’t like some of our puns, like, “96% of riders need extra stimulation getting off…the train.” It wasn’t a great pun, but like, they didn’t like the train part. We were like, “More intimacy than rush hour.” Didn’t like that. But they were totally fine with like, “Oh, toys for sex.” So we went out. We made those. And then two months later, you know, that was our cue for [our] ad buying plan, and then they just decided, “Never mind, we changed our—no, we didn’t change, we would never have worked with you, because our rules and regulations say we don’t work with any sexually oriented products.” Meanwhile they’re running advertisements for, again, erectile dysfunction pill… 

Richie: [00:30:46] Right. Hims owns the Broadway-Lafayette Station. 

Alex: [00:30:47] Right. Totally. Actually, like, there’s that one, but there’s also the Museum of Sex which runs advertisements. And they are mostly a sex shop that sells my products. Like, they are being so willy-nilly with how they’re deciding what a sexual-oriented brand is. And there happens to also be a correlation between those companies owned by men and those that are owned by women who seem to have had a harder time with it. Which I think is just, again, interesting. Trying not to call anybody any names. 

Richie: [00:31:17] Infer what you will. 

Alex: [00:31:17] Yes. Infer what you will. And everybody’s been real kind to me and nice to me. I think it’s just a way of understanding sex and what we think is acceptable and what’s not. And we tend to think of women’s sexuality as something we need to protect. I think we’re really scared of what it means for women to enjoy their pleasure, and I’m not quite sure why. 

Alex: [00:31:36] Anyway. So, they said we couldn’t run the advertisements, and that was another kind of blow to the business and trying to push on e-commerce. And now we’re suing them. And that is an excellent campaign that we’re getting lots of press from. And when people are like, “Oh, you’re doing it for the press.” No. No, no. We’re doing it because we want to change the way everybody understands female sexuality and sexuality, period. And that pleasure is important, and it’s important that we figure out how to have public discourse about sex without feeling sexual, ’cause it’s the only way we can continue to improve that part of our lives that is important. 

Alex: [00:32:18] The press is nice, too. Because that’s also how we do it. I mean, I wanted to run the advertisements so you would know about me. I want you to know about the products. Like, that’s not what’s happening right now. Now everybody’s just knowing about my struggles and that we exist. That’s pretty good. I would have much preferred to have run the advertisements. And hopefully we will be able to. 

Richie: [00:32:38] Talk about that decision to go forth. 

Alex: [00:32:42] No one decides to start a company to sue somebody. I think this has been a really slow journey for me trying to constantly be positive about the change that we can make and not wanting to ever complain, ’cause it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like, I’m sitting here on a podcast talking about how hard it is for me to grow the business, and then I want investors. You know like, that’s not a great circle. And realizing that there are institutional challenges to what I do that are unfair, that are holding back our sexual pleasure, and they’re based on like, really outdated moral stances on what sex should and could be. 

Alex: [00:33:18] I think, at first, people kept on being like, you should sue them, you should sue them. I was just kind of like, ugh. I just want to find ways that I can do more repeat-and-rinse marketing, which this is not. But then, you know, I started really thinking about the amount of press we could get. I think it’s a really important story and that it would get us news. I thought about, really, also the change we could make. I started talking to lawyers who started validating and telling me—of course, like, you know they want my business, they think we can win—but I started to realize, oh I actually really do have a case, unlike Facebook. Facebook can do whatever they want. The MTA takes money from the government so they actually have to follow some clear rules and regulations and restrictions, and that’s also a place that I need to start if I want to change also, maybe, how Facebook’s viewing it. It’s almost a privilege to be able to have time to make a legal argument about what would be fair here. 

Richie: [00:34:08] In terms of the physical piece and in terms of events, retail, etc…like, how do you think about that side?

Alex: [00:34:14] We did an event called Nuance. And we still do mini-events often in the office, where we do everything from education and try to have nuanced conversations about interesting topics in the world of sex. We talk about consent a lot. We talk about embodied practices and how to like, do breath work so you can literally feel your sensations more. I think we did another one that was so good on sex and aging, where we had gynecologists and women of different ages come in and talk about like, how does sex change as we get older. And cultivating those conversations and community has been really powerful for us. Helps us, again, make better tools, understand the needs and be a resource for people when it comes to sexuality even if they don’t need a tool. 

