THE INC. LIFE

This Philippine Start-up Selling Sexy Paraphernalia is Rocking the E-Commerce World

Ilya is selling sex toys sans the stigma

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BY Melissa G. Bagamasbad - 17 Oct 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Ilya, an online sex toy shop in Manila, started out as a dare. Arvin Alvarez and AJ Osmeña, its co-founders, lost out on a challenge and the consequence was to go to a sex shop to buy something.

The experience left them itching to have their own sex shop — but not quite the way one’s dirty mind would expect. “I’ve never been inside a sex toy shop, but I was thinking how bad could it be? It’s probably like going to a candy store, but for adults,” shares Alvarez.

What she imagined a “fun and colorful” experience ended up the exact opposite. “Boy was I wrong,” Alvarez relates. “It was cold and very clinical, and the items were not at all colorful, cute or inviting. The entire experience was so cringe-worthy, awkward, and not even the least bit funny. I literally froze and felt so embarrassed looking at the items. There was something in the way they presented the toys that made one feel shameful,” she shares.

That experience made Alvarez and her partner saw the gap in the market. They decided to start a sex toy business that would erase the stigma associated with the trade. At the very least, they felt it was a great exercise in marketing.

The founders began by researching how people felt about sex toys and how they perceived it. “We did in-depth interviews and met with people from different groups, including the religious sector,” shares Alvarez, adding they eventually discovered that a lot of people felt the same way with the existing sex shops in Manila. “[It made them feel like they’re] perverted or sleazy for going into a shop and purchasing a toy,” she says.

Their tireless efforts eventually gave birth to Ilya in 2016.

A sex shop sans the stigma

According to Alvarez, one of the first challenges they had to tackle was to find a way to make the business of buying sex toys “swallowable.”

“Our goal was to make everything — from our visuals down to how we talk to our customers — comfortable enough, such that people are free to indulge their curiosity,” explains Alvarez. Their strategy? Bringing in the giggles. “It was through humor and puns that we were able to at least start talking about these things. It breaks the ice and makes people more comfortable to actually discuss their curiosities,” she shares.

A quick glance at the Ilya site and a potential customer would find a visual feast of vibrant colors and catchy taglines. There’s an “About Us” section that tells the story of the owners, who are looking friendly, cheerful, and non-intimidating in their portraits. The rest of the brand’s social media follow the same theme — young and vibrant colors, and hilarious memes on Instagram you may not want to peruse while in a meeting (unless your boss doesn’t mind sudden bouts of laughter).

All professional

Osmeña says that one of the principles that made customers feel comfortable with their brand is how professionally Ilya handles itself as a business. “We treat Ilya like we would any other business,” says Osmeña. “We apply the same principles and discipline. This [includes] research, business planning, setting up of the actual business, and operations. We believe that when customers see how seriously we run things, there’s a level of confidence gained that we mean what we say and do, and that the customers’ well-being is indeed of paramount importance.”

Without a doubt, using the e-commerce platform to primarily sell their goods has lessened the shame or stigma associated with sex toys. This is especially notable in a Catholic country like the Philippines where people are supposedly more conservative.

“People are more comfortable buying online because of the discreetness,” says Alvarez. She adds that most of their customers are first-time toy users and are able to ask their questions more freely online. “But what we’re surprised with is that, yes, despite the conservative Filipino culture, a lot of our customers have shared that finally there’s a shop like ours from where they feel comfortable enough to buy from,” she shares.

Promoting safe sex

A principle that Ilya firmly stands for is the promotion of sex education, as well as teaching people to be more responsible when it comes to sex.

“We want to be more than just a sex toy shop — we want our brand to be a platform from where people can learn things that our society refuses to talk about,” asserts Alvarez. Not claiming to be experts in the field, Ilya works with a lot of experts. “People and partners from the medical field to sex psychology,” she informs. “Our belief is that if people refuse to talk about sex and other things related to it, the more dangerous it is because there’s less education involved. We also want our customers to be able to find the answers to whatever it is they’re curious about.”

Nine months after it started the business, Ilya has taken its business beyond its web platform and to a brick and mortar store in Maginhawa Street in Manila. Alvarez says this is due to the demand among customers for a physical store. “Back when we were just online, our customers would often ask us where our store is located, some would even drive to our then-tiny office only to find out there’s no store,” she says, adding Ilya will definitely put up more shops in the future.

These days, they’re continuously tinkering around with their online shop. “E-commerce is its own playing field and we’re starting to study it more closely. Who knows, maybe [we could have] a product line of our own in the future,” ends Alvarez.