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Female Founders: Julia Margo of Hot Octupuss On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

You will never feel that you know enough, or have done enough, or worked hard enough. Ever. Get used to the feeling, accept it, and power though — I promise you, you’re doing great!

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julia Margo.

Hot Octopuss has made Julia Margo its new Chief Operating Officer, reinforcing its commitment to breaking barriers and creating sex toys that are both inclusive and promote wellness with pleasure. At this time, Margo will come on board to support the company as it launches a new range of innovative products, significantly broadening its portfolio to cater to the next generation of sex toy users.

Margo co-founded the premium British company in 2011 with Adam Lewis, but has since been working in an advisory role. As Chief Operating Officer, Julia will direct Hot Octopuss’s marketing department and lead its public relations team. Her expertise stems from roles in top UK organisations including the think tank Demos, the consumer group Which? and the medical research charity Genesis Research Trust.

Also a published author on social change, wellbeing and consumer issues, Julia will bring invaluable insight to Hot Octopuss as the company grows its global customer base and focuses efforts on lesser-served markets in the sex toy industry, including disabled and older consumers, with a range of inclusive products that stimulate pleasure and transcend pre-existing stigmas.

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?

My background is in a totally different field: I used to be a charity CEO, running children and family charities and before that I was a journalist at a national UK newspaper, and worked in think tanks on social policy. I’ve always been motivated by wanting to ‘make a difference’ and this took me through some interesting organisations and career paths. While I was on maternity leave from a domestic policy think tank with my first baby, my very old friend Adam Lewis (Hot Octopuss co-founder) approached me with an idea for a new penis toy.

He had been looking for a sex toy for himself and found that there really was nothing specifically for men on the market at that time. Vulva toys, designed for clitorises or penetration did not work well for him. He saw a gap in the market. In his research he had stumbled across a device that was used in IVF to help men with paralysis (spinal cord injury) and other severe erectile problems to ejaculate. He wanted to licence the mechanism from this device, which was able to deliver an involuntary ejaculation even from flaccid, and redevelop it into a sex toy.

He asked me to invest and help bring his idea to market and so together we created the world’s first “Guybrator” TM. This was a smaller, sexier and less powerful version of the medical device we had found but delivered the same type of oscillating stimulation that we knew would work for all men, whether they could get an erection or not. We knew from the start that our device was also going to work for men with all kinds of diseases and disabilities that impacted their sexual wellbeing, and thus our inclusive, accessible brand was born.

It took several years for the business to become a proper entity with a range of different products, and while Adam worked at Hot Octopuss full time from the start, I only went full time 4 years ago when it became too big for him to manage alone.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One of the first pieces of PR we did in the US was a campaign called ‘GuyFi”. We wanted to bring attention to the issue of masturbation and light-heartedly challenge the stigma around male masturbation in particular. The campaign was very simple: we took over a payphone booth in NYC, covered it in a black cloth and said it was a masturbation booth open for stressed out city workers to come and enjoy free access to online porn. What we didn’t expect was the level of interest this generated. We had queues down the street, the event was featured in Time Out in New York and we received a cease-and-desist notice from the mayor’s office!

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?

Adam and I were both in pretty professional workplaces before we started Hot Octopuss, and I think after we decided to go for it, we had this sense of freedom that we no longer had to play by anyone else’s rules. And we were entering the adult toys world — no rules there right? Absolutely wrong, of course. When we were designing the very first toy, Adam, who is an extremely open and helpful person, tried to show our brand-new designer exactly how it would work — by holding it over his genitals. Clothed of course but still — it’s not okay! I tried to help, repositioning it. The designer freaked out and left immediately, and I didn’t blame them. And we realised that just because we make sex toys don’t mean anything goes in the industry.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Well, it’s interesting that you say nobody can achieve without help — obviously once we had the idea and proposal, we did get industry interest and backing. Industry leaders such as WeVibe and Love Honey gave us some really brilliant advice and support. But what was fascinating to me was how discouraging most people in our lives were! They were friends who cared about us, but they really didn’t understand our vision. We were told we’d lose money, that it was a weird thing to do, that we were ruining our existing careers and we’d never be hired or taken seriously again. I love our friends but I’m glad we ignored them!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies.

In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I can’t speak for all women but my experience of working in both media and policy is that the higher up the food chain you go, the more it becomes a boy’s club and you have to fight to make yourself heard. I don’t know where I would have ended up, but I know it would have been harder to get a seat at the top table in an existing company than to form my own. That said, I think it’s often harder for women to make that leap because of the myriad reasons that hold women back in general — they want kids, or they have kids, and they won’t want to be an absent parent and believe running a company would take them away from their family for too many hours. And they’re not wrong, it’s a lot of work. I also think there are invisible expectations placed on women (or felt by women), to not be pushy, to not lean in or make themselves the loudest person in the room if that’s what it takes.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Visibility is key. We need female CEOs to make it their mission to make themselves as visible as possible so that when kids think about what they want to be, it doesn’t occur to them that a female CEO is some kind of trailblazing idea — it’s simply one of many options. That involves saying yes to speaking in schools, or doing interviews or appearing on tv — anything to normalise women in charge. I think schools need to address and puncture the myth of influencer culture as standard. I’m not putting influencers down as such, more power to them, but I worry that unless we explain the transient nature of influencer culture vs building a business with a vision, our future female leaders won’t realise that lasting success comes from focus, drive and ambition, not just accumulating likes.

I think the work culture has shifted post-pandemic to a more flexible approach, but it’s a shame we needed a global pandemic to create a way for mothers to work from home without recrimination or penalisation. We need to continue to mould work life around real life, not the other way around, until the culture shifts to accommodate everyone. And government subsidised childcare would really help more women flourish earlier in their careers.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

I know a lot of rhetoric in the culture today is about erasing gender norms, not perpetuating them, and I don’t rail against that, I love how differently we’re being encouraged to view sexuality and traditional roles. However, perhaps controversially, my lived experience is that women do experience life quite differently to men, especially after they’ve had children. Ignoring that inconvenient truth isn’t useful, but acknowledging it can be.

