Female Disruptors: Lilly Sparks of xoafterglow.com On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
My first start-up experience was in the natural foods industry. My head of sales would always say “Vanilla. Vanilla. Vanilla. Chocolate.” Did you know every ice cream company still gets 60–75% of its sales from Vanilla!?? What he meant was that it’s all about focus.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry,I had the pleasure of interviewing Lilly Sparks, founder and CEO of xoafterglow.com.
Lilly Sparks creates companies to lust after. afterglow, Lilly’s pandemic-born love affair, produces steamy, ethical films that inspire more “HELL YES!” sex & intimacy in real life. The hardest part of this new venture? Determining whether she’s more turned on by the business or pleasure of it.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started my career as an accountant. You can’t make a larger career jump than from accountant to pornographer, but that’s what I did! It all started from my first relationship. I was with my high school sweetheart from age 15 to 30. I loved romance novels and read them voraciously, but when it came to my own sex life, I was lost. I was reading all this hot, steamy sex in books when in real life I wasn’t even orgasming. We were each other’s first and only partners, and I hadn’t ever explored my own body. I felt alone and embarrassed, and I didn’t know where to look for resources. When I watched porn, I didn’t see the kind of sex I wanted to have represented. After my marriage ended, I came into my own sexually and gained the confidence I’d been searching for. I started afterglow because I wanted to create a resource for people like me, people who want to explore their sexier sides have some fun. People who like porn but want more than a quick fix, peple who want something that’s going to make their real sex lives better, too.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
We’re in the middle of a long-term trend around releasing taboos. We’ve seen it everywhere from mental health, where we’re normalizing seeking help and discussing struggles, to cannabis, where new research is proving medical benefits for conditions like seizures and chronic pain. But sex is still something we can’t talk about, even with our closest friends! I’m disrupting that narrative and pushing us to talk about sex. To honor sexuality as part of being human. Whatever you’re into, you’re not alone. The biggest players in the adult industry don’t worry about the cultural impact of the work that they do. Afterglow does. We’re removing the shame and stigma around sex and porn and opening up conversations about authentic pleasure through sex. That’s why at xoafterglow.com you’ll find not just videos, but sexual wellness tidbits like guided masturbation and a cunniligus excerise to do with your partner.
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?
When I first started afterglow, I knew nothing about filmmaking or the adult industry. For my first shoot, I hired performers and crew that were new to the industry. We have this idea in our society that anybody can do porn, that it doesn’t take any talent. That’s false. It was a disaster. Now I tell people — If you want high quality accounting, you wouldn’t use an accountant who’d never done taxes before. It’s the same thing with every industry!
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
My biggest mentor has been Allie Oops, who produced our first films. She fiercely rid me of so many misconceptions about the adult industry. When I first started afterglow I thought what many of us believe — that the porn industry encouraged exploitation and trafficking. This is not true. Mainstream professional sets follow key ethical guidelines like discussing the script and having boundary discussions before shooting, and allowing performers to take breaks if they start to become uncomfortable. Most people don’t know that the definition of porn includes it being between two consenting adults. If it’s not, its sexual abuse material. Every industry has some bad actors and porn is no different, but to blame the whole industry for the behavior of a few is exactly what leads to the shame and stigma. Performers always tell me that their worst experiences have been judgment from neighbors and friends, not how they are treated on set.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
The adult industry has always been at the forefront of technology changes and a force for disruption. It’s the reason that VHS won out over Betamax. PornHub was founded only a year after YouTube, causing huge disruptions and conglomeration to the large, diverse DVD and paysite landscape. And now, the adult industry is one of the first to adopt cryptocurrency. The mainstream tries to ignore and deplatform adult media despite it being huge and influential. Embracing it has been a key force for growth for everything from Tumblr to OnlyFans.
