Cindy Gallop: ‘I want to be the Y Combinator of sex tech’

10 Jul 2015

Sex tech could give Silicon Valley enormous returns says Cindy Gallop, who is on a global mission to change society's dialogue around sex.

It isn’t just the Irish who are afraid to talk about sex, venture capitalists and financial institutions also tend to get a bit hot and bothered about the subject. That’s the view of MakeLoveNotPorn’s Cindy Gallop who wants to make sex one of the hottest areas of start-up activity.

Formidable and fearless are words you could easily use to describe Cindy Gallop, the founder of MakeLoveNotPorn and IfWeRanTheWorld. I prefer the alliteration of insightful, innovative and interesting.

As we talk in the foyer of the Marker Hotel, Gallop speaks with conviction about gender bias in the tech industry, the businesses she’s started and her views on sex and most importantly, people’s inability to talk openly and honestly about sex. She says more than once: “I cannot say it more emphatically: Ireland you need to open yourself up to talking about sex.”

Having grown up in a sexually repressed Ireland where you were told to confess “impure thoughts” at the confessional, I wholeheartedly agree.

After more than 30 years in advertising, Gallop made waves at the 2009 TED conference when she launched the MakeLoveNotPorn website to provide more relevant information on human sexuality than that provided by hardcore pornography.

‘Ireland: you need to open yourself up to
talking about sex’

She followed this up with IfWeRanTheWorld, a web platform designed to turn good intentions into action by allowing people and brands to easily coordinate “microactions.” Brands like Levi’s used the microactions platform to revitalise the manufacturing town of Braddock in Pennsylvania.

At the recent Inspirefest 2015 event in Dublin, Gallop said that she wants to see women making huge exits from start-ups. And, on the subject of the ongoing gender bias in the technology industry, she said, confidently: “All those barriers will fall away from all of us when we can prove that women can make a shit-ton of money.”

Selling fridges to eskimos

The road that brought Gallop to where she is today began at Somerville College at Oxford where she studied English literature. “Like everything in my life, things happen by accident. I fell in love with theatre at Oxford where there was a thriving student drama scene and I wrote, acted and stage-managed and just fell madly in love with theatre.

“I was good at drawing and drew the posters and I started helping with the promotions aspect and before I knew it I began a career as a theatre publicity marketing officer and I did that for years until I got fed up working every hour God gave me and earning chicken feed.”

Not much different to journalism then, I deadpan, and this fires Gallop up: “My time in theatre and advertising has given me a very strong belief that everyone should realise the financial value of what they create. Theatre and journalism are areas where ideas and creativity are often massively undervalued and often, strangely, by the creators themselves.

“I have a real issue with the mindset that because you choose to be an artist or a creative therefore you must starve in a garret. If you create something that gives other people pleasure you should see the financial return and the more people who enjoy it the greater the return should be. That was why I designed the business MakeLoveNotPorn the way I did. I feel strongly about how we undervalue creativity and art.”

‘I like to blow s*** up. I am the Michael Bay of business’

Gallop’s departure from theatre and into advertising was yet another accident. “I was marketing officer for a theatre in Liverpool and I was giving a talk to a community in Merseyside and afterwards this lady came up to me and said: ‘Young lady, you could sell a fridge to an Eskimo’. I thought that was the universe telling me something and I decided that it was time to go into advertising.”

Gallop’s career in advertising was meteoric and by the 1990s she was responsible for large accounts such as Coca-Cola, Ray-Ban and Polaroid.

She became known for her tagline: “I like to blow shit up. I am the Michael Bay of business.”

In 2003 she was named Advertising Woman of the Year from Advertising Women of New York and by 2006 she was running her own advertising business, Cindy Gallop LLC.

Let’s talk about sex


Cindy Gallop wants to change society’s conversation about sex matters

“MakeLoveNotPorn was an accident too. I never consciously planned it. It came out of direct personal experience.”

Gallop likes to date younger men in their twenties and realised that society’s inability to communicate about sex needed to be dealt with.

“I discovered an issue that would never have crossed my mind if it had not appeared so intimately and personally. I encountered what happens when today’s total freedom of access to hardcore porn online meets our society’s total reluctance to talk openly about sex. I realised that porn was by default becoming the sex education for a whole generation.

‘One of my frustrations is that people think of porn as one big homogenous mass, but it is as rich and varied as the world of literature’

“I found myself discovering a number of sexual behaviour memes. If I was experiencing this then other people must have been too.

“I am very action-oriented and decided to do something about it.”

Gallop feels strongly that society’s instinct to brush subjects like sex and porn under the carpet are causing greater harm than the blame being laid at the door of the porn industry.

