IMBesharam, one of the leading online adult stores in India, is set to open up the sexual wellness category with collaborations and strategic investments in emerging startups. As a first move, homegrown sex-tech startup Sangya Project has received seed funding from IMBesharam, to manufacture pleasure products in India.
Talking about the development, in an exclusive chat with Storyboard18, Raj Armani, co-founder of IMBesharam, says, currently there is no mega leader in the pleasure category. He adds, “We think for the category to get its credibility, legitimacy and place in the sun, responsible businesses need to come together. I believe working as a community will only benefit everyone. Four years ago, when we had to raise funds for IMBesharam, it was a difficult pitch. Investors in the West, who had the money, didn’t understand the Indian consumers. Whereas Indian investors didn’t understand the category needs. Today, we are in a position to invest in game-changing businesses who understand the pulse of the consumers.”
IMBesharam is committed to $2 million for acquisitions. This is apart from their investments in Sangya Project. Armani hints there could be possibly two more investments later this year.
Currently, Sangya Project is the only brand to manufacture sex toys in India. This includes the Sangya S6 Strap, the Omega Series of butt plugs, the S6 Dildo, and more. Founded by Shweta Sangtani, Aashish Mehrotra, and Tanisha RK, a queer and poly family in 2020, Sangya Project started as a digital platform for educational content and personal stories around sex, sexuality, relationships, cyber safety, and mental health, and ventured into the pleasure industry a year later.
Phata poster nikhla hero moment
Armani says Sangya Project’s brand purpose impressed him the most. “I was closely following what Sangya Project were talking about and sharing on social media since their inception. The content they were contributing added more layers to the ecosystem. That’s something the category needs right now,” he adds. For instance, Sangya Project talks about queer experiences, polyamorous relationships and stories from survivors of trauma.
IMBesharam’s investment in Sangya Project is also aimed at making sexual wellness products more affordable across the country and pushing for far and wide accessibility of sex education and sexual awareness beyond metros.
However, the journey for both IMBesharam and Sangya Project hasn’t been easy.
The founders of Sangya Project tell Storyboard18, that it took about six months to convince a manufacturer in India to make their products. “Every time we met a manufacturer, they would get scandalous. They were worried about what people on the floor, especially women, would think about the products. When they made them aware that it’s a legit business, only then they understood the business model, and its potential results,” share the founders.
Payment gateways also gave players IMBesharam, Sangya Project, and many others in the business grief. Transactions wouldn’t go through in the initial days for these companies because the payment gateways would red flag. Mainly because they didn’t understand what they were really selling. With many conversations at large industry forums, things are getting streamlined in the category.
Armani believes the change is positive, especially in a conservative market like India, because the right kind of entrepreneurs are revolutionising the sector. “We are witnessing India’s phata poster nikhla hero moment. Everyone in the space wants to normalise the idea of pleasure and democratise sex. Each one of us want to remove the sound of vulgarity that’s associated with the word sex,” he adds.
The growth drivers
According to Armani, a business becomes a brand only when consumers identify and trust it. He observes the number of brands emerging in the category is an indicator that there is acceptance and demand for pleasure products. According to industry reports, the India sexual wellness market size was valued at $1,153.5 million in 2020, and is estimated to reach $2,095.4 million by 2030, registering a CAGR of 5.8% from 2021 to 2030. Pleasure products are only close to 5% of this market.
New-age businesses are trying to change this graph. Interestingly, startups like GetIntimacy, Bleu Condoms, Sassiest, Salad, That Sassy Thing, and a few others in the space are led by women. Armani is optimistic that these founders in a few years will be the poster women who shape the growth map of the category and change consumer perceptions. “Honestly, in my lifetime, I don’t think there is going to be any competition in the sector. There is going to be enough room for everyone to explore, innovate, and grow,” says Armani.
In order to expand further, IMBesharam is planning to list on online marketplaces too. Currently, the products of the brand are also on Snapdeal. 30-35% of IMBesharam’s sales come from tier II cities. 54% buyers are women and 46% are men. Chandigarh, Goa, Cochin, Surat, and Bhopal are a few cities that are projecting positive growth for IMBesharam. However, sales-wise Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Pune, continue to be the top drivers. The company is estimated to cross Rs 40 crore in sales by 2023.
Playing smart with algorithms
While brands in the sexual wellness category are changing the way business is done, they are constantly experimenting with ways to promote themselves. Sangya Project is crafting different notes on their social pages. The founders believe there is still a demand for long-format content. From posting Instagram posts with over 1000 words, story contributions from users, to releasing podcasts and graphic novels are all in the pipeline for Sangya Project to hit the sweet spot. “We don’t want to make ‘viral’ content and we also don’t want to be a content machine,” say the founders.
The biggest challenge for all the players in the sexual wellness category is that they often get shadow banned by social media platforms.
Brands cannot use the word sex multiple times in a post, they also cannot post pictures of their products, and if a user reports them then they need to be extra careful. “Let’s do Meta,” does not work for brands that sell anything related to sexual wellness.
Recently, one of Armani’s LinkedIn posts was pulled down. It was a sales milestone post with a photo of sex toys from his platform but LinkedIn took it down stating it goes against its content guidelines.
When asked how his team and he navigate through these challenges, Armani says, “You just need to become smarter than the algorithms. You need to soften the edges if need be. Over time, when enough voices get together, we can fight for the revalidation of the guidelines. It’s a change that’s critical for the growth of our businesses and to build a sex-positive society.”
The writer was in Bangkok to attend IMBesharam's annual conference at the invitation of the company.