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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sex Toys: When You Have an Invention You Want to Take to Market

Since humans have had tools to make things we've made sex toys. Most of the time a sex toy invention doesn't get farther than a day dream or a funny conversation over dinner. Sometimes the DIY spirit takes over, and a homemade sex toyis born. But for most of the history of sex toy manufacturing, the people who make our sex toys have been a small group of plastics manufacturers who make everything from wind-up penises to whoopee cushions to dildos.

Times have changed.

Today there are dozens of small and medium size sex toy manufacturers around the world that started out with an idea, a desire to make money, and a belief that they could give people pleasure or at least help them help themselves to pleasure.  The sex toy industry is changing rapidly, and with the right set of skills and in some cases enough money to get it started, the barriers to getting your idea to market have never been lower.
Which is not to say that it's easy. It isn't. Or that most ideas make it. They don't. The industry may be big in terms of sales, but there is remarkably little industry infrastructure, which can make it hard to know where to turn for help. But if you've got an idea for a sex toy and you're not sure where to start, here are some tips based on over 20 years in the sex toy industry and another 5 or so helping people make their sex toy dreams come true.

Step 1: Do Some Research

People often assume that the sex toy industry is a creative wasteland where people cash in without even trying. There was a time when this was true, but no more. There is a history to the industry and there are particular ways that the industry talks about itself, its products and its customers. Even if you think you know everything you need to know about sex toys, if you haven't done some research you probably need to know more. If you think that you've got a truly revolutionary sex toy you'd better be sure it isn't something that's already on the market.

Start your research online. Make sure you understand the basic types of sex toys and where your product fits into the market. Next, find a product that is as close to the one you want to develop as possible. Most people think that what they have is brand new, but the truth is that there are very few brand new ideas. This shouldn't discourage you, but it should prevent you from making claims about your concept that aren't true.
Next, visit many different kinds of sex shops. If you prefer sex shops that are geared to women or couples, or sex shops that are a bit more grungy, don't just check out the kind you like. It's good to ask a few questions when you visit, but be respectful of the staff's time and don't treat them as a free way to do all your research. Better yet, be a real customer and buy something.
You should also consider visiting a sex toy trade show. There are plenty of shows that are considered "consumer trade shows" meaning that they are for regular people to go buy stuff. Essentially these shows give you an opportunity to see a lot of sex shops in one place. It's also a chance to watch consumers consume. There are also business to business shows that are for retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers. The big show for North America is the AVN Novelty Expo. The largest show of this kind is the Venus International Fair in Berlin.

Step 2: Ask Yourself What You Want

Are you mostly interested in a creative project? Do you want to make a job for yourself, start a business, and try to make a living as a sex toy maker? Is your goal more about giving people pleasure and less about money? Having an idea for a sex toy is great, but if you want to "do something" with that idea it's best if you set some goals for yourself first. There are all sorts of ways of turning your idea into a thing that exists in the world. You need to decide if you really only want to make one, or maybe a dozen for your closest friends, or if you're hoping to have one of your sex toys in every bedside table in the country.

If you think you want to make this a business venture, are you mostly interested in being a sex toy designer? A salesperson? A marketer? If you want to start your own business you'll have to be a little of each. But maybe your dream is just to design the product, in which case what you're looking for will be very different.'s Guide to Small Business offers an excellent list of questions and resources for people thinking of starting a small business. Most of these are the same whether you want to start making sex toys or sun dresses.

Step 3: Take an Inventory of What You've Got

If you're reading this then you probably have your idea. But an idea, even a brilliant idea that is genuinely innovative, isn't enough. Do you have experience starting a business?  Do you know how to market yourself and your product?  Do you have capital to invest?  It's good to dream (it's essential for entrepreneurs) but you also need to be realistic.  Assess your resources and take that into account when you decide the best way to move forward.  No matter how great your idea is, if you can't pull it off no one is ever going to get to try it.

You need some connections. That means networking. The good news is that everyone is looking for more business and so most people are willing to give you a little bit of their time if they think they might get something out of it. If you have a good local sex shop that's one place to start. Trade shows are another place to make connections.
At this point it will help you to have at least a rough business plan. Even if you don't want to start your own business, having something sketched out in writing is a good idea. At minimum you should be able to answer these questions:
  • What do you want to make?
  • Why you want to make it?
  • Why you are the person to get it done?
  • How will you know when you've succeeded?

