From more women taking charge of their pleasure to Tier III penetration: Charting IMBesharam’s growth in the last decade

Founded in 2011, IMBesharam primarily sells adult toys via a website. Arguably the biggest player in the sextech space in India, the startup is now turning into an investor to support homegrown femtech startups.
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In 2009, when Archana Singh was embarking on her annual trip to meet her sister in Boston, Massachusetts, the “souvenir” her friends requested the most for were not Reese’s peanut butter cups or those iconic Campbell’s tomato soup tins. They were adult toys.

A rarity in Indian households back then, most sexual wellness toys that existed in the country were brought in by friends and relatives travelling abroad, and there was an undercurrent of moral turpitude associated with anyone who wanted to venture beyond vanilla sex in the bedroom. In fact, the law of the land for adult toys itself was, once upon a time, very draconian and restrictive in what was allowed and what wasn’t.

But that has changed.

“There’s a big difference between sex in India 10 years ago and now, especially over the last three years,” says Raj Armani, Founder of IMBesharam, an online adult toy store in India that has been around for a decade after being founded in 2011.

He recalls a time during his early days in the field when adult toys were taboo and carried with them the implication that their user was a sex fiend or a “deviant” of sorts. Even the notion that sex could be healthy and necessary — like food and shelter — was radical.

“In the initial years of setting up IMBesharam, our path to becoming a viable business was to create acceptance around adult toys. We had to tell people that seeking pleasure was not a sin.”

Women eschewed even working with IMBesharam because of what it stood for as a brand.

Today, the story is profoundly different, thanks, in large part, to a spate of Indian sex educators and therapists who are shouldering the responsibility to not only create sex positivity, but also helping people realise that pleasure is on equal terms with self-love, and is a means to understanding our own bodies better versus an act of depravity for outcasts.

While the impact of positive sex education is not quantifiable, a Google Ngram study shows that the use of the word “sex-positive” is at an all-time high right now, with similar trends noticed for the words “sex toys”, “pleasure”, and “self-love” — all indicators that the discourse around sex is turning positive and people are looking at sexual wellness toys as another tool for their bedroom plays.

(Image courtesy: Shutterstock)

COVID-19, in particular, has been a transformative year for the femtech and sextech space in India.

“If 2011-2013 was about pushing products to people and creating more acceptance, 2020-2022 is the golden age of sextech, much like the internet in the 1990s,” Raj says. 

With people having more time on their hands as well as more screen access, information around sex tech has increased because of the efforts of startups like IMBesharam, as well as sex educators and therapists.

Additionally, if you were to break the numbers down demographically, the generally-more-liberal millennial age group, having spent its early career years working entry-level jobs, has entered the mid-senior level management bracket — and the increase in earning capacity means they can explore more quality lifestyle products like sexual wellness toys.

At IMBesharam, which is arguably India’s biggest online adult toy store, 2020 was the worst of times, and the best of times.

In an interaction with YourStory, Raj says Besharam’s sales plummeted to a record low during the lockdowns, averaging four to five orders per day mostly because of movement restrictions and a knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic.

“At the time, I thought we were done for, and that it was time to pack up,” he recalls.

But it didn’t deter Raj, who decided to focus his efforts on strengthening the company’s social media presence and started working towards making IMBesharam more than just a platform for products.

Raj says his vision is for IMBesharam to become a place for conversations around sex positivity, experimentation, and sexual wellness, in conjunction with being a platform to discover innovative sex toys.

The re-focus and the community the startup managed to build around its core product paid off in spades — when the lockdowns lifted, the startup’s sales jumped manifolds, and, in July 2020, crossed 2019 levels which were its highest sales year in its history.

(Image credit: Daisy Mahadevan, YourStory)

Demographic breakdown of IMBesharam’s customers

IMBesharam sells sexual wellness toys like vibrators and massagers, accessories such as lingerie, strap-ons, and sexual wellness products such as lubricants, intimate hygiene wash, massage creams, and menstrual cups on its website.

Most products in the toys category are imported from across the world, but the startup is partnering with homegrown pleasure toy startups such as the Sangya project to provide cost-effective and affordable products too.

Because most of the toys are imported, they tend to burn a bit of a hole in one’s pocket, but that is more because of the excessive import taxes the government levies on sex toys than their actual cost price.

Indian customs impose nearly 100 percent of the total cost of the product in import taxes, which is why products become more expensive than if they had been purchased in their countries of origin.

