Interview: How DTC Sexual Wellness Brand Unbound Is De-Stigmatizing Female Pleasure
PSFK speaks to the co-founder and CEO of Unbound to learn more about female-driven sex tech innovation and using haptics to deliver the experiences female consumers want
By the nature of their product, sexual wellness brands are often stigmatized and rejected by large platforms on the basis of ‘inappropriate' material. Within this stigmatized industry is an even greater imbalance regarding gender. Just this year, a hands-free sex toy designed for women had its CES Innovation Award revoked after three weeks, disqualified on the basis of “immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image.” Lori DiCarlo, the company behind the product, penned an open letter about the issue, accusing CES of stifling innovation through gender-bias. If the largest consumer electronics convention in the country is hindering female-driven success in sex retail, the question begs: where do we go from here?
Enter Unbound, an innovative and rebellious sexual wellness brand successfully breaking stigmas surrounding female pleasure and sexuality in general. Despite being rejected by investors and ad platforms like the MTA on the basis of “obscenity,” co-founder and CEO Polly Rodriguez has managed to raise $3.7 million in funding for the company, as well as assist in creating Women of Sex Tech, a community for other women in the industry that has grown to over 150 members. PSFK caught up with Polly to learn more about the obstacles facing female sexual wellness in retail, how Unbound is leveraging social media in the Gen Z era and why the tech industry needs more female founders:
PSFK: Could you tell us about your background, and what led you to found Unbound?
Polly Rodriguez: I'm one of the cofounders of Unbound, along with Sarah Jayne Kinney. We started Unbound because we wanted there to be a mainstream brand for sexual wellness for what I call the sexual minority, even though in numbers, we're not the minority. We're the minority in the sense that we are underserved in the marketplace. One of the narratives we heard over and over again from this community was just how bad a shopping experience it was to buy a vibrator, lubricant or accessory for the first time.
I went through cancer at 21, went through radiation treatment as part of my plan, and my doctors told me that one of the side effects from radiation would be that I would never have children, but they don't really say anything else.
And so I found myself Googling hot flashes and chemotherapy and all the things I'm going through, only to self‑discover that I was going through menopause. I had a friend suggest that I buy lubricant and a vibrator, and the only place that sold them in my hometown was this pretty sleazy shop on the side of the highway.
We started Unbound in 2014 to be the online destination that we wish we would have had when we were all buying these products and trying to find information about our sexuality for the first time.
PSFK: You also co‑founded a community of like‑minded women in a space called Women of Sex Tech. So far, what have your main takeaways been from this community?
Polly: In all honesty, when we started the organization, it was mostly because we were really lonely. As women founders in this industry in particular, you face an insane amount of rejection from the startup community thinking that you're the weird kid in the group for starting a company that has a focus on sex.
We faced so much rejection from everything, from being able to open a bank account to trying to advertise—which we still can't do—to trying to find a lawyer that would rep a company in our category or PR firm that wouldn't reject us on the basis of what we were selling.
We banded together to share information such as, for example, if Stripe won't let you use them as a payment processor, Braintree would. It's that information sharing that is so valuable.
When we look to our male counterpart, they're so hyper-competitive and they waste so much time, money and energy on trying to cut each other down, whether it's Uber versus Lyft or Twitter versus Snapchat, or whatever. We really focus on supporting each other instead of trying to cut each other down.
PSFK: When I went to the Women of Sex Tech website, I noticed the quote from the New York Times where you mentioned that you made your home in New York City versus Silicon Valley. Was there a strategy behind that, or something that just happened organically?
Polly: It happened organically. We saw people were moving. We have some investors in San Francisco, not many. And when I would go and pitch in San Francisco, people just wouldn't get it. The startup community there is much more focused on software. And when it comes to hardware, they want things like more AI integration.
They just didn't quite grasp the cultural aspect—the fact that we were breaking down hundreds of years of stigma with the company's mission. It happened organically, but I tend to find that New York's more female founder-friendly overall in that people just get it here.
You see a lot more direct‑to‑consumer companies in New York overall. New York has culture—more art and theater. I think that lends to a community with a more open mindset when it comes to sex-tech startups.
We applied to Y Combinator several times, and on the final time we applied, we made it to the finals. They flew us out to San Francisco for the interview. There was only one woman among the 10 to 20 people that grilled us. I remember one of the guys on final panel when we were being grilled said, “I just don't really understand how a vibrator is the next game changer.” And what I wanted to say to him was, well, obviously you've never used one.
I wanted them to understand that they don't have to personally relate to every single problem that a founder is solving in order to see the validity and the idea behind its potential for success.
PSFK: The last time we spoke, you mentioned that there’s been a huge increase in diversity in the companies being founded now. Do you see a connection between that and the influence of Gen-Z?
