The thing about mistakes is, although they can send the mistake-maker scurrying for the nearest hiding spot at the time of commission, in retrospect most people realize they learned something from "that hideous disaster." AVN Online spoke to several adult-industry veterans to get their perspectives on mistakes, failures and life lessons. The wisdom they shared was inspiring.
Eric J. White has always believed in himself and his inventions, but there was a time not too many years ago when he thought he might never see the fruition of a dream. In 1998, his company, Virtual Reality Innovations Inc., was just getting off the ground, and funding was tight. When a major webcam site contacted him about using VRI's technology to allow its camgirls to "reach out and touch someone," quite literally, he thought his prayers had been answered. The revenue-share the cam site proposed would mean White and company could fund increased production of the Virtual Sex Machine that much more quickly.
As negotiations progressed, however, White said he began to get "bad vibes" from the cam site's owner. "He began to look more and more like a slimy used-car salesman," White said. "In the end I backed away from the deal because he just seemed like such a huckster."
Almost as soon as White turned his back on the cam site, the owner began to pop up everywhere in the media as a "hot, young Internet sex entrepreneur." The cam network became insanely popular and it found another product to incorporate into its reach-out-and-touch-someone program.
"He was on Howard Stern's show back when it was still on free radio," White laments. "That's always been a dream of mine. My gut had never failed me before, but I thought, ‘Man, this time I really screwed up.'"
As it turned out, though, White's intuition hadn't led him astray. "Within about a year, the entire project went down in flames," he said. "Pretty soon you couldn't even find a mention of the product or the program on [the cam site], and I heard customers were really upset because it never worked right. That kind of thing can destroy the reputation of a company, so I'm really glad we didn't get involved. The Virtual Sex Machine would have been over before it even got a good start."
The decision not to partner with the cam site cost VRI two years of "street time" for its product-which didn't make it to the market until 2000-but the delay was worth avoiding a blot on the company's reputation, White said. "In the long run, it turned out to be the right decision," he admitted.
Trusting his instinct wasn't the only lesson White learned from the ordeal. He also discovered outsourcing can be risky. Spurred on by the cam site's seemingly meteoric rise to the top of the heap just after he had turned his back on it, White said he spent the next eight to nine months working with foreign and domestic component manufacturers to "spec out" parts for the VSM. "Our original plan was to form a sort of co-licensing partnership with adult novelty manufacturers: We'd provide the technology and they'd provide the toy components, and then we'd both distribute the finished product," he said. "But it seemed like either the parts we needed were always out of stock or they fell apart too quickly." Eventually he came to the realization that if the VSM was going to be the product he'd always envisioned, he was going to have to build it from the ground up in-house. Although at the time he gnashed his teeth about the additional delay, today he's happy things worked out as they did.
"We're not at the mercy of anybody," White said. "I can turn production on, turn it off as fast as it's necessary. We do everything in-house, because in the long run it saves us headaches and money." An additional benefit he's begun to appreciate even more in light of recent foreign trade upheavals is that the Virtual Sex Machine is a truly American-made product.
Better, Stronger, Faster
Silvercash, too, has learned a thing or two about the value of in-house manufacturing, according to Vice President of Business Development Silvercash Albert. "We're marketing pros, not filmmakers," Albert said. "So in the early days we outsourced our content to third-party shooters. We got good content out of the deal, sure, but in the long run it turned out to be a bad idea. We had to reveal trade secrets and future market trends in order to get the content we wanted, and a lot of content producers, as it turned out, had near-future plans to compete with us in the affiliate model. We actually ended up accelerating - and funding - their plans."
For Silvercash, the move to in-house content production also precipitated diversification. Silver Sinema, Silvercash's brick-and-mortar DVD production company, grew out of the lessons founder Mike Price and the Silvercash team learned in shooting their own material. However, new territory, no matter how auspicious, provides all sorts of new opportunities for new mistakes - and Albert said the company made its share.
"The biggest thing was, we had to change the way we thought about almost everything," he said. "When going from online to DVD or DVD to online, you've got to take off the original hat and adjust your thinking so you remain relevant."
For example, Albert said Silvercash had fine-tuned its online graphics over a decade's worth of working in cyberspace. The company's websites eschew clutter and "flashiness" in favor of clean, attractive and alluring interfaces. "We've learned what works with surfers, and we use that in all our sites," Albert said. The Silvercash team was dismayed to discover the same aesthetic doesn't work in the DVD realm. "We had to totally re-concept the box-cover art," he said, chuckling. "It was a little bit of a struggle at first, but thanks to some good friends and business partners in the industry, we got it straightened out, met the right distributors and found success in the market."
The most important lesson the company learned from that experience, Albert said, is "online success doesn't automatically translate [into brick-and-mortar success], and vice versa. The demographics are very different."
That lesson led to another, in turn. "As a young company, we didn't worry so much about attracting and keeping the right people," Albert said. "Talented people were everywhere, and they all wanted to work with us." Over they years, though - especially now that the company's emphasis is on diversification and innovation - "we've learned to put more focus on recruiting and retaining the best people. When you have the best people, you can't help being innovative. Even though we're well-branded these days, we have to be proactive in diversification of our revenue streams. We work as a tight team, and every member multitasks. One of the best lessons we've learned is not to pigeonhole our team members. Encourage them to think outside the box; give them autonomy with accountability. You'd be surprised what a team like that can accomplish."
