Prelude to a Start-Up

Image courtesy of http://betakit.com/tag/mars-discovery-district/

Women May be From Venus, But They Want to Conquer MaRS

Earlier this year, I took up a summer start-up course at MaRS, (a public and private sector incubation space) to interrogate the idea of an erotic edutainment platform further. The Web is currently saturated with erotic content through the male lens. Women (and LGBT groups?) deserve a space where they can celebrate their sexuality and bodies in a fun, vibrant, provocative and intelligent way. Burlesque involves nudity which is a business most people don’t want to touch. There are few platforms for LGBT and women, an audience that most tech entrepreneurs aren’t catering to… at least without alienating heterosexual men.

The “Dirty Tech” Category

There was no box for this idea on the MaRS application form, there’s still no category for erotic media in most start-up hubs. Considering the phenomenal amount of innovation in porn, it’s quite shocking how stiff the start-up scene is towards sex tech. Frankly, all incubation space should explore a category for pleasure and erotic media. It is 2016 people.

In our first MaRS session, it was genuinely terrifying sharing with the group of fellow founders that I wanted to create an online platform for burlesque, exploring how physical in-theatre dance could be brought to life again through immersive technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) and digital special effects. Amazingly, the MaRS team and my peers took me seriously and over the subsequent seven weeks — I got some great feedback on my idea as sketchy as it was.

A couple of people liked the idea of burlesque and VR so much that they said they could connect me with investors if I assembled a business plan. Which was great. Except that creating a business plan is hard. Obviously. But picking at something that competes with porn at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, rather than the bottom — is a tricky business for a number of reasons.

Naked Data

Burlesque in the theatre is definitely an art form and attracts an extremely diverse audience, although still largely female. Burlesque is also a striptease and the minute you take this online, it starts to brush against porn territory (hence some research into porn too). With burlesque I’m largely targeting women, with porn I’m largely targeting men.

There doesn’t appear to be any market data for burlesque anywhere. I’ve asked:

  • Burlesque producers in Canada and the States (noting also that there is no central way of communicating with this community),
  • The MaRS research department in Toronto and…
  • …spent many hours looking for this information online. Nada.

VR Bubbles

I went to VR conferences, workshops, exhibitions and meet-ups. I joined Facebook groups, signed up to numerous newsletters and everything I absorbed I played back in new conversations, constantly verifying experiences, opinions and insights. Sadly it seemed money was in grants and funding applications. Nobody was/is really making a living from VR (yet), although that doesn’t seem to make the space any less attractive to investors. I’m totally behind VR as an immersive experience, but still can’t see VR producers making much effort to join up the dots.

Dot 1) Whenever I wear at headset at a VR conference, workshop or gaming session — I become immediately conscious that my head is separated from my body and whilst I am immersed in one world, people are watching me in another. I am distracted and vulnerable, which makes me uncomfortable.

Dot 2) I don’t often see organizers wipe down headsets between users. That’s a bit icky.

Dot 3) VR is a faff. It’s a faff setting up, a faff strapping on the headset with girl-hair. It’s a faff when the technology breaks down (apparently regularly) and it’s a faff that technical support is separated from the user “no, I still can’t see anything. Oh wait. Nope, still nothing. Yes, I’ve pressed that. It says there’s an error message.”

Dot 4) I went to see the Bjork VR exhibition in London, only to find that the exhibition pop-up shop was full of vinyl and posters. Vinyl and posters. Classic hipster tourism tat. Where the fuck were you Google, Facebook and Samsung? Why am I going to VR exhibition only to emerge in the exhibition shop with retro souvenirs? Why aren’t technology vendors working with creators, curators, producers to cross-sell this shit so it’s easy for people like me to adopt? Shame on you awesome Bjork for being so innovative in one area and lacking so much imagination when it comes to inspiring others to experiment.

Dot 5) It might be my age, or affection for fellow humans, but I don’t want to stay at home and consume VR. I love the cinema. I love going out to watch a movie. I love carving out time and exclusively devoting it to a particular film. And I like the journey home to reflect on what I’ve watched. If you want to move people, give them a buffer period between their personal headspace and personal physical space. Don’t rush them between realities.

Flawed Big Data

Stats for porn seem to be skewed by an agenda. Sites like PornHub publish numbers, but this is “data” is highly edited and typically published in press releases or through media partners. Data is packaged as content marketing, rather than any sincere effort to inform. There’s also a lot of anti-porn data from religious groups and whilst I think there is some validity in these sets of numbers too, what we need is a forum where porn is morally decriminalised; a porn amnesty of sorts. The most objective platform I’ve encountered so far is Your Brain On Porn, but the focus is on porn addiction.

This Medium post is barely the account of my adventures this year and yet it has taken a huge amount of time and energy to pull all of these strands of research together. One friend suggested that this might be better suited as postgrad research rather than a business venture, but surely if there is still an industry that desperately needs disruption — it should be sex tech. Disruption from a founder(s), who isn’t a straight, young, white male.

Audiences

  • Millennial women in their twenties and thirties who are beginning to figure out what they want from a relationship, still have many questions. We’re educated, we’re ambitious and we demand equal pay. We want it all, so men are going to have to pull of their weight
  • Millennial Men who have used porn and camming sites, but are open to alternatives. They’re curious about sex tech that embraces everyone and would like to feel more comfortable in the choice of screen content. These men are cultured, educated, likely to be in their late twenties to late forties, they’re looking for women to converse with as well as jerk off to
  • Couples who recognise that they’ve lost the spark they once had, but still love each other and want to stay in the relationship. They’re looking for a play space where they can both feel comfortable and explore tips and tricks from reputable sources
  • Parents — who want a facet of this experience for their teenage kids. Perhaps a subscription — so their adolescent sons or daughters have a safe place to explore sex education and erotic material
  • Teenagers — so we can build a sustainable forum for questions that trouble young people

Potential Revenue Streams

  • Resell video motion capture data from burlesque performances
  • Subscriptions to website (package differently for men and women?)
  • Donations & tipping
  • Payment gateway for full nudity
  • Product Placement (could you purchase through the video)
  • Advertising (within strict style guidelines) — would we create a free version that was “offensively” designed. E.g. insane number of pop-ups, over-the-top ad kitsch
  • Digital content sales… images of performance (screensaver, desktop yada yada, music, VR downloads (?)
  • Dating and relationship advice. If PUAs can charge $70 for a DVD, could we take some of that market share here?

Acceptable Uncertainty?

I have agonized over business model options, wondering how you could ever make money back VR from a start-up position. Given how unreliable market data may be about VR, burlesque and porn, would investors take a hybrid model of a % from all of these areas — online [movie] streaming, VR, gaming, sex education, theatre and porn?

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