Polly: I think every generation tends to be a little bit more open minded. Gen Z, as a very broad statement, takes what millennials did even further, in terms of being very value‑driven and being a very aware consumer.
I was doing an interview for Latina founders in the community. They asked me about why it's important for Hispanics to have multi‑generational wealth. In doing that research, we found statistics around social mobility in United States and how much more difficult it's gotten to come from the bottom. If you are born into the bottom 20% of wealth in the United States, you only have a seven percent chance in making it to the top 25%.
I think that's almost more important than which generation you come from. There's the fact that the distribution of wealth in this country has gotten to the point where it's just so unsustainable, where 1 percent of the population has 40% of the wealth. To me, it's more important just for Gen Z to have social mobility and to be the decision‑makers and the change‑makers.
Government has to play a better role. So many of these things are about changing policy so that we can see the positive outcomes in the private sector market.
PSFK: Unbound has a stellar social media campaign. Could you speak to that strategy—Would you say every brand needs an Instagram account these days?
Polly: It depends on who the target market is. Instagram has been huge for us in terms of building an organic following. Facebook, for us, acts as an algorithm. Whenever we even share content, it doesn't show up in most people's newsfeeds, whereas on Instagram, as our following grows, our ability to be more prominent in the algorithm is easier anecdotally in our experience.
I think Instagram is a really great platform for attracting millennials and Gen Z, especially if humor is a part of your brand and/or there's a visual component. The third factor is if community. For us, we have a less than two percent return rate. The average in ecommerce is 25 to 30%. The biggest issue we face is not whether or not people love our product—they do. It's more about whether consumers feel they have permission to buy it.
We found that Instagram and its community are two of the strongest mechanisms that help people feel comfortable buying product. With people tagging their friends on Instagram and such, they're making it so this isn't a conversation that only happens behind closed doors, but an open one that is relatable and funny. I think Instagram is the best channel to achieve that.
Gen Z, even more than millennials, really appreciates humor. Gen Z, collectively, has a more esoteric sense of humor. They value humor more. They almost appreciate things for being weird because they grew up in the age of Snapchat and Instagram where you can, all of a sudden, be down a rabbit hole following some extremely specific and out‑there page. The Internet molded their sense of humor. The weirder you are and the more esoteric, the more street cred you have with them. Gen-Z brands can take that risk to meet them on their level.
The person who runs all of our social media is a Gen Z person. When I hired her, she was right out of school. I was taking a huge risk because she was like, “I want to post weird shit on our Instagram.” I was looking at what Glossier was posting, and I was like, “No, we need to have a color palette, and it all needs to be matchy‑matchy.” And she was like, “No. That's the opposite of what we should be doing.”
I remember she used to first show me memes that had photo stamps on them from stock photos. And I was like, “This is terrible quality. We cannot post something like a stock photo, with a waterstamp on it. And she was like, “No, that's the whole point.”
It's about understanding that nuance, which is a divergence from what Instagram originally was—was super high‑quality, high-resolution, glossy photos. Now it's about finding the crappiest, grainiest image that has humor in it. That's a Gen-Z nuance.
PSFK: Last time we also spoke about haptic technology—intuitive products that are responsive when consumers use them. Could you speak more to this, and how Unbound is leveraging it?
Polly: For the first two and a half years of our company, we bought and sold over 2,000 different products. In doing that, we learned a lot about what consumers want. At the time, the trend was really to create vibrators that paired via Bluetooth with apps, and then to be able to control them on your phone.
While in theory that sounds exciting and interesting, in practice we found consumers didn't want that. They felt that rolling over and grabbing your phone was actually more of a barrier than it was something that was adding to the experience. The haptic technology allowed consumers to interact with the product in a way that felt more natural.
As arousal increases, you could touch a product and squeeze it harder and the vibration would increase. We found that consumers love that. It was very intuitive, and it went with the flow of how people express their sexuality.
Finally, what are you considering going forward for the brand?
One of the things we're constantly thinking about, and one of the biggest consumer questions we get, is, “How do I introduce this product to my partner. Many consumers feel it's a difficult conversation. We're thinking about ways to help them make that easier.
A question many male customers have is, “Is the vibrator going to replace me?” We're working on ways to reframe the vibrator as something that you could add to partner's sex and to masturbation. It's not meant to replace anything. It's meant to compliment.
I think both with haptic and wearables, there was just a deficit of women designing them. Even the Apple watch is very masculine.
Even when we were at TechCrunch there were so many people who came up to our booth, that were men, who would be like, “I don't understand how this is value add.” And it's like, I can't explain to you why having an orgasm as a woman, non‑binary or trans person is value add. If you don't understand that, then I can't help you.
When Apple first released some of their health technology, it didn't even have a period tracker, which is something that 50% of the population would use and find valuable. We're working towards supporting more women designing these products who can come to the table with a different experience and a different value proposition.