Alexandra Fine – Co-Founder & CEO of Dame

Episode 255

How do you scale a company that is so heavily stigmatized? Tune in to hear how Alexandra Fine, Co-Founder & CEO of Dame, is building a sex toy empire on this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be,

you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So

your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, its Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I’m so thrilled to have my next guest here we have Alexandra Fine. We’re going to call her al though because that is what she goes by. And she is the co founder and CEO of Dame which is a leading brand for sexual wellness. Okay, everybody. If that is too shocking for you, then you should leave right now. But this is going to be a great episode for sure. So now famous for their 2016 Kickstarter campaign, which was the first ever for a sex toy for Kickstarter, Alex and her co founder, Janet Lieberman had the most crowdfunded sex toy to date. And as one of the fastest growing companies in the space Dame brings much needed education to customers around the world. And ultimately, and the pleasure gap as well. I can’t wait to speak to Al a little bit more about this, and all of the stuff that she’s doing in the space. So really, really exciting. So welcome.

Alexandra Fine 1:48
Thanks for having me.

Kara Goldin 1:50
Absolutely. So how the heck did you decide to start this company? Tell me a little bit more about who you were as? Who was owl as a kid? I mean, what were you thinking you were gonna do? Ultimately,

Alexandra Fine 2:05
I was very confident. Child. I think I’ve always been. I usually joke I tell people, I’m horny for life. I don’t know if this is the appropriate platform, as always, you know, really, like, if I’m gonna do something I just wanted to know, I had big dreams as a little girl. I wanted to be famous. I wanted to do everything and thought I couldn’t do everything. And still sometimes think I can. And I think so many things brought me to the work that I’m I’m doing. But I often tell the story of when I was six years old, my I had a cool aunt that lived in Manhattan. And I got to stay with her over a weekend. And I went and met some of her friends at this party, and are a bunch of drag queens there. Who, you know, when you’re six, like kids, you have questions, and you don’t have judgments that are tied to it. And I got great answers about gender and sexuality. I went back to show and tell my first grade class explain the difference between being a drag queen versus being transgender, and I got in trouble. And I think that that was like the beginning of like, there’s this thing that’s important in the world that I’m that we’re not talking about. And that just nobody was able to explain why. And I think that really got me started on this journey towards sexual wellness. And then of course, as a course, but, you know, when I became more sexually curious person, I felt very much like my curiosity was being really held down by the ideas of what girls were supposed to do and not supposed to do. And while my guy friends didn’t seem to have that same experience, and I think that again, just really was like, why what’s going on and mind you? When I was in middle school, Samantha unsexy, the city existed. So on the one hand, I was being given this, the idea that like, you can be this sexually liberated woman, and we can do whatever the guys want to do, whether we should have wanted to or not, I don’t know. But then in my, you know, my search experience at the time was not that. So just really interested in the space. I also come from entrepreneurs. So I think that was really helpful in my desire to start a business, went to college. I did psychology, Women, Gender Studies are in business and my mom was like, those things don’t go together. What are you doing? I don’t know if it’s just following my passions and my interest. I got my master’s in clinical psychology thinking I want have to be like the next actor, Ruth felt way too impatient to get my PhD. Flush impatience is generally not a great quality for a therapist. And I ended up working in a consumer goods brand. That was three people, it felt all natural baby shampoo, which I absolutely loved. And that’s when I realized, like, oh, wow, I could really make an impact in the world through business. And where do I want to make an impact? Oh, I’ve always wanted to make an impact. And when in actuality, 90% of my friends owned vibrators, but the marketing and the innovation still felt very much tied to pornography. And this, like, I know, the male gaze, this lewd idea of what sex was supposed to be. There was no brand on Instagram we wanted to follow. So I thought, Oh, I could start one. And then I really quickly was able to come up with a such a unique concept that I wasn’t awarded a utility patent for it. I met an MIT trained mechanical engineer, who was able to take that concept UVA, and turn it into a reality. We launched it on a crowdfunding site and raised $575,000 in 45 days. And the rest is history. It’s not I mean, history

Kara Goldin 6:20
is all history. I love it. So So that was your Kickstarter campaign.

Unknown Speaker 6:24
Actually, that was my Indiegogo campaign. So I did an Indiegogo campaign. And then because Kickstarter wouldn’t let me use their platform, and then my second campaign was on Kickstarter. And we raised about $400,000. There, and we were able to convince Kickstarter, that we were the type of brand they wanted to support.

