Polly Rodriguez of Unbound
Meet Polly Rodriguez, co-founder and CEO of Unbound, an NYC-based company catering to women’s sexual health and wellness. From design-centric vibrators, to sex-positive subscription boxes, and water-based vegan personal lubricants, Unbound calls itself an “online shop for rebellious women”, and aims to reclaim the category to create superior products that are made for women, by women.
Despite multiple barriers to entry as a woman in tech, let alone in sex tech, Polly took on the task of taking Unbound from dream to reality, pitching for more than two years in an attempt to secure the venture capital that would allow Unbound to make the necessary strides in product development and innovation. Having closed their seed round with $3.3 Million raised since 2017, Unbound works toward claiming more market share, bringing in around $4 Million in revenue in the past year.
With Polly at the helm of the growing collective of women claiming their space in the sex tech industry, her organization, The Women of Sex Tech, brings together more than 250 women across multiple of the category’s persuasions, from creators of apps for sexual education, to organic condom manufacturers, and sex-positive podcast hosts.
I chatted with Polly about everything from product development, to raising venture capital, and how her cancer diagnosis completely altered the course of her life as she knew it.
THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED FOR BREVITY AND CLARITY.
WHAT LED YOU TO START UNBOUND
“It’s definitely a category than I thought I would end up doing when I was much younger. I had my own personal experiences with trying to shop for a vibrator and lubricant, and going through menopause at 21 as a result of cancer…none of my doctors talking to me about what menopause even was or that I was going through it. It just felt like there needed to be a brand out there that was making products and selling them to women in a way that women have been buying makeup, and health and beauty products for so long, and I just couldn’t understand why this is still a category that you still have to go to a truck stop on the side of the highway to shop for. It’s been almost 5 years now [that I’ve been] working on Unbound, but it’s been great.”
On a Pure product level, how are Unbound products different from what’s on the market currently?
“There are a couple differentiators, the core component is that we make a better quality product at a lower price. I think one of the more familiar brand names out there is probably LELO… we make a better quality product than LELO. We use medical-grade silicones, everything is body safe, really design-centric, we try to avoid phallic shapes that might intimidate someone who’s new to the category. Then, we have a haptic technology built into our products, and they’re all under $100. We cut out the middlemen, [we have] the same business model as a Warby Parker or a Casper (direct-to-consumer), in the category where we know women prefer to buy from the privacy of their homes, and we’re able to offer that really competitive price point by cutting out distributors and middlemen, because they usually take about 40% of margins.”
What does product development look like at Unbound?
“It’s really intense! We’re actually launching a ring vibrator that got 2nd place at TechCrunch Disrupt in September in San Francisco, and that has taken us 2 years to bring to market. It really depends on the complexity of the design. We really try to take trends that we’re seeing in non-adjacent industries, in fashion, in hardware technology, and apply them to a category where I think often breaking trends and insights are typically not applied. We really try to put a fashion-forward lens on our product, and also really build in, what I like to call, intuitive technology. When we first started working in the category, there were a lot of people designing vibrators that had apps and softwares that came with them, and to us, it seemed really counter-intuitive to the user. It turned out that there were a lot of men designing these products, so they thought an app and the gamification of the vibrator was what women would want. We thought that it would be more [useful to have] this intuitive haptic technology where when you move, the product moves with you, if you want to increase vibration, you can simply tilt the product… it was that type of technology that we really wanted to incorporate into the user experience. We also sold other people’s products for the first two and a half years, and so we were able to aggregate the data about what sold well, what didn’t sell well, what features women were asking for that they weren’t seeing, and then take all of that data and insight and build it into the product when we decided to vertically integrate and make our own.”
What was the process of getting funding for Unbound like?
