This is an interview with Dr. Sandor Gardos, CEO and staff sexologist of MyPleasure. Sandor is a licensed clinical psychologist and sex therapist as well as a board-certified sexologist. We met recently at a San Francisco Entrepreneurs Organization dinner where I was the keynote speaker.

By the way, I predict that most people will say, “Guy, you were worried about posting this?” and others will say, “I can’t believe you posted this, I’ll never read your blog again.” Just another day in the life of a blogger…I hope this posting helps you figure out the online retailing puzzle.

  1. Question: How did you get started selling sex toys?

    Answer: I was a fellow at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York. I was teaching med students, writing research articles, seeing patients, and all that goes along with being a clinical psychologist and sex therapist.

    And I was getting very depressed: Who was really reading what I wrote besides grad students working on their dissertations? Were these physicians really learning everything they needed to treat sexual disorders in a two-day workshop? What about all the patients who had been suffering for years with no idea where to go? I knew there had to be a better way to reach a truly mass-audience with information about sexual health.

    I was always a bit of a geek—I learned to program on a TRS-80—so when the Internet starting reaching mass consciousness, I realized this was going to be THE way that most people would get their sexual information in the future. I wrote a paper on the topic about fifteen years ago in which I predicted things like online dating, chat rooms devoted to special sexual interests, and ubiquitous availability of sex education.

    I should have saved the rejection letters from the journals I submitted it to. I still remember my favorite peer-review: “This is a superb paper and as soon as the Journal of _____ starts publishing science-fiction, it should absolutely be considered.”

    Undeterred, I created the first web site on the Internet that explained what sex therapy was. I even offered a consultation service. This was back in the day when a new website was actually news! So I got a lot of publicity and that led to a string of opportunities being the producer, editor, or “sexpert,” for pretty much every major web site at the time (e.g. Time-Warner’s Pathfinder, About, WebMD, AOL, Excite, Oxygen).

    I do not know how I had such prescience, but I was pessimistic about the whole “content is king” idea, I just never knew how it would pay the bills. So I always had one condition for my employment: if any of my content was ever taken down, all rights had to revert to me. When the bust began, I wound up with over 10,000 articles about sexuality.

    At that time, I was getting over 100,000 emails a week from people with questions and I knew I could not just let all this die. So I began wondering how I could create a “home” for all this great content that was self-supporting. As part of the sex therapist community, I knew that we all of us recommended sex toys for our patients, but we were always struggling with where to refer people. So I had this vision: What if we combined all this great educational information with a truly superior e-commerce experience?

    I handpicked my team from the best and brightest from all the failing dot-coms and told them to “pretend Nordstrom just decided to launch an online sex toy store and make that!” I guess we touched a chord. After over five years in business, we are currently the largest online retailer of sex toys in the U.S. and the most visited sex education website.

  2. Question: Who is the “G spot” of your market—so to speak?

    Answer: Our “average” customer is a married woman in her late thirties with two or three children, living in the Mid-West; going to church on Sundays, and is bored out of her mind with her sex life! Generally, she is buying something to share with her partner to add some “spice” to their relationship. Our second largest group is men buying something as a gift for their partner. You should see the spike in our sales around Valentine’s Day!

    We get all ages, genders, and orientations, etc., but we have always been the “safe and credible” place to learn about sexuality and buy things to enhance one’s sex life. We devote extra care in selecting and developing what we sell, making sure it is packaged attractively and discreetly, having friendly customer service staff, and the like. That appeals to many people, but others could care less and just want the cheapest and biggest “rubber dong” they can find. We tend to send those folks to other sites.

  3. Question: How do sales vary by country and state?

    Answer: We tend to do exceptionally well in the “red states.” At first, we were a little surprised by this, but this actually makes a lot of sense. If you are living in a conservative community in the South, for example, and you want something to enhance your relationship, where exactly are you going to go? Even if there is an “adult bookstore” or something of the kind in your state, it is probably quite a drive and most likely in a bad part of town, and you are unlikely to find a sales person who actually knows anything about the products or you would want to talk to. Also, you probably want to avoid running into your neighbor or your minister.

  4. Question: What are your most popular products?

    Answer: Dual-action, “rabbit-style” vibrators—hands down—no pun intended! Ever since the Pearl Rabbit showed up on Sex and the City, we have trouble keeping them in stock.

  5. Question: What does this say about the sex lives of people who shop online?

    Answer: I don’t think the sex lives of those who shop online are any different from anyone else. I hear the same questions, the same desires, as in any other setting that I have worked in. About the only thing different is that these folks have taken an active step to actually *do* something to improve their sex lives. Many people just live in silent misery.

  6. Question: Does the government try to regulate your activities?

    Answer: Not yet, but you have to realize that the sale of sex toys is still illegal in eight states. It is just silly. I was the expert witness in all the cases in Georgia—a state where you could get a gun at any pawn shop without a waiting period, but the sale of anything “designed to stimulate the human genital organs” was a serious crime. As a matter of principle, we ship to *all* states.

