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CalExotics Founder and CEO Susan Colvin Reflects on Brand's 30-Year Legacy

CalExotics Founder and CEO Susan Colvin Reflects on Brand's 30-Year Legacy

Thirty years ago, back when there were only hard plastic sex toys in tan and black, Susan Colvin had a vision of what sex toys could be. And so she set out to create her own company, California Exotic Novelties, which for three decades has been a pioneer, continually reimagining and expanding the pleasure products market.

Today, CalExotics is a globally recognized manufacturer providing a wide range of intimacy goods for all kinds of customers across every category and price range. In our interview, Colvin shares her journey with CalExotics, which she continues to helm with passion, along with her insights on the industry that she has helped to shape and continues to influence to this day.

Our goal is to continue to grow our brand by offering the best products and services.

XBIZ: What was the impetus for you to start CalExotics?

Colvin: In the mid-1980s, I became the general manager for the distribution companies California Publishers Liquidating Corporation (CPLC) and Video Team. The companies distributed adult products, focusing on videos and magazines, with a small novelty division, Swedish Erotica. During that time, video dominated the market and sex toys made up a very small portion of the business, since the target market was almost entirely male consumers and their primary purchases were adult films and magazines. Sex toys were relegated to the back of the store and were often an afterthought for consumers and business owners.

At the time, vibrators were made of simple materials — mainly hard plastic. They had loud motors and boasted very few selling features. The toys were made in muted and limited colors and the packaging was very basic. Generally, the products were unimaginative devices that lacked innovation, style and reliability.

The more I learned about the sex toy market, the more potential I saw. I knew I could do things differently, and I believed that consumers were ready and eager for a change. I wanted to make better-quality, more reliable products in fun and playful colors, and make products that catered to women and couples. I also wanted to change the packaging and make it more inviting for all types of consumers. This was the inspiration for California Exotic Novelties, known today as CalExotics.

When CPLC disbanded, I purchased their small division of toys, Swedish Erotica. The brand was known in the pleasure products community, and my goal was to expand and grow the business. To keep things simple for our customer base, we kept the product item number structure with the leading SE, which is why our products lead with the SE designation. I changed the name from Swedish Erotica to California Exotic Novelties, officially relaunched the company on Jan. 1, 1994 and opened the doors of our headquarters on the corner of Halldale and Adams in Los Angeles. After six months, the company outgrew that location and moved to the quiet community of Chino, California, where it eventually expanded to three buildings.

XBIZ: CalExotics has a long list of industry firsts. Can you share some of the highlights?

Colvin: As the first female-founded pleasure products company, CalExotics revolutionized the industry by introducing products that were more inclusive of couples and people of all genders, identities, sexual preferences and orientations. In addition, CalExotics was the first to introduce “feminine” colors like pink and purple, the first to release a waterproof line of toys, the first to offer manufacturer warranties, the first to make products using 100% premium silicone, the first to bring an eco-friendly, solar-powered toy to market, the first to have an all-female product development team — and the list goes on.

XBIZ: In what ways do you think CalExotics has impacted the pleasure industry?

Colvin: From Day 1, the company sought to change the industry. It started with an all-women team of product developers. This dynamic became the cornerstone of the company’s mission. We set our sights on a more inclusive customer base, starting with women and couples, which led CalExotics to introduce many innovations.

Many thought it was crazy to cater to women and couples. They felt the market couldn’t bear higher price points and that consumers didn’t care about better-quality products with sharper packaging. In fact, for us packaging became a priority and marketing was a focus. We were the first company to do photo shoots for our catalogs and marketing material. The art was tastefully done and only graphic when it needed to be. CalExotics also introduced the first vibes in vibrant colors, such as pink, purple and many others.

In 1994, it was common to hear people say things like, “We have three plastic vibes in two styles. That’s more than enough! Why would we need more colors or styles?” Now, three decades later, we’ve changed the business of pleasure forever.

XBIZ: What do you love most about the industry?

Colvin: The people! The people in our industry are the most passionate, caring individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Whether you are a customer, vendor or even competitor, we all share a proud sense of community.

