This San Francisco startup got kicked off Kickstarter for trying to crowdfund a vibrator — now the company makes luxury sex toys and is de-stigmatizing sexual pleasure in the process

Katie Canales/Business InsiderCrave co-founders Michael Topolovac (left) and Ti Chang listed their first product on crowdfunding site Kickstarter in 2012 and eventually was booted from the platform after being told the vibrator was ‘too offensive.’
  • Crave is a San Francisco-based startup that’s manufacturing tech-savvy luxury sex toys, which are quiet, discreet, and equipped with USB rechargeability.
  • Crave’s first product was submitted to Kickstarter in 2012, but was ultimately kicked off the platform because it was a vibrator.
  • The company was founded by Ti Chang and Michael Topolovac, the latter of whom co-founded cloud-computing company Arena Solutions before launching Crave in 2013.
  • Since then, Chang and Topolovac have worked to de-stigmatised sexual pleasure for women through Crave’s line of sleek products and a travelling Airstream to connect with customers.

In 2012, co-founders Ti Chang and Michael Topolovac of luxury sex-toy maker Crave listed the first vibrator ever on Kickstarter.

The Crave Duet was the first product from the San Francisco startup, but after submitting the campaign, Kickstarted booted it from their site before it could go live. After some back-and-forth between Kickstarter and the cofounders, Kickstarter finally admitted why the product was dismissed: they were against vibrators.

“At least they were honest about it,” Topolovac said.

Six years later, and Crave has since received $US3.7 million in funding, providing women with a sleek line of discreet, high-quality products made of silicone, leather and stainless steel ranging in price from $US35 to $US149.

Every product is also designed to operate quietly and battery-free, thanks to its USB rechargability – users can simply pull apart the vibrator and plug it into a charging port like you would a flash drive or iPhone.

“The aesthetics of it focus on something that’s sophisticated, something that is dignifying and beautiful; it’s not something that a woman would be ashamed of,” Chang said.

Airstream crave startup design build a vibeCourtesy of CraveChang travels with the Airstream as part of its 2018 Build-A-Vibe tour. The Crave Airstream was also a staple at SoCal’s 2018 Coachella Music and Arts Festival.

More recently, Crave has added retailer Urban Outfitters as a supplier and is beginning to be recognised by its 1961 Airstream and its “Build-A-Vibe” workshop.

Chang travels with the Airstream around San Francisco, and up and down the west coast for now, to provide curious folks with the “Build-A-Vibe” kits, guiding them through the process of assembling their own vibrators. The trek is all in an effort to connect with customers and destigmatize female sexual pleasure, an overall goal for the brand.

“It’s a huge part of the human experience; there shouldn’t be a stigma, there shouldn’t be shame,” Topolovac said.

From enterprise technology to high-quality sex toys

There aren’t many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley that pivot from enterprise software to luxury sex products.

Topolovac did though, transitioning first from an underwater camera lighting company to an enterprise cloud computing company and then to Crave.

“From Company A to Company B, there’s a pivot that somewhat makes sense: you made software to run Company A and that software becomes Company B,” Topolovac said. “Company B to Company C, the pivot isn’t there; from enterprise software to sex toys wasn’t the natural transition, it just happened to be what was worth pursuing.”

The “Company B” was the cloud-based computing company Arena Solutions founded in 2000, which was a leader in enterprise cloud applications. Topolovac said he co-founded it around the same time that cloud computing giant Salesforce was born.

“I actually ran into Marc [Benioff] a couple years ago and he said, ‘You know Michael, you were the first guy to see this cloud computing thing of the future’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know Marc, you saw it when I saw it and last I checked you’ve got like ten more f–king zeros you make than I do,'” Topolovac said jokingly.

Leaving Arena to eventually manufacture sex products was more personal: He saw how a lack of high-end sex products impacted the women in his life. “It was odd that it looked like this massive market of women, but there weren’t any brands to support that,” Topolovac said. “You don’t see that often where a market looks ready, but there are no companies to support that market.”

Ti Chang already had experience designing sex toys before joining Crave. She’s a trained industrial designer that had previously launched Incoqnito, a luxury sex toy maker specializing in integrating sex toys and jewellery. Topolovac acquired it in 2010, making Chang a Crave co-founder.

She brought her Incoqnito experience to the design of the Vesper, a slim vibrator worn in the form of a necklace. It’s become a fan favourite, despite the snags Crave has hit with marketing its products on social media, specifically Instagram and Facebook. While they can post photos of their products on their accounts, they can’t boost them as ads.

“I feel like they lump us all into this one big category of just nasty pornographers that sell porn, but it’s not that at all,” Chang said.

Topolovac said the cultural bias against female sexual pleasure exists on social media platforms, just as it does elsewhere, and large sites like Facebook are more likely to zero in on potentially offensive sex products than other matters.

“Violence, you kind of get away with, fake politics, fake news – that’s all ok, but there’s this paranoia around pleasure, particularly female pleasure, that we need to shut down,” Topolovac said.

“This is pleasure, it’s part of who we are as humans,” he said. “We shouldn’t be shaming the stigma, it should be elevated.”

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