Everything takes longer than you think it will, when it comes to inventing a product and bringing it to market. Be realistic in building your timelines, and know that even then, you’re going to have delays. To create timelines that make sense, ask many questions, don’t make assumptions and get help from people who are very experienced with the logistics side of bringing new products to market — look for people who have experience with the country in which you manufacture.
As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melanie Cristol.
Melanie Cristol is the founder & CEO of Lorals, a sexual wellness brand that helps people across the world have more frequent — and more pleasurable — intimate experiences. Melanie and Lorals have been featured in the New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Fast Company, Autostraddle, Women’s Health, Refinery29, and other publications worldwide. She is a frequent podcast guest on shows such as Art of Manufacturing and Women Who Tech.
Prior to founding Lorals, Melanie worked as an attorney at the international law firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP, where she represented consumer-products, healthcare, and technology companies, as well as individuals. In a highlight of her legal career, Melanie was part of the legal team that secured gay marriage rights for the western United States. She has also fought for LGBTQ rights in California and Ohio as a field organizer with the National LGBTQ Task Force.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in Orlando, Florida, and I played in the marching band, performed in musicals, and overall was pretty darn nerdy. My parents and sister and extended family are wonderful and loving, and I’m still very close with my family. Growing up, we hardly ever discussed sex or sexuality in my family — so it’s been pretty amazing to see everyone come out of their shell a bit since I founded Lorals.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I worked as a lawyer before founding Lorals, and my office building posted a weekly inspirational quote at the entryway. One week, during a time I was thinking about what I wanted out of my future, the quote was by Roy Disney: “It’s easy to make decisions when you know what your values are.”
I spent that week reflecting on my values and how they pertained to my future. What I ultimately landed on was that my greatest values are joy and love — and my goal in life should be to help people experience that. To love, to be loved, and also to create physical love with another person, are (in my opinion) the greatest feelings in life. I believe that love and joyful times are what help us get through all of the ups and downs of our lives; and I realized that I wanted to focus my life on helping people feel that more often.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I give much credit to the book What Color is Your Parachute. After a few years as a lawyer I started thinking about what I really wanted to be doing in 5, 10, 20 years. The eventual prospect of partnership seemed enticing but didn’t feel quite right, and I asked myself if I was continuing to be a lawyer because I wanted to, or because I thought I should. After much soul searching, with the help of What Color is Your Parachute, I realized that I wanted a job within a subculture focusing on destigmatizing taboos and facilitating love and happiness. I also wanted to use my lawyer-bred skills of management, communication, and passionate advocacy. Knowing my values was a major factor in eventually coming up with the idea for Lorals. When I reached that point, I’d saved up my money as an attorney, and I decided it was now or never.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
I originally envisioned Lorals as a dental dam replacement, after needing one during a romantic vacation — and feeling so stigmatized that a flappy sheet was the product for me. This was a definite ‘aha!’ moment, and even after the trip, when I went back to my lawyer job, I kept thinking about a potential alternative to dental dams that would also empower people to have more oral sex. I started having conversations with friends about their oral sex experience, and so many of them were saying ‘no’ to oral sex when they wanted to be saying yes. Some said no because they were worried about STIs, some said no because they felt self-conscious, some had been through sexual trauma and oral sex felt too intimate, and some turned it down because oral sex physically hurt. I started realizing how true this was in my own daily life — I was indeed familiar with turning down pleasure because of some of those physical and mental hurdles.
This was my second ‘aha!’ moment: empowering people to have more oral sex went beyond STI-prevention alone. I started speaking to doctors, and I learned that many people experience sensitivity or discomfort from direct genital contact, particularly at the onset of oral sex, and they might benefit from a barrier. Therapists I spoke to also suggested that those who have experienced trauma could also benefit from a barrier of this nature, as it could help provide a less-intimidating reintroduction to exploring pleasure and intimacy.
So in 2018, after consulting with many more women and people with vulvas, sex experts, and sexual health specialists, I quit my law job and took my knowledge and desire (no pun intended) to invent a patented sex tech product called Lorals — single-use natural latex panties that help people across the world have more frequent, and more pleasurable, oral sex. Designed to look like silk lingerie, and to hug the body like a comfy pair of briefs, Lorals panties are made of natural latex: ultra-thin and stretchy to allow sensations to pass through, and non-porous to block fluids, a partner’s scratchy facial hair, self-consciousness, or whatever is holding the receiver back from pleasure.
