When Neal Slateford and Richard Longhurst started Lovehoney in 2002, the state of the market for sex toys and pleasure aids was terrible. Buying a sex toy was an often terrifying experience for even men, let alone women. After all, who would want to show their girlfriend a tacky, extremely graphic, male-centric website that was full of crass language and terrible aesthetics? No wonder then, that although the sex toy industry was up and running, it had an infamous reputation and buying a sex toy off one of these was often thought to be seedy.
Lovehoney took off as an idea when Longhurst and Slateford were towards the end of their stint at Future Publishing, and Richard decided he would add an adult products section to an online shopping directory he was working on at that time. This sparked off the knowledge that there was absolutely no place back then, that allowed couples to explore their sexuality with toys and aids without having to go through a shady, uncomfortable channel. What’s more, the founders soon discovered that the existing products had terrible design, in-the-face, embarrassing packaging and extremely poor customer service.
And that’s when Lovehoney was born. 15 years after it started, Lovehoney is now a company with a £58 million annual turnover, and has won numerous awards and accolades in the years in between, including meeting the royal family at Buckingham Palace and getting exclusive rights to sell sex toys and merchandise inspired by Fifty Shades of Grey, approved by the author himself.
The beginnings of this successful enterprise, however were humble, as the founders recall. The company began on a single computer in Richard’s flat, and the pair had to go to the post office to buy an envelope for their first order. They started off with a $6,000 investment, most of which went into coding the website, creating a face for the brand with only $1500 left for buying stock.
Back then, Lovehoney was a three-person team, operating out of Richard’s bedroom and their warehouse was a Pickford’s self-storage unit. In no more than three months, this startup was already a success, when orders jumped from three in April that year, to 400 in August. By the end of its first year, Lovehoney was receiving 1000 orders a month, and had amassed £37,000 in revenue.
Today, Lovehoney’s operations, from strategy, design, marketing, customer relations and sales are carried out through a stellar team of 200 staff members, who work 7 days a week out of the head office, catering to consumers not just in the UK, but to a whopping 42 different countries. In the last 15 or so years, Lovehoney has become a trusted brand which delivers high quality, innovative products that offer great value for money, using a reliable, discreet logistics and delivery chain. As a matter of fact, one in three sex toys sold online in the UK is a Lovehoney product.
But that’s not all that there is to Lovehoney’s recipe for success. Their biggest challenge was to change the perception of sex toys in the minds of the average UK consumer. This, they achieved by putting out clean, transparent content about the product, its specifications, uses, materials, using commercial, retail language, which made it a lot more comfortable to browse and order a product on the website. In addition, they also incorporated demo videos and elaborate buyer’s guides for each and every product they sold.
This has not just gained the trust of customers, but has also worked wonders to boost visibility and sales, as Lovehoney has way more SEO traction than its competitors, owing to the volume of content that is available online on its products.
The second mantra for Lovehoney’s success, coming from the founders themselves, is that of building a community around a brand. Sure, these are sex toys they are selling, but like any other brand, you need your loyal consumers - people who will give you feedback, people who you can test out new products with. Their community of over 37,000 members gives Lovehoney some very real and useful market statistics, which, in turn helps them to bring newer products to the market based on consumer feedback.
Customers are encouraged to recommend other products they have seen or used, send in photos, share experiences and write reviews. Slateford said that “reviews in particular are an extremely powerful tool for e-commerce.”
The other thing that has done wonders for Lovehoney as a brand, is its marketing strategy. The founders realised early on, that traditional media like TV, press and billboards, would not work for something like this brand, and so they looked for innovative ways in which their products and brand could be made visible to the public.
The first successful strategy that worked was tie-ups with blogs and websites that were frequented by women, since Lovehoney’s primary consumers were women, who could explore their sexuality by buying sex toys in a dignified, comfortable and discreet space. Their policy of being inclusive towards all genders and sexual orientations also reflects in their tie-ups with several other websites, including gay erotica sites.
Lovehoney’s founders also attribute its success as a brand to their product development, which has included not just the famous Fifty Shades of Gray series of products, but also products developed in tie-ups with rock bands Motörhead and Mötley Crüe and a new collection developed with Comedy Central for the TV show Broad City.
All of this hard work has paid off, not just with Lovehoney’s multi-million dollar turnover, but also accolades that it has received, among these the most popular ones being the Bath Chronicle Business Awards 2004, Start-up Business of the Year and the Department of Trade and Industry E-commerce Award Area Winner Start-up of the Year 2004.
For anyone who wants to start out, Lovehoney’s founders Slateford and Longhurst are a bout of inspiration. They’ve proven that no market is impossible to ace, be it something as niche as sex toys, making it possible to break through the conservative UK consumer, encouraging more and more couples to explore their desires, and becoming providers of sexual happiness to people all over the world.