alexandra fine & janet lieberman
When Alexandra Fine and Janet Lieberman met, they had both unknowingly been working towards the same goal: to change how sex toys are made, perceived and used by women. Alexandra and Janet talk to us about the different paths that led them to start their own business together—and how having two vaginas is an asset in product development.
You’re both local women.
Janet: I'm from New Jersey.
Alex: I’m from Long Island.
So, what led you guys to start your own sex-toy company?
Janet: I worked in product development and engineering before I ever decided to start my own company. The catalyst for me was when I realized that I was a consumer of a product category that isn’t made using the same standards as other consumer products, like electronics. I'd been a quality engineer, and I've done a lot of work with industrial designers, working all the way from manufacturing to the consumer experience.
I began to look at all the different facets of what it would take, and what it would cost to do. That’s often referred to as “value engineering.” After working on other product categories, I began to question why the same level of work wasn’t going into this category that is so intimate. It’s almost like people were profiting off my potential shame. I didn't necessarily feel shameful about it, but I realized that was definitely why I hadn't questioned it before.
Alex: The world has less expectations for sex toys, and as a result there are less regulations for them. Whether it's intentional or not, that definitely trickles down to the way they are made.
Janet: You see the word “novelty” on a lot of the packaging. It’s almost as if no one is expecting you to use it. When a product is a novelty, it’s marketed as a gag gift and the requirements for making it are completely different.
Alex: The FDA doesn't have any regulations for sex toys.
Janet: When you write “novelty product only” on something, then you're completely disavowing any liability for anything that happens when and if it’s used.
Let’s go back a bit. Janet, what were you working on in engineering before this?
Janet: I was the mechanical lead on a 3D printer project. The company was trying to make the smallest, cheapest, and most consumer-friendly printer. We actually use 3D printing a lot now at Dame.
What got you interested in being an engineer?
Janet: I was always interested in math and science, and that was always where my skillset lay. I didn't present as a typical engineer, in that I never wanted to take electrical things apart. I lost all interest in those builder sets as soon as they involved electricity or motors. But I really liked taking a mechanical pencil apart and putting it back together. I really liked things that were small, simple, and mass-produced. Things that had to be the same every time.
Engineering is tough to envision as a thing you want to do. A lot of the time you aren't exposed to it before college. When I got to college, I found that it was something I excelled at. I could just see how mechanical engineering made sense where other things didn’t. So, I decided to be the change I wanted to see in the world. You actually have to have the skills to make something, right? I would use a product and think to myself, “I could make this better.” It wasn’t like when you watch a TV show about a dance competition and you think, “I could do that.” This was something I could actually do.
When I started saying that I was going to start a company making well-engineered sex toys, it was initially as a joke. I would say it to friends, sort of feel it out. But the women I talked to never laughed about it! Women would be like, “Yes, do that. How can I help?” That was what made me feel like this was a real opportunity. So I started going to hardware meetups.
What are hardware meetups?
Alex: It’s like the physical version of software. People make actual things.
Janet: After going to a couple, people started coming up to me and saying, "Oh, my friend met you at this meetup last month." Or, "I met your co-founder." I didn’t have a co-founder, so who was this other woman? I insisted we be introduced.
So Alex, what is your origin story?
Alex: Mine is a little different, in that I was really interested in sex for a long time. Like, who wasn't? But I was louder and more obnoxious about it.
Janet: You're overtly interested.
Alex: For example, when I was in high school, I really wanted to share in my health class that I have HPV. And my teacher didn’t think that was a good idea. I thought it was a great idea and I still do.
You wanted to share information…
Alex: Yeah, I didn’t feel like we were learning the right things in health class. I remember completely freaking out when I found out that I had HPV. Then I learned that it’s very common and I was pissed that I hadn’t been taught about this. How did I not know this important information?
I thought maybe I would be a sex therapist…. But my aunt, who is a doctor, convinced me it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. There were things about mental-health institutions that really didn’t vibe with me. I was really unsure what the next step was. I ended up doing my masters in psychology and gender studies at Columbia. I felt really strongly about gender as a topic, and I was passionate about feminism. I didn’t really know how to pursue those things without continuing to study. When you realize you're interested in something, sometimes it's hard to figure out what you're going to do with that to make money. I thought I could maybe be a professor.
I bounced around a bit and ended up working at a small shampoo company. It was really great to see a product go from development to launch. To see a small team create something that seems big to the consumer. It definitely made me feel like I could make something.
Of course, all my ideas were essentially sex toys and dating apps. [Laughs] I still think I have some really good dating-app ideas! But I did feel the sex-toy field was unique. I had an idea that I thought could really work, and so I started taking apart vibrators and putting them back together, and making things by hand. I got a patent for my idea, but I struggled with actually building the toy. I realized it needed to bend in a certain place but I didn’t know how to make that work. I joined a hacker club where I started to learn 3D printing and design, but it would still take me so long to do anything! It takes a long time to develop the skills to be able to iterate those changes quickly. I was looking for someone who had that skillset and had pretty much given up when I got an email from Janet. It’s one thing to find an engineer that wants to start a company, but it’s another to find one who wants to work in this industry! It had also been sort of important to me that my partner be a lady. I wasn’t too hung up on it, but I feel like one of the reasons we’ll continue to be a great company is that we can make a product and literally run to the bathroom to try it out.
Janet: We realized that our vision and capabilities together could really work. It's a lot more like an arranged marriage than a love match. We went into it with the same goals, and it’s a bonus that we like each other. I think that’s made a huge difference working together, especially when we come upon obstacles. Our goal is to put the best thing out into the world—it frames our relationship.
