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Motley Meets: Killing Kittens founder Emma Sayle

by Ilana Lever on

I came into the adult industry at a time when female sexual liberation was still being talked about, but the industry was controlled by men.

I studied Sports Science at Birmingham University, where I found that I was better at organising the social elements, throwing parties. But when I graduated, I went into financial PR. I didn’t like it. I had a harassment issues with a few bosses, and I didn’t like the old boys’ network, so I moved into entertainment PR. It was there that I ended up doