Joining me on today’s show is Polly Rodriguez, the founder behind the sexual wellness company Unbound.
Since its start, Unbound has gone from being a labor of love operating out of a tiny NYC apartment to a leader in changing how people explore and enjoy their sex lives. Their mission is to make sexual wellness products that are body safe, affordable and elevated in design.
Polly shares the harsh realities of building this business for the first few years and the kind of sacrifice and commitment that comes with launching a startup.
Her advice on marketing regulated products and what they’ve done to stand out, dealing with the bias that exists between men and women’s sexual health companies, and why it’s important to be weird.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Polly: Sure. I'm Polly Rodriguez and I'm the CEO and co-founder of Unbound, which is a sexual wellness company. We sell direct to consumer and we design and manufacture over 50 different products spanning vibrators, lubricants and accessories. And our goal has always been to take a category to for a long time has been taboo and in the shadows into the mainstream by designing body safe products at affordable price points that also have elevated design. So, yeah, it's a little bit about what I do every day
Doone: And it's so cool. I really love the branding and the the vibe that you put out there. I want to go back to the very beginning to your life way before unbound, and now you have a really special story. It's very unique. So I was wanting to start from the very beginning and and work our way forward from there.
Polly: Sure, I mean, in terms of my professional career, my personal career or my personal hurt, but I guess my personal life, which is more interesting, I guess.
Doone: Yeah, I think the story that I was reading online, starting from when you were twenty one and you had that life experience that kind of led you to eventually getting into this particular space.
Polly: Yeah. So when I was 21 years old, I was diagnosed with stage three colorectal cancer. At the time I had been living abroad in Spain in way over my head and enrolled in university and from the DNA. And I just was really struggling and then also had these symptoms of every time I go to the bathroom and there was blood. And so when I got back, I immediately got a colonoscopy and found out that I had stage three cancer, which means that it had spread to my surrounding lymph nodes. And so I had to drop out of college and go through treatment for that, which included radiation to shrink the size of the tumor. And before radiation, my doctor sat me down and said, this is going to beam through all of your reproductive organs and as a result, you'll never be able to have children. And that was all that they really said is a twenty one year old. I don't really know what that meant. And it wasn't till I was about a month into treatment that I started having hot flashes and all the symptoms. And so I Googled it and that was how I felt. I was going through menopause. No one told me that I was going to happen.
Polly: No one sat me down and talk to me about the lifelong side effects and consequences. And so I found myself searching on the Internet for what it meant to go through menopause at twenty one. And a lot of the stuff I found so that there be a dip in libido, I would have vaginal dryness like all these very unsexy things, but things that I thought my doctors probably should talk to me about. And so in an effort to try to reclaim my sense of sexuality, I went and bought a vibrator and a lubricant that the only place that sold them in my hometown in St. Louis, Missouri, which was a hustler, Hollywood and a strip mall next to the airport. And it was just a really embarrassing shopping experience. I didn't really know what I was looking for and I felt too awkward to ask the sales associate. So I just thought, first two things I could find. And it was a shopping experience that definitely always stuck with me, but didn't really think too much about it and ended up actually going to work for Senator Claire McCaskill from Missouri, my home state on Capitol Hill, working on the Affordable Care Act, because I also lost health care coverage as a result of having to drop out of school.
And so I was really passionate about working on that reform because it almost financially bankrupt my family. And I did that for about a year or so and then became disillusioned with just the how slow it is to try to create change in D.C.. And so then I went and worked for Deloitte in their strategy practices, management consulting, focusing on growth strategy for Fortune, one hundred companies, and then left that and worked actually at a dating startup that went through Y Combinator called Gruver, where I worked on actually matching their matching algorithm and criteria. And while there really still was passion about starting my own business. And so I started working on Unbanning with my co-founder Sarah-Jane in twenty fourteen with the goal of trying to change the shopping experience. That was really bad for both of us growing up in the Midwest and just creating a destination online that we felt like was the place that we both would have wanted to go to find and StumbleUpon and we were trying to answer questions about our sexuality. So it was a very long winded story. That's kind of the journey as to how I got here.
I mean, it's such an interesting story and obviously so much for such a young woman to go through and then to to come back around and to actually work on something in that space that would have helped the younger you, which I just think is so incredible what you're doing for women
Around the world. I want to know
About how you met Sarah Jane and what that kind of light bulb moment was to start a company in sexual wellness and the conversations that led you to getting started.
Yeah, it wasn't. There's so many startup stories of like we met in the school and then we decided we're going to do this and then we based around the funding. Ours was not that at all. We're in the dating startup. It was it was a very divisive environment for women to work there. I think dating startups in general are difficult workplaces because a lot of the algorithm, a lot of the work you're doing is literally trying to quantify people. And as a result, I don't know, there are a lot of things that happen. But basically, overall, it was a tough place to work if you were a woman. And I think coming out of that, I was looking for what I wanted to do next, and I really had no idea. And one of the other women that had worked at Gruver started a group of female. It was just like a startup community, kind of. And through her, I was introduced to Sarah Jane and their janitor working on this kind of like subscription box idea with her friends called Unbound Box. But they were all doing it on nights and weekends. And it was a space that I was really, really passionate about. And so we started working on it together and really bootstrap for the first two and a half years. And I feel like every other month I was contemplating, like, do we shut this down? Like, it's such a slog.
Like Sarah-Jane at the time was a stylist for four big brands. And so she was working on that while also trying we're trying to get a subscription box idea off the ground. And I was working like two other part time jobs. And it was just it was tough. Like we had this idea that we thought there should be a curated place for people to buy these products because there were just you go to a lot of the bigger sites like Adam and Eve Dotcom or Amazon, and they're like thousands of Skewes. And so we started out by just trying to curate because Sarah-Jane had worked at OBRA, working on her favorite things. And so she really had experience in trying to curate the best products. And we thought maybe we can just find the best of what's out there and do the work for people. Then it will be an online destination that resonates. But, you know, I naively thought I had saved up, I think, five thousand dollars at the time. And I thought this will hold me over until we can get the company to where it's generating enough revenue to pay my income, which was a really naive notion. It took years before that was possible.
Oh, my gosh. A hundred percent actually read something that was about you guys, I think it was published last year that you had become profitable. And I think it's something that's really important to talk about, because oftentimes you do naively go into business thinking like, yeah, I'm going to make tons of money, like it's going to be profitable from day, maybe not day one, but early on. And then actually it's such a journey to getting to profitability and, you know, having the right projections and the right plans to actually know when you're going to become profitable.
The other thing is, I think I felt like a failure every day because you see all these PR stories of, you know, I'm in the consumer space. So I would read these stories about Glossy and Warby Parker and Casper and how things just took off. And they launched the product and they had a waiting list of two thousand people. And I'm sitting here, you know, going to every event I can, doing pop ups at random flea markets, like trying to write witty marketing emails to an email list that had maybe like two thousand people on it. And I just felt like no matter what I did, it didn't move the needle. And eventually things started to grow slowly. But like I would listen to podcasts about I would listen to how I built this every single day and felt like that was one that was actually really good because people were really honest about how hard and how long it took for the business to grow. And the other thing that now I realized being six years into this is that so many of these startups that have those Cinderella stories of like we launched and everything took off and it was great, like they usually have millions of dollars in funding and they are putting that into a PR agency that they're paying ten thousand dollars a month to get them in a lot of these big press and magazines. And I think now being on the other side of it, I realized how much money it takes to have that kind of rocket ship growth right out of the gate, which most of us don't have when you start our businesses.
Yeah, absolutely. I definitely fall into that camp of reading all these successful stories, especially when I'm going through the phase of figuring out what brands would be a great fit for the show. And it can be really disheartening because when you're going through that slog and like that daily grind, you like, but anything's going to change. And something we think about on the podcast really, really often. Is that compound effective in the early days, you are sending those emails and being like, oh, it's only two thousand people, but it is that compound effect that a few years in, you wake up one day and you're like, well, hang on, all of that really did make a big difference.
Yeah, you just have to keep doing it. And like, the thing that is actually really liberating in the beginning is like you can take as many risks as you want. You don't have to tone the brand down. You don't have to worry about all like as your audience gets bigger, you have to be much more thoughtful about everything and you have to kind of scale it down and tone it down a bit. I mean, not always like we certainly I don't I don't think we're really turning it down anytime soon. But what I do with emails, because, like, anybody can write an email and it's really cheap and effective way to slowly grow your audience base. But I would think about email marketing is like knocking on someone's door. And if you're going to knock on someone's door, you better have something worth opening the door for. And so I started to write weirder and funnier copy that was like really relatable, like stuff that would have happened to me in, like kind of writing that in to the email copy and poking fun at myself about the central truths about sexuality, that maybe all of this is happening to us at one point or another, but we don't talk about it. And I think that was it was when things started to turn a corner where people would be like, oh, my God, I read your emails. They're so funny. I followed them to my friends. And that was one of the things that I realized, like, if I'm going to do this, I should have something to say. And I shouldn't be afraid of like being weird and being funny and just writing what I would want to get into my inbox that would like brighten up my day or make me laugh. And so I highly encourage brands, whether it's social media or email marketing, to just like take a risk and like like be weird because there's so many generic emails out there. You want yours to stand out and it doesn't cost anything.
That is such good advice. And I so love that. And I imagine like that kind of thing, it's like relatable and all women going through these experiences and maybe are too shy to talk about it. And then they're able to open up their inbox and have a bit of a giggle from a story that you'd sent them or something that you're talking about, which I just totally love. That's amazing. So that's when things started to change and you started to, I guess, build like a real sense of community and people really enjoying and opening your content. What happened next and when did you guys decide to kind of branch away from the. Description box of selling other people's products and be like, hey, actually let's build our own brand of our own products and manufacture and that kind of thing.
Yeah, I mean, there are a lot of things that happened. We really focused on growth. I went out initially when I had run out of my five thousand massive savings that I saved up and had no money. I was like, OK, well, now I have to fundraise. And I remember meeting with a founder who is the founder of a subscription box company that was doing well at the time. And he was the only one up until that point out of everyone I met with that had the guts to sit me down and look at my numbers and say, I'm not saying this to deter you. I'm telling you this so that hopefully this company will survive and you don't have the numbers to fundraise. You don't have the traction. You need at least a thousand subscribers before anyone is going to take a meeting with you. You need at least 30 to 50 K and monthly revenue. And at the time, I remember being, like, really flustered and frustrated and being and walking into that meeting kind of being like, well, what does he know? And did it. And then over the next couple of days, I started to really think about it and I was like, he's trying to save me time. He's basically saying because fundraising is a full time job. And he was like, I went out and tried to raise too early and I ended up running myself into the ground because I really didn't have the traction that investors needed to see. And so we focused maniacally on how do we get to a thousand subscribers? How do we get our revenue to the point where we can go and meet with investors and show that there is traction and there is demand in a category that often people write off as like there were a lot of investors that were like, I'm not taking a meeting because this is an advice industry. And a lot of VCs also have what's called a moral hazard
Which means they can invest in anything related to alcohol or sex or drugs. And that was always really frustrating to me because, like, there was nothing about our product that
Harming people, whereas arguably with alcohol and gambling and all those things, like there are addictions associated with that and our products don't don't do that. So I think that was frustrating, but we really focused on trying to like, you know, some very tactical goals, like let's get to 10 percent growth month over month and let's do that for like a year. And then once we were doing close to like 50 K a month in revenue, we started taking meetings with we started begging for meetings, not taking meetings. But we started we started I just started applying for every pitch competition I could because I knew we sold over two thousand products. And in doing that and also being the person that was doing all of our customer service, we noticed that people were paying like one hundred and fifty dollars for these brand name vibrators that were breaking that also had to return policies that were just like, well, you bought it, no returns. And so customers were getting really frustrated with that. So we had a very good sense of what was missing in the market and what we wanted to create, which was a much more affordable product by cutting out distributors, but also making sure it was medical grade because most of the products in this industry aren't regulated by the FDA. And so a lot of the things that people were buying, they were using on one of the most absorbent parts of their body and it had carcinogens in it. So we really did two things. We proved that we could we could build something that had significant traction. And then I was just relentless about fundraising. And it took two and a half years before I raised our seed round of capital.
I got over
Three hundred rejections from investors before I got my first. Yes. Which was just morally debilitating. I mean, there were days where I could even get out of bed. So I was just like, I'm wasting my time. This is never going to happen. Meanwhile, I was like twenty five grand in credit card debt because I was buying all of the inventory myself. And there were lots of days where I was just like, I am, I'm an idiot. What am I doing? This is I'm digging myself further and further into that.
But there was
Just I don't know, I would talk to our customers and they would talk about how much they love the brand and how much it meant to them. And so I just had this gut feeling that I had to keep going. But there were so many days and I wanted to give up.
Wow. That is relentless hustle. That's so crazy. Three hundred nights. I can't even imagine what that must have been like mentally to be having to go home and deal with that, like when you finished for the day. And it's crazy. What kind of reaction like what were people actually saying to you in those meetings? Like what were the investors coming back with and will you pitching obviously to like a white v.c, older men who didn't get it? Or was it a mix of women as well?
Yeah, it's a great question. So in the beginning, I just applied to every pitch competition I could I was going to like and in New York it was much more competitive. And because we were still seen as like a really taboo industry, a lot of times what would happen is people would allow some of the competition because it was like an interesting, controversial company. But then like. A Q&A would come around and nobody would ask any questions, like people just were so scared to engage, which I think is almost even worse than if people had like very colorful reactions. So I started traveling to Baltimore and D.C. and cities where if we had 50 a month in revenue in New York, people were kind of like, OK, yeah, that's them. But then when I go to places like Baltimore, D.C., they were much more impressed with those numbers. So the first real tracks that I closed were actually the Baltimore Angels, which is an angel group out of Baltimore. And I remember leading up to that pitch competition. I was taking the Amtrak at four in the morning, like down to Baltimore to pitch. And then I'd go back to New York to work by two part time jobs and then I work on inbound at night. And so it was just that kind of relentless hustle of like applying for everything that I could.
And it was exhausting. But eventually we started to get some angel checks and that allowed us to start because the biggest push back these guys had was they were like, OK, so you built a D and E Commerce website selling other people's products. You haven't demonstrated at all that you can actually manufacture. And it's kind of like, well, how can I can I demonstrate that I can manufacture? I don't have the money to actually make a product because all the money is going towards trying to keep more inventory on shelves to prove traction. Do you guys feel like getting those first Baltimore Angels tracks that I close, like one hundred sixty five thousand across 12 different investors in that group, and I had to lobby each individual angel to get them to come in. But then that small amount of money allowed us to make these Bingel handcuffs that I've been wanting to make forever, which are just like basically gold bangles that you would wear that also could transform into handcuffs. So they were a fashion forward item that didn't cost a ton of money to manufacture because they didn't have electronics in them like it wasn't a vibrator. That requires a lot more money because those are more expensive to make. And by doing that, we were able to get a lot of PR because people were like, oh, this is so cool.