In the 1990s, the lone strip-mall sex shop in our suburb was the stuff of lore. What transpired inside grew from speculation to accepted fact, as it travelled my high school’s whisper mill. The pervasive attitudes about sex shrounded the sex toy industry in mystery and taboo.
It is only in the past couple of decades that body and sex positivity and more open conversations about sex have elevated adult brands from fringe to celebrated. This shift coincided with mass adoption of the internet and Web 2.0—niche communities found each other and anyone could sell sex toys online to customers shopping from the privacy of their homes.
It is only in the past couple of decades that body and sex positivity and more open conversations about sex have elevated adult brands from fringe to celebrated.
It’s a $24.5 billion global industry ripe for the taking, with more brands popping up by the minute to answer unique desires and reach longing markets.
But as with any topic as politicized as sex, challenges persist. The nature of the business requires extra rigor on the part of founders to protect customer privacy. And, while technology has made it easier to reach buyers, it’s also often the source of strife for those selling sex toys. Restrictions from financial institutions and social media platforms demand that adult brand founders find creative solutions.
With the right tools, a unique product or idea, and plenty of research, however, it’s possible to build a successful brand selling sex toys and accessories online.
Here, we’ll take you through the ins and outs of the sex toy industry, with guidance on everything from developing a brand to ensuring customer satisfaction, as well as advice and real examples from seasoned pros.
How to sell sex toys online and launch an adult brand
Those passionate about sex education, empowerment, or supporting communites marginalized by traditional sex content and products may find the sex toy industry a fulfilling space to launch as an entrepreneur. And as demand increases (the global industry is projected to be valued at $36.1 billion by 2027), there’s still room for newcomers to the space.
But it’s an industry that requires a little navigation. We’ve gathered in one place everything you need to know to sell sex toys online.
Meet the experts
We interviewed the founders of two brands selling sex toys online—one in the maker space and a product-developing duo that manufacturers a range of progressive vibrators. We also spoke to other founders and industry experts, who are referenced later in this piece.
Meesh Oglesby-Cunningham, Founder, Strange Bedfellas
Meesh started her career as an artist working mostly in illustration and designing 2D characters. When she reached a crossroads in her career, some of her client work that was based in adult themes inspired her to try working in 3D. She experimented with transforming her designs into sex toys—and found she loved the work.With her husband, Patrick, helping behind the scenes, she launched Strange Bedfellas on Etsy before migrating to Shopify.
Joe Vela, Co-founder & CEO / Kristin Fretz, Co-founder & COO, Emojibator
Joe quit his data science career to pursue music full time when he had the idea for an eggplant emoji vibrator. At the time, Kristin was running marketing operations for a variety of startups and loved the idea of starting a D2C ecommerce business. The two launched Emojibator in 2016, garnering global press attention and winning multiple awards. They have since expanded the collection into a range of quirky sex toys and accessories—while both still working full time.
Building an adult brand
Kristin and Joe set out to build a brand that was “approachable and relatable”—adjectives Kristin says are not usually used to describe sex toy companies. While Emojibator’s success can be attributed to launching at the right time—at the height of emoji mania—the decisions they made in positioning the brand with humorous, shareable content played a large role.
This is an important stage in building any business. Aside from having an innovative product, your brand is critical in influencing customers to buy from you. It should aim to tell a story, connect with your target audience, and have a clear mission. In the sex toy industry, brand is also a tool used to build trust.
Finding your niche
Here’s where you hone in on your niche or product. What corner of the sex toy market will you conquer? Maybe you’ll even carve out your own. Whatever you decide, do your research, says Kristin. “Identify a strong product-market fit before investing capital and resources into an idea.”