“It was horrible. I think for all women, fundraising feels impossible. With 2.2% of venture funding going to women last year, the year before that was 2%. It’s no surprise that women are underfunded in the world of startups. For me, it just took a relentlessness. I had hundreds and hundreds of rejections, I applied to Y Combinator 4 times, I tried every accelerator. It took me 2 years to close our seed round, and while you’re fundraising, which is a full time job, you also have to grow the business to prove traction, to prove market fit, etc. It’s basically asking female founders to do the impossible because most of us are first-time founders, so we don’t really have a track record of raising capital, and so you have to build rapport and build relationships with VCs, and on top of that, you have to actually execute. You’re doing two of the hardest jobs that you can ask any single person to do. But eventually, we closed our seed round of funding and that was a pretty big milestone. It took getting over the fear of rejection because rejection was nonstop every day for two years.”
What’s one qualitative positive stride that’s been made for women’s sexual health over the past couple of years?
“When I first starting this grassroots organization called The Women of Sex Tech, there were about 5 of us that were starting companies. They were condom companies or an alternative to porn, etc. and now there are about 250 women all over the world that are a part of that organization. I think, qualitatively speaking, women are solving the problems that they’re uniquely experiencing, and I think historically, this reputational risk, this fear of [not wanting to be] a woman starting a vibrator company, because if it failed, I’ll never get another job, etc. I think that is dissolving and going away. I think women are realizing that they don’t have to be afraid of what other people will think as much. If anything, I think the women who are starting businesses in the category are galvanizing and giving other women permission to do the same. That’s been a really wonderfully positive thing that I’ve noticed in the last 3 or 4 years.”
Whats one thing you know now that you didn’t know at 20?
“I didn’t find out I had cancer until I was 21, and I think that at 20, I had this vision of what my career was gonna be and what my life was gonna be and it totally got derailed, and I got cancer and had to drop out of college. At 21, I was told that I would never have children and all of these things that I thought were a death sentence ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me. I think the setbacks that frustrate us in the moment, whether it’s a health issue or a divorce or a breakup, or whatever it is that feels like this huge unfair card you’ve been dealt oftentimes can be the winning hand if you choose to look at it that way. At 20, I would’ve told myself to be more open to things that may feel like a derailment, but in reality, could be the thing that puts you on a totally different path ends up fulfilling you more than what you ever thought you were going to do.”
Someone definitely needs to hear that.
“It tough, though. As women, we’re 60% of college graduates, are overly prepared most of the time, we study harder, we work harder, and as a result, we’re really risk averse. It took a lot for me to lean in, quit strategy consulting on Wall Street where I was making a ton of money, but I was absolutely miserable, and do something where even my mother was like, “Why in god’s name would you ever quit a Wall Street job to start a vibrator company? At 20, I would have never known that.”
What advice would you give to young female entrepreneurs looking to start their own businesses?
“Well, I don’t come from any money. I come from a lower/middle income background. I think in the early days, I didn’t realize how much startup founders are just bankrolled by their family. I worked 2 part-time jobs for 2 years in addition to getting Unbound off the ground, and I think businesswomen that are out there that relate to that… I would say build a really strong network of other women around you so you don’t feel so alone, because it’s really isolating and hard. In the early days, the best investment you can make is in other people that will show up to your events, that will proofread your emails, that will be with you along the journey. The best type of capital you can have in the really early days is social capital, and if I had to do this all over again, I would so much rather have been forced to build a network of women than have just been bankrolled by my parents.”
What projects do you have planned for 2019?
“We’re launching a vibrator named Palma, that’s in April, it’s been 2 years in the making. We also just launched a referral and rewards program called Area 69, it really galvanizes women to give each other permission to buy a vibrator if they never have before. My hope is that - we’re still not allowed to advertise on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, all of the different social platforms, despite the fact that male sexual enhancement products can, like Viagra and Hims, etc. So my hope is that in 2019, maybe, just maybe, we can get them to reverse the policies so that female sexual wellness products can reach customers the way male sexual wellness products can. That’s a big lofty goal that I’ve been trying to achieve for 5 years, but maybe this will be the year it happens, who knows?”