Kara Goldin 6:48
So interesting. So let’s go back to the Indiegogo so like, how were you surprised when you launched it? I mean, did you what was what was?

Unknown Speaker 6:58
Dr. Little hours, like having really big dreams and big ideas? Like was I surprised? There was definitely a part of me, that was like I told you, so. Like, this is my full time job. I had already taken the plunge and was working full time on this project. And I really believed in it. I did I put on like, our goal was $50,000. My personal goal was $150,000. I thought, okay, there has been another campaign called the auto blow, which raised $270,000. And I thought, well, I should be able, I mean, I could beat them. But, you know, I never. I was amazed. It was amazing. I there was no piece of paper that I had written down where I thought I would do that much, somewhere deep within me and I thought could take over the

Kara Goldin 7:53
world. I love it. That is That’s so great. So then if launches and then and then when did the Kickstarter campaign, what was what was in between even

Unknown Speaker 8:04
Kickstarter. So the Indiegogo campaign was rosbash Price Eva, it took us about six plus months to really ship out, we ended up having 10,000 pre orders. So it just took a long time for us to actually ship all 10,000 units. And we started shipping them in March and finished in like June, July, was a lot of just manufacturing, getting the product, right. We started selling in some wholesale channels, we figured out what our brands was, because you know, at first we were just selling them in these little black boxes. We didn’t know who we were visually. And by 2016 we you know, it took us some time to start developing our second product, which has been it’s a finger vibrator. So it’s a vibrator you can wear on your hand. And yeah, I mean, we were getting probably close to doing $2 million in sales annually at that point. But we still like really needed the cash in order to manufacture the next round to start thin production on it’s, you know, so expensive to make these products, the inventory costs is pretty high. And because the MOQ is are really high. So it was just amazing to be able to get on Kickstarter or these crowdfunding platforms even existed because it allowed me to get money in the door before actually manufacture the product.

Kara Goldin 9:40
So beyond the Kickstarter campaign, then you’re you’re at this point at a direct to consumer company, right? You want to get the product out there. And it’s obviously around an industry that not a lot of people are one wanting to talk about Yeah, probably had platforms that were like, forget it, we’re not gonna allow this to actually, you know, be advertised. And so how do you acquire customers then? I mean, what? How did you figure that hurdle out?

Unknown Speaker 10:16
Well, what’s interesting is right out of the gate with Indiegogo, which was a platform that did allow us on there and platform that really just, you know, if you’re, if your campaign was going well, they would promote your campaign, and we were going well, so, and we found a lot of people also through press. So putting out our story, sharing our Y. Route, which is, you know, women are four times more likely than men to say that sex has been not at all pleasurable in the past year. There’s no reason why. Why women need to have bad sex, painful sex, and not just enjoy the pleasures of life. So yeah, just sharing that we did a lot of press. And now we do a lot, we still do a lot of press do a lot of podcast advertising on price podcast, and really just finding partners that understand who we are and want to support that. And that’s how we find customers,

Kara Goldin 11:19
did you ever run into kind of hurdles around competitors had been out there, and this product didn’t work or trying to educate and overcome competitors that maybe had done it wrong or had had given a bad name for your industry overall?

Unknown Speaker 11:40
Yeah, in so many different ways. The, you know, I think it was really less the competitors, and more. The policies and systems that were in place are pretty much infectious. vibrators in general, were originally targeted and sold to women in women’s magazines as like rejuvenating products, like, feel fresh and young, circulate your blood flow, mirror kind of way more in line with what we feel like today is the wellness movement. And then because of pornography and indecency, quite like laws, they ended up having to be sold through the same channels that porn was sold. So it became really synonymous with pornography and kind of the people who were making porn. So there was just a lot of other businesses that didn’t want to touch us or sell, you know, I’ve had banks turn us down, I haven’t been able to get SBA loans. I have had so many just challenges. And I do think that there were probably people who had experiences with the industry that made it a high risk industry. But I think it was less that my competitors did anything and more just the taboo and fear we had around sexuality.

