The Interviews

Cindy Gallop


Building the Brave New World of Sex Tech

Interview by Leif Steiner & Emily Potts
December 13, 2016

Cindy Gallop phptographed by Kevin Abosch
When Cindy Gallop introduced her social sex start-up concept to a live audience in 2009, she really had no idea what she was getting herself into. She unwittingly tapped into a huge global category, but found it damn-near impossible to get any backing—financial, technical, or social. It was a conundrum of epic proportions.

However, that did not deter her. In fact, if you tell Gallop she can’t do something, it will only strengthen her resolve to prove otherwise. This is a woman who likes to “blow shit up.” Her words, not mine. Having worked in business communications for more than 20 years, mainly with Bartle Bogle Hegarty as the founder and former chair of the U.S. branch, she now runs her own consulting business, as well as her start-ups If We Ran The World and Make Love Not Porn. She knows a thing or two about getting shit done and if you don’t like what she’s doing, then move along. She has no time for you.

This is not a story about sex. This is about one woman’s relentless pursuit to build an entire business category in order for her company and others like it to succeed, despite countless obstacles that would have deterred most sane people. (bio photo: Kevin Abosch)

 

Let’s talk about Make Love Not Porn and what happened immediately after that famous TED talk in 2009, where you introduced the website and concept for this.

Make Love Not Porn (MLNP) is a complete and total accident. It began as a side venture I launched at Ted. That talk elicited an extraordinary global response that I had never anticipated. It went global without me lifting a finger.

Every single day for the past eight years, I’ve received emails to my MLNP inbox—thousands–from people of different ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations from every single country in the world. What amazes people is the fact that I stood on stage in public and talked about what everyone knows, but they don’t talk about. As a result, people feel like they can tell me anything. They pour their hearts out, and they tell me about their sex lives and porn habits. They write to me for advice. And it was the sheer cumulative impact of all of these emails arriving day after day, that made me feel I now have a personal responsibility to take this initiative forward and make it more far reaching, effective, and helpful. That’s why I decided to turn it into a business.

What is the philosophy behind MLNP and what are your goals with this company?

The massive onslaught of all these extraordinary, soul-baring emails made me realize that I uncovered a huge, untapped global social issue that nobody was addressing. I saw an opportunity to do what I believe in very strongly, which is the future of business is doing good and making money simultaneously.

I knew that if I wanted to counter the impact of porn as the default sex education, I had to come up with something that had the potential to be just as mass, just as mainstream in society as porn currently is. So I conceived MLNP TV to be huge. I always emphasize to people that it is not anti-porn, because porn isn’t the problem. We don’t talk about sex in the real world. If we did, people would bring in a real-world mindset. Our tagline is “Pro sex, pro porn, pro knowing the difference.” Our mission with MLNP is to get people to talk about sex—parents to kids; teachers to kids, etc., and equally important, talk about sex intimately and privately in relationships. We take every dynamic that exists in social media and apply it to the one area no other social network is going. So four years ago we launched the first stage of this, which is entirely user generated, crowd sourced video sharing platform to celebrate sex. Anyone can submit videos of themselves having sex, but we’re very clear by what we mean by that. We’re not porn. We’re not amateur.

We’re building a new category … social sex. Our competition isn’t porn. It’s Facebook and YouTube, or it would be if they allowed social sexual expression.

Social sex videos are not about performing for the camera, but capturing things in the real world, as it happens spontaneously in all its funny, messy, silly ridiculous human gloriousness.

Since MLNP is not a typical start-up, what have been the biggest challenges getting this business off the ground?

What I did not realize when I started this, is that my team and I would fight a battle every single day to build it. Essentially because every piece of business infrastructure every other start up can just take for granted, we can’t because the small print always says “no adult content.”

I can’t get funded, I can’t get a bank to work with us, I can’t put payments in place. PayPal and mainstream credit card companies won’t work with us. Every single tech service we want to use, be it hosting, coding, encrypting—the terms of service always say no adult content. We had to build our entire video sharing and video streaming platform from scratch, ourselves, because off-the-shelf components and streaming services refused to stream our content. Even something as easy as finding an email partner to work with was nearly impossible. I realized early on that I was going to have to pave my own way. I have to break down the business barriers in my own path if I want to scale MLNP into the billion dollar venture I know it can be. I am doing what I tell other entrepreneurs to do, which is when you have a truly world changing startup, you have to change the world to fit it, not the other way around.

