Woman’s Touch: Susan Colvin's CalExotics Turns 20

This article originally ran in the January 2014 issue of AVN magazine. Pictured above, the California Exotic Novelties headquarters with insets of founder Susan Colvin and sales VP Jackie White in 1998 (left) and Colvin with reality TV star Coco, who has a line of celebrity novelties with CalExotics.

CHINO, Calif.—Since it was getting pretty close to Christmas, one couldn’t be too sure how busy things would be at California Exotic Novelties. From boutiques to adult megastores, most of the pleasure product manufacturer’s clients surely had stocked their shelves already for the holidays. But the CalExotics headquarters in Chino, California, was bustling with activity when AVN came by to take a tour—a visit sparked by a coming milestone for founder Susan Colvin’s company. In 2014, California Exotic Novelties will celebrate its 20th anniversary—two decades of setting trends in the pleasure product industry.

We also found out on this visit that Colvin is a huge fan of holiday decorations. There’s not an office untouched by holiday cheer: teddy bears, reindeer, mistletoe, poinsettias and all manner of red and green decorations have sprouted in every corner and on every wall.

“Christmas is her favorite time of the year,” says Al Bloom, senior director of business affairs, speaking abut Colvin. And he ought to know: he’s been at CalExotics since 2003. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of his career in adult, which reaches back 43 years. Bloom founded Chicago-based Capital News in 1970 and started Caballero in 1979. He was with Caballero until 1993, when he jumped to Doc Johnson. His career longevity is equaled by few and celebrated by the AVN Hall of Fame trophy that adorns his wall, amid the seasonal ornamentation. “The bags show up right after Thanksgiving,” he explains, describing the stockpile of decorations that gets bigger every year.

Apparently Colvin is almost as enthusiastic about Halloween. There’s an annual party on the holiday, complete with a company-wide costume contest. “Marketing won this year,” says Desiree Duffie, the company’s director of public relations. Bloom jumps onto his smartphone to offer photographic proof of their handiwork: the four-person team is decked out as characters from The Wizard of Oz. Bloom is unrecognizable as the Tin Man, posing with Duffie as the Scarecrow, social media and marketing assistant Nichole Grossman as Dorothy and creative coordinator Joe Tuzzolino as the Cowardly Lion.

Colvin and company moved to Chino from Los Angeles soon after the company started, at first occupying just one of the three buildings that CalExotics now fills with thousands of sex toys and more than 90 employees. Before founding CalExotics, Colvin was the general manager of CPLC, a long-departed adult distributing company with an adult novelty division that produced a line called Swedish Erotica. When the company was dissolved, Colvin bought that division—and California Exotic Novelties was born.

Duffie is leading us on a tour of all three buildings, starting with the warehouse portion of Building A. It’s a huge space that looks like it could hold the better part of a container ship’s full cargo load, and a busy team is putting together orders for shipment to CalExotics’ customers. Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” is playing in the background as these busy elves run around the warehouse or sit in the packing area, which looks almost festive with many cherry-red bins filled up with toys for grown-up girls and boys.

Then it’s on to Building C—also massive, but completely quiet. This is the receiving area, where shipments from overseas are first stowed. Right now the shelves are chock full but the floor is devoid of employees. It’s a far different scene, Duffie explains, when a shipment arrives and all hands are called on deck to unload the goods.

In one corner of the building there’s a video studio with a set where Expert Sexpert Jaiya shoots her monthly Bedroom Insider and Gotta Have It programs for ClubCalExotics.com, the company’s online community designed to spread the word to consumers about sexual health and wellness.

These programs are not CalExotics’ only effort aimed at educating and entertaining consumers. Host Sheena Metal also works the mic on a weekly program called On Air With Club CalExotics that airs on Thursdays on Vivid Radio (SiriusXM 102).

We head next to Building B—the space that Colvin first moved into in the 1990s. Now it houses the purchasing team and the accounting department. Sam Browning and Jen Perez work in purchasing, and they talk about the challenges of navigating overseas transactions. As any traveler knows, getting through customs can be a challenge. When asked whether he expects things to change in the next five years, Browning says it’s a sure thing, especially given how much things have changed in the past five. Dealing with customs departments is an ever-changing process, apparently, especially in China. Have the changes made things harder? “Some parts are easier, some parts more difficult,” he says.

Perez interjects, “It’s an art form.”

We leave these artists to their work and stop by the accounting department. Jennifer Jackson greets us with a smile. When asked what she does, Jennifer says, “Nothing.” Duffie laughs and corrects her: “Everything.”

In addition to accounting, we also talk to Tristi DeGooyer, who is packing up an array of products to send to a potential client who is interested in private labeling. In addition to the vast array of wares that are branded as California Exotic Novelties, the company also supplies many buyers with white-label lines. DeGooyer explains that she will be conducting her first-ever video conference; usually she meets people in person. She and a coworker are assembling two packages: one to ship to the client, and the other for her team to work with during the video presentation.

Finally we swing back to Building A for a trip to the upstairs offices, where the sales department works. Running the show is Jackie White, the vice president of sales, who has been with Susan Colvin literally from before the beginning, when Colvin was the general manager at CPLC.

Sharing the upstairs with the sales team are the product designers. Director of Product Development Sylvia Lee has been with the two companies for almost four years. She works with two other women: Jamie Swartout and Chau Le. It’s an amazingly small team, given that they also design all the pleasure toys for sister company, JOPEN.

Then it’s on to our last stop: the fully stocked showroom, where the collections from both CalExotics and JOPEN are on display. We stop to admire the newest line from JOPEN. Called Lust, it’s brought a fresh spring colors to the JOPEN family. It sparks some questions about JOPEN’s first line, called Vanity, with its line of vibrators that came in a very distinctive hue. Is there a name for the color? Duffie answers, “I call it Vanity Fuschia”—a totally apropos moniker. Like some fuschias, the color is both bright and rich, creating visual vibrations that echo the vibrations of these high-end pleasure objects.

Then it’s back downstairs to the main entrance, and its riot of yuletide décor and many plaques paying tribute to the roles California Exotic Novelties plays in the local community: Chamber of Commerce awards, and thank-yous for participation in local charities. Colvin’s office is just down the hall from the main entrance, located near Bloom and executive director Mark Jackson. There is, of course, some season’s greetings here, but what stands out is a three-dimensional piece of artwork right above her cluttered desk: a blond woman with a dozen arms, frantically waving paperwork, clutching a coffee cup, holding a phone receiver and brandishing a pen all at once. It’s a visual representation of this busy executive, whose personality and drive are at the center of one of the biggest pleasure product manufacturers in the world. Despite her responsibilities, Colvin took some time out to answer a few questions about her corporate creation.

AVN: Tell us a bit about the beginnings of CalExotics. Susan, you were already a presence in the industry, but what led to your decision to move more into pleasure products?

Susan Colvin: Yes, I was the general manager for CPLC and Video Team, distribution companies. In those days video dominated the market and sex toys were almost an afterthought for retailers—relegated to the back of the store and intended to be purchased by the male customer who came in to primarily buy videos and magazines. Sex toys weren’t nearly as important as the video side of the industry.

CPLC manufactured a collection of toys under the brand name Swedish Erotica. That branch of the company was destined to become California Exotic Novelties.

Back then vibrators were made of hard plastic, had loud, unruly motors, and boasted very few selling features. Dildos were ivory or black, and packaging was very basic. Generally the products were unimaginative devices that lacked innovation, style and reliability. Everything was cheap looking and made by men for men.

The motors were inferior and the wires on many rabbit-style vibes would pull out easily. It didn’t make sense to me. There was so much potential in the market; I knew things could be done differently.

The original Swedish Erotica boxes were plain, inexpensive and unimaginative. They were red and yellow, and they had a flimsy window that really didn’t show off the product inside.

I wanted to make packaging with personality. I wanted to create toys that were reliable, quiet, more powerful, and with wires that didn’t easily slip out. I knew the market was ripe for something better, and I wanted to make that happen.

That was the inspiration for California Exotic Novelties. When CPLC disbanded I bought Swedish Erotica, and changed the name to California Exotic Novelties. We were the first company to do photo shoots for our packaging, catalogs and marketing materials. We did them tastefully and they weren’t overly graphic, unless the product was specifically for men. The goal was to make products and packaging that were differentiated for the various demographics—more visually graphic for men, and softer for women.

While still known as Swedish Erotica, we introduced the “Blue” catalog. It was more creative and unlike any catalog before it. We did a photo shoot and hired models, placing them against texturized canvas backgrounds. It led us to our next catalog, known as the “Green” catalog, which was our first as California Exotic Novelties. It was truly revolutionary at the time. Our photo shoot was in a gorgeous, lush area of central California. Nothing like that had ever been done before! The green marble background, the clean layout and the sensual poses of the modeling couple were very groundbreaking.

My goal for California Exotic Novelties was to create a company that was in tune with, and created products for, women, men and couples. I wanted to create something for everyone!

What were some of the hardships in the beginning of CalExotics?

I didn’t see things as “hardships”; I saw nothing but opportunities in those early days. When faced with a challenge I often look for the solution with the greatest benefits.

For example, I understood intuitively that vibrators, which were primarily used by women, should be made and marketed to women. As a result I saw an incredible opportunity to stand out. Instead of boring colors I introduced pink and purple products to the market. It was one of many “firsts” that CalExotics would introduce to the market.

I faced opposition in the early days. Many thought that it was crazy to market to women and couples. They felt that the market couldn’t bear higher price-points and didn’t care about better-quality products with sharper packaging.

The industry was a bit of an “old boys” club back then. For example, it was common to hear people say, “We have three plastic vibes in two styles, why do we need more colors or styles?”

Today many of those firsts we created with California Exotic Novelties have become industry standards.

What were some of those “famous firsts”?

California Exotic Novelties was the first to
• Make packaging a priority.
• Introduce feminine colors like pink and purple.
• Manufacture hard plastic and jelly vibrators, rabbits and dildos
• Release the first waterproof line of toys.
• Create the remote control egg-style vibrator.
• Advertise and follow up with manufacturer warranties.
• Make products using 100 percent premium silicone.
• Create pulsating vibrators made in the USA.
• Introduce rechargeable rabbit-style vibrators.
• Manufacture the first talking vibrator.
• Introduce eco-friendly solar-powered toys.
• Have an all-women product development team.
• Design the first butterfly style vibrators.
• Make one of the most popular and iconic rabbit-style vibes—the Original Jack Rabbit.
• Conform to EU directives in the United States. California Exotic Novelties adapted RoHS and WEEE standards for motors though there was no requirement in the U.S. to do so.
• One of the first companies to have our staff on the road visiting stores and distributors, and they still do it today!

How are you celebrating your 20th anniversary?

We will celebrate all year, thanking our friends, associates and partners for supporting us and making us a great company.

What does CalExotics do better than any other pleasure product manufacturer?

Fulfill our promises.

We have several key promises; the first is to fulfill our customers’ orders. We have an unprecedented 98 percent fulfillment rate and a guaranteed turnaround time of 48 hours from order to shipment.

We also fulfill expectations for the highest quality products. Everyone knows that the California Exotic Novelties’ brand is one they can trust. Jackie White and I personally oversee the materials, motors, and components that go into every product California Exotic Novelties produces. We work hand-in-hand with our vendors and only deal with those who are the most reputable and reliable.

Additionally we promise each and every customer that we’re dedicated to their success. When you win, we win—that’s a motto we take to heart. We support the marketing of our products throughout the distribution chain, offering an array of sales tools and retail support for those who sell our products.

Support tools include customizable visual merchandising plans that stores can request from the distributor. The sales team at California Exotic Novelties understands that no two adult stores are alike. Different sizes, different product selections and regional tastes mean that to truly respond to customers’ needs, individual planning software was the answer. CalExotics Visual Merchandising Plans can be requested by retailers from anywhere in the world.

Plus, we personalize our product selection and tools to each customer. Our sales team visits our customers all over the world to gain an understanding of their needs.

California Exotic Novelties also provides store signage, P.O.P. displays, the Where to Buy section, and comprehensive social media and public relation promotions to raise brand awareness. All information on our website is user-friendly. We have dimensions, materials, and all the product information retailers need to see our products. There is also the “Find-A-Vibe” section and a comprehensive video library on CalExotics.TV.

How difficult has it been to adapt to the changing climate of pleasure products throughout the years?

California Exotic Novelties has often been the company creating the changing climate in the industry, and that’s something we’re proud of. In the early days it was primarily men buying the sex toys as an afterthought when they went shopping for adult videos. Our vision from the beginning was to transform the products and the packaging to suit the market.

Every year brings new challenges and opportunities. We have a tremendous team that projects the changing environment we have. We listen to our customers, observe shopping patterns, and stay aware of change.

CalExotics has always prided itself on being a woman-owned company that produces items designed by women. Was that a challenge at any point in the company’s history? When did it become an asset for you and CalExotics?

It was a challenge in the beginning, but we had a vision and stuck to it. Retailers and consumers have responded positively to CalExotics’ branding.

It’s been an asset for product development because we know what women want. In the beginning we worked on finding better material, reliable, quiet and more powerful motors.

Take the waterproof feature, for example. When we introduced some of the first waterproof toys, there were male product developers in the industry who didn’t understand why that was important. They had never considered that a woman would like to use a toy while in the shower or tub and that cleaning a toy was so important.

If you had to do it all over again at this point in time, would you? Why or why not?

Of course. It was fun. Let’s go! Bring on the next 20 years!

What do you see for the next 20 years of CalExotics?

Our goal is to empower every adult to embrace their sexuality with California Exotic Novelties.

We have been, and will continue to be, committed to helping educate the consumer about sexual health and wellness. As we make further inroads through our online community, Club CalExotics; our team of Expert Sexperts; the educational support provided by our sales team to stores; and our PR and social media initiatives, we’ll make a bigger and bigger impact on people all over the world. We are a driving force in helping empower people who want to take control of their pleasure. As societal attitudes become more accepting and open, we’ll be there as a guide. That’s my goal for the next 20 years—and beyond!

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of our team at California Exotic Novelties. We’ve built a team that’s hard working, ambitious and sophisticated. Each person is someone I value and treasure.

I am really proud to have led the way for women in our industry. We have many business owners and top executives throughout the industry who are women. In addition, sales staffs, both in retail and distribution, are primarily women. This is a monumental change.

I am also proud of the variety and quality of our products. We have something for everyone—and that’s an accomplishment that feels great! Sexual products are very personal and every body is different. We empower people with our toys, and that is an incredible feeling.