Sex Toy Story: Jimmyjane’s Ethan Imboden Wants to Make Vibrators as Common as iPhones

Published on September 30, 2013
by John Paczkowski

Jimmyjane founder Ethan Imboden and the Hello Touch

Jimmyjane founder Ethan Imboden and the Hello Touch

Before he designed vibrators, Jimmyjane founder and chairman Ethan Imboden spent more than a decade designing cellphones, footwear and furniture for the likes of Motorola, Herman Miller and Nike. So, when he finally turned his attention to luxury sex toys, he had considerable consumer electronics acumen to apply to them. And that has served him well in his quest to turn a once-taboo device into a lifestyle accessory as commonplace as an electric toothbrush.

Imboden has been called the Steve Jobs of sex toys (though perhaps “the Jony Ive of sex toys” is more appropriate), and while that’s a characterization he said he’s not entirely comfortable with, it’s easy to understand. With Jimmyjane, Imboden has reimagined a massive industry, bringing holistic, intuitive design and taste to a pleasure goods market sorely lacking in it. Which is not to say that the company’s Millennium Falcon-esque Form 2 or its latest offering, the wearable Hello Touch, are the iPhones of sex toys; just that the focus on design and consumer experience that went into their design, their almost visually asexual aesthetic, disrupted a complacent sex-toy industry in the same way that the iPhone upended the smartphone market.

Indeed, Jimmyjane’s market is in many respects the same one to which high-end consumer electronics companies like Apple cater: People drawn to considered design and thoughtful engineering. Says Imboden, “Our customers are the same people looking to buy the latest iPad or a sleek new smartphone. They really do care about how things are made.”

In an interview with AllThingsD, Imboden talked about differences between designing a cellphone and vibrator, and how he used design and technology to mainstream vibrators and tap into a multibillion-dollar market for luxury sex toys.

John Paczkowski: Why vibrators? Was there a precursor to this idea, or something that led you to it?

Ethan Imboden: Well, after I founded my own design firm, I was approached by three different people with ideas pertaining to sex products. And the fact that those three clients came to me independently of one another, all with something in the sex-product arena, caught my attention.

So I went to a trade show with one of them who was looking at the intersection of the Internet of things and sex products — the connected vibrator, basically. After years of designing everything from toothbrushes to footwear to cellphones to furniture, I was kind of intrigued by the category. So I went to my first trade show, and saw what was out there. And my sense was that something very different was needed. The world wasn’t crying out for teledildonics, the world was just crying out for a better sexual experience. There was this chasm between what people were looking for and what was actually available to them. And what was available to them were products that were cheap and mass produced and scary-looking.

And I had an epiphany, I guess. Design and technology hadn’t really been brought to bear on this category. You know, “design with a capital D.” Designing for experience, and looking at how technology might intersect this category.

You mentioned earlier that you’ve designed smartphones and toothbrushes and a broad swath of other consumer products. What commonalities have you found between designing products like those, and designing vibrators?

Honestly, the difference isn’t as significant as you might think. It’s kind of like the difference between simians and humans, where there’s only a minor difference in the actual DNA, and the rest is the same. It’s a bit like that.

I think the reason I became so intrigued by this category is that it seemed to me an ultimate case study in how much impact design can have, not just in reshaping a product or a product category, or even an industry, but in reshaping the perception of all of those things together. You know, changing fundamentally the consumer’s understanding of an experience of a very important area of their lives.

There was this other much larger and alluring scope to what I felt Jimmyjane could be and what could be accomplished in this category. I hadn’t seen that opportunity anywhere else, to really take something from zero to 100 and to really have an impact along the way. Because, on the surface, Jimmyjane makes nice-looking vibrators and some other stuff, but in reality — and maybe I’m talking to myself here — but in reality, I think what we’re doing is really rearranging a market and an industry from within and putting it onto a completely different path.

Do you feel like you’ve been successful in doing that?

I don’t think anyone would argue that the industry isn’t on a completely different path today than it was before we entered it. People may debate how much of that is due to Jimmyjane and others, but the industry today is clearly different from how it was before we entered it.

So, how did you rearrange the vibrator market from the inside?

By approaching it as a design problem, and using the same sort of strategic thinking that I would apply to developing a new line of eyewear for Nike or a cellphone for Motorola. Seeing what happens when the design disciplines and manufacturing methodologies that you’d use to develop those products are applied to vibrators.

How difficult of a design problem was it?

It was challenging. It required a whole new level of attention and nuance. With vibrators, we’re talking about ergonomics, we’re talking about inserting a product into the body often. We’re definitely talking about areas of the body that physiologically, ergonomically, are really, really different from one person to the next. Then you have to consider how differently everybody’s sexuality is from an emotional and a psychological standpoint. There’s a whole other layer of complexity here.


So, what informed your decision to avoid emulating anatomy? That seems to me a pivotal call in Jimmyjane’s evolution, and one that likely played a big role in your rearranging the category from the inside, as you said earlier.

Definitely pivotal. I think that I had an unfair advantage as an outsider to the industry. When I walked into that first trade show, I had very strong reactions to what I saw. I was taken aback by some things, and intrigued by others. The whole thing was titillating and yet repulsive. So much of what was happening around the products was just generating noise. They were laden with all sorts of baggage; the packaging with the porn stars and association with pornography — a vibrator really has nothing to do with pornography. And the products themselves were incredibly … extroverted. They were extremely expressive in terms of shape. Not only were they often anatomically representational, but they were anatomically representational with, like, a penguin grafted onto the side. It was just a freak show. And it’s hard for somebody to focus on their own pleasure when something is demanding so much visual, cognitive and emotional attention.

So you got rid of the porn stars and the penguins.

We focused on the user experience. We wanted our products to be about the person, not the object. We wanted to create an object of desire, but one that fades into the background in support of a connection with oneself or with a partner. So we moved away from those anatomical forms, and the penguins. We weren’t trying to emulate something — we were looking to support something, and that supporting role took a very different aesthetic.

You were among the first companies to use design to reposition vibrators and make them a more mainstream consumer product. And you seem to have tapped into a big, eager market by doing that. How much do you worry about intellectual property?

I don’t worry about it so much as we very actively protect it. I’m very patent-friendly and intellectual-property-oriented, personally, and I think that part of that comes from my original background as an engineer, and so I’ve, over the years, done a lot of work in the patent space for different clients in conjunction with different projects, so it was very natural for me to do that here, as well.


Have you asserted patents against anyone, or had cause to?

… I’ll put it this way: Our patents have already demonstrated value.

Where is vibrator tech headed? Your latest device, the Hello Touch, attaches to a user’s fingertips and looks absolutely nothing like a vibrator. So, what’s next? Or what would you like to see?

These days, I’m thinking a lot about mapping technology onto the body in a way where the technology can really disappear into the experience. I think a lot of what I’m intrigued by right now is more vibration and more sensation, less vibrator, and it’s less and less about the object — it’s more and more about the experience, or dematerializing the tools of the vibrator, if you will. There’s this bridge between technology and the reality of humanity. I think that’s what Jimmyjane does really well, and that’s where we’ll continue to go.

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