Alex: [00:34:58] So we want our website to be a place where you can learn and hear other stories around sex to help you feel more comfortable with your sexuality. There’s so much we can do, and there’s people in this space that make plenty of money. There’s a few brands that do over $100 million, some that do over two. For us, we just need to continue to make more tools and we need to continue to cultivate conversations. 

Alex: [00:35:22] We’ve supported Planned Parenthood, we’ve supported organizations that help prevent female genital mutilation. And I think we need to continue to lobby and advocate for a sexual understanding and sexual wellness holistically. It’s like, if we continue to show how important and classy or whatever it is that we don’t think of when we think of sex is [and] really can be, I think the taboo will continue to kind of fall away, and the rules will change, and they are changing. And who knows? Like, you know, maybe in five years from now I’ll still own a ton, ton, ton of this company because people didn’t want to invest, and like, I’ll be making a lot more money and maybe that’ll be great. But also, maybe, you’re listening to this and you want to invest in me…

Richie: [00:36:07] How are you thinking about that piece, in terms of…it sounds like, given anyone who’s bootstrapped anything, there’s always the urge to do more. But there also is a restraint that that kind of imbues throughout the company. You know, there are plenty of examples of companies that have just burned money and lit it on fire, and how are you thinking about that? ‘Cause you’re close to kind of making a decision. 

Alex: [00:36:27] For us, it’s somewhere in between, too. I mean, I do my best to have mentors and people in my life that I can reach out to those who are going through what I’m going through or have gone through it. It’s really hard, ’cause it’s not one path that works for everybody. So what is the best path for our company? And of course, I’ll never truly, truly know, ’cause I can only make one path. But I think it’s a little bit about balance, being as truthful and honest about the realities. So, I think it would be stupid of me—or, no, I didn’t like that word. It would not be in my best interest to try and say that I’m gonna sell this company in five years at a billion dollars to Unilever. Oh my god, what if I do it in five years? 

Alex: [00:37:12] I just had this like, feeling of like, I could do that, and maybe that’s like the entrepreneurial in me, but this is a category that is changing, and maybe it’ll just take me ten to 15 years to get Unilever. Or maybe it’ll be $500 million. My reality is that this category does not have the same exit opportunities. I need to know what my reality is so I can try and create a path that’s gonna allow us to succeed and do our mission and fulfill our purpose as much as we can. 

Richie: [00:37:40] In terms of this year and like, what’s on the horizon, what are the priorities and focus areas? 

Alex: [00:37:46] For us we want to continue to build out tools to solve more needs, help people in different ways enjoy more pleasure. And, for us, number two is finding more marketing channels and…so we want to kind of invest more. I kind of feel like sometimes it’s like [an] up-swinging pendulum of like, okay, first we invested in product and then you invest a little bit in marketing. And then we’ve invested more in product, and now we need to swing it back to investing more in marketing. 

Richie: [00:38:15] Right. You have enough to sell. 

Alex: [00:38:16] Yeah. We have enough to sell, but we can’t stop. And also repeat purchase is great. People who have bought from us love our products and are so excited. Some people are like, “Oh, I only need one vibrator.” And some people are like, “Oh my god, you made it better? I would love the better version.” Or, “There is a different product, like a pillow, that does something totally different for me? That’s so exciting. Like, yes, I already have a sex position pillow, but this one’s prettier, and that matters to me.” 

Richie: [00:38:41] In terms of like, the demographic makeup of the customer base, are you surprised by what it is? And, I guess, what is it? 

Alex: [00:38:48] Okay. So my most surprising thing is that it’s 35 to 40% male. I think that’s because it’s both a huge gift product, and we’ve centered ourselves in talking about improving partnered sex. I do think that in order to do that, masturbating and knowing your own pleasure is step number one but, you know, we’re building from that center. So we have a huge male cohort. We also sell really well to 45-plus. When we were in The New York Times we sold best to 65-plus for the whole month. 

Richie: [00:39:20] And then what about geographic? 

Alex: [00:39:20] We sell very well in New York, we’re New York-based. We sell very well in all the cities. You know, it’s funny, ’cause things change, just in different areas. Like in Idaho I was doing some store visits, and something I discovered doing store visits in Idaho is that people there, they don’t like to watch porn or buy products necessarily online, because the government is watching them online. So they actually feel a lot more privacy and intimacy by going into a store. But I think most people in urban areas feel the exact opposite way. It feels really private to be able to buy something in your home online on the internet. We sell really well to some of our chains that are in the Midwest. Like, we sell very well to some adult retail shops that are off the highway. 