The product has since become a success, sold in retail and e-commerce stores globally. We are now pursuing FDA clearance of our products as STI-prevention devices — hands-free and beautiful alternatives to dental dams — in line with the original reason I created the product.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
If you have an actual good idea — an idea for a product that is (a) genuinely new (b) has demand and © is possible to create, then the main initial challenges are likely going to deal with financing, as well as mental hurdles related to fear, patience, and belief in yourself and your product. Inventing a product and bringing it to market is a process that takes enormous commitment, dedication, and self-belief. There really is no fully charted course for you to follow, and that can be very scary to even the most experienced of entrepreneurs. By the time I made the decision to move forward with Lorals, I had come to terms with the mental hurdles — once I made the decision that, yes, I was actually going to move forward, I was all in. And believe me, when you’re navigating this course, you’re going to need to be all in to have a chance at success.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
The internet is your friend! Search text and images for every conceivable iteration of your product. Then do the same on Google Patents. Ultimately, before spending the money to write a patent application, hire a law firm to conduct a patent search.
Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?
I am so deeply grateful to my first investors, Backstage Capital. Founder & Managing Partner Arlan Hamilton and General Partner Christie Pitts have kept me motivated and inspired, and when my company has faced hurdles, they have been there by my side (okay, via Zoom) to brainstorm and help me implement solutions. I’m also so fortunate for some of the strong friendships I’ve made with other founders.
For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
The biggest obstacle was finding a manufacturer, for so many reasons. The first issue was something I did not expect. I located a great US-based manufacturer who had a lot of experience making condoms. I told them the size of the product and that it was made of latex, and they were excited about the project. Then I told them that the product would be used for cunnilingus…and they disappeared. I emailed several times to follow up, and they finally told me that their management wasn’t comfortable with how the product would be used. It was so surprising and disappointing. Other potential manufacturers just weren’t interested in new products. Latex manufacturers have been turning profit for decades, many of them producing hundreds of millions of condoms and gloves per year, and that industry is on an upswing. Unless a factory has a serious entrepreneurial streak, they don’t really need to embark on new opportunities.
Another challenge in line with finding a manufacturer, was that I needed a factory that could make a very high-quality product. Lorals needed to be incredibly stretchy and not break, and they needed to be ultra-thin for maximum sensation. They also had to look and feel great, and have no remnants of a rubber odor or taste. That was a tall order. I ended up trying out a few factories, and the one I chose (miraculously) fit all of these criteria. Plus, they turned out a beautiful product. But even after we found ‘The One’, we still had to address several things. For one, mass producing thin latex clothing had never been done before. Most latex clothing is essentially glued together, and when the material becomes really thin, it’s hard to get a good seam. So in order to make a panty without any seams, we had to use a dip-molding manufacturing method — the same way condoms are made. Once we realized we had to use that method, we then needed to figure out how to make a dipping mould for this type of product. (A dipping mould is kind of like a piece of fruit on a stick that you dip into chocolate sauce.) And the Lorals dipping mould — the piece of fruit — is bigger than a condom dipping mould, so we had to figure out how to adjust condom-dipping machinery to work for Lorals.
Once we figured out all of these manufacturing logistics, we had to make sure the resulting product would make our users really happy: so, we had to make sure Lorals were extremely thin so the receivers could feel all of the sensations. We adjusted the design so that it would look and feel consistently fantastic across a variety of different body types. And we also wanted to make the material feel really silky and soft. And, like I mentioned before, we worked to remove the rubber scent altogether, so the experience would be enjoyable for both the giver as well as the receiver.
Eventually, we created a product that went beyond what we could have hoped for. One of the things that helped me to stay realistic and optimistic during this manufacturing process, came from reading accounts of other entrepreneurs’ experiences of their own manufacturing journeys. Understanding what can and has gone wrong in other peoples’ experiences helped me understand the types of things to watch out for while I was establishing my own processes.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was very intimidated by the thought of flying over the ocean to meet with factories alone. So I initially focused mainly on US factories, and on a method of manufacturing the product that I knew wasn’t the ideal. But then at one point I remembered — wait, I have traveled to other countries alone before, where I didn’t know the language. Why is it any different just because I have to take an 18-hour flight to get there? So, I set up appointments, took the long flight, and met with those factories on my own. And once I had actually made that decision that I was going to do this, it was like all the anxiety instantly dissipated. It’s funny how that works sometimes — I had built it up so much in my head, and it turned out to be a non-issue. Now I love traveling to my factory, and it’s a highlight of my job. But this was a great learning experience for me, and taught me that sometimes, the “just do it” mentality is the best way to break through hurdles that are in any part self-imposed.