Consider ideas within the following buckets:
🍌 Target audience
- Products marketed to specific groups and communities (e.g., LGBTQ+)
- Kink-specific (e.g., BDSM)
🍆 Product type
- Vibrators, dildos, and other sex toys
- Lingerie, apparel, and adult cosplay
- Complementary products and accessories (e.g., lube, condoms, merch)
🍑 Trends and themes
- Novelty and fantasy products (e.g., unicorn-themed dildo)
- Innovative sex technology (e.g., AR, smart sex toys)
- Emerging trends (e.g., long-distance sex toys)
- Sexual health, wellness, and self-care
When you are offering a product or service that has strong differentiators compared to your competitors, it becomes easier to market your idea in compelling ways.
Emojibator cashed in at the intersection of a women’s sexual empowerment movement and the popularity of eggplant emoji. Not only was the idea unique—it was culturally relevant. “When you are offering a product or service that has strong differentiators compared to your competitors,” says Kristin, “it becomes easier to market your idea in compelling ways.”
Keep an eye on emerging trends in the industry, too, says Sarah Starkey, founder of Little Jane, a self-care and women’s sexual health brand. “Brands that position themselves as part of the self-care and health and wellness industry are reaching new markets,” she says. “There is less shame now around this, less prudishness.”
Identifying your customer
In lockstep with narrowing in on your niche, you should be finding—or creating—an audience for it. “We were in luck,” says Meesh, “because there was already a robust community built around the collecting of fantasy sex toys.”
She also knew that the fantasy sex toy community was largely built by LGBTQ+ folks, and she has taken guidance from that community since she launched the brand. “We’re fortunate to have folks who are willing to tell us how to achieve wider appeal with our designs,” she says. “Since starting this company I’ve learned so much about inclusive language and product design.”
While Strange Bedfellas chose to target a narrow slice of the market, Emojibator launched to more general appeal, with Joe describing the brand’s wide customer base as “first-time sex toy buyers, parents, gift shoppers, avid sex-toy collectors, gender non-conforming people, emoji-fanatics, and folks rediscovering pleasure after sexual trauma.”
Developing your sex toy brand
Clone-A-Willy is a consumer brand offering moulding kits that allow customers to make safe sex toy replicas of genitalia. The brand is a spin-off brand of parent company Empire Labs. The company made its name in the medical and film industries, supplying prosthetics for various purposes. When they migrated their technology from B2B to DTC, they built a more consumer-friendly brand.
When building your own brand, you will determine your target market and tell a story. But there are several other questions to ask yourself at this stage. The answers will help you create a playbook for every decision you make as you build your sex toy brand.
- What do I stand for?
- What value does my brand or product bring to the market and customer?
- What is the voice and tone for my brand communications? Are we informative and professional? Daring and playful?
- What are my values?
- What are my goals?
- Where do I want to see myself/the brand in five, 10, 20 years?
- Is my personal story critical to the brand story?
An effective set of brand guidelines will inform all aspects of the business from who you will partner with to what’s in your press kit. It will help you scale your brand and maintain consistency as you hire or outsource.
Branding for your sex toy business
Brand and branding are related but entirely different. After you have completed the above brand exercise, branding becomes the visual representation of those results.
Here you will make decisions about things like logos, colours, and creative direction. Branding guidelines will then inform you—and any future staff—as you build your website, design products and packaging, and develop marketing content.
Make, manufacture, or resell sex toys?
As with many businesses that sell consumer goods, you have multiple business model options depending on how hands-on—or off—you’d like to be. Making your own sex toys to sell, outsourcing manufacturing, and reselling existing products—the possibilities are endless, and each comes with its own challenges and benefits.
Making sex toys and adult products
Meesh and her team design and produce silicone sex toys by hand in their own facility. As she transitioned from 2D illustrations to 3D sex products, she found that the infomation was readily available online, and that it isn’t overly regulated in the US This required extra diligence on her part to ensure her processes and materials were safe.
“There are tutorials and information out there for people who put the time into searching for it,” she says. “As well, there is a big community of collectors who discuss this sort of thing and were a great source of information when I first started down this road.”
