Five Business Lessons I Learned From Launching a Sex Site

Excerpted from The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Women on This article originally ran on Medium:

I date younger men -- usually in their twenties. Which is how I began encountering, six or seven years ago, an issue that would never have crossed my mind if I had not come across it directly and intimately: what happens when total freedom of access to hardcore porn online meets our society's equally total reluctance to talk openly and honestly about sex, resulting in porn becoming, by default, the sex education of today -- not in a good way.

The average age today at which a child first views hard-core porn online is eight. A global study conducted by Bitdefender earlier this year indicates that children as young as six are exposed to online porn. This isn't because 8-year-olds and 6-year-olds go looking for porn. It's a function of what they're shown on someone's cell phone at the playground; what happens when they go to a neighbor's house -- because it doesn't matter what parental controls you have at home, your kids live their lives in other places; or, because this is the most wired generation ever, an eight-year-old does something cute and innocent: they learn a new naughty word, they google it -- Penis! Hee hee! -- and one or two clicks away is something they never expected to find.

That's why the New York Times ran an article in 2012 called "So How Do We Talk about This? When Children See Internet Pornography."

And that's why (as I discovered for myself in my own dating life years before the media began frenziedly covering this issue) young men and women who grow up today, watching hard-core porn online for years before they ever have their own first romantic or sexual experiences, assume that what they see in porn is what sex is and that it is how you do it for real.

"When I pitched him over Skype, there was silence, and then he said, "I don't know what to say, Cindy. I'm from Iowa."

I found myself encountering a number of, shall we say, sexual behavior memes, and thought, Whoa! I know where that behavior's coming from, and if I'm experiencing this, lots of other people must be as well. I'm a naturally action-oriented person, and so I decided to do something about it. Five years ago I conceived, built, and launched (on no money, which is why it's so clunky and basic), which posts the myths of hard-core porn and balances them with reality -- "Porn World" versus "Real World" -- in a straightforward, nonjudgmental, humorous way. This was also the genesis of my current startup,, or for short. *We say of, "We're not porn, we're not 'amateur,' we're #realworldsex."

I had absolutely no idea when we embarked on this venture how extraordinarily difficult it was going to be to make it happen. It took me two years to get funded. I should have been every angel investor's and venture capitalist's wet dream, literally. I was pitching an idea enabled by technology, designed to disrupt a sector worth billions of dollars, in a way that is both socially beneficial and potentially very lucrative. But because the sector is porn and the social benefit is to sexuality, no VC would touch it.

When I eventually found one angel investor who got it, and we closed on the seed funding we needed to build and launch the platform, I couldn't get my hands on the money for two months, because I couldn't find a single bank in America that would let me open a business bank account for a business that has the word "porn" in its name, and that does what we do.

I still can't find a bank -- anywhere in the world -- that wants our business. Our biggest operational challenge has been putting a payment infrastructure in place. Because we're "adult content," PayPal and Amazon won't work with us; neither will mainstream payment and credit card processors. And we have to explain to our bewildered members why we make it so hard for them to give us their money. Business infrastructure that any other startup can take for granted, we can't, because the small print always says, "No adult content."

The single best moment of my life, quite honestly, was when I realized I no longer gave a damn what anybody thought.

I believe you can change the world through sex. My team and I are working to make sex better for all of us and to provide a healthy, real-world counterpoint to the ubiquitous influence of porn. The world of business and tech is doing everything it possibly can to stop us.

That's a very big mistake. "Changing the world through business and sex" might sound odd, but I believe it's entirely possible.

Here are the five things I've learned along the way that could help you, too.

Lesson 1: Don't Care What Other People Think (in a Good Way)

Every obstacle to building our business that I've just described is driven by one dynamic and one dynamic alone: fear of what other people will think.

A young venture capitalist reached out to me last year -- he'd seen me speak at a tech conference and was very interested in MakeLoveNotPorn. We met and talked. He totally got it, but he said to me, "At the end of the day, it's not about what I think. It's about what every other partner in my firm will think, and what every other investor in our fund will think."

Fear of what other people will think is the single most paralyzing dynamic in business, and in life.

As you've seen, I'm very open about the fact that I date younger men. That's because I would like to encourage more people to actively consider and design the relationship model that works for them -- which may well be different at different stages of your life -- versus the very limited number of relationship models society tells us it's OK to have. I'm equally open about the fact that I've never wanted to be married and I've never wanted children. I would like to see many more public role models celebrating the fact that you can live your life very differently from the traditional "marriage plus children" route that all of us are brought up believing is a given -- and be very happy doing so.

I'm sharing the story of a startup for which I have chosen a path that particularly requires me not to worry about what other people think. But this truth applies to everyone. The single best moment of my life, quite honestly, was when I realized I no longer gave a damn what anybody thought. It's the only way to live your life -- being true to yourself, operating in line with your own beliefs and values. Try it at work. The next time you're in a meeting, speak up and say what you really think. Look around you, identify what you believe your company could do to better deliver against its business objectives, and put together and present a proposal to make that happen. Honesty and truthfulness pack a very powerful punch because we so rarely experience them in everyday and business life; everyone is too busy worrying what everyone else will think.