Kara Goldin 13:05
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Unknown Speaker 15:25
you know, again, it’s, it’s never just one thing, I think. But if I’m going to try and distill it to you, I think if it was one, just that feeling inside of you, that what you’re doing matters and wanting to do it, and being resilient about it, and caring passionately. So I think that on some of my worst days, when I was feeling really down and feeling really indignant about not being given the same platforms, as my peers, to grow my business, and feeling like, you know, everybody’s making it harder for me, woe is me, you know, my husband would be like, yes. And that’s why you started the business. And that’s so true. Like, the taboo, is why I started it. And that’s what’s holding me back. And that’s why I’m often successful, why I love what I’m doing, to kind of just seeing that from both sides is really helpful and keeps me doing it. I’ve also got through it, by having really great partners and support and a lot of privilege, there are definitely been times where I’ve called my family and needed alone. And the fact that my family was able to provide one is a real privilege. And, yeah, you just keep on going. I also think that I know that, you know, lots of people grew a business before Facebook existed, they grew businesses before venture capitalists existed, you know, like, people have been growing businesses forever. And just because I don’t have access to certain things, or it’s harder for me to have access to advertising or venture capital dollars. That doesn’t mean I, I can’t figure out how to make this work.

Kara Goldin 17:05
No, definitely. I think that’s I think that’s really critical. I always go back to those early days to when there were hard days, like going back to customer emails, no, I would get on the phone with consumers too. And, you know, there were many days when, you know, I would have to hear no, from we weren’t in the planograms. And people didn’t know what to do with us, because we were not only creating a new product, but also an entirely new category inside of an industry. And, you know, they, it wasn’t an planogram inside of Kroger at the time. And so we would hear no, and I’d say just create a new, a new category for us. I mean, just put us in there, it’ll do great, you know, all of these hurdles. And then while I was experiencing that, I would go back to these consumers who would talk to me about type two diabetes and how, you know, they basically thought they were really healthy, but how diet sweeteners were actually causing a lot of problems inside of them that, you know, they knew, but nobody was really talking about. And so I can only imagine you would have so many emails from consumers who appreciated your product, and I wanted to share that with you.

Unknown Speaker 18:19
Yeah, I don’t think it’s direct to consumer, I really think it’s direct to community. I think all brands are really just kind of ultimately developing community and growing it and cultivating it and being able to kind of remind yourself that like, who you’re serving is really amazing. There’s definitely been some marriages that have been helped by Dame and some there’s so many different stories of people at such different points in their life, that what we do is made a difference for them. And

Kara Goldin 18:59
it’s amazing, so you finally got it into your products into Sephora. That’s so exciting. Do you remember that day when you finally figured out that it was gonna happen?

Unknown Speaker 19:09
cried I cried on the phone with them. Literally teared up on the call out because it was so important to me to be there in that store in particular, had written it down as just like a key milestone for Damn, like, how would I know that I’m changing consumer understanding the real health benefits of sexual pleasure as like, Oh, if I can get these products in stores like Sephora, and I wrote down Sephora was just the one that came to mind so I’ll know I’m doing it and because Honten can measure consumer behavior changes and like know if you’re making the impact. And so when that happened, I really felt like wow, I’ve done something like this is changing that and now other moments where I’ve changed policy like getting Kickstarter to change their policy and lead On the platform, that was also a another moment where the brand’s impact is beyond the brand like we are changing the way these other companies exist in the world and understand this category. Like, I don’t know, maybe 20 years from now, Sephora will have a huge sexual wellness and wellness and intimate care section. And that will you know, all of those other entrepreneurs will have been impacted by something that Dame did. And that’s really cool.

Kara Goldin 20:32
Yeah, no, that’s, I love it. We’ll talk about changing policy. One of the things that that I know that you’ve worked hard on is changing policy around the MTA, which is the New York subway system and some of the advertising that they allow. So can you share a little bit about that story and sort of what you encountered and trying to actually advertise on the, with the MTA?