The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
We started to get calls from major retailers and distributors, who had been wanting to carry a dental dam product for a while but wanted something new and unique. Customers had been going into their stores asking for dental dams, and that’s how these retailers and distributors eventually found me — just from searching the internet for alternatives to the dental dam and stumbling upon our website. We’re working on getting our FDA clearance now, so that we can take advantage of those opportunities.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
(1) The best people to manufacture your product might be out of the country. I found a ton of expertise and enthusiasm abroad. (2) Here’s a practical one — use standard packaging sizes whenever possible. Customizing boxes and packaging probably looks better in the end, but it’s easier to scale up if you start with something non-custom. (3) Make sure you maintain your social life and don’t get lost in your product. A supportive network will help keep you sane during the grind. (4) A cliché that is so true: hire people smarter than you, and then trust them to do their job. (5) Everything takes longer than you think it will, when it comes to inventing a product and bringing it to market. Be realistic in building your timelines, and know that even then, you’re going to have delays. To create timelines that make sense, ask many questions, don’t make assumptions and get help from people who are very experienced with the logistics side of bringing new products to market — look for people who have experience with the country in which you manufacture.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Start with a book like One Simple Idea — read through books like this, that are designed to help people go from idea to conception, and take notes on the areas that you have specific questions related to your product. Then do research on each of those areas, by reading another book, searching the internet, watching videos, and meeting with experts. For example, patents are mentioned in that book, and you might decide you want to learn more about those — then read a book about patents (Patent it Yourself by Nolo or even a “patents for dummies”-type book) and use that book to get prepared to meet with an expert (in this case a patent attorney).
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I hired plenty of consultants and experts along the way for portions of the process, but overall I’m glad that I managed the actual product development on my own. For me, part of the challenge and excitement was learning how to do this myself.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
It will differ for every inventor, every product, and every situation. There are plenty of resources out there to help you make these types of decisions. Check out your local SBA or SCORE; in LA we have a great organization called Bixel Exchange that matches mentors with tech entrepreneurs.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I will say that far and away, the most rewarding part of my job has been the feedback from customers sharing their stories about how Lorals have helped them. Lorals have been so helpful for women who are getting reintegrated to their sexuality after childbirth, or women who have faced past trauma and want oral sex to feel less intense. A trans man wrote us to say that he’s now able to enjoy oral sex while having it less associated with his genitals, and Lorals has been a powerful product for him. People are using Lorals with new partners to feel more comfortable having oral earlier in a relationship, and folks with clitoral sensitivity are using Lorals to feel less physical discomfort during oral sex. And another woman recently wrote us to say that she is in her 60’s and hadn’t ever included oral sex in her repertoire — but she is excited to do so now and is using Lorals to ease into it. I frequently speak to sex therapists who recommend Lorals for all of these use cases. That they are backing these products and seeing success with Lorals in their practice, is also incredibly gratifying.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We know that the sexual and reproductive choices of young people can have a ripple effect on their human rights. So I think that better, widespread, and inclusive sex education would set the foundation for some far-reaching benefits — at both the individual level and for society at large. Comprehensive sex education goes beyond simply teaching how to prevent sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies — it can teach young people about consent and healthy relationships; and sex ed can also be instrumental in addressing and preventing sexual violence and shifting conversations around sexual harassment and abuse. I think giving people the education they deserve, without attaching shame to sexuality, would do a great amount of good.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Mark Zuckerberg — so that I can convince him to change Facebook’s ad policy. Facebook has a history of banning certain ads for sex-related products, but not consistently. While they allow ads for erection pills and condoms, they deny ads focused on female pleasure. It’s frustrating for those of us with brands in the sex tech and sexual wellness space, because Facebook is arguably the best way startups can get the word out about their products. So, I’d love to meet with Zuck and put these sexist advertising standards to bed, so to speak, once and for all.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.