She said, for example, that the average age that children are exposed to porn material on the internet has plummeted from eight down to six because of the ease of access to devices like smartphones. “It doesn’t matter what controls you have at home, kids live their lives in other places – the playground, friends’ houses. We live in a digital world and in many privileged homes kids can access tablets and smartphones and all they have to do is Google a naughty word and they are suddenly exposed to all kinds of material.

“When I talk to women and mothers – especially in Ireland – the word ‘porn’ is seen as all-encompassing and one of my frustrations is that people think of porn as one big homogenous mass, but it is as rich and varied as the world of literature.”

She argues that without society talking openly and rationally about sex, the chances of kids and teenagers being traumatised by what they discover is compounded by peer pressure and the wide open internet.

“I wish society would understand the opposite to what it believes is true. Women enjoy sex just as much as men and men are just as romantic as women, but neither gender is allowed to be open about it and state the fact.

“MakeLoveNotPorn is not anti-porn. We are buidling a platform with tools that make it easier for people to talk about sex – both publicly and generally and also openly and honestly in private in intimate relationships.”

Shortly after MakeLoveNotPorn began, was established in 2012 to make real-world sex socially acceptable and socially shareable.

“The problem is with society not talking about sex, people not learning about sex in schools, and the only place people will take their cues from is porn on the internet.

“Our role is not to censor, it is to open up the conversation, fund the entrepreneurs who want to disrupt the conversation for the better.

“I spent 30 years working in the business of communication and I know that the great things in life are born out of good communication and sex is no different.”

Why Silicon Valley needs to be turned on to sex tech

Despite her high-profile career and the popularity of MakeLoveNotPorn and IfWeRanTheWorld, Gallop points to an anomaly.

“My team and I fight and battle for every little piece of infrastructure that we use. This is because in the fine print of everything from finance to technology it says ‘no adult content’. I can’t get funded and I can’t find a bank anywhere in the world that will allow me to open a business bank account.”

“PayPal won’t work with us, neither will Amazon. We had to build an entire video-streaming platform from scratch because Brightcove won’t host our content.

“The entire adult industry has the same problem and, as a result, an entire industry has sprung up to serve the adult porn industry. But we aren’t the adult porn industry. We are on a social mission.”

The problem is compounded by the fact that operates a revenue-sharing model with creators.

Once again, Gallop believes the structures of the finance in the tech industry are pushing porn deeper underground and into a shadowy underworld.

‘We aren’t the adult porn industry.
We are on a social mission’

“Every bank that refuses to bank an honest, legal adult company, every payment provider that refuses to process payments and every business entity that refuses to work with adult companies, they are directly responsible for all the bad things that are happening the porn industry.

“The answer is not to censor or shut down, the answer is to open up. If you can’t allow a company like MakeLoveNotPorn to do business honestly then you are perpetuating the bad things and not helping somebody who wants to disrupt it for the better.”

Agent provocateur


Cindy Gallop on stage at Inspirefest 2015

In disrupting the adult industry for the better, Gallop says socially acceptable navigation and curation are needed. “There is no Yelp for porn because it is socially acceptable to talk about restaurants at the watercooler, but not about porn.

“I have many friends in the porn industry who are creating interesting pornography that is open, healthy and fantastic, especially female pornographers. But if you are a horny 16-year-old in Donegal you are going to go straight to and you are going to stay there. It’s not YouPorn’s fault, it is society’s fault for not being able to talk openly and honestly about sex in the first place.”

‘The only thing that breaks the cycle is
innovation and disruption’

Gallop says she is bringing a business perspective to the world of porn and sex tech that you won’t find in the pages of the Harvard Business Review or in the hallowed halls of Trinity College Dublin.

“Porn is like any other industry I studied as a business person. It has gotten so big, though, that it has gotten conventional. Just like reality TV which was pioneered 20 years ago and was so innovative, it has fallen into a morass with shows like Jersey Shore.

“The only thing that breaks that cycle is innovation and disruption.

“I am trying to open up the business world’s minds that the next big thing in technology is disrupting sex and I’m a champion and an advocate for disrupting the porn industry.

“If I can get MakeLoveNotPorn to make a shitload of money, I want to one day start an incubator or accelerator and venture fund for radically innovative sex tech and porn start-ups. I want to be the Y Combinator of sex tech.”

Gallop believes that sex tech and porn start-ups could actually produce returns way beyond anything Silicon Valley can dream of.

“I am working to raise a round of funding and if there are any open-minded investors in Ireland I would be happy to talk to them.”

She has a logic that is reminiscent of how VHS won out over Betamax in the video recorder standards battle of the late 1970s, mainly because the porn industry decided to support VHS.

Gallop just points to the fact that the single biggest grossing author on the planet is EL James, author of 50 Shades of Grey. “She has out-earned Dan Brown, Michael Crichton and Jim Patterson and the movie has just shattered box-office records.

“That is the financial power of socially acceptable, socially shareable sex.”

Cindy Gallop on-stage at Inspirefest 2015 (video)

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years