When it comes to disruption, I believe that it matters WHY disruptors are being disruptive. Are they just trying to make a bunch of money or do they genuinely want to create a positive impact on the world? Disruption for disruption’s sake is just chaos. True disruptors see the subtle shifts in how the world is changing and find the right moment in time to make their move.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
My first start-up experience was in the natural foods industry. My head of sales would always say “Vanilla. Vanilla. Vanilla. Chocolate.” Did you know every ice cream company still gets 60–75% of its sales from Vanilla!?? What he meant was that it’s all about focus. It’s easy to get distracted by shiny objects like fancy flavors. More businesses get killed by costly mistakes and side projects than by focusing too much on their core products and customers. I always remember to focus on what’s driving most of my revenue and what my customers want.
My good friend always says “Create before you consume.” With endless social media these days, its so easy to spend all your time thinking about what other people are doing and worrying about not measuring up. The FOMO is real. When I get in a distraction loop, I forget who I am and what I’m about. It feels terrible, like I’ll never reach my goals and everybody is succeeding while I’m failing. To avoid this, I structure my days carefully and include time blocks for creativity, focused work and strategic thinking. Otherwise I’d be forever answering emails instead of focusing on the important work I’m doing. I also remind myself that what I’m seeing in the press or on social media is at best half the true story, in reality everybody struggles.
My dad loved to say “It doesn’t matter where you’re going, what matters is who you’re with.” Being disruptive means pushing against the status quo and there are MANY forces pushing back. I try to surround myself with people who are supportive, and who have my back when times are tough. When I look back on my journey thus far, its not the festival awards or accolades that matter most. It’s the fun times I’ve had with my team. The people I’ve gotten to work with and see grow. I love what I’m doing and want to work with others that do, too.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I just launched xoafterglow.com a few months ago, and it already has thousands of users enjoying hot videos, exercises and articles. There’s stuff from the best experts in the space — from adrienne maree brown to Loveline host Dr. Chris Donaghue. I love imagining all the orgasms that I’ve made happen. Now I’m doing a website makeover to make it a comfortable space to explore sex and make it fun, like it should be. We’re also working on new original content with stars like Jet Setting Jasmine.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women disruptors are underestimated every step of the way, because we’re socialized not to take credit, not to be exceptional. I recently had a coach tell me I shouldn’t say “we” when referring to afterglow, I should say “I”. And she’s right. I had said “We launched our MVP two months ago.” A man would say “I launched the MVP two months ago.” I’d probably be more successful if I said “I” more. But I didn’t do it alone, and I want to honor that. I’m happier succeeding as a team. This is a small example of the kinds of everyday challenges I face as a female disruptor.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
One of my recent favorites has been Existential Kink. It’s about embracing the repressed, taboo, and often unwanted aspects of ourselves so we can rid ourselves of shame and feel free to experience pleasure (even guilty pleasure.) It’s about taking ownership and accountability for everything in your life. As a CEO, I’m ultimately responsible for everything that happens in my company, and this book has allowed me to have more fun with this great weight. Now when things go wrong I get to whisper to myself that some part of my psyche is secretly kinkily into it ;)
You are a person of great influence. 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. :-)
afterglow is the movement that I’ve started. I believe in the immense power of pleasure. In owning your sexuality instead of abandoning it. Imagine what the world would be like if we didn’t have sexual shame and trauma? Sex is supposed to be fun, hot, an enjoyable for all parties involved. If it’s not we shouldn’t be doing it. Everybody deserves that.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m a huge fangirl of the Avatar the Last Airbender series, and particularly Uncle Iroh. He has countless tidbits of wisdom and life lessons. One of my favorites is “Hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.” Fighting against our culture’s views on sex has many tough days. There are days that I wonder if I’m going to fail, or if I’m good enough or strong enough or smart enough or whatever enough. In those moments I try to take a pause and to meditate, and when I do I imagine Uncle Iroh as one of my company advisors and ask him what he would do in the situation. He always has good things to say!
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!