- Total end-to-end control of the business
- Fulfilling for makers and creatives
- Unique product not available anywhere else
- Learning curve
- Onus on you to meet safety standards and do testing
- More difficult to scale
Manufacturing sex toys and adult products
Emojibator’s products are designed in Philadelphia and the company is run by a remote team across multiple cities. All of the manufacturing is outsourced to factories in the US and China. This model allows the founders and team to focus on other aspects of the business, like marketing and product development. It also lets the brand scale quickly and operate globally.
Finding and learning to work with manufacturers is the most challenging aspect of this business model. As sex toys are products that can cause harm if produced or used improperly, it’s important that you do your homework.
Verify that any factory you work with has experience in the industry and understands and adheres to safety standards. You can work with a third-party auditor or a liaison to help ask the right questions—this is especially important if there is a language barrier.
Once you’ve started working with a reputable manufacturer, you can dedicate resources to growing your product line. As Emojibator adds new products to its collection, Joe and team ask themselves two questions:
- Does it fit with our brand mission to deliver accessible, affordable, and fun pleasure for all genders?
- Is it exciting, astonishing, and newsworthy?
“These factors allow us to create niche products and unique experiences for our community,” says Joe. Use your own brand exercise to outline criteria for product development.
- Ability to scale quickly
- Working with a manufacturer with experience and safety standards brings peace of mind
- Outsourcing the production lets you run with a lean in-house team
- Less control over the manufacturing and QA processes
- Navigating manufacturing sourcing and relationships can be a learning curve
- Potential high minimums for new and small businesses
Reselling in the sex toy industry
The most hands-off model involves sourcing and reselling existing products for your own store. If the product design and development processes don’t interest you or you’re looking to spin up a brand quickly, this is the option for you. There are multiple ways to do this, including:
White label or private label. Manufacturers create “blank” products for multiple brands, usually customizing things like labels for each.
Reselling (buying wholesale). Your brand may be built around a theme, rather than a product. Your efforts will focus on brand development and curating existing products that fit into that theme. Otherwise, you may choose to become a local reseller for another single brand, if, for example, that brand doesn’t sell directly to customers in your region. You would purchase wholesale quantities of products to warehouse and ship to customers.
Dropshipping. This model is the same as the above but it doesn’t involve handling any inventory. Customers shop from your online sex toy shop, and your suppliers ship direct, skipping you as an intermediary.
- More hands-off (ideal as a business to launch initially as a side gig)
- Ability to work with established brands with good reputations
- With dropshipping, no need to carry inventory and can start up on a lower budget
- Same products may be sold elsewhere—effort should be placed on marketing and brand
- You are at the mercy of other businesses’ decisions (discontinued product) or manufacturing and shipping delays
What does it cost to start a sex toy business?
What’s a topic that’s almost as taboo as sex? Money. (Though neither should be.) The cost to start a business varies wildly, depending on the model you choose.
If you decide to become a reseller, the bulk of your startup costs will be buying inventory, renting storage space (if you don’t have it), and fees for your online store. Even if you DIY a lot of this (using free tools to design your branding), expect to require a few thousand dollars to get started.
As a maker, your start-up costs may be lower, as you can make to order rather than producing inventory that sits. But depending on your process, the equipment and supplies could still cost you hundreds—or thousands—of dollars. You will also need to invest in branded packaging, which likely will have upfront minimums.
If you are designing a novel or new product, you can expect that process to take a minimum of one year and $10,000 upfront.
Joe Vela, Emojibator
For manufacturing, minimums are also a consideration. Manufacturing partners may require you to purchase hundreds of units to keep your costs sustainable. Even the product development process can be costly. “If you are designing a novel or new product,” says Joe, “you can expect that process to take a minimum of one year and $10,000 upfront.”
The most economical way to start a business is through dropshipping. There are downsides to this model, as you have zero control over the production or shipping of products, but you can start a business with a few hundred dollars for a basic website and other online tools.
Pricing your products
As with any business, pricing is a delicate balance between making your desired profit and a retail price that customers are willing to pay. Use a standard pricing strategy to calculate your fixed and variable costs and add your profit margin. Then compare your pricing to similar competitors in your industry—are you relatively in line with the expected retail price ranges?