As a woman, I can bring lived experience and insight from how it feels to be a woman in a man’s world, to be a mum trying to get back into the workforce, to always feel like you’re letting someone down, however hard you work. I can use these feelings to encourage employees in the same position and I can use this experience to redesign work culture — in my own company — to address these different experiences, and make sure my female employees get the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

Our company began with one sex toy — for men. As soon as we began creating toys for women, I started getting involved in the design process. The point I’m making is, if women are part of your customer base (and they always are), you need a woman at the top to make sure all the men at the top know what their female customers are thinking. Because to be frank, they aren’t going to be able to get inside our heads on their own, are they?

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

Being a founder is like being a mum — everyone thinks you’re responsible, infallible and have all the answers and you really don’t! No founder knows everything about how to run their business. For example, I am not at all technical, and yet the technical innovation we’ve created with our toys and how they work, forms a core part of our marketing. But that’s the trick I think — a good founder knows their strengths and more importantly, knows which vital skills they lack. When I am hiring, I look for people who can do what I can’t. If a CEO thinks they can do everything they’re probably not great at any of it! You have to recruit smartly to fill your skill gaps.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

Anyone can have a great idea. Anyone can be a great team leader. And anyone can develop people skills. But even with all of that, you can find a new business and unless you’ve got the infrastructure and the dedication to bring the product to market, you’re going nowhere. That was my biggest learning from starting a business versus being an employee. There are ideas people, and there are action people, and to go from idea stage to sales is a huge, perilous, often exciting, often exhausting journey — and not everyone is cut out for that. And then, once you’ve gone to market, you can never take your eye off the ball. You have to attract and retain staff of the kind of quality that can do the job when you’re not available. You need to be able to pivot on your ideas, marketing strategies and more if the world around you changes, you need to motivate your people to do the same, and you need to never stop building your network. For a person who, say, is extremely talented in one area, the idea of having to do all that on top of being creative for money may not be appealing. That’s great for me — I’ll just hire them instead. My point is, you have to want to work holistically as a founder, so no, I don’t think everyone is cut out for it, and that’s ok!

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Success is not linear. You don’t start a business and watch it grow year on year in an expected growth trajectory. We had an absolute explosion of sales in lockdown (for obvious reasons!) and when things calmed down a little the year after we had to remind ourselves that we always have to take external factors into account, as well as risks that may or may not pay off.
  2. Critique is a gift, even if it doesn’t feel like one! When we would first test a new product, we’d been working on, we’d always ask for feedback, and if the feedback was brutal, it would really hurt because the journey to that point had been so long. But that was before we realised how incredibly vital criticism is and without it, however painful, we’d never be able to create toys that really give our customers what they want. No criticism, no learning. It’s that simple.
  3. Ignorance is bliss! If I had known how much I had to learn, how much I’d need to teach myself, how unbelievably complex the journey would be, how many times I’d need to pivot or rally or change an entire direction at the last minute — I am honestly not sure I’d have done it. But that’s the beauty of not knowing — you have no idea so you just go for it. Once you look back, you’re almost daunted retrospectively but that’s a far better way to be — because look what you’ve achieved simply by not knowing what you were doing/
  4. Working smarter is better than working harder. For the first few years we ran ourselves ragged. Now, through working on the business for several years, I have worked out how to work smarter, more efficiently, and where and when to stop something if it’s clear the idea isn’t working or financially viable. I never wanted to be a slave to my desk, and of course the first few years you’ll need to go the extra mile, but if you find yourself working till past midnight ten years in, maybe you need to rethink what “hard work” actually means.
  5. You will never feel that you know enough, or have done enough, or worked hard enough. Ever. Get used to the feeling, accept it, and power though — I promise you, you’re doing great!

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Before Hot Octopuss became the go-to manufacturer of disability-friendly sex toys, I had never given sex and disability much thought. But once we started focusing on pleasure for everyone, it started to open up this whole world, this whole niche market that was not only untapped, but as far as I am concerned, extremely vital. So I don’t know if I’d be so bold as to say I’ve made the world a better place, but if I’ve helped to destigmatise sex and disability even for just one person, if I have made it easier for just one person to find the sex toy that they can easily use in a sea of toys that simply don’t work for them — I consider that making the world a better place. And of course, this isn’t something I can talk about with real-world experience, so I hired an incredibly talented disabled woman whose job it is to help the business navigate this area.

I’m also extremely involved in charity work, especially around the issues of domestic abuse, childcare and education, and any time I am asked to use whatever standing and influence I have to make a difference in any of these areas, I feel genuinely honoured. I’m currently in the process of setting up a peer-to-peer counselling service for mothers going through the family courts, which I hope will make this process (currently extremely harrowing) a little less daunting.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I am committed to destigmatising sex and disability and I’m open to any ideas in that area, both business related and beyond. It’s not an area I think I ever would have ventured into without Hot Octopuss, and I am so so grateful I did. Not only is it absolutely vital to serve every community, the purple pound is real and powerful! But I would love it if anything Hot Octopuss did regarding sex and disability helped other businesses and individuals change their perspective as well. I’d like everything we do to inspire other businesses to be inclusive. Not only is it right, it makes financial sense. But nothing about us without us — never go down the route without having someone from that community working with you!

We are very blessed that some very prominent 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’d love to have brunch with the original lean-in lady powerhouse, Shery Sandberg. I think we’d have a LOT to talk about over mimosas! I’d even give her a bunch of our products if she was up for it.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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