Libida - Weathering the Storm to Rule the Roost

When Petra Zeboff was studying for her doctorate in human sexuality, she was surprised at the lack of sexual information and products available to the average American woman.

"When I visited the regular adult stores, I was inundated by pictures of big-breasted blonde women posing seductively. They might as well have hung a large neon sign on the door saying, 'Women are going to feel uncomfortable here.'" says Zeboff. "When I asked them where stores for women were, I was told one of two things: either 'Women are not that sexual! They like romance, not sex'; or 'If you're talking about that type of woman, well, she just likes what men like.'"

Thinking that the Internet might have something a little more female forward, Zeboff searched online and was similarly disappointed in what appeared to be a more specialized view of sexuality than what she was looking for. Rather than wait for something to appear, she decided to create a site that met her needs. And so Libida was born. Launching at the height of the dot-com boom and navigating the rocky rapids that followed, the site - run by a small but dedicated staff in San Francisco - has weathered the storm tremendously well, and boasts the benefits of actual profits as proof.

Zeboff said she was able to attain her first round of funding 20 days after presenting a solid business plan - featuring a "strong and honest direction" about content, and an online shopping section with books, movies, and toys - to a number of traditional business investors. Zeboff faced little resistance to the idea in the early stages. In fact, it wasn't until after Libida launched that she had some opposition.

"Some people in the adult industry tried to convince us to make Libida less explicit, believing women only like romantic sexuality," Zeboff says. "This view is simply untrue for the majority of women. The hard data shows that women get just as physically aroused from watching explicit material as men do. The adult industry has spent millions of dollars and many decades finding out just what arouses men. Imagine what the industry would look like if the same time, money, and energy were spent on finding out what women like?"

And it appears that Libida has successfully defined what it is that women like. It wasn't long before the staff was inundated with e-mails of praise, making the company's work all the more worthwhile. "We knew we had hit a nerve because the feedback was incredibly positive and supportive," Zeboff notes. "We still receive a tremendous amount of feedback from all different types of women: single, married, straight, gay, urban and rural."

Anne Semans, who found the company via an online job posting, brought years of experience in the sex industry when she assumed control of Libida's online store. The author of several books on female sexuality and a Good Vibrations alum, Semans instituted Libida's affiliate policy, which she credits with helping the site live through the dot-com crash. "During the boom, everyone wanted to build sites overnight, and this was true for Libida," Semans says. "So we ordered about 1,000 toys, sorted through them, tossed out the duds, tested and wrote honest product reviews of the best 300 or 400, all in a couple of months.

"When people are shopping for toys or looking for good sex information, what they really appreciate is a word-of-mouth referral. And the Web offers this in spades," she says. "In real life, maybe someone will tell one or two friends about a good sex store or book, but on the Web, if one person posts it on a discussion board or links to it on a Web page, that can drive hundreds of new people to the site. So the affiliate program is all about making connections with other people online, which builds community and helps distinguish the great sites from the dreck."

Affiliates who sign up with Libida earn 10 percent of every sale that comes through their site, and also benefit from offering like-minded content to their users, which helps to create more loyalty to their property.

Says Semans, "We're popular on the Erotica Readers & Writers Website because folks love to buzz off while reading their erotica. We're well-loved at and because so many women learning about female sexuality appreciate having a vibrator or G-spot toy to aid in their sexual discovery."

But Libida's strength doesn't lie solely with the online store. Kathleen Van Kirk, who studied for her doctorate in human sexuality while also working at a community clinic, is Libida's resident content director, and makes sure that Libida's articles and "How To" features are both informative and titillating enough to keep their regular visitors and entice new ones.

"My aim is to supply women with the tools to empower themselves in their sexuality," Van Kirk explains. "In order to do this, it's important that we address long-standing concerns such as health information, as well as stay on top of cutting edge trends in the field, from electricity play to sex surrogacy for women. Our purpose is to make all of the material that we present on the site as non-judgmental and as sex-positive as possible. We also believe in destroying the tired old myth that women just want sex to be touchy feely. That's why we try to provide a range of content."

Though it's a popular belief that the written word doesn't have a home in the money-making corner of the Internet, Van Kirk disagrees, noting that Libida wouldn't be as successful without that aspect of the business.

"The purpose is to get the content out there to improve the sex lives of women and their partners," she says. "[What affords that] is [the] revenue from selling toys. But the online store also [provides] tools to reinforce [our] content.

"For instance, if a woman has never masturbated and she comes to our site to find out information about how to overcome her inhibitions, the store can help her choose a toy that is more beginner-friendly and can actually help her explore her sexuality. That's why we put so much thought and effort into the toys we carry. We're not just trying to make money off these people, we're trying to open up a whole new world to them via content and products."

Though the online store allowed Libida to weather the dot-com crash, they weren't unaffected. They lost their opportunity to attain a second round of funding - which meant site enhancements like a new design and additional content, plus the opportunity to do some serious advertising, were put off to a later date. They also had to lay off some employees. However, Semans notes that "many put in volunteer hours which helped us get through the worst of it. That's a loyalty that underscores the importance of Libida's mission."

And it's that loyalty, both from the staff and their customers, that has helped Libida grow into the self-sufficient content and e-commerce universe that it is today. Seeing as they've survived the worst, Semans, Van Kirk, and Zeboff are upbeat about the company's future, and have some big plans for the times ahead. While Semans wants the online store to expand and become the Consumer Reports of the sex toy world, Zeboff and Van Kirk would like to expand the content to include streaming video, in addition to creating their own line of sex toys and expanding their focus beyond the United States and Canada. Whatever the future may hold for Libida, it's evident that they've built up a user base that continues to grow, and will support them wherever they go.

"Our customers are very loyal and have stayed with us. They tell us that we are the only place that caters to their own individual sexuality and provides them with answers to their questions, in a non-judgmental way," Zeboff says. "A woman has the right to explore her sexuality, in her own unique way, without apology. At Libida, we aim to give her the tools, and permission, to do just that."