Happy New Year and welcome to another edition of Snail Mail! Today we have an awesome piece from CEO & Co-Founder of Unbound, Polly Rodriguez on company building and the stigma surrounding sexual wellness.
🍿Q+A with Polly Rodriguez (CEO & Co-Founder, Unbound)
Unbound is a Slow portfolio company that designs and manufactures sexual wellness products for women. Not only does Unbound offer women fun and enjoyable products; they are also trail blazing the fight to provide women with more places to have inclusive conversations about sex. Recently, Polly caught up with Slow's Alex Marcus to talk about it.
Alex: Tell us more about Unbound and your vision for it?
Polly:Unbound is a rebellious sexual wellness company. Tactically, we're a direct-to-consumer startup that designs and manufacturers over 75 vibrators, lubricants, and accessories. Our vision is to be the first mainstream brand in the sexual wellness category by creating next generation products at a fraction of the price. Unlike what we've seen historically in the "adult" industry, all our products are made with medical grade, body safe materials along with fashion-forward design. Unbound is more akin to a health and beauty brand than a truck stop sex shop.
AM: Similar to other health related categories like brain health, prescription medication, therapy, etc., there is a stigma around talking about sexual wellness. How do you use that stigma to your advantage when promoting your brand?
PR: The puritanical stigma surrounding sexuality dates back to a time when people of color and women weren't even legally considered citizens of this country. I believe the regulation of women's bodies has been used as a tactic to oppress marginalized people for hundreds of years. In some states, it was legal to rape your wife up until the 1993 and women are still fighting for the right to make decisions over our own bodies today.
Subsequently, there are many in our country who fear we're regressing back to a dark time in women's rights -- individuals who feel marginalized and as though their voices don't matter. In 2016, Unbound made a deliberate decision to talk directly to those individuals and to create space for them. It's not so much a marketing tactic as it is an authentic relationship with a group of people who are consistently and systematically overlooked in the market.
AM: I assume Unbound takes up most of your time and headspace...why are you taking it upon yourself to fix this problem when there are plenty of other ways to get involved in a less consuming way?
PR:I recently was gifted Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke and in it, he provides the following advice:
"This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple, 'I must,' then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it."
I would like to believe that all founders feel this urge of "I must" -- a calling, a duty, and a privilege to tackle truly difficult problems. I deeply care about solving problems uniquely experienced by women, non-binary, and femme individuals. I had cancer at 21 and went through radiation therapy as part of my treatment plan -- and radiation then sent me into menopause. None of my doctors told me I was going to experience menopause as a lifelong side effect, only that I would never be able to have children. That was one of the first moments I realized the dichotomy of female sexuality and how underserved it is. We are viewed as either mothers or hyper-sexualized as sluts, and I refuse to accept those as the only two options. There should be a place in the middle where womxn can feel entitled to enjoy their sexuality in the same way men do, so I set out to create that space -- not because I could, but because I must.
AM: You have taken a unique approach to customer acquisition. What have you done that is different than other e-commerce companies?
PR: It wasn't by choice. Our customer acquisition cost is below $5 because we are not allowed to advertise on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Snapchat, Adroll, Taboola, Outbrain, or public transit (to name a few). As a result, we had to get really good at content, SEO, and email marketing. We doubled down on creating an online community and it's paid off -- we're currently 3 months away from profitability.
I'd also just like to call out that these barriers are unique to female sexual wellness companies. Erectile dysfunction and condom brands (i.e., sexual wellness companies specific to male needs) are all allowed to advertise on these platforms without restriction.
AM: It is easy to talk the talk and say growing a community is better than dumping money into paid acquisition but cultivating a community is no easy feat. How do you do it?
PR:You have to be addressing a topic that people actually want to talk about and you need to have something to say that is worth listening to. For us, it was about approaching sexuality with humor and empathy. Our brand identity is one that has taken 5 years to perfect and everything from the copy on our shipping confirmation emails to the memes we post on Instagram are thoughtfully and strategically crafted with an immense amount of attention to detail. That's allowed us to stand out as a bold brand in a world of succulents, nude color tones, and hand + shadow photography.
AM: You are also the founder of the group, Women in Sex Tech. What is 'Sex Tech' and how can people get involved?
PR:Yes! I started working on this organization 4 years ago as a grassroots movement to change the stigmas associated with female / femme / NB founders in sex tech. Anyone can apply to join so long as they have a prototype and/or active organization they represent. More information can be found at www.womenofsextech.com
AM: At what point did you decide you wanted to raise venture money for this business? How was Unbound's pitch received in the male-dominated valley?
PR: We decided to raise a seed round after being in the industry for 2.5 years and becoming acutely aware of how much margin distributors were taking as middlemen and how garbage the products were. Unbound had accrued a massive amount of data on what features, price points, color, design, and packaging women wanted. We knew we could deliver a better product at a more competitive price by building a DTC brand but that we would need capital to vertical integrate.
Fundraising is the absolute worst regardless of what your startup is. However, it is particularly brutal when you're pitching a solution to a problem that 1) most VCs don't personally experience and 2) don't feel comfortable talking about. It was up to me to learn to build rapport within 5 minutes of meeting with a VC and know exactly how we were going to make Unbound a billion dollar company. It took over 300 no's before we finally got the right yes.
AM: What role does sexual wellness play in the future of health?
PR: I believe that sexual wellness will be a part of a mainstream holistic view of health within the next five years. Similar to meditation and therapy, it's all about using technology to make wellness accessible to the majority. I'm excited to see the critical role Unbound will play as a catalyst in changing the way we view health and wellness overall.
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