French founder Chloe Mackintosh is a tour de force to be reckoned with. Ex-creative director of Soho House and co-founder of Made.com, her latest release centres around an exploration of the self, and mental, physical and sexual wellbeing through pleasure. I spoke with her about the app that’s shaking up the sex-tech scene for the better.
Tell us a little bit more about your role within Kama, and why you came up with the idea of the app?
I’m the founder and CEO, and I came up with the idea of Kama a long time ago, about 15 years back now. I grew up in Paris, and when I became pregnant with my first child, I was looking for a place I could go to for information about the changes that were taking place – to my body and my sex drive. But I quickly realised that there weren’t really any high quality brands or destinations that effectively catered to this need by delivering solutions.
There simply wasn’t enough of a conversation happening around sex, love and intimacy, and this was the case globally, not just in the UK or US. I wasn’t even in the tech business yet at this point, but I had spotted an opportunity for a platform that was intelligent and capable of distributing accurate scientific information, alongside recommendations, advice, services and products.
I started off as an architect, but my first move into tech was in 2007 and I co-founded Made.com in 2010. The experience was hugely time consuming but I always had these conversations in the back of my mind. I saw a glimpse of why the issue wasn’t really being addressed when I went to these big tech summits – the only representation of the subject was this incredibly nerdy ideal around AI and sex with robots. So many industries were being represented and yet real intimacy was never a big part of the conversation. There was little reflection on the impact the internet was having on our relationships to ourselves, our bodies and others.
So I always knew I wanted to become a creator in this space, and it’s taken a lot of iterations – at first, I wanted to create porn. 30% of the world’s traffic are getting their information from porn. I wondered if we could do something intelligent, educational and stylish in this arena, but it was just a passing idea.
When I stepped down from Made.com, I suffered a form of nervous breakdown, I’d pushed myself too hard. We grew incredibly fast and I didn’t take enough time to reflect or look after myself, I was strapped to the hamster wheel of growth. I have young kids and there’s this mentality in the industry that you can always be doing better, and working harder, and even though it was an extraordinary experience, I came out of it realising it wasn’t sustainable. This no pain, no gain mentality where growth only comes through suffering just wasn’t necessary – there’s an alternative, and we can live and grow from pleasure, and through enjoyment, inspiration and connection.
Society’s traditionally cerebral approach means we’re often very driven by our heads, and it leaves us feeling totally disconnected from our bodies. This dissociation felt really clear in myself, I was never present or relaxed, and very much living life through my head. The solution was self-discovery through experience – I travelled, and I met a lot of people in the embodiment space. These were specialists helping people reconnect to their body through dance, breath-work, exercise, but of course at the centre of it was this passion for pleasure.
Sexual pleasure is the most powerful opportunity in the embodiment space. The idea is to create a practice that helps people drop into their bodies, in the same way that meditation helps with mental health. Sitting still is actually one of the most challenging forms of mindfulness. Meditation isn’t really about that, and being present in your body is something that can be done anywhere – while you’re on the move, cooking, eating, brushing your teeth, it’s about activating the senses and reconnecting to life as it’s meant to be experienced.
Technology and thinking have dulled so many sensory experiences, but they can also offer us tools and solutions. The way the body communicates to the head through the mind-body connection, we are designed to experience the world in alignment. The body acted as our radar in the wild – for detecting changes in the weather and predators, and we’ve been using our heads to command our bodies without listening to its intelligence for too long now.
Stress is the number one killer in the world today, it creates a lot of tension and about 60% of all disease can be traced back to the impacts of chronic stress. So, creating a practice for the body and not just the head is a great opportunity to make a difference in this sphere. It also helps those who feel like they’re failing at meditation, people have success with this as a daily practice, partly because it’s enjoyable.
The deeper we can connect with ourselves, the happier we will be. A greater connection to ourselves gives us a greater sense of purpose, a sensation of the interconnectedness of life, less depression, isolation, judgement, shame and all the other things that stem from a lack of inner connection. There’s an increasing opportunity in the coming years to shift our mindset when it comes to how we prioritise our time, and removing some of the cerebral drivers of success, using a simpler and more natural approach to living is one method.
I think it took me a while to move into the space because the market wasn’t there before, the investment opportunities weren’t ready and it’s taken a long time for sexual wellness to even be considered a crucial pillar of our fundamental wellbeing, which is crazy.
Why do you think there is still such taboo around sex and sexuality, with the cultural continuation of things like slut-shaming?