Turning the Tables
Although many mistakes happily don't happen where everybody can see them, some do - or perhaps onlookers are too quick to label carefully crafted plans "mistakes." Robert "The Legacy" Warren said when he decided to call the bluff of a surfer who had been stalking industry members in a misguided attempt to become a porn star, everybody around him thought his idea was ... well, to put it bluntly, "loony."
"He was a harassing SOB for the industry," Warren said. "Everybody wanted him off the boards."
Warren came up with a diabolical plan: He would offer the stalker a role in an adult video if the man could survive an audition with Lanni Barbie. "The deal was, he had to fuck her and do the money shot," Warren said. "If he couldn't, she got to put on a strap-on and fuck him up the ass. He couldn't and ended up taking it in the ass by a hot girl."
Warren said he just wanted to shut the guy up and possibly convince him not to harass webmasters on the industry's chat boards anymore. The idea of actually casting the stalker in an adult video didn't sit well with most of the industry, though, because webmasters considered it rewarding the miscreant for bad behavior. However, the plan accomplished Warren's goals. "He still harasses webmasters occasionally, but they show him the pictures of when he failed horribly five years ago, and he stops," Warren said. And there was an unexpected marketing benefit, as well. "I had people swear they would never do business with the company who hired him, but in the end everyone watched [the humiliating video that was posted online]. No one had heard of SexxxyContent before then, but afterward the company went from zero to number one, and that's all everyone spoke of at Internext Vegas a few years back. It convinced the company they just needed to market what people wanted. This industry is more than sex when you have an emotional attachment to the actors."
Warren also said he's on the verge of similarly turning lemons into lemonade for affiliate program Sex Revenue, the company he now serves as chief marketing officer. The details are classified, but Warren said he was sure the maneuver would be enough to catapult the operator of IWantU and XTube to the front of everyone's mind.
Like Silvercash's Albert, Warren said the biggest lesson he has learned from 14 years of failures and successes in the adult industry is that anything is possible with a good team. Longevity, he said, comes at a price. "It's taken a lot to get [where I am]: Humility, of course, but mostly help and networking from dear friends in this industry," he noted. "I never did it on my own. That would have been my worst mistake, thinking for a moment that the sun rose and set around me. Self-centeredness is a horrible negative to have. You need to look at your life positively and realize that you're where you are because of those who have helped you along the way."
Top Bucks Director of Marketing and Sales Lea Busick echoed that sentiment, adding that teamwork and helping hands are not just beneficial to individuals. Sometimes entire companies can benefit from strong working relationships forged during difficult times.
"About three or four years ago, AVN apparently was undergoing some staff changes," she said. "Top Bucks ended up playing ‘musical account reps' and it was frustrating, especially since I was new [at Top Bucks]. We had spent about $250,000 to $300,000 the previous year with AVN, and I just didn't feel like we were getting the level of service we deserved. So, I wrote Paul [Fishbein] an e-mail describing the problem. I was very direct and unemotional, and I just told him what was on my mind. Then I pulled our advertising."
Busick said Fishbein took complete accountability for the difficulties, and surprisingly he didn't try to talk the company into giving AVN another chance. However, Busick said she noticed a nearly immediate improvement in the level of service her company received relative to the few projects that remained outstanding at the time of Top Bucks' advertising cancellation. "Then in January, Paul tracked me down at our booth at the Adult Entertainment Expo," she said. "We talked as colleagues-it was like we were old friends - and I realized he was very committed to our success. We started advertising again, all because Paul made that personal effort."
Fishbein said the nature of business is such that companies across the spectrum occasionally experience episodes they wish hadn't happened. The key to "fixing" relationships that veer off into rocky footing is for at least one side to take the time to find out who the people on the other side are and what they do.
"Today [Top Bucks is] one of my favorite companies to work with," he said. "They have a great corporate culture - fresh, young, professional, smart and direct - and I realized I could learn a lot from them. They aren't cynical."
Today the relationship between the two companies is stronger than ever, according to both Busick and Fishbein. "Part of me is just very grateful and amazed that out of something that was very sticky came such a good relationship," Busick said. "It was a life lesson about being direct and straightforward. You can be direct and up front and not lose respect for another person or company. In the end, you come out much stronger.
"I think it was a good lesson for Paul, too," she continued. "He was grateful, because it was a wake-up call for him, I think."
Fishbein added, "I want our customers to be successful. Bottom line, it's good for business. But when they are great people, you get an added benefit: Your friends are doing well."
At the end of the day, as the saying goes, what people learn from their mistakes usually turns out to make a much bigger impression on them than any temporary embarrassment. Erring is an all-too-human tendency, but as another saying goes, "no pain, no gain."
In the end, with the proper perspective, the gain is worth the effort.
This article originally appeared in the September 2008 edition of AVN Online magazine. To subscribe, visit AVNMediaNetwork.com/subscribe.