Building your online adult store
Selling sex toys online is possible through platforms like Shopify. Where you may run into challenges is through payment processors and gateways. While some sex toy brands are able to use Shopify Payments, certain products are restricted (e.g., cannabis). Here, we’ll take you through the steps to get started, look at which apps to integrate, and offer advice on choosing a payment partner.
Start your own business selling sex toys and try Shopify free for 14 days
Setup, themes, and design
One you have developed branding guidelines, you can plug your logo, colors, and other assets into preset, customizable themes. This makes the setup process simple, even if you don’t have strong design or coding skills.
Suggested themes for selling sex toys online:
If you require further customization, you can work with a Shopify Expert to tweak a theme or build a unique site for your brand.
Essential pages for your website
There are a few critical pages to build when you are setting up an online sex toy store.
Collection pages. If you have a large collection of products, sort them into themes based on type, sexual preferences, kinks, or any other categories that help your customers navigate your website and find what they’re looking for.
Product pages. Due to the nature of your business and product, product pages need to pull more weight than simply providing a description, photo, price, and Buy button. Use an app that lets you create tabbed information to avoid clutter on the page. Information that can be useful here includes: use instructions, safety warnings, cleaning and care tips, and warranty information.
FAQ page. This is an important page for those selling sex toys online. You likely will be selling products that cannot be returned for resale, due to hygiene and safety reasons. This is the place to clearly state your return and exchange policy. You can also answer questions here about materials, product use and care, privacy, and shipping.
About page. Remember that brand exercise? This is an opportunity for your brand story to shine and to build trust with customers. Whether or not you center yourself and your personal story here, you can still remind customers that there are real people behind your brand. This page could contain your mission, values, company history, and press links.
Photography for sex toy brands
With most businesses selling online, you don’t have the benefit of letting customers touch, feel, or demo your products before buying. Your product page should be as descriptive as possible to help replicate the in-person experience—both with copy and photography. Shoot products at multiple angles and include images of any accessories (charging devices).
While your product page should prioritize clear and uncluttered images to highlight the product, a lifestyle shoot can provide images for other places on the site, as well as for social images, ads, and your press kit.
This is an opportunity to capture the tone of your brand visually. Emojibator leaned into the humorous side of the products, having fun with its lifestyle photography. “We were brilliantly practical in our decision to take a picture of our friend’s cat holding the Eggplant Emojibator for our press release,” says Kristin, “and the internet in response laughed along with us.”
Also consider what video assets you may need for customer education or marketing tools. Hire a professional to shoot core assets that you’ll use over and over, and consider DIY video content for platforms like TikTok.
Choosing payment providers
When Meesh moved her brand to Shopify, her products fell under Shopify Payments’ acceptable use policy regarding products. But her peers have faced challenges. As a security measure, Strange Bedfellas secured a backup payment provider.
The recent news surrounding OnlyFans demonstrated just how tenuous the relationship has become between financial institutions and those running sex-related business. “We face unjust financial discrimination as a sex toy company, and it prevents us from competing fairly in the marketplace,” says Kristin.
But many brands successfully run their shops on Shopify using a variety of payment providers. “Read the terms of service and what is and isn’t allowed to be sold,” says Little Jane’s Sarah Starkey. “This not only differs between payment providers, but also between the same provider based on country. Nudity in images, prostitution, weapons, bondage, and potential for injury could all be relevant.”
Note: This is not an exhaustive list. There are several other payment providers available to you, depending on your region and business type. We suggest you seek legal advice in ensuring you are complying with the terms and conditions of any platform and payment provider you work with to avoid future surprises.
Education is essential to sex toy companies to both ensure that the customer makes an informed purchase and to protect yourself and customers from any harm. “The products we sell are very intimate by nature, and I want to help people make choices they will have good experiences with,” says Meesh.
