Dirty business: The fight to overcome stigma in traditionally taboo industries

Dirty business: The fight to overcome stigma in traditionally taboo industries
When you operate in a traditionally taboo industry, investors often won't touch you with a 10-foot pole.

Could a government minister happily announce funding for your innovation at a media conference?

My business, Downunder Toys, started life in Wellington in 1992. Some friends and I were looking for an adult board game for another friend’s birthday. We had to brave the world of the only adult shop that we knew about, on Cuba Street, and it wasn’t pretty.

Disgusted by the types of products offered for women in 1992, I wanted to make it better – and over the next 20 years that’s exactly what I, and a small group of dedicated women across the world, did.

The pioneering effort that we were part of has changed the world of sex toys for women. But marketing is still a major problem. The new world of luxury pleasure goods is struggling with naming its products – I don’t mean the products themselves, although many could use a little help. What are these products exactly? Sex toys, adult products, luxury pleasure goods, intimate massagers or intimate lifestyle accessories – whatever you’re comfortable with.

Funding is the biggest hurdle. There is solid research that points to significant ongoing growth in the market for luxury pleasure products. And we have the international contacts to enable a fairly quick uptake of our new products, based on our reputation as artisan producers coupled with rising demand. We have the plan and the financials to show what we’ll do, how we’ll do it and who is doing it with us.

But coming to terms with the fact that there is still stigma attached to the business has been hard. Investors may be interested but find it hard to commit (will his wife approve? Can the minister announce funding for your innovation at a news conference?). We have qualified for government grants, but been told that the minister would not be able to sign off on them.

The notion of crowdfunding is enticing, but a big issue for us is the need to protect our intellectual property – the products will be copied, we accept that. Our only hope is to establish legitimacy in our markets by being the genuine article. We know that patents for adult products are a pointless waste of money, so crowdfunding comes with an extra set of hurdles.

We’ve worked hard for 20 years on the periphery of a dirty business, and succeeded in seeing it through to today, where product and porn no longer mix as they once did, where women have access and permission to sample the accessories available to them. We wanted to make a dirty business clean, but it’s never quite that simple.

JD Ryan is CEO at Downunder Toys and can be reached via email here