Raj says the average cart value or cart size on Besharam is Rs 6,000 to Rs 12,000 for basic products. For more high-tech products that come with apps, additional features, or even sturdier builds, customers spend anywhere from Rs 30,000 to Rs 2 lakh.

For women, the sweet spot when it comes to the ticket size is between Rs 3,000 and Rs 5,000; for men, it is between Rs 4,000 and Rs 5,000.

(Image credit: Daisy Mahadevan, YourStory)

In 2018, when the startup, through a series of events, realised that the main reason people were a little wary of shopping on IMBesharam was because of how explicit the products looked, Raj says the founding team decided to “clean up the site” and showcase better-looking, high-tech gadgets on the landing pages, versus ones that looked anatomically close to the real thing.

Dildos, for example, now look much sleeker, cleaner and modern than the iterations that came before them — and Raj says this truly is a sign that people are not building sexual wellness toys for the heck of it; they are thinking of it as a lifestyle-tech product that needs to be backed by superior design.

Considering IMBesharam’s clients are primarily 18 to 40-year-olds, conscientious design becomes all the more necessary. Adding to better design asks is also the fact that a big part of its clientele is women, most of who prefer more discreet, implicit toys.

Between 2018-2019, a very small, minuscule percentage of IMBesharam’s buyers were women from Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities, Raj says, adding even though they formed a small part of the startup’s clientele, they contributed nearly 60 to 70 percent of the startup’s sales.

In 2020, the story was a little different.

Women accounted for nearly 30 percent of the traffic on IMBesharam’s website, a big jump from just a year ago. With increasing awareness around female pleasure and a less laissez-faire attitude toward sex where women traditionally assumed a more passive role than their partners, the trend is expected to continue and Indian women are expected to make up a bigger chunk of the startup’s clientele.

Raj says since 2020, the startup has started seeing a lot of traction from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities in India, where nearly 45 percent of its sales come from.

Last year, women contributed 62 percent to the startup’s overall revenue, men 32 percent, and queer people 6 percent although Raj says the number isn’t truly representative of the actual sales to the queer community because most toys can be used by anyone regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.

Of the total products on IMBesharam’s website, nearly 65 percent are for vulva owners and focus on their pleasure, versus 30 percent for the other group.

(Image credit: Daisy Mahadevan, YourStory)

Rethinking the future

IMBesharam’s Co-founder and CEO Raj says after toiling for nearly a decade and giving it his everything, he feels like he is finally standing on solid ground. His aim now is to give back to the community.

The startup is currently evaluating an investment in two international femtech startups — Portugal-based Pleasy, an app that gamifies sexual engagement for partners, and Singapore-based ZaZaZu, which offers education, professional consultation and curated products for women to explore their own sexualities.

Raj says he met ZaZaZu’s Founder Jingjin Liu at YourStory’s TechSparks 2021 event in a panel, and believes the platform, as well as the Pleasy app, are great ways for couples to take their bedroom plays outside of its confines.

He has next set his sights on creating a fund of sorts, in partnership with other interested angels, investors and companies, that will invest in homegrown femtech and sextech companies in India. He aims to support at least three startups this year, and provide not just funding, but mentorship and sales support.

“Sextech and femtech are almost synonymous with each other. There is definitely a need for more visibility when it comes to sexual wellness for women, and the crop of Indian femtech startups right now are doing some great innovations.” he says.

Besharam is currently in late-stage discussions with an Indian femtech startup for an investment opportunity, details of which Raj says will be made public soon.

On his agenda for the long term is to also find a female co-founder and take a step back from his responsibilities and role as CEO, focusing more on the operational side of the business.

"I firmly believe that when women talk, everyone listens. They create safer spaces for other women than men may be able to, and I’m keen to have a woman co-founder or CEO direct where we at IMBesharam go next," he says.

At some point, Besharam also wants to get into manufacturing its own line of products, including sexual wellness toys that are not only eco-friendly but can also be bought and accessed as easily as any FMCG product. The prototypes have already been drawn up and are under evaluation, Raj says, but finding manufacturers with the tech to mass-produce the products is a challenge.

IMBesharam has raised $4 million in Series A funding, so far, and is currently in talks with a venture capital company to raise another big round. Finding investors interested in the space has been a difficult task, Raj quips, but perception around sextech companies is definitely improving, he adds.

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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