If Chase Myers can get approval from the notoriously straitlaced Illinois secretary of state's office, his next set of license plates will say LUBE IT.
Making that kind of bold declaration about lubricants--the sexual variety, not the automotive--wasn't always easy for Myers, the 28-year-old Chicago-based cofounder of cheaplubes.com. Five years ago he was living in a Kansas City suburb with his then boyfriend, and walking into the store to purchase Astroglide or K-Y Jelly was an angst-ridden affair.
"We were embarrassed, OK?" Myers says. "I came from a farm in northeast Missouri, and Ken came from a fairly small town in Iowa. It was just awkward for us to do this kind of thing." He says that in close-knit, gossip-filled communities across America it's hard enough to go into the store to buy sexual aids. It's even worse if the person working the cash register is, say, your grandmother.
Myers and Ken (who asked that his last name not be used) decided to parlay their traumatic lube-buying experiences into a business plan. "The idea was," says Myers, "why don't we sell things that people don't like to buy?"
At the time massive amounts of cash were being thrown at--and ostensibly generated by--Internet companies. It seemed everybody was becoming a millionaire overnight. But before the partners could start retailing lubricants and sex toys on-line they had to set up a business account and get credit-card-processing machines. "We didn't really want to go in and have the banker sitting there looking at us all wild-eyed and crazy because we wanted to open a bank account to sell dildos," says Myers. "They're like, 'Can you take your business elsewhere?' They don't actually say that, but they look at you funny. But going in and saying you're selling body lotion is a lot easier. They're more willing to accept that. They're like, 'Oh, that's nice.' There aren't a lot of questions involved in that one."
To minimize the disapproving gazes they decided to stick to lubricants at first, and in the fall of 1999 they pulled together $1,000 and put up a "cheap and cheesy but very functional" Web site. It was devoted to Wet, the only product line they carried. Several months passed before they made their first sale. "We got all excited," Myers says. "We thought there'd be like a huge wave of orders. That didn't quite happen."
But eventually things did begin picking up, and they started getting listed on more Web sites, including people's personal pages. In the summer of 2001 they scrounged up enough cash to redesign their site. Myers says that's when sales doubled. Today they sell "several thousand dollars' worth of products a month" and carry numerous brands. Myers even developed his own line, called Chase Premium Designer Lubricant (it's being temporarily discontinued because of problems with the manufacturer).
"A lot of our lube is bought by women," Myers says. "The other large segment is the gay population." Sales to people in big cities such as Chicago, New York, and LA are practically nil. Instead they come almost exclusively from cities with populations of 100,000 or less, though Myers says they've shipped to customers as far away as Saudi Arabia and Australia.
He says that many customers have the same big concern. "People are always writing things like, 'Please write "computer parts" on the outside' or 'Please make sure the packaging doesn't say anything.'" They do. "It's not like we slap a big dick on the box," Myers says. "We send products out in those priority-mail boxes with the big eagle on them."
The partners haven't quit their day jobs, but over the next year they plan to add a new line or two and may even start advertising. The way Myers sees it, there will always be a demand. "I think most of America is kind of uptight about sex," he says. "And since a lot of people buy lube and condoms on-line, I don't mind that they're uptight about sex--I'm uptight about sex, generally speaking. But they don't want to admit they're having it, although they enjoy having it. It's like this dirty little secret--let's not tell the neighbors. Then they pop out four kids and everybody knows they're having sex and it's no big deal."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Audrey Cho.