  7. Question: What’s your advice to a woman buying her first vibrator?

    Answer: We actually have a number of articles about that on the site and a whole department and buying guide because it really depends on the particulars. But basically I would recommend starting with something smaller, gentler and more discreet. Begin with something that you use externally only. If it doesn’t work out, it might make a great neck massager; besides, you can always upgrade.

  8. Question: What’s the role, present and future, of the Internet in people’s sex lives?

    Answer: Wow, that a big topic! I used to teach a course on that at SFSU. I think the greatest impact has to be the ease of finding information about any topic, no matter how taboo, in the privacy of your own home. I remember a patient I had many, many years ago who had a fetish for watching women blow up balloons. This was the first time I, or anyone in the clinic, had ever come across this. In fact, after an extensive literature search that turned up nothing, we wrote a case study on him. Today, there are literally hundreds of websites devoted to this (usually) harmless interest. This man was driven to the verge of suicide thinking he was such a freak. I wonder if he would even need therapy today.

  9. Question: Do you have a lot of repeat business?

    Answer: Most definitely. As we all know from the research, when people have a good shopping experience online, they tend to be very loyal to a site. I’d say our most devoted customers are the ones who didn’t read all our articles, reviews, and buying guides and made an “impulse buy” and were disappointed that it didn’t work the way they wanted. Once they get on the phone with one of our experts and are able to exchange it for a product that really works for them, they begin to tell all their friends about us.

    You also have to remember that a vibrator is not something you buy once and are done with it. That would be like ordering a really good pizza and deciding to never eat anything else again!

    [Guy: This will change how I look at pizza for the rest of my life.]

    Also, the first email we ever received from a customer was a woman in her early nineties. Her husband had passed away over ten years ago and she was feeling very lonely but didn’t want to get back into the dating scene. So she decided to search on the Internet for a sex toy but was so repulsed by all the sites she came across that she abandoned the idea. Years later, while doing a search for articles about sexuality and aging, she came across MyPleasure.

    She read some of our content, then looked through our “sex and disabilities” product guide and decided to give something a try. The reason she said she felt compelled to contact us was that, despite having had a wonderful relationship with her husband, she just made an amazing discovery: she never actually had an orgasm before! She was writing to thank us for allowing her to have that experience before she died.

    I printed that email out and it is still tacked to my wall. Whenever I feel discouraged, I just look at that note and it reminds me why we do what we do.

  10. Question: What can an ecommerce startup learn from your experiences selling sex toys online?

    Answer: Find a niche that is currently under-served in the way you want to serve them. Then, continue to mine the data, listen to your customers, and keep creating ever more experiences that are *amazing* for them. Also, stop thinking that you are selling a product—that puts you into commoditization and the only thing you can compete on is price. You are selling a *solution* to a problem that your customer may not even know they had. Finally, forget about all the latest trends and gee-whiz technology; if it doesn’t really help the majority of your customers, it is worthless or worse.

  11. Question: Are your day-to-day issues any different from what Amazon faces?

    Answer: Many of the basics are no different. I attend all the e-commerce tradeshows and sit on the board of some of the largest internet companies in the world – I am even on the board of the Entrepreneur’s Organization, the world’s largest organization of successful independent companies, and it sometimes strikes me how *little* difference there is between us and most other corporations. I think the only big issue is the stigma that still exists.

    It doesn’t matter how many awards we’ve gotten, how many degrees I have, or how ethical our business practices are, or even that we have a proven business model that has shown profitable growth for over five years – I still find it hard to meet an investor willing to talk to us.

  12. Question: Have you considered a strategic alliance with Energizer or Duracell?

    Answer: Funny you should ask. This is where we start to diverge from places like We sell far more batteries than any manufacturer (not naming names that might start with an E or D) requires for a wholesale arrangement. But, every time they see our site, they tell us we can’t buy direct.

  13. Question: Besides “with rubber gloves,” how do you handle returns?

    Answer: People always ask that because we are one of the only sites with a satisfaction guarantee. The short answer is: “No, we do not resell used toys!” To be on the safe side, we use what in hospitals is called “universal precautions.” Basically, anyone who handles returns is trained to approach them on the assumption that the items are potentially infectious. So gloves are mandatory, but the good news is that since we just dispose of the returns, our employees don’t have to do much handling. They just dump them into a bio-hazard container that gets picked up once a week.

  14. Question: Do you ever get orders from famous people?

    Answer: We have the most rigorous privacy and security policies in the industry. The only time I find out someone famous uses our site is when I bump into them at a party and they start raving about how great we are.

  15. Question: What do your parents think about what you do?

    Answer: About three years ago, I had a very uncomfortable moment when my mom said, “Son, you know how proud your Dad and I are of what you do and how we tape EVERY appearance you have on television to show our friends, right?” It was at this point I knew we were headed in a bad direction! “I guess the only question we have is why would you devote your life to something that people do for maybe fifteen minutes a month?”

    At that moment, I realized I suddenly knew FAR too much about my parents and never talked about my career with them again.