Richie: [00:40:04] Talk a bit about where the name’s from, and also how much the domain was. 

Alex: [00:40:07] Dame took us time to create. We listed out all of the words that could mean women, woman, in some way. And Dame actually really stood out, because “dame” is actually really strong and heavy-sounding. And I actually wanted to name the company Eva before we ended up naming the first product that, but Janet and I decided we wanted to create a new name together. And we both kind of were like, this one is obviously not right. And I think we both kind of came in the next day and we were like, no, oh my god, it’s heavy and it’s powerful. It feels womanly in a very different way. 

Alex: [00:40:41] It’s funny, ’cause now I look back on it and I feel like Broadly launched too, I think, like a year later. There’s something about these strong words for women that have a different sound. And also we love Dame because it’s both an honorarium and it’s also sometimes like a slang, in a negative way. So you can be a dame in so many ways. 

Alex: [00:41:01] And the domain name was like $12. It was… 

Richie: [00:41:04] Nice. 

Alex: [00:41:04] Yeah. It was also, we went with “Dame Products,” and we were able to get that across the board. Like, I do think from a branding—you don’t really need the “Products.” Like, I usually just refer to the company as Dame. But it was really nice that we were able to have Dame Products on Instagram, Dame Products on—everything has Dame Products. 

Richie: [00:41:20] Right, consistent. 

Alex: [00:41:20] Yeah. 

Richie: [00:41:20] If you were to give one piece of advice to, call it, investors broadly, about playing more, understanding more, kind of in this space, etc.—and this can be fully for your own benefit—what would that piece be?

Alex: [00:41:36] Sure. This is what disruption looks like. This is what change looks like. And I think that that is the power that’s going to propel us to be one of the brands that you really remember and succeeds and…so I think that there’s a lot of learnings. I think predominantly the women, but anybody in this category, people who have bootstrapped, you learn a lot. 

Richie: [00:41:57] Are there male investors who get this?

Alex: [00:41:59] Oh yeah. Oh my god, yes. There are so many investors who totally get it. And I think the times keep on changing, too, and that this wave is continuing to still build. It’s a real cultural trend, which is powerful, since #MeToo. It’s funny calling it like, “since #MeToo.” #MeToo was happening for so many people for so long. [More like] “since men discovered #MeToo.” And there has been a split. And most men, I think, see, “Oh my god. Sex is important. We’ve been doing something wrong here. I think we should really be reinvesting in this. This is also a huge company and you guys are generating value.”

Alex: [00:42:39] There is a smaller cohort who are just like, “You just said the word ‘sex’ in the workplace and that’s a no-no, because I don’t know the nuances there. And I think sex was the problem and not harassment.” But, yeah, I don’t want those investors anyway. So that’s great. I think what was really interesting when—especially five years ago but this has also really changed—was female investors not wanting to talk about sex too, ’cause it’s hard. 

Richie: [00:43:07] Right. They don’t want to be branded that way. 

Alex: [00:43:11] They don’t want to be branded that way. It’s hard enough trying to get their name out there as just an investor. Like, the amount of times I am put in touch with another female entrepreneur because we’re both females. 

Richie: [00:43:24] Like, made the connection. 

Alex: [00:43:24] Right. That’s like, I think, the main reason why people are making the connection. And, one, female entrepreneurs are amazing. That’s great. I love meeting them, and sometimes say things in a realer way that does resonate with me more. I understood how women investors didn’t want to just be women investors. I don’t want to be invited to another female entrepreneurship dinner. I want to be invited to an entrepreneur’s dinner, and I think that we are super-centered in a female space because the product and the brand is also kind of women-centered, so there’s that as well. So I really both understood it, but was frustrated by it. And that’s really changed. 

Richie: [00:44:00] Thanks so much for talking. 

Alex: [00:44:01] Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. 

Richie: [00:44:08] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast. You can read full transcripts of the podcast and join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com. Feel free to leave a review on iTunes, we always appreciate it, and thanks to George Drake, Jr. for editing this episode. We have a great roster of upcoming guests and we hope you tune in next week.