Crave’s Ti Chang: The rare female designer in adult toys

March 13, 2013, 5:24 PM UTC
Crave’s Ti Chang

FORTUNE — It’s safe to say, most people don’t want their careers linked to whatever experiences they may have had in a sex shop. But designer Ti Chang doesn’t see why sex toys should be considered so taboo.

Chang, 33, received an industrial design degree from Georgia Institute of Technology and a graduate degree in design from the Royal College of Art in London. After finishing grad school, she began to design products for big companies, but didn’t feel fulfilled. In 2008, when the world economy turned upside down, she pursued an idea she’d had in the back of her head: bringing high-end design to sex shop products. Chang started a company called Incoqnito, and was networking at a trade show when she met entrepreneur Michael Topolovac. They realized their ideas about product design lined up. In 2011, the pair officially launched Crave.

Their first product, a half-USB, half-vibrator called the Duet, is the first crowdfunded sex toy ever. Last September, Chang realized she was on to something when over 900 donors gave Crave more than $100,000 to build the Duet — it was 694% of the founders’ original goal.

Ti Chang spoke with Fortune about how to bring quality design to a stigmatized industry. An edited transcript is below.

Fortune: When did you realize that you could bring your design background to something like sex toys?

Ti Chang: I remember going into a sex shop in Boston. I looked around and said, “You’ve got to be joking.” That’s when it dawned on me that, while we have beautifully designed iPhones and laptops, the sex toy space is so heavily stigmatized that it doesn’t draw a lot of talent.

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So I started a company called Incoqnito — I wanted to expand the definition of what sex toys were beyond traditional vibrators. I created this concept of foreplay jewelry that you can wear outside of the bedroom and also has a sexual function, but it’s very discreet.

How did you come up with that idea?

I was people watching in New York, and I saw this woman wearing a vibrator like a necklace.


Yeah. It wasn’t a Rabbit or anything nuts like that, it was super sleek and stainless steel, and was probably four inches long and smaller in diameter than a dime.

I remember thinking, “Yeah, why the fuck not?” She was an elegant woman. She carried herself very well, and I completely admired the fact that it was so nonchalant. I think it would be great if one day our culture could get that way about sexuality for women.

What are some common misconceptions about designing specifically for women?

Making everything pink. That would be a big misconception. At the same time, there are a lot of women who like pink, but the problem is knowing your audience and knowing what type of pink to choose and what other colors they like, and giving women real options that are designed for their lifestyle.

Do you feel like you have an advantage as a female designer in this space?

I think it gives me an advantage. Anatomically also. Just kidding. Well no, not really. In the sex toy industry, even though a lot of these toys are for women, they’re pretty much conceived by men. In this space, there just haven’t been too many people like me. I’m actually CAD-ing products, printing 3-D models, and also doing the ethnographies and interviews.

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What is it like to move from entrepreneur to co-founder?

More paperwork, probably. But I really don’t think of myself as an entrepreneur in the strict Valley sense in terms of raising tons of money and doing VC pitches. That’s one of the main reasons Michael and I joined forces.

I would say, as a co-founder of Crave, it was a very natural transition in that I didn’t feel like my philosophy was being compromised at all.

How do you rally a team of employees around that philosophy?

It’s actually a lot easier than you think. We have less than half a dozen people here plus a constant revolving door of interns and people who just love what we do. The people that we tend to attract are motivated because they believe there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be just as well-designed sex toys as there are printers and laptops.

Do you still face some hurdles that makers of printers and laptops don’t?

Some people think sex toys mean you’re in the porn industry, and that’s just not the case. I have to admit, my parents did think that when I first told them. Luckily, they kind of got over that. My mom was so on board with me having my first company. My dad was a lot more hesitant.

This industry is changing, but still, when you say “sex toy,” immediately people think of huge dongs, they don’t think there’s such a thing as luxury toys. That’s not a natural search term.

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How, as a business leader, do you work within a hidden or stigmatized market?

When we first started the company, we did a crowdfunding project. We wanted to fund our [sex toy] Duet on Kickstarter but we were not actually allowed on the site. So we went to another more design-centric crowdfunding site. And I was shocked at the kind of coverage we got on Techcrunch and Gizmodo. At our peak, we were getting one tweet a minute. That was one of the things that made me realize people are looking for this. We actually made the first sex toy to be crowdfunded ever. Had we not done the project, I would have been a lot less sure.

Now, we get quite a lot of fan mail. People are really glad that we’re doing what we’re doing.