Alex: We have different perspectives, but we have the same goal. I think it’s a lot easier than following one person's vision. If you both have the same goal, you aren’t just swayed by the other person's whims. If you have an idea, you have to convince the other person of it. You have to get them to come on board with you, and that makes your idea stronger.
So how did your first toy, Eva, come about?
Janet: When we met we both had a product we were working on, but we realized Eva offered the better opportunity to market and make a name for ourselves. It was such a unique product that if we could do it well, we could stand out. That’s really important as a startup.
Alex: When you have something that looks so different than anything else in the market, you immediately stand out in retail. It is a really unique concept and I'm excited that we created it and that it exists now.
Let’s talk about “the pleasure gap.” Is that something you researched when designing Eva? I feel like a lot of women know what that is.
Alex: The pleasure gap was something I had learned throughout college.
Janet: A lot of it is just knowing as a woman. At the same time, there's a lot of market research and user research that goes into making the product. That research helped us identify the issue, the iniquity in pleasure between a man and a woman. We knew that many women like stimulation from toys, but have trouble getting controlled stimulation during sex.
Alex: There are other products out there that do this differently than Eva. We know those products tend to sell really well, so there is an interest and desire for that in the marketplace. The hardest part is making the product work and making people want to engage with it.
Janet: It takes a certain amount of feedback from people, to gain a better understanding about what experience they're looking for. We started off with two sets of labia to test with, but we’re also individuals with not necessarily average anatomy. Who knows?
Personal preferences are so vast, but we didn’t want to develop something that we hated. I wouldn’t want to then pass it on to other people to test. The chance of other people loving something you love is a lot higher than people loving something you hate.
Janet: On the other hand, just because you love it, doesn't mean other people will. From time to time, someone will tell me like, "Yeah. I just don't really like how vibrators feel." I'll be like, "Don't buy vibrators then." Don't feel bad about the fact that you don't like it. If you don't like it, then you don't like it. There's no judgment here. The fact that it works for most people doesn't mean that there's something wrong with you if it doesn’t work for you.
Alex: I think that's so common. Whenever you find out you aren’t in the majority of liking something, you always think, "What is wrong with me?" I remember I also really liked math and science in school, and then you find that boys are supposed to do math and science. As I grew up, I learned that my interest math and science said absolutely nothing about me as an individual except that I like those things. Society is really, really weird.
All it means is that you are you.
Alex: Absolutely. It's so different from person to person.
What are you guys working on now?
Alex: We're getting ready to launch our next product. We also have a team now, which is really cool and they're all super awesome people. We're in retail now and we're growing. Those are all exciting things for us. We're trying to grow at a strong, steady pace.
It must be amazing to have a product that gets such positive feedback.
Alex: It’s amazing, getting that feedback. But it also makes us think about how we want to make our next product better. I think that’s the same for anyone who has put a product out into the world. There are always going to be people who like it and people who don’t. We want everybody to love it, but that’s just not going to work. Especially with the product we have, and in the industry we’re in.
It can never be that way, especially when it comes to sex.
Alex: Eva could fit your anatomy and into your movement with your current partner, but that can change if you change partners. It’s such a subjective experience. We get a lot of feedback from both ends of the spectrum.
It’s not like you made a pen that either writes or doesn’t.
Alex: Right. When these products work, it's a really amazing experience. But it’s never going to work for everybody.
Janet: Sometimes people will be like, "But I can orgasm internally." I'll be like, "That’s great. I'm happy for you." Like seriously, you should win a prize. I'm jealous. Why are you telling me that?
Alex: That's an example of how society creates norms and pressure. We can’t say we're selling a product that is going to make you have orgasms and it's going to fit. People would feel upset if it doesn't work for them. And lots of people might also feel that there's something wrong with them.
Janet: Trying to figure out how to market products in this space is tough, and to make sure that you're not contributing to insecurities in the world.
What's the best piece of advice you could give?
Janet: I would say that there is no right way to do things. You can get really hung up on it: Was that the right thing to do, was this the right path? When you have major decisions, both ways are the right path. When you commit to things and follow them through earnestly, there is no such thing as a wrong path.
Alex: I very much agree with that. There's more than one way to get to point B.
Janet: As long as you're focused on doing well instead of being right.
We always like to ask what New York means to you. But I also want to know what it’s like to run this type of company in New York?
Alex: It’s liberating to feel that having a sex-toy company here is no big deal. I don’t think I would feel this way if I grew up in some other place. It’s something I don’t really think about. It’s not a big deal, which is amazing. That’s the attitude we try to take as a business. We're trying not to make a big deal in our marketing, we don’t want to be over-sexualizing or over-medicalizing or over-sensationalizing.
Janet: We want people to feel like sex is a part of life. If you talk to people like it’s not a big deal, they will usually respond in the same way.
I guess for me, one of the things that I like about New York City is that there are so many people here doing so many things. Similar things to what you are doing. You can always find someone who is doing it better, and that takes some of the pressure off. New York is not an ownable city. If you lived somewhere else, you might feel like you can own that space. In New York, you can only do your best.
Alex: That's a really interesting way of looking at things. People will say to us, “You are doing so well.” But I can name five other startups that are doing much better than us in some way—or at least seem like they're doing much better than us. It's funny to turn that into a positive.
Janet: This is how I think about it. I can also think of a lot of startups that are doing worse than us. In New York, I'm just one of many talented people. For me, there's something freeing about being one of many talented people because I can be the best me.
So in a couple of words, what does New York mean to you?
Janet: A place that puts excellence over being the best.
Alex: I feel like Brooklyn encourages you to be yourself. It encourages you to be unique.