I think there are a few factors – very often, the binary structure of our society stops us evolving. The lack of diversity and acceptance of others makes us very judgemental of ourselves, it forces a particular paradigm onto the world and we become trapped in it.
There’s also a pervasive capitalist structure of greed, where people will never have enough partly because they’re not fulfilled by what they do and partly because there’s a need to keep consumerism going and keep people wanting more. As a result we have all these conditioned desires around how others look at us. Not enough of our drive comes from knowing ourselves, it’s a really big issue connected to modern religion and the patriarchal system, which stops people fully expressing themselves.
People’s individual creative nature is rooted in their sexuality. We want to be procreating through some medium in life, and that centre has not been activated for a lot of people – the societal norms and distorted standards of beauty are huge impediments. There’s this idea that pleasure is frivolous and should always feature last on the to-do list of life. But desire is what keeps us alive, we make sense of reality through our senses and desires, so when we lose this, we lose our connection to the world and ourselves.
I feel grateful to have gone through the transition of a pre-internet world, to an internet world, to a digital world, and now the emergence of the non-binary world. For me as an observer of this change, it’s amazing how quickly things are progressing and I believe that a lot of our patriarchal structure is collapsing, and there’s a clear signal that the younger generation doesn’t relate to, or conform to it.
This is in large part due to the fact that globalisation and access to social media has given us a greater understanding of the world at large. My teenage boys care about the environment in a way that I never did growing up; We used to put olive oil on our skin and go and sit out in the sun – my generation was driven by consumerism but there’s a grassroots activism that’s changing this and contributing to the shift that’s needed to help us change at a faster rate. People my age find it destabilising, but chaos is where transformation can happen, and it’s more necessary now than ever. So I’m very optimistic.
With regards to the pervasive culture of things like slut-shaming, there’s also more support than ever before. There are more people on your side, with an objective and balanced viewpoint. Larger corporations that are still living in the past have their backs against the wall, they have no choice but to change to meet demand. About 40% of Gen Z identify as non-binary, so big companies need to have a strategy to reflect this representation. It’s very important to push progress in the direction of inclusion.
Why did you pick the name Kama?
Kama means a lot of different things, the kama in kama sutra is you – the first self, and a love of self. It’s also a Hawaiin term meaning desire, love and connection. Phonetically I wanted to feature ‘ahh’ in the name because it’s a heart opening sound, and I wanted that to be the subliminal message behind the name.
One of the biggest issues and restrictions in the way of us connecting to pleasure is our ability to love ourselves. In today’s society we still have a view of love better suited to the middle ages, where people viewed relationships as economical and acquainted romantic love with madness and heartbreak. We need to better understand that it’s possible to have love without romance – through compassion, kindness, and without attachment. We’ve not really learned to tap into the quality of the heart enough. We’ve destroyed the ancient wisdom and ideals that traditionally helped us to do this.
We typically have a very negative narrative around porn. Is porn really all that bad, or are there also benefits?
I had the advantage of growing up in the pre-porn era, and remembering how traumatising it was when it came to the internet. It went from being nowhere to everywhere. Porn didn’t used to be what it is today. We used to go to the cinema to watch porn, and it would be a feature film with a story and fantasy, it was a lot more intimate, and not like the dissociated representation of intimacy that you see today.
In today’s 6-8 minute express porn designed for the camera there’s no connection and women have become heavily objectified. This is not always the case, and there is a new trend of porn orientated around females pleasuring themselves on their own, and I think there are a lot of things to learn here – how long it takes, different techniques that work – I think you see a real difference with amateur porn, where they’re doing it because they feel empowered to share it. This is becoming more common with platforms like OnlyFans where they’re also able to commercialise on it, to some degree. However some creators still aren’t rewarded enough, and it isn’t for everyone.
Porn can have especially long lasting effects on young men in particular – we’re seeing an increasing number of men with performance anxiety manifesting as premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction. Historically this only really affected men over 50. It’s definitely not helped by habitual porn and people masturbating the same way every day, it creates a pattern that’s very hard to break when people present themselves in front of another person. Having sex online and having sex in the real world are very different experiences and it can really impact a man’s confidence.
Our physical and emotional conditioning has a dramatic effect, and we’re training ourselves using porn. These platforms need to be more responsible for the impact they have – they need to inform users in the same way that tobacco companies need to take responsibility for the health concerns they cause. The people running these websites often aren’t visible, and they’re not being interviewed. No one wants to have the conversation because there’s still a lot of stigma, shame and embarrassment.