Producing content is not only a fun challenge but a way for our brand to lean in on our educational mission.
Joe Vela, Emojibator
Educational information can appear on product pages, an FAQ page, and on product packaging. But it can also form part of your content strategy. Informative sexual health information can establish you as a trusted expert—and content can help drive purchases.
Emojibator took educational content to the next level, launching a month-long campaign each year. “During the month of May, our MasturbationMonth.com site receives nearly twice as many visits as our shop’s site!” says Joe. “Producing this content is a way for our brand to lean in on our educational mission.”
Sales channels for sex toys
With the challenges and restrictions related to online ads for sex toy businesses (we’ll talk about that in a minute), many brands need to get creative by adding more sales channels to achieve wider reach.
Consider the following:
- Sex shop founder Amy Unicorn tells us that events like drag shows are a key part of her business. Music festivals, artisan markets, and other events may also work for you, depending on the nature of your product.
- Formal trade shows or consumer shows are another type of event that can draw wholesale buyers and customers to your brand
- Selling wholesale through other established retailers can expand your reach. Seventy percent of Emojibator’s business is wholesale, says Joe.
- The next stage of your online sex toy business might be a physical retail store, where you can benefit from passerby traffic and local listings. Dabble in IRL selling with a pop-up shop first.
- Online marketplaces are another option. Check with the platform’s terms of service to ensure that your products are approved on the site.
“The biggest challenge has been raising awareness about our brand and products,” says Joe. “That’s why we’ve leaned in on our wholesale sales channel. We have been lucky to find reputable and certified partners around the world.”
Apps and tools for adult stores
Shopify integrates with multiple apps to augment the experience for customers and customize your site to your needs. We also offer a number of free tools to help you launch and run your business.
Here are a few suggestions for brands selling sex toys online:
- With more challenges in reaching new customers, sex brands should pay plently of attention to existing customers. A loyalty app like Gift Cards & Loyalty Program will help you reward and retain your biggest supporters.
- The Easy FAQ Page helps you quickly set up a simple FAQ page on your Shopify store.
- You may wish to formalize your shop policies and ensure that customers understand them by adding a Terms and Conditions Checkbox.
- A video maker like Vimeo Create or Shopify’s Online Video Maker can help you produce professional video ads and educational content.
- An age-verification app, like Age Verification 18+ Popup or Real ID, can provide a checkpoint to let browsers know that your site contains adult content.
Safety and privacy for adult stores
You are about to launch in an industry that has unique challenges due to the intimate nature of the product. Spend time here to ensure your butt is covered.
Product safety and testing
As we’ve mentioned throughout this guide a few times, safety is a concern if you are planning to sell sex toys. Rules and restrictions may govern your business depending on where you live, so it’s important to do your own research.
“I don’t personally give instructions on how to use our products because I’m not a sex educator,” says Meesh. “My best tool is to put disclaimers on our products and encourage folks to do their research before purchasing.”
The community looks out for its members, and identifying dangerous shops is part of that. You don’t want to be on the bad list.
Meesh Oglesby-Cunningham, Strange Bedfellas
Disclaimers, as well as FAQs, instructional videos, and proper labelling can all help to ensure your product is used safely. At the production phase, work carefully with your manufacturer to ensure they have stringent safety standards. Expect the same of any other brand you work with as well.
As an extra precaution, you may want to consult with a lawyer to ensure you are meeting any legal requirements for safety and labelling.
“The community looks out for its members, and identifying dangerous shops is part of that,” says Meesh. “You don’t want to be on the bad list.”
While you’re launching your sex toy business in a time whenwhere views about sexuality are much more liberal and open, there are still many reasons why someone would want their purchases to remain private. “A lot of our customers live with family or friends who may not appreciate finding their purchases or may be quite hostile to them about it,” says Meesh.
As such, Strange Bedfellas ships in plain boxes and uses its generic LLC name on the return label. Similarly, “due to societal realities,” Kristin says that the brand name doesn’t appear on shipping packaging or credit card statements.