Unknown Speaker 21:01
Yeah, so again, lots of nuance, but just high level, we wanted to run ads in New York City subway system, and they said that we could. And I was very willing to work with them, it took six months to get ads approved, I sent them the advertisements, made the ads ordered the inventory, you know, didn’t plan to spend any other ad dollars, because I was going to spend money on this campaign. And then when I, you know, gave out for the invoice crickets, and they didn’t respond for like three weeks. And then they kind of sent me a really generic email of saying that, you know, they do not and have never worked with any sexually oriented businesses. Mine, meanwhile, literally went on the subway that day, the moment I got that email, you would have seen advertising for Excel dysfunction medication, you would have seen advertisements for an amazing Museum in New York City called The Museum of FX, which has a huge gift shop that happens to sell our products. You would you would also see advertisements for nonsexual businesses that use sex to sell their product. I actually think one of my favorite ads I saw while in litigation or in during the lawsuit was an advertisement for a moving company. And it said we will move your children’s toys and your adult toys to and they were allowed to run that ad but I wasn’t allowed to run advertising actually for the adult products. Mind you, I these advertisements were very, you know, they said once had we made toys for sex. And they said that was fine. I was I was really willing to compromise and you know, at my goal isn’t to make people uncomfortable. My goal is to make people comfortable with with, you know, a part of who they are that does maybe make them a little uncomfortable. So they wouldn’t let me run the ads. And I see them because they are a government backed agency. So they need to if they have a policy, they need to make sure that they’re doling out that policy consistently. And they were not. And about two and a half years later, we’re able to try and advertise in some way. Wow,

Kara Goldin 23:09
that’s incredible. And hopefully other people. Like you said, we’ll be able to advertise as well. And in the space, too, because I think you’re absolutely right. It’s it should not be you should not be singled out because you are a female Products Company. Yeah. It’s really, really important. So that’s incredible, that you really pushed that and took the time to do it. It took you two and a half years, though.

Unknown Speaker 23:37
I think that’s right. Yeah. Night, June 2019. And then, yeah,

Kara Goldin 23:42
crazy. That is absolutely nuts. So our society’s view on sex is still very stigmatized. So how has the stigma affected your ability to raise money as you’ve been trying to grow? I mean,

Unknown Speaker 23:56
we’re just kind of touching on some of the issues outside of raising capital. And I will say all those issues also then impact my ability to raise capital. And I think we’ll probably go into that too, more later. But one of the biggest ways is just LP concerns. And so a really common thing that all experienced is people saying something to the effect. Well, Avi, I know this is fine. Like, I know, it’s a sign but what will our LPS think, Oh, I know, this is fine. But you know, look at you know, what will everybody else on our platform think like maybe Kickstarter was worried about all of their, their community getting upset? So you know, I think that that’s really what happened in with funds when it comes to raising capital. I definitely get, you know, behind the scenes looks and our or, for sure, I just want to start with saying it’s really hard to raise capital period. It’s really hard. It’s it’s hard No matter what I think it’s also especially hard if you’re in consumer goods, I think that it is a little bit easier that you know, or especially in venture capital in the early stages of your business, if it’s a SAS or technology based product. So those are also true. But when I look at so many of my experiences, I had female partners that were advocating for us and male partners that ultimately, were part of the voting against investing in us. And that’s just a common, there’s something happening there. It’s just a pattern, right? Like, I’m not, you know, it’s not, I don’t know, my point is, is that the taboo, especially around female sexual pleasure, has been hard off in raising money. It’s also been tougher shifted. It’s also changed so much in the past seven years, and people are so much more excited about it now. And it’s really cool.

Kara Goldin 25:56
Yeah. Well, and without you actually doing the hard stuff right now, it won’t get easier. Right. Yeah. Right. And so you. And so I think that there’s for you to even be able to say that in the last seven years, it’s gotten slightly easier. I think that it’s, that’s that’s a powerful thing. But is it easy, I can’t imagine it is

Unknown Speaker 26:18
no, but easier. Like, I can definitely think about what it was like trying to raise money in 2015 versus 2020. And it has just each time it’s gotten, I get so much more traction, of course, the business is further along. But also just the amount of time I’ve even had funds that originally said, We don’t want to invest in this category. Fairly well. That’s not a problem anymore.

Kara Goldin 26:45
That’s great. I love it. So one of the thing that I always ask our guests is to share a story where they’ve really hit a challenge or, you know, they had those days, we all have had them as as entrepreneurs and leaders where we’re not sure how we’re going to get through. And and then we do you and can you sort of share one of those stories?

Unknown Speaker 27:10
Yes. So in 2018, I was running advertisements on Facebook. And I was kind of getting around the policy because we weren’t allowed to promote sex toys by promoting myself as an entrepreneur. I’m saying like, thank you so much in New York Times for featuring me, and then linking to the New York Times article or same thing like BBC or W magazine. And that was great. I was making lots of money, it was scaling, I was ordering more products, because it was going so well. And then all sudden, Facebook started shutting off the ads saying that the New York Times article was inappropriate, because New York Times article talked about sex toys. So all of a sudden, I had all this inventory coming in, I couldn’t run advertising in the main place. I was running advertisements. And I was in a real cash bind. And, you know, it sucked. It sucked a lot. It sucked for the growth manager who I had just hired to take over running the ads, because it was going so well, you know, talk about being in a tough position. And that was really challenging. Raising capital, all of a sudden, was really challenging, because my year, because my numbers have gone down. You’re like, Oh, we’re going so well, what happened, and it’s like something that’s a little bit outside of my control. And I didn’t know it was really tough. It was tough. There were nights where my husband woke up to just me like kind of sitting there crying in the bed,

Kara Goldin 28:56
trying to figure it out. And how did you get through it then?