There are so many men in their 20s now on Viagra, these pills are not an effective solution because they entrain you to develop a dependency, which has psychological and physical effects, and you’re defeated of your power when you come off them. We need to move towards more sustainable alternatives and solutions.
We’re launching an erectile dysfunction course on Kama soon, where the vast majority of men can wean themselves off such dependencies with psychosexual practice. It is totally possible to rehabilitate from this cultural conditioning of trying to fix everything with a pharmaceutical pill. We have a lot of young males coming to us through platforms like Instagram, who realise that what they’re doing doesn’t feel right but they don’t know where to go for information and advice. When people know there’s a solution, they can engage.
What about things like the glamour industry – where women are typically criticised for expressing and exploring their sexuality through what’s considered a stereotypically male lens?
I guess the criticism stems from the power-led dynamic in society and how we relate that to this idea of things being ‘empowering’. For example, Cardi B being an incredibly powerful woman but using sexist language that some believe causes confusion when it comes to this idea of how we fight the status quo.
But it’s all too easy to fall straight into being judgemental. Who is anyone else to tell you how you should come out of your shell or express yourself? We don’t need to take away the stereotypical idea of what is sexy or feminine from our nature, in order to become more of what we want and need to be. For some women it’s a fantasy to be that whore and really own and embrace their slutty side, that’s what turns them on and I think good on them! If that makes them feel good it should be celebrated.
I think where the conflict is, is being conscious about the message and the narratives that substantiate this, so there’s no confusion about the motive. It’s not to do with the male or female gaze, it’s just about how you feel.
It says that your avenues for transformation are physical, emotional and spiritual – in what way spiritual?
It’s an experience – spiritual connection is an intention. This aspect isn’t what everyone is after, but sexuality has sacred roots. The way we create life is the fastest route to our divine nature, whether you view that as a higher power, or a power within yourself, a connection to spirit can really connect us to our senses, the environment and instigate a development of consciousness. It does this in a way that helps us understand that we are here for a reason, that this is a part of the general flow that everyone contributes to, it gives life joy and meaning.
When you have that spiritual connection, you don’t need or want external gratification, or place so much emphasis on the material aspect of life. It’s a very powerful means of transcendence that gives you certainty in yourself and helps you feel connected to the world. I believe you can get this faster through sexuality than through traditional meditation. Just before an orgasm, you activate the same area of the brain that you activate in a deep state of meditation. This transcendent capacity is where we atomise, we’re not here but everywhere. It’s ineffable and not everyone believes in it, or wants it, and it can be hard to communicate.
On the app we place an emphasis on the value of ancient wisdom. When are we going to realise that everything they said was right?! Every year there’s a new scientific discovery that backs up the age-old claims that the mind-body connection is actually really important, and that to be interoceptive, and to be still, holds so much unspoken value.
As a serial entrepreneur, how and why did you first decide to enter the world of business?
Growing up, I didn’t know I’d be entering into the world of business. I grew up with a single mother who was an artist, so being creative was in my blood, but I didn’t feel sure that I should make that choice. I compromised by choosing architecture, but 9 years on I realised that it wasn’t for me. I moved into technology completely by accident – and 3 years later I’d created Made.com, another accident.
It was only after that, that I began to take more ownership of my career. I had been successful, but I had also paid the price. I wanted to rebalance and become more conscious with my choices. It’s important to constantly ask yourself why – is this for recognition? To prove you can do it on your own? Or because you really want to share this with the world as an opportunity for healing. It took me years to shed the other reasons, and it takes a while to take ownership of your life in this way.
I think it’s unfair to ask children what they want to be when they grow up, it’s normal not to know. I’m in my 40s and I feel like I’ve only just come into myself. It’s taken time to let go of a lot of the framing and conditioning from my up-brining, and some of that has been removed through adversity, but Kama proves that there’s another way.
Did you fundraise for your business? And how do you monetise a free app?
We are currently a free app but we will be monetising soon and creating new verticals. Changing mindsets is incredibly difficult. When I first started, I was pitching to anyone that would listen, including Uber drivers, but they didn’t get it. It’s not easy to break a taboo and tell people that pleasure needs to become a priority and a daily practice.
Yet it’s the fastest route to balancing the system, and helping the body find homeostasis. I waited a long time for the right opportunity to pounce on fundraising. The category has to exist for VCs to want to invest in it. As soon as I saw a few businesses starting to emerge in the space and raise capital, I knew this was my signal to go for it.
I was Chief Creative Director at Soho House at the time and fundraising in Europe was far more difficult than I expected. The VC community still lacks diversity, men in the boardroom have been told not to mix sex and work their entire lives, and I struggled to get them to connect to the issue.
In the States it was a completely different story, it was incredibly reassuring and they just got it, even though it wasn’t easy to do. However, I know my topic and I used a lot of common sense to pitch my idea. I was very fortunate to raise $6M with a group of amazing investors who are taking a chance on me as they also believe that a positive change is needed. Now I have a wonderful team and am looking forward to seeing where it takes us.
How do you go from day zero, to getting traction and momentum, and what methods haven’t worked so well?
We’re not quite out of the ditch yet, and are still trying to make it work. The biggest satisfaction so far is creating a brand that seems to resonate with people. We have so many compliments around how grateful people are to connect to this topic without feeling awkward and ashamed. We have a great creative director who’s a genius, and it’s also been great to be able to work during lockdown, without all the usual distractions.
We’ve been in our own little Kama bubble, without the usual friction and pressure that comes with trying to launch something commercially. When you are trying to discover brand-market fit, you have to start with your community and hope that the people around you will be your first advocates, helping you to shape and grow with time.
Social media is a little hit and miss. With our sector, you can’t really express yourself, so it can be hard to reach people and you constantly feel as though you’re walking on egg shells. We can’t change the platform but we’re doing the best we can to stay educational and science-based. We try not to be political or to cause provocation, because it’s harder for people to fight us this way.
Asking people to make the time commitment required to change their mindsets is a challenge. We shouldn’t be restricting this kind of activity to 10 minutes a week, I try to do an hour a day. If you’re not connecting to yourself during your waking hours, what are you doing here? It’s the fastest way to drive ourselves insane – it’s so easy to completely lose yourself in mindlessly scrolling, and we’re trying to hold people’s hands and give them the tools to come on a journey with us. A journey back to themselves.
There’s a lot of talk about this theme of disconnection – from nature, each-other and ourselves. What is the balance between ‘dropping into yourself’ and becoming more introspective, and connecting to others?
When we connect to ourselves, we don’t feel isolated. Understanding yourself allows a light to come through that transforms your experience of life into something more positive. Running a start-up is a challenging journey, you’re responsible for a whole team of people and are constantly faced with threats of running out of money. It’s a lot to carry, so those users who just get it and feel it – they are the ambassadors.
Using our guides, we are constantly trying to connect with the community, and to help them connect with themselves. They want ways they can practically implement new techniques and tools. We cover everything from blow-jobs to building intimacy, fingering, squirting, guides for solo practice and for couples. But this is all done using the Kama method – conscious intention needs to be there, asking the right questions, and having strong communication.
The guides and videos are a fun and passive way to learn, but we are always injecting our values and notions that create transformation in behaviour. It takes a while to find this flow and after brand-market fit comes product-market fit, connecting with the mindset of the mainstream and making continual adjustments to the process is really the first year of road-testing a proposition, until it finally clicks and you get organic inertia.
How did studying for your degree(s) help as opposed to just launching into running a business?
It was part of my journey but I believe in attitude over aptitude and look for people who are able to change their point of view based on the data coming to them. As a founder, it’s important not to know everything and for adjustments to be feedback-based. I’m constantly asked who my target audience are – but I’m waiting for them to tell me who I’m resonating with! And I’ll only start to see that when I look at the data, it’s dangerous to do it the other way around.
My advice to people is that it’s important to be a generalist and not a specialist. In today’s world the hustle is the most important part. I call them octopus people – they can do everything: copy, operations, marketing, getting on the phone to people, it’s what I became having hopped around so many different industries.
When you’re creating a disruptive company, you can’t be constrained by what you know. You need to be who you’re customer’s going to be 2 years on from now, but not more. I’ve been through some of the complaints that my customers come to me with – not being able to experience an internal orgasm, knowing what trauma feels like, and I use my skills as a good business person to hire experts that don’t know how to market themselves, and make their knowledge accessible. It’s my job to be the filter that packages and delivers this in digestible chunks. This state of awareness, discovery and not knowing is what I enjoy.
What’s the smallest change that’s given the biggest return?
I definitely used to bully myself a lot. I’d give myself a hard time for doing something wrong, and tell myself I’m not good enough. I thought that by coaching myself in this way, this is how I’d improve. People like Joe Dispenza are demonstrating how the things that we say to ourselves can impact our reality.
In the past, we had this Freudian view that our subconscious is affected by childhood trauma, and that it was this thing trapped in your psyche that could betray you at any time, and you had no control over it. This mentality was very negative on the way we treated ourselves, it didn’t facilitate us loving and nurturing ourselves.
Especially during lockdown I’ve developed a much more loving relationship with myself, I vocalise and I tell myself positive affirmations, which are great for activating neuroplasticity and stimulating the vagus nerve. What you believe you become. This small change of being more compassionate to myself has had a big impact on my relationship to others. Without compassion for ourselves, it’s easy to project. So embracing more woo-woo and weird habits such as vocalising – thanking myself, and my vulva for delivering pleasure to me, it’s important and it works!
What motivates you?
My children. We borrow our lives from the futures of our children and I feel very responsible for the world they were born into, and the one I’ll leave behind. Growing up we didn’t have the awareness of the environment that we have now. I think they’ve really inspired me to see that change is absolutely possible.
My other teacher is nature. Spending all those years studying as an architect, not once was nature used as inspiration. We live in this industrial environment, where we’re almost fighting and competing with it. I find that so much of what’s wrong with our current thinking is that we look at things linearly. We think our life is a straight line and that being successful in life is based on the getting faster, stronger etc… But we are cyclic beings, everything around us is cyclic.
When we start connecting with that natural cycle, we start becoming more realistic and compassionate. We should recognise that it is natural to have highs and lows, growth, reflection, and integration phases of development. These things inspire me a lot, finding ways to contribute laterally, not hierarchically. We often believe that progression is a vertical process but really, it should be about contribution, so it is more horizontal, the more we grow, the more we give back.
What sacrifices have you had to make?
It’s been a very different process this time around. We want to start a social series on the gifts of lockdown – reflecting on the positive things to come out of this time. My kids are at boarding school normally so I got my family back, I was in this bubble where I could create and work on myself, and it created more balance.
I’m normally pulled in so many different directions. The whole process has been so different from my previous business where I burned a few bridges and didn’t look after myself. Everyone in the industry is incredibly kind and there hasn’t been as much pressure from investors wanting results, they understand that mental health is important to everyone, and that survival in the start-up growth stage is a priority.
It felt intuitively right and I’ve had a lot of space to do it this way. My main challenge now is my responsibility to my team, I adore them and want to make sure we can all grow and continue to be here. But I’ve never been as aligned as I am now.
Do you have a mentor or people you ask for advice?
I’m a total sucker for advice. I have no shame and will always pick up the phone and call everyone. As I say to my kids – if you don’t ask, you don’t get. I’m also more proactive with sharing this support and creating more of a community. I’m surrounded by amazing people and my kids and my sister are a constant source of inspiration.
In terms of having a mentor, I’m a bit of a lonely person and I find most of my bigger answers by tuning into myself. One of my best methods for educating myself about the mindset of the mainstream is to watch mainstream content – I am very interested in what the Kardashians are up to for example, they are marketing geniuses. Netflix is purely based around data, what people are speaking about and what topics are being addressed tells you exactly where people’s minds are at.
I’m always trying to stay current. When my teenage boys bring their friends over we have focus groups. I’m starting a new vertical around creating a package for delivering a first time sex kit, aimed at 16+ year olds. I’m co-creating it with my nephew and my son, and we have a Whatsapp group with some of their friends where we can ask what they wish they’d known, and what they still want to know – and take it right from the source.
At first, my kids used to laugh about what I do. I had dildos all over the house… Now they’re immune to it. Its been such a nice way to connect, and have the conversations I never had growing up. Not once did I ever talk about sex or masturbation with my mother, and I think I suffered a lot because of it. Having this opportunity to be this open with my family now, it’s a privilege.
What is your favourite interview question when hiring?
I want to know what people’s dreams are – if they are going to help me realise my dream, I want to be able to help others realise theirs. I want to know how this career is a stepping stone for them, or if they’re in an operational role but would like to explore their more creative side, I want people to be as happy as they can be because when people feel better, they do better.
The biggest mistake employers make is not understanding their responsibility to make employees as employable as possible. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s how you keep people and help them thrive. To do that, you really have to try and connect with where their vision for their own professional life is, so I always try to contribute to that direction by asking them this.
If time and money were no object – what would be on your to do and to see list?
I’m very lucky with my community and feel like I can visit people almost anywhere, so I don’t have to try too hard to fulfil that desire. I also don’t really consider myself a very social person. But I love to build and create new things – I’d love to design a Kama pleasure centre, and have people come for retreats and talks and really experience the transformation. Or a Kama school, which contributes to improving the sexual education system. It would be great to have pleasure clinics everywhere, in every city. Instead of half an hour of pilates you could go and get a pleasure treatment!