Step out of that trap, and you'll be amazed at the results.

Lesson 2: Everything in Life and in Business Is Improved by Better Communication

MakeLoveNotPorn was a complete accident. I never consciously planned or set out to do any of what I'm doing now -- it was a result of coming across something I felt strongly about. But it's also the result of a career spent in the communications industry, and a strong sense therefore of the importance of great communication in everyday life and at work.

I believe one of the reasons the original website has driven and continues to drive such an extraordinary response, is because it is very simple, straightforward, honest, down-to-earth, utterly nonjudgmental, and it has a sense of humor. We rarely get to have conversations about sex within those parameters, and when we do, the floodgates open.

The same is true of everything else.

Deeply unhappy about something a friend has done? Reach out and talk about it. Having a difficult time with a co-worker? Ask for a meeting in a private setting and put your concerns on the table calmly, straightforwardly, and honestly. Feeling your performance at work is not sufficiently valued? Schedule a conversation with your boss about it. Importantly, in a world of e-mail, instant messaging, chat, texting, skype-ing, always do this in person. It's astonishing how quickly you can straighten out misunderstandings face-to-face, when it's clear what everyone really means, and you are able to experience the nuances and true intentions that underlie any dialogue.

You get to better sex with better communication. You get to better everything with better communication. Our communication at MakeLoveNotPorn has drawn responses from some pretty surprising places.

Lesson 3: Make the Future of Money Work for You

I became so frustrated with the barriers we were facing, particularly on the payments front, that I said to Corey Innis, my cofounder and CTO, "We're trying to invent the future of porn; we want to find the people who are inventing the future of money. Let's find the people as frustrated as we are with the old world order of finance, money, payments -- from a different perspective -- because those are the guys that we want to work with." We researched the entire financial tech startup landscape and identified the players we'd love to partner with -- but then we discovered the new world order of money still subscribes to old world order legislation: the fine print still says "No adult content."

To reach the founders of those companies we wanted to work with, I tweeted at them -- which is how we came to be working with Ben Milne of Dwolla, a Paypal challenger. When I pitched him over Skype, there was silence, and then he said, "I don't know what to say, Cindy. I'm from Iowa." But he totally got it and supports our mission -- as does Patrick Collison of Stripe, the gold standard for taking credit cards online. Unfortunately Patrick's bank doesn't, so Stripe can't work with us.

How is this relevant to you? I am now ferociously interested in the future of money. Every day I am checking on and exploring new payment startups, and I can tell you, the future of every industry is inextricably bound up with the future of payments in a way that I see very few people understanding.

Is the industry you work in in trouble? Are you wondering how on earth to make more money going forward? Do you want to start your own business? The future of payments enables you to redesign business models, to make payment seamless and invisible, to engage and transact simultaneously. If you want to revolutionize the way you do business, start seriously exploring the future of money.

Lesson 4: We Are the Innovators

We live in a world where the default setting is male. Men: you have no idea how much happier you would be living and working in a world that was fifty-fifty, equally designed and managed by women as well as men. None of us do. We've never lived in that world -- yet.

"Women challenge the status quo because we are never it."

We need to. Because diversity drives innovation. Many different perspectives, mind-sets, insights, and points of view coming together are what create true disruption. This is true of ethnicity, sexuality, and the area that cuts across them all: gender.

The day we have a porn industry that is equally informed, influenced, designed, driven, managed, and led by women as well as men, fifty-fifty; that targets 50 percent of its output at women as well as men; and that makes 50 percent of its money from women as well as men is the day we have a porn industry that looks very different. More creative, more innovative, more exciting, healthier, and more lucrative.

The same is true of every other industry.

Do you feel you have a different perspective from your male colleagues? That's what makes you valuable. Do you see that your male-dominated business isn't seizing the opportunities it could? Propose what it could be doing. Do you want to start your own business? Have the confidence to know you're going to be bringing something very different to the market.

Women challenge the status quo because we are never it. Which gives us a unique opportunity.

Lesson 5: Design Your Own Future -- Because You Can

I believe the business model of the future is this: Shared Values + Shared Action = Shared Profit (financial profit and social profit). I designed around that business model, to be part of the collaborative economy -- a new way of thinking about work and how you make money.

The old top-down economic model is broken -- the model of making things happen through institutions, hierarchy, and organizations. There's a new bottom-up model emerging, of collaborative people-power and collective action. The collaborative economy isn't just the province of Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit. It's the future of work.

In a world where job loss is due not only to the global financial meltdown and resultant recession worldwide but also to the increasing automation of labor and processes, is an example of how people who share the same values can share something they all do, to benefit both society and themselves.

How would you like to design your own work in the collaborative economy? What do you most love doing? What are the conditions under which you most love doing it? How would you like to make money in that context? How can you leverage the future of money to help you design an opportunity, a job, a venture, a business model to deliver against all of that?

When you make open, honest communication your ally in everything you do; when you learn not to worry about what other people think; when you use financial innovation to come up with different ways of making money; when you wield diversity to disrupt; when you actively design your work, and your life, to be what you want it to be, you're making the world a better place, not just for you, but for everyone else as well.

Who wouldn't want that?

Excerpted from The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Women on This article originally ran on Medium.

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