The industry also has many shared goals and concerns, and we all rally together to help each other overcome obstacles. We know we are stronger together, and we put our differences aside for the greater good. This is especially evident in the industry’s work with the Free Speech Coalition. Companies and individuals throughout the industry come together to help protect our rights and freedoms.

XBIZ: What have been the biggest challenges in the past 30 years?

Colvin: One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced has been changing consumer perceptions. In the early days, consumers, especially women, were uncomfortable with these types of products. Our primary goal as a company has been to help change this. We started with more inclusive products, with fun colors and more inviting packaging, and we also ensured our products were easy to use and made with higher-quality materials. Another area that we focused on was consumer confidence. CalExotics was the first company to offer a warranty in this product category and this was a huge step in boosting consumer confidence. We wanted consumers to feel good about buying our products and know that the company stood behind them and would help if needed. This has been one of the most challenging parts of the business and is still something we continually work on.

XBIZ: What have been some major milestones for CalExotics over the years?

Colvin: Many developments have pushed us, challenged us and helped us grow. One of the biggest developments for CalExotics was when Jack Rabbit gained mainstream acceptance. Its popularity exploded when the now-famous “Sex and the City” episode “The Turtle and the Hare” aired in 1998. Though Charlotte didn’t specifically use a Jack Rabbit on the show, rabbit-style vibes in general became legendary. As a result, the sales of the CalExotics Jack Rabbit increased dramatically and became a household name. Thirty years later, the Jack Rabbit is still one of the world’s all-time bestselling pleasure products.

Another mainstream moment that helped put our company in the spotlight was when Oprah Winfrey featured our Dr. Laura Berman massager on her popular television show in 2009. This catapulted CalExotics into prominence, making us a household name and giving us the influence we needed to show people that our products were important and should be embraced by everyone.

In 2015, California Exotic Novelties officially became CalExotics. This was a huge milestone for the company, taking our brand to the next level. Our goal was to give the company a new, more modern look and feel that would appeal to consumers while staying true to our roots. We began updating our packaging, with the goal of building a better connection with consumers by telling the CalExotics story, and developing a relationship with the end consumer where they know and trust CalExotics and keep coming back to our brand for their pleasure product needs. This has been successful thus far, and we are building on this every year.

XBIZ: What do you see as the biggest developments for the industry in general?

Colvin: I believe one of the most significant developments is the cultural shift in the perception of sex and pleasure products — they’ve become more widely accepted. Today, you can find pleasure products at large retailers like Target, CVS and Amazon and these items are becoming more easily accessible and integrated into people’s daily lives. We’re also seeing an increase in open discussions regarding pleasure products across various media, including Cosmopolitan, the Huffington Post and other major outlets. This gives people permission to explore our products openly and without shame. There are still many taboos around sex and pleasure, but it is evolving in the right direction.

XBIZ: Where do you think the industry is headed?

Colvin: The industry is growing and evolving with a focus on a more inclusive world of pleasure. Consumer needs and preferences constantly evolve, and the pleasure product industry must follow suit. Products with advanced features and multiple ways to play are critical to a more inclusive outlook on pleasure. In addition, niche products are also important to ensure we are serving specific communities.

The industry is also embracing technology to help provide a better pleasure experience. One example can be seen with app-controlled products and in 2024, CalExotics is diving into this with the CalExotics Connect collection. It features six different product styles with app-based technology that allows couples to connect any way they desire — from together in bed, to across the room, to around the globe.

XBIZ: Major retailers have been embracing and selling sexual wellness products. Has this helped the industry, and CalExotics in particular?

Colvin: This has had a considerable impact. It has opened the door to new consumers and has allowed our products to reach a broader audience. Many consumers shopping for adult products at major retailers are not the typical consumers going into adult stores, and this allows more consumers to get to know the brands and the pleasure products industry in general.

XBIZ: Discuss CalExotics’ partnerships with medical professionals.

Colvin: CalExotics is a firm believer in education. An educated consumer will be more open to our products — and the more they learn, the more they want to explore. We are very familiar with product education, but we knew we needed to do more, and this is where our partnership with medical professionals and educators began. Our first partnership was with Dr. Joel Kaplan in 2004. Dr. Kaplan is a Ph.D. and pioneer of men’s products for sexual enhancement. His mission of improving men’s sexual health aligned with the CalExotics brand, and this has been the central focus of our partnership. Today, we have over 40 products developed with Dr. Joel, including rings, pumps, strokers and prostate massagers. This partnership has been vital for our customers and is something we are passionate about.