I’m in the Steve Jobs business of reality distortion, because if reality tells me I can’t grow MLNP the way I want to, I’m going to change reality.

You said, “The next big thing in tech is changing the world through sex.” What do you mean by this?

Several years ago, I deliberately began defining, pioneering and championing my own category: Sex Tech. I literally wrote the post on Sex Tech. It is any form of technology or tech venture that is designed to innovate, disrupt and enhance in every area of human sexuality and human sexual experience. So I began speaking at tech conference and telling everyone that the next big thing in tech is disrupting sex. Because at base level if I say that loudly enough and often enough and in enough places, people start to believe it. I began using the hashtag #sextech. I am essentially out to open up the business and tech industries minds in order to create receptivity for my start up.

In every industry sector we see the business syndrome that I call “collaborative competition.” This is when everybody competes in their sector by doing exactly what everyone else is doing. I believe the future instead is what I call “competitive collaboration.” By which I mean, when all of us in the sector come together and collaborate in a way we don’t see currently to make things better for all of us. The premise of the rising tide flips all boats is what allows each of us at the top of that wave to be uniquely competitive, learning our individual skills and talents.

In order to make my own start-up successful, I had to make the entire category successful. I had to build the whole category. I’ve been doing that for a couple of years, while at the same time trying to raise $2 million in funding to scale MLNP. This is by the way, the minimum investment. I’d love to raise more, but I’ve deliberately left the bar there because it’s so challenging, and I’ve failed spectacularly. I realized that I was going to have to take things to the next level. Not only do I have to define, pioneer, and champion my own category, I have to fund it. If I want to get my own start-up funded, I have to get the entire category funded.

I’m still trying to raise $2 million to scale MLNP, but I’m also raising $10 million to start the world’s first and only sex tech fund, and ultimately a sex tech holding company incubator and accelerator, with the aim of investing it in radical, innovative sex tech start ups.

I’ve named this sex tech fund All the Sky Holdings, which is derived from Mao Zedong’s famous quote, “Women hold up half the sky,” in praise of gender equality. However, I think that’s relatively unambitious, so the name is deliberately All the Sky. If we’re successful, we’ll have the funding to support radically innovative sex tech startups by women. Some of the most innovative, disruptive startups in sex tech today are coming from female founders. That’s why I like to say, “Women challenge the status quo because we are never it.” We are finally owning our sexuality, and finding as women, unique ways to leverage this in a business context. We understand the enormous market that is women’s needs, wants and desires that have historically been deemed too embarrassingly shameful and taboo to address in business terms. When you tap into that huge primary market you also tap into a huge secondary market: Men.

Clearly you’ve had a lot of challenges with crowdfunding, but you’ve finally found a partner in ifundwomen.com.

Our biggest obstacle raising funding is the social dynamic of what I call, “Fear of what other people will think.” When you understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing what we’re doing, nobody can argue with it. The business case is clear. It is always that fear of what other people will think, which is the single most paralyzing dynamic in business and in life.

It’s ruled out VCs and future investors and stakeholders; it’s also historically ruled out crowdfunding for us because platforms like Kickstarter will not support adult content, or they draw an artificial distinction between sex toys (which are fine), but people having sex (not fine). When Karin Cahn announced that she was launching ifundwomen.com, a new crowdfunding platform dedicated to female founded ventures I reached out to her. I was thrilled when she came back and said, “I’ve been a member of MLNP since day one. I love what you’re doing. Absolutely, come over.”

A month ago we launched it alongside our fundraising efforts through more conventional channels. However, successful crowdfunding requires a very large number of people rallying publicly and inviting other people to fund it. People will not publicly promote that they are funding this. We are running our campaign for a long period of time—four months. We have an ambitious target because we need funding to hire people, and we need a large amount to do that. We’ve raised nearly $38,000 in a month, but our target is $500,000.

Are your efforts still mainly word of mouth, or is there a growing undercurrent with more people talking about it?

First of all, I say to my team, “The biggest thing we have to celebrate is that we’re still here, because 95% of all start-ups fail, and we have many more obstacles than they do.” The fact that we’re still here is a bloody miracle.

We have over 400,000 members globally.
We have over 100 MLNP stars.
We have over 1,000 videos submitted during our time to date.
We began taking in money on day one.

Our income is tiny, but in a world where nobody pays for porn, people are paying for social sex. We are seeing the needle move and we have done this with two full-time employees—one of whom is me, unpaid—and zero marketing. We have no money for marketing. Our growth is entirely organic. It is driven by two things: ongoing media coverage around the world without us doing one single bit of media and PR outreach; and through online searches, bearing in mind we have no money for SEO or advertising. Imagine what we could do with funding.

Are your contributors making money?  

I believe very strongly that everybody should realize the financial value of what they create. I designed MLNP around this model, and also what I believe is the business model of the future which is Shared Values + Shared Action = Shared Profit. We have a revenue sharing business model. Members pay to rent and screen our videos and half that revenue goes to the contributors. Some of our most prolific MLNP stars are making four figures at each payout. So even in our current boot-strapping scenario, we are thrilled that we are able to provide serious benefit. But, we want to hit critical mass, where one day, a video could get one million hits. At $5 a screening, that’s some serious money.

At the same time, money is not the primary motivation of any of our MLNP stars. Some uploaded videos without even realizing they could make money. On the premise of shared values and shared action, we are building a community of shared values around sex. The reason that is interesting is because we don’t articulate our sexual values, because we’re not taught to think that way.

Many of us, if we’re brought up well, are taught to have good manners, good values, a sense of responsibility and accountability, but nobody ever brings us up to behave well in bed, but they should.

Because empathy, generosity, connectivity, kindness, and honesty are as important in bed as they are in every other area of our lives.

You’ve said that you don’t give a damn about what anybody thinks, and that it’s liberating coming to that realization. How do you get to that point in a world where women are still primarily judged on looks and likeability?

The moment we’re born as females, everything around us conspires to make us feel absolutely insecure about everything we do to ourselves—the way we look, the way we walk, the way we talk, the way we dress. Nice girls do this, they don’t do that, and we spend the rest of our lives coming back from that, and some never do.

For me, it was a gradual realization that came from 56 years of living. I believe that everything in life and business starts with you and your values. Look within yourself and identify what you believe in, what you value and what you stand for, and live your life and do your work according to those values. When you have a very strong sense of who you are and what you believe is right, that enables you to not give a damn about what anybody else thinks. And it has nothing to do with being likeable. Being likeable is not something to worry about. It’s a side effect to being true to who you are and having values and treating everyone else according to those values. That’s what makes you likeable.

Being likeable is a completely irrelevant consideration in my book. It’s much more important that you really think about your own choices. This is why I’m very public about the fact that I never wanted to get married, I’ve never wanted to have children, and I date younger men. We don’t have enough role models for women and men in our society that demonstrate that you can live your life very differently from what is expected and still be extraordinarily happy.

What’s next for MLNP?

When we’ve made the money and can build out the platform, we want to expand into three other areas of content.

The first area is to be the equivalent of the Khan academy of sex education; Khan academy teaches every subject under the sun except one: sex. Ed tech is exploding in every sector except this one. We want to build out MLNP academy and invite sex educators from around the world to submit their videos, articles, tools, anything about sexual health and well being. We will publish what we deem appropriate for our audience. For instance, if you are an educator and you submit what is depressingly popular here, which is abstinence-only sex education, we are not publishing that. We don’t endorse that. It doesn’t work.

The second area is to broaden out our definition of social sex, to encompass things like celebrations of body positivity, celebrations of love, intimacy, relationships. We want to create an arm of MLNP where you can self-publish things that currently get you kicked off of other social media platforms, which is any form of nudity. Even something as natural of breastfeeding your baby, will get you kicked off of other social platforms.

The third area is crafted content. We currently receive lots of videos that are not our definition of social sex. They are created or produced—they are someone’s fantasy. We want to open up a platform where people can self-publish erotica, whether it’s art, photography, writing, videos. If you’re an artist, nobody encourages you to explore sexual themes in your art; if you do you can’t find a gallery or find an agent or show your work online. We want to enable people to self-publish and make money doing it.

Any last words?

It’s a massive misconception that Make Love Not Porn is at all off-putting in the business world. It is a manifestation of all my own business philosophies. It is innovating in all the ways I advise businesses to innovate.

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