When Dema Tio first entered his smart vibrator, Vibease, in Startup Asia 2012, the main organisers offered to give him a full refund on his booth. “First he asked me if it was a joke because it’s not like everyday you see a kinky sex toy amidst all the other technological startups… Then we were suddenly the crowd favourite of the Arena,” Dema accounted. We were talking a day after Startup Asia Singapore 2014, where Dema was present, this time as one of the popular conference speakers on hardware production.
For those who are unfamiliar with Vibease, it is essentially a smart wearable vibrator that links to your personal device, and synchronises its movements with the paired app plays erotic materials. It uses a Bluetooth connection, and is designed to be visually appealing, accessible, and discreet for constant use. The directions of usage is relatively straightforward, in which the vibrator is first connected to the iPhone or Android mobile, then a “fantasy story” is selected (E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey? Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus?), and the user just has to put on her headphones and enjoy the story in an auditory sensual fashion. As their website said it best, “The Vibease lets you enjoy every second of the journey all the way up until the exciting intense “conclusion”.”
There are a lot of features that allow Vibease to stand out as a hardware startup itself, but its definitive edge is the strong enthusiasm from its founders. Dema’s marriage of five years to his wife in Singapore was usually occupied with business trips abroad, leading to the strain of long distance relationships. They tried to connect through Skype, but Dema knew that it was always easier for the men than their counterparts. So Vibease started out as a solution for long distance intimacy, and Dema dedicated most of his time researching on the female orgasm, copulation statistics, and garnering surveys to really access his audience base’s needs and desires. He quit his job about three years ago to tackle Vibease full term, as it was not only a “fun project providing lots of fun”, but also something that he really believed in.
“When we first started, there were tons of resistance. It was primarily because the porn industry diluted the vibrator’s image. The men mainly perceived vibrators as the huge thing in their “movies”, and the women were socially reserved,” explained Dema, “People need to understand that the vibrator was once solely meant for medical purposes, and Vibease is here to provide better sexual health wellness.” Pushing Vibease’s sincere notion towards the women, Dema also shared that the slick design of Vibease was carefully shaped under the eyes of experts and professionals. “The original design did not include any insertion action and it never will. We had experts who told us that men’s simulation were mainly due to visual sights, while women were more delicate and emotional, leading to a desire for sensitivity and personal fantasies. So what we have provided is a gadget is that more fun, and has facts, data and statistics backing it up,” he said.
Right now, Vibease is based between Singapore and San Francisco, with Dema often stationed at Shenzhen for periods of time to monitor the manufacturing process. He works closely with his team, Steven Kik and Hermione Way, and they all handle different aspects of Vibease, such as mobile/web development and the San Francisco headquarters. When it came down to the manufacturing process, Dema was familiar with the scene as he used to be a software engineer. “The satisfaction is entirely different, and the best part is that people actually want to use it,” he said. He went on to explain that most of the hardware startup founders sit together with the factory workers to ensure that the entire process is smooth. “There is no way you can tell them, “This is my product and this is what I want,” and expect magic to happen,” Dema emphasised, “All we have learnt about hardware is from the books big companies like Apple, Samsung and LG write, but amazing as they are, a small startup cannot afford it. For me, I learn from other founders how to navigate from China factories, and ensure the individuality and quality. I will always remember the day I saw Makerbot’s Zach Smith sitting in the assembly line of his factory.
How about their current reception from their crowdfunding days over at Indiegogo? Dema estimated about an audience usage of 50% in the United States (US), another 30% in Europe and the rest in Asia, concentrating from Singapore. The company was registered in US as their motive was more socially accepted in the country, and people were already starting to see vibrators in a light that was more healthy than kinky. In short, people in Asia use it but they don’t talk about it, making it hard for Vibease to build an audience network. Perhaps it is because of the male ego mentality that is so often accentuated by conventional notions of sex. Dema shared that one of the possible reasons why women failing to attain orgasms 50% of the time was because sexual education often equalled to porn, making the content meant for men and not the women’s pleasure.
The internal software paired to Vibease also plays a crucial role in ensuring the hardware works. In Vibease’s website, there is a section called “Fantasy Submission” and Dema explained that it was because everyone wanted different fantasies, and crowdsourcing was the best way to get the content and ensure the quality. The submission is still open, as Vibease will always look out for good fantasies to release. “At the end of the day, the story doesn’t have to be erotic. It could just be a love story,” said Dema.
Vibease may be the brainchild of Dema, but it wasn’t the only thing that he was keen on sharing. “I really love to share my experiences with people. A lot of people say that hardware is hard, but the actual work is ten times harder than what is in your mind. There are people in China, completely done with hardware, and they don’t ever ask for anything when they teach you everything. I want to share my experiences and tell Singapore that I made it happened. You can only learn it from the people,” he said.
Following that with a piece of advice for unconventional startups looking to push the envelope, he only has this to say, “Despite your startup’s potential, you still got to have some conventional facts to back up your startup. I am not recommending people to make a lot of sexual products now, but if you choose to, then do your research. If you believe it, people will understand over time. Aim to be an expert so that then you can make your startup genre mainstream.”