In 2004, we also partnered with the late Sue Johanson, a world-renowned sex educator. Johanson was one of the very first sexual health influencers, and her mission was to normalize conversations about sex. Her work made her an ideal partner for CalExotics, and we created a line of products that aligned with her fun, bold and witty personality. Even though she has been off the air for almost 20 years, her products and legacy are still strong today.

Next, we partnered with Dr. Laura Berman, a world-renowned sex, love and relationship therapist. Her open and honest commitment and dedication to her field is what led us to work with her. She helps add legitimacy to our products and educates consumers on a wide range of topics.

In recent years, we have partnered with Dr. Sherry Ross, OB/GYN, author and health expert. Her work in the medical field has made her an expert in vaginal health, and she is the perfect partner to create products like dilators and Kegel exercisers. She also provides insight on how best to use the products, which consumers are eager for.

XBIZ: What are your bestselling product lines and categories?

Colvin: California Dreaming is one of CalExotics’ bestselling collections. Over the years, it has grown in popularity and has become synonymous with the company. The bold styles, bright colors and powerful stimulation features are what make this collection stand out from the competition. Additionally, being a California-based company, it was a natural fit to have a line themed around our home.

Our bestselling categories include rabbit vibes and couples’ enhancers. We’re known specifically for the Jack Rabbit, so it is only natural for this to be a bestselling category for us. The Jack Rabbit name is synonymous with pleasure. It is iconic in the pleasure products community and recognized worldwide. It offers the best of both worlds when it comes to stimulation. The shaft offers intense internal stimulation through vibration, thrusting, rotating, gyrating and so much more. Then you have the iconic rabbit ears, which offer direct clitoral stimulation that provides incredible sensations. We have over 35 products in the Jack Rabbit collection and countless other dual-stimulation vibes.

CalExotics was also the first company to make couples a priority when it comes to product selection and packaging. This has helped push our couples’ enhancers to become one of our bestselling categories. Our couples’ enhancers are designed with the pleasure of both partners in mind. They offer stamina, endurance and pleasure for the wearer, and intense, direct stimulation for the other partner. This combination brings couples closer together by creating a fun and pleasurable experience for both partners.

Since we are a female-founded company, many people expect us to mainly focus on clit-centric products, but that’s not the case at all. In fact, penis pleasure products are a huge market for CalExotics, and many categories and collections are bestsellers. One great example can be seen with our COLT collection. The COLT brand is the most trusted name in all-male erotica, with roots dating back to 1967. They were one of the first gay studios in the adult industry, with a unique vision of the masculine man through film, video and a wide variety of all-male products. For over 20 years, CalExotics and COLT have teamed up to produce powerful and rugged products that cater to the gay community. This is one of our bestselling collections and is a testament to CalExotics’ commitment to bringing pleasure to all. We also have the Optimum Power collection, a staple at CalExotics for over 22 years, with bestselling pumps and masturbators for every level of play. We have everything from traditional manual pumps, to smart pumps with programmable smart features, to masturbators that thrust, suck, vibrate and more. In fact, the variety offered by the Optimum Power collection has made it a customer favorite for many years.

Anal products are also a bestselling category for us. These types of products allow for exploration and new pleasure experiences for anyone. Our anal products also provide a range of stimulation. We have simple plugs, more advanced versions that vibrate, rotate, or thrust, and anal training kits designed to help stretch and heighten anal play. We also have prostate massagers, cleaning systems, beaded designs, inflatable versions and so much more. The wide range of users and the diverse product selection have made this a bestselling category.

XBIZ: What can we expect from CalExotics in the future?

Colvin: At CalExotics, we are always looking to the future. Our goal is to continue to grow our brand by offering the best products and services. Currently, we are working on new products and collections that we are eager to bring to market this year. We’re also working toward positively impacting the world by enriching the lives of our team members, their families and the community. We want CalExotics to continue to be a brand that helps cultivate a happier you.

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