Step 4: Pick Your Path

One of the reasons it's hard for most people to figure out how to turn their sex toy invention into a business is that there isn't a lot of industry infrastructure, and so there's no clear path to bringing your product to market. The good news is that there's still a lot of room for innovation and for people to do it their own way, and get it done. Here are X of the main ways people move forward with their sex toy inventions.
Start Your Own Company
If you're entrepreneurial and have the time, energy, money, and interest in doing it all on your own, there is no question that the sex toy industry has room for many new companies, and it is possible to start relatively small and grow at a manageable pace. You'll need capital both for the manufacturing and the marketing, but thanks to sex toy bloggers and the mainstream media's acceptance of sex toys as a suitable topic for discussion, it's possible to take your product and your case to the people in a way that can translate into direct sales, and interest from retailers and distributors.
Pros: you have complete control over bringing your invention into the world, if you succeed you make most of the profit, you get to learn so much about all aspects of the sex toy industry, you build something that could last
Cons: you need money, time, and a whole lot of energy, you're taking a big risk and it may take years to see a return on your investment, starting and running a business is exhausting and doesn't leave time for much else, sex toy companies are notoriously impossible to sell, so your exit strategy shouldn't include selling your business for millions
Work with a Distributor
There are many sex toy distributors (companies that don't make toys but sell to on and off line retailers, and sometimes have their own retail operations on the side). Distributors are interested in developing exclusive deals with manufacturers and if you have a sex toy and you're willing to put the money up to have it manufactured, you might choose to partner with a distributor who will take care of sales and distribution. They should be able to advise you on the manufacturing end as well. Just be sure the distributor has a good understanding of the market and has reach into the market. In this industry (as in most) people often misrepresent their ability to get your product into stores nationally and internationally. Get referrals, do your research, and be careful before signing any exclusive deals that could eventually make it harder for you to get your product to the people you believe will buy it.
Pros: The sex toy industry is still quite insular and making your way into it takes time. Finding a distribution partner who has a track record and established relationships with retailers can save you a lot of time and money. If you're more interested in creating and marketing, and less interested in sales and distribution, working with a distributor early on may also be the right fit.
Cons: Distributors are always looking for the next new thing. They may give your product attention (and space in their trade show booths and catalogs) for a while. But unless you keep the heat up by marketing directly to the public and the media, your distributor may lose interest and your product can suffer from lack of exposure. Distributors, of course, are in it for the money. So you will be giving a distributor around 30% depending on volume, the product, and many other factors.
Find a Retail Partner
This is the least likely option, but as the retail sex toy industry grows, retailers are looking for new ways to make money and to distinguish themselves from their competition. One notable example of this is the web based LoveHoney's Design a Sex Toy Contest. The retailer runs the contest and the winning product may be manufactured, with the designer keeping some of the profits as I understand it. This is how the Sqweelfound its way to market.
Pros: If you find the right fit, and a company that has enough of a customer base, this partnership can result in a smaller but very focused introduction of your product to the world. The best retailers have good relationships with bloggers and the media. The attention you'll get from a retailer with a larger stake in the success of the product is a benefit, plus retailers more than anyone else, provide a direct connection to the end users, where you can get input and feedback on your current product and ideas for your next toys.

Sex Toys

When You Have an Invention You Want to Take to Market

Cons: Retailers are highly competitive, and choosing to introduce your product as an exclusive through one retailer, even if it's only exclusive for a limited time, may turn off other retailers. Also, no single retailer has the reach of even a medium sized distribution company. And no sex toy retailer has good reach into international markets. For this reason you want to be careful about how exclusivity is negotiated.
The Bottom Line:
It's possible to start with an idea for a sex toy and with a lot of planning, work, and some financial investment, make your sex toy invention a reality. As the sex toy industry becomes more sophisticated the opportunities for small and mid-sized companies increase. You need to start with research, make the right connections through networking, and understand the manufacturing, distribution, and retailing of sex toys, whether or not you plan on being the one to do some or all of those tasks.