Unknown Speaker 29:02
A little bit. I mean, that later that year, that Megyn Kelly, today’s show picked us up and did a story about us. And that was huge for ourselves and helped us get through some of the inventory that had just come in. And we just did the business. And I think that there have been moments where we had had to call our, you know, manufacturing partners and figure out payment structures that were what the payments we had originally agreed to. And it’s something like I never ever want to do. But I didn’t even know I could do that. And then you realize, oh, we’re partners, they don’t want me to go out of business. They want us to figure this out together. And we were able to just like kind of pull in everybody that was going to be impacted by day. This is our situation. We’re working really hard doing X, Y and Z. Like how can like how can we make this work and beneficial for all of us and that helped us get through it. and started rebuilding our marketing channels. So okay, we were spending like $200,000 a month on ads here and we can’t spend them they’re like, where else can we try spending money. So we tried different things out, which was also really scary, because you are testing out ad dollar spends, and it’s scary to spend $1 That isn’t making $1 When you’re that small, and your cash is tight, but we were able to figure it out over time. And I think overall, just like the core element of the core organic aspect of the brand is still just growing. Yeah, I don’t know how we got through it. But man, I’m halfway through it. It’s, yeah.

Kara Goldin 30:44
And what were the lessons learned there, too.

Unknown Speaker 30:46
I mean, for me, I think some of my big lessons learned are always try and grow your direct relationship with your audience. So like, you know, don’t, for us, it’s like, let’s grow our email list, like getting people like don’t have all of your eggs in another basket. Like if Facebook can make whatever decisions they want. So if all of your, all of your advertisements or all of your traffic is coming from one source, figure out how to diversify before that gets cut. And that’s hard to do when you’re small, and every dollar you spend matters. But I wish I had done that and started caring more about that earlier. I wish I had realized how much the writing was on the wall in the beginning. And just, you know, like, I think about that growth manager, and what a tough position they were put in and how much I was like, we can figure it out. We can we’re, you know what, there were certain things that just weren’t gonna get figured out right then in there. And appreciating that I wish I think I maybe could have done better. But on the flip side of all of that, I just want to have a lot of compassion for myself as a boss. Because like, I remember thinking, I was like the worst boss in the world and the worst manager and like I’m so I should have done this, I should have done this. But you know what, like, sometimes shit happens that’s a little bit outside of your control. And that was a really good reason for my business to be not performing as well. That wasn’t anything to do with like the fundamentals of my business, like our product didn’t sock, you know, it wasn’t like organic traffic that’s continuing to grow. And I can’t control everything. So I guess I would guess that’s another lesson is just to be compassionate as you learn your lessons.

Kara Goldin 32:37
All right. No, I love that. That’s great. So out where can people buy Dane products besides Sephora, and where’s the best place?

Unknown Speaker 32:46
The best place is Dan Okay, yeah, we sell vibrators lubricants, body positions and pillows. Arousa. Serum, our focus really is on helping people connect more deeply to their pleasure and their intimacy. And we want to do that in a way that, you know, truly just feels good, because feeling good is what it’s all about.

Kara Goldin 33:05
Amazing. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. And thanks, everyone, for listening to this incredible episode, be sure to subscribe to the Kara Goldin show where you’re going to hear all kinds of stories of incredible entrepreneurs and CEOs. And not only their stories, but also their lessons learned about challenges that they’ve had along the way. As I always tell people, it’s not a straight line. There are many zigzags along the way. And I think definitely Allah shared many of those. So just to reminder, I’m on lots of platforms at Kara Goldin and pick up a copy of my book undaunted where I share many of my zigzaggy challenges along the way, as well. We’re here every Monday, Wednesday, and now Friday. And thanks, everybody for listening. Have a great rest of the week. And thanks again. Now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know and if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Like Danna Kara Goldin thanks for listening