A lot of our customers live with family or friends who may not appreciate finding their purchases or may be quite hostile to them about it.
Meesh Oglesby-Cunningham, Strange Bedfellas
Privacy also extends to the information you collect from your customer. There are already many laws that govern how you use this info, but sex toy business may want to be forthcoming about how they handle data. “We don’t share any personal data with third parties that don’t require it,” says Joe. “If anyone requests their data to be deleted, we ensure it’s wiped completely from all of our systems.”
Marketing sex toys and adult products
Sex sells but selling sex is a little more tricky. Navigating the marketing of sex-related products is one of the most common challenges surfaced by those who spoke to us.
“The most effective paid ad networks have either completely censored or heavily blocked any product related to adult toys,” says Joe. In 2020, Instagram tightened its restrictions even more, impacting organic content for sex-related businesses.
“Censorship is a considerable hurdle we have to constantly navigate, and we’ve had to be very creative in marketing and promoting to the masses,” Victoria Nelthropp, Clone-A-Willy’s Marketing and Brand Coordinator, told Shopify.
But on saturated and established platforms like Instagram, making any headway with organic marketing is challenging too—for any type of business.
Social media is still a valuable tool for sex toy brands. Meesh uses it as another channel for customer service, and Joe says that Emojibator has done some successful community building.
Censorship is a considerable hurdle we have to constantly navigate, and we’ve had to be very creative in marketing and promoting to the masses.
Victoria Nelthropp, Clone-A-Willy
With paid and social advertising being heavily limited for adult brands, creative founders can still find ways to grow the business:
- Influencer marketing. Reach out to sex-positive influencers that appeal to your ideal customer. Even new brands can work with emerging influencers who may have lower rates.
- Affiliate networks. Build a network of other websites, blogs, and advertisers who take a small cut of any sales they refer.
- PR and media pitches. “We have a publicist on our team that keeps our brand story in the news cycle, and we aim to create astonishing products worth talking about, which has been our strategy since day one,” says Joe.
- Email and SMS marketing. Build your email list even before you launch any products. Start to grow buzz and community for your brand by pushing people to a simple “coming soon” page. Collect emails and offer perks or early access to those who sign up pre-launch.
- Content and SEO. Use on-site content to not only build trust and help customers, but to also drive traffic to your site through relevant keyword searches.
“I actually really enjoy when customers ask detailed questions before purchasing items,” says Meesh, who finds that the communication helps her recommend the best products. But occasionally, she’ll even find that another brand might be better suited to their needs. “I have a lot of peers in this industry whose work I trust, and I have no problem referring customers to them if I think they’ll be a better fit.”
Due to the nature of sex-related products, returns and exchanges are usually not possible. That’s why customer support at all stages is important to avoid unhappy customers.
“We have an extensive policies page and we link to it often throughout the site: on listings, on info pages, in all the emails we send,” says Meesh. “We can’t say it often enough!”
There may be cases when you will accept returns of open products, say in the event of a manufacturing flaw. If you’re a reseller, the product you’re selling may have a warranty, and you can refer those customer service issues to the manufacturer.
Emojibator offers a one-year warranty on all of its products. The company prioritizes customer support to ensure that any warranty claims are handled with care.
“We know sex toy experiences are unique to each person,” says Kristin, “so we treat each customer with the utmost respect, patience and kindness.”
Get off on getting started
Despite the challenges, those with the desire to enter this space and the patience to navigate creative problems can build a rewarding career. “I really enjoy this job!” says Meesh. “I wasn’t aware I could find so much fulfillment making dildos.”
The more brands creating space for open conversation about sex, the more collective effort can be diverted to influencing policy change. And the permissionless future promised by the web’s next act has a pleasurable ring to it.
Feature image by Chris Gash
Additional research by Natalie Manuel
Additional reporting by Ibrahim Hussein
Special thanks to Courtney Symons, Amy Unicorn, Little Jane, and Empire Labs