Interview by Nicole Dahlstrom @nicoledahlstrom
Liz and Anna are Co-founders of Lioness, an award-winning women's sexual health company based in Oakland, California. Liz is a gallery-featured artist and formerly sold sex toys direct to women all over the US at in-home parties. Anna is a top design engineer from Amazon Lab126 and worked on the Kindle Voyage and first prototype of the Dash Button.
They have spoken about technology, entrepreneurship, women's health, and sexuality at top universities such as Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley as well as at national events such as SXSW and TEDx.
What is the idea behind Lioness and how did you come up with it?
Lioness started from my own needs—I had a lot of questions about sex growing up, but I grew up in the Midwest where sex simply wasn’t talked about. The curiosity was in the background of my mind as I took up different work like being an sculptor to working at an investment bank.
And then, I had the opportunity to sell intimacy products to women through direct marketing—and I loved it! I also quickly realized that I was far from being the only one who had questions and wasn’t so weird after all. Whether you’re 18 or 108, everyone has questions about sex, we’re all different, and we’re always learning more about our bodies because we’re constantly changing as we go through life.
We needed ways to learn, explore, and have fun with our sexuality that were as diverse as our bodies and our experiences. I wanted to combine my enjoyment of talking about sexual wellness with people with making things to make our experience of sexual exploration more fun and enjoyable instead of vague and shameful.
Hence, Lioness the vibrator! It’s a vibrator that uses biofeedback technology so you can see your sexual response and orgasms. It includes an app that you can use like your own sex diary to see what works for you, try new things, and basically, expand your horizons with yourself and with your partner. It’s a whole new way to experience self-love.
For me, when I landed a job as a mechanical engineer at Amazon Lab126 after college, I felt like I had accomplished every Korean immigrant parents dream for their children. I thought this was it. I would grow old with the big company. After a few years of commuting an hour each way, laughing at the water cooler, and convincing friends why I was passionate about e-readers, I realized I wasn’t actually passionate. There’s an amazing superpower in both being a woman and an engineer. We, as women, are able to see and improve the world that wasn’t originally built for us in a way that no one else could. We don’t really know anything about women’s sexual health and pleasure and research hasn’t really advanced since the 80’s. I knew I had to be a part of the efforts to change that by helping to create Lioness.
When did it all start and do you have other members in your team?
We started developing prototypes a few years ago along with our co-founder James, who is our chief software and data person on the team. We didn’t arrive at what Lioness is overnight—this isn’t an idea someone would randomly wake up with—it was a process of testing and feedback that helped us get to Lioness as a sexual wellness tracker. The research and feedback made for a better product that could better serve our customers.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
We launched the product last year—in fact, our one year anniversary of shipping Lioness exactly was a year ago from yesterday! Before that we spent several years researching, testing, and ramping things up before we started manufacturing Lionesses. It’s all been very exciting!!
What was the biggest obstacle?
Despite a lot of interest from people in learning and taking control of their sexual health, not all businesses have caught up with the demand—and most people who are not doing a sexual wellness company are pretty unaware of how stringent and nuanced this level of censorship is.
A lot of the major platforms we use on the internet (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) restrict content related to sexual wellness. There are a lot of ways this plays out—one example is if you follow a company like us on Facebook, we’re unable to promote posts to followers who’ve opted in to wanting to receive any of our content.
This level of censorship doesn’t just make marketing less straightforward for small business like us, this also affects what information people are able to find and know if they’re trying to search for content to improve their sex lives. It’s pretty problematic considering that sexual wellness is so integral to being healthy, confident, and having healthy relationships.
If more people know and can raise awareness that this is happening (and demand change!), we might be able to surmount this. For Lioness as a company, it doesn’t make growth impossible—you just have to think about marketing differently since some of the standard rules don’t apply to you.
We’ve gotten pretty creative with our own strategy (we’ve run some pretty clever bus stop ads, for instance), but in seeing all the hurdles it makes me pretty sad to see how much it affects our personal knowledge and wellbeing related to sexuality and pleasure.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
When we launched on Indiegogo, we passed our goal of $50K in just three days without any paid advertising, and raised $130K in pre-sales on the platform. We developed a product that uses software and data from concept to product with a team of 5 people and less than $900K. We’ve manufactured and shipped product to thousands of happy customers. We’ve raised VC funding, which is rare for a sextech company. We’re estimated to be profitable this year.
When I write that all together, what we’ve done has been extraordinary, but it hasn’t been without a lot of blood, sweat, and massive amounts of brainpower and trial and error put into it.
I think the biggest achievement to date is just the fact we exist! I still have a hard time believing we have an awesome vibrator and app on the market. Ah!
Is #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?
Definitely—though there’s still a lot of work to do. Despite there being many strong, intelligent women in the Bay Area, our women’s movements and networks, especially in tech, aren’t as strong or impassioned as in places like New York City or Los Angeles. It’s a complicated situation with a lot of nuances that are hard to cover in a simple question like this, but I have hope that things can change for the better.
Being a great leader and building a great company is one thing, but the biggest challenge becomes juggling the pressure of feeling like you can’t fail as a founder because you cant let other women down and the fear of being a bad example for other women...I understand that might sound a little silly because no one is putting that pressure on me besides myself, but I can’t help but carry that weight with me.
Even when I first started as a technical founder at Lioness, I even struggled with what I would wear to a meeting: would the vendor take me seriously? Would they think I’m a ditz? Would I be letting other women down? I mean, what a waste of time and mind space! This is why the #womenintech movement is so important. All women deserve to be themselves and make whatever mistakes without feeling like they are letting down an entire community. The more women and underrepresented groups are a part of historically male-dominated fields, we are able to normalize the idea that it’s business as usual no matter what kind of person I am speaking at an engineering meeting. With all that said, I will never stop trying my best to be my most badass woman self.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
Figure out what you want to do, and once you know what that is, find whatever way you can make that happen. It might not be the fancy path everyone else is taking or the one that seems prized amongst your peers, and it may not pan out quite in the way you hoped. But in the process of going towards your goals you will have learned a ton and will hopefully be closer to (or already) doing something great.
My biggest advice is one that is told often, but I truly believe. It’s to keep raising each other up and to give back in every opportunity you have no matter how small.
What will be the key trends in the FemTech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
I think we’ll start seeing more and more mainstream awareness about reproductive and sexual health. It’s already changed a lot since I started Lioness, and it seems like it’s on a trajectory to progress even more!
Who are your 3 inspirational women in tech?
Ida Tin, Co-founder of Clue, who coined the term FemTech!
Susan Colvin, Founder of Cal Exotics, who’s an O.G. FemTech/SexTech entrepreneur who started her own sex toy empire in the 1990s and is still going strong!
Sara Blakley, Founder of Spanx. She foraged her path and fought a similar uphill battle against conventional wisdom to get where she is today with Spanx.
This interview was conducted by Nicole Dahlstrom, Women of Wearables Ambassador in San Francisco, USA. She has been providing marketing and project management services to non profits for the past six years. Passionate about women's health and fem tech, Nicole decided to leverage her network of established feminine health companies, industry professionals, and leaders in the women's health space to develop a network of support for founders of female health focused tech startups called FemTech Collective. Their mission is to shape the future of healthcare through technology that meets the needs of women. Connect with Nicole via Twitter: @nicoledahlstrom or LinkedIn: Nicole Dahlstrom