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Bryony Cole, founder of the Future of Sex podcast and leading authority on sextech.

A conversation with Bryony Cole: Falling into the sextech industry

Leading on from our previous conversation with Bryony Cole, we decided to chat to her about how she fell into what some may consider a “taboo” industry. 

Previously, Bryony was working at Microsoft as the Head of Community and Thought Leadership, where she stumbled upon technologists who were making all types of technology for social life, one which happened to be sextech.

From there, Bryony set out on her own project of interviewing individuals about how sex intersects with technology and started her widely popular podcast, The Future of Sex.

The sextech industry is now a rapidly growing US$30 billion industry of which female entrepreneurs are at the forefront.

I’ve done a bit of googling and everybody seems to have the same definition of what sextech is, but how would you define it?

“Sextech is any technology designed to enhance sexuality. If we think about sexuality as something bigger than just an orgasm. Often when people think sextech, they just think sex, but sexuality really encompasses everything from orgasms and pleasure and relationships to education, health, crimes, assault reporting, medicine and gender identity.”

Right, it’s definitely much larger than what most people think. So, you’ve got your own podcast, The Future of Sex and you’re a leading authority on sextech, so how did you fall into all of this?

“You’re right, I did fall into it – you assumed well! I don’t think anyone five years ago set out to have a career monitoring the sextech industry! It’s really developed over the last five years as a career and choice that people have asked me, ‘oh how did you get into sextech?’ – that didn’t really exist before.

“I was working in technology and always fascinated by the way technology impacts our lives. Whether that’s in an office space, when I was working at Microsoft and startups to social situations to everything from going out to the bedroom. I moved from a tech role at Microsoft, as the Head of Community and Thought Leadership, looking at the future of work, went out to consult and helped Absolut Vodka design an innovation lab around the future of night life. From there, I really met some interesting technologists designing all sorts of different technology for social life and one of them happened to be sex tech.

“And that was the first time I’d heard that and thought wow this is the most interesting area of technology no one is talking about. No one’s talking about it because it’s so taboo – sex is still so stigmatised wherever we go in the world and yet has such a meaningful impact on our lives, it’s a big part of our human experience and how it intersects with technology.

“I then set out on my own project of interviewing 100 people that I thought may have a clue about what’s happening between this intersection of sexuality and technology. I interviewed therapists, technologists, scientists, entrepreneurs and every day people about how sex and tech intersect in their lives and realised pretty quickly that this was an industry far larger than robots and the obvious. I released the podcast based off that and some interviews and further refined it to talk about why this was a US$30 billion industry and why we needed to pay attention to it.”

Definitely, and why do you think it’s such a rapidly growing industry?

“We’ve started to become comfortable talking about taboo or vice topics. So, thanks in part to I think other vice industries which are going mainstream, like the cannabis industry. And then on the other side, the fact that we’re talking about wellness, mental health particularly, we’ve seen this rise in wellness startups – we can point to meditation apps like Calm and Headspace that have mainstreamed the concept of wellness.

“Sexuality fits nicely in between those two topics of cannabis vice industry and wellness. We’ve seen this rise in sexual wellness, particularly in women, sexual pleasure no longer being presented as something that’s strange or weird or funny, which are typical representations we’ve seen in the 90s on Sex and the City. Women were experiencing pleasure and sex but it was often always humorous and funny.

“Now we have this mainstream conversation in the wake of Me Too and Time’s Up which is about female sexuality in all these different dimensions – whether that’s owning your sexuality, reporting harassment or more alternative wellness concepts that I would say Gwyneth Paltrow has definitely mainstreamed through Goop and selling vagina candles.

“I think it’s now at a really interesting point where it wasn’t previously a topic of conversation in pop culture. Cultural conversations are really important when we’re talking about edge technology otherwise you largely get left out.”

So you recently ran the Sextech Hackathon in Melbourne which had 90 per cent female participants – why is creating a space like the sextech hackathon for women so important?

“Typically, the technology industry is largely concentrated in the hands of cis-hetero Caucasian men and so democratising a tech industry, particularly sextech, is really important to invite everyone in. We wanted to see different minority groups represented – people living with disabilities and of course for me, women is a really big part of that group that need to have their voices heard and also have their needs designed for and who better to design for women than women?

“We had two pitches which were focussed on menopausal women, which is a grossly undeserved market and again, something we don’t talk about. So, 90 per cent is our highest ever women percentage. It’s pretty amazing – I thought, this is great and hackathons are typically male dominated events.”

What are some barriers for sextech startups, particularly women that want to break into the industry?

“Oh my gosh, there are so many barriers to starting a sextech company than there are just starting a small business or tech company.

“The barriers that sextech entrepreneurs face are, first of all, finding funding. Investment opportunities are scarce because it’s a taboo topic. If you’re going to investors, there’s often morality clauses that turn investors off from investing, although we’re slowly seeing this change now and seeing larger investments being made out of Silicon Valley into companies but that’s a big barrier. So, a lot of sextech companies go for the crowdfunding route which isn’t’ that bad if you want to prove you have customers.

“The other biggest barrier is advertising. Social media platforms largely censor with #freethenipple but Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest – anywhere where your customers are for that sort of product – in intimate, private spaces – which is also social media and where people consume their information, largely you’re banned from advertising. Quite often, companies find that they’re completely removed from [the platform]. I’ve had the Future of Sex Instagram profile removed twice. Now we’re verified so that doesn’t happen but that’s a really big hurdle – how do you reach customers if you can’t use social media?

“If you’re going to be making a product, manufacturing is a real hurdle. Some manufacturers just won’t work with you because you’re deemed an adult product. Even if you’re a company that helps alleviate pelvic pain or some other health issue around sex, they’ll often deem it as indecent or adult and won’t work with you – so that’s a large problem too.

“Another one that is worth pointing out is payment processes. They will often group you into the adult category as well and won’t work with you. It’s a real pain – how do you first of all, reach your audience and once you’ve reached them, how do you sell your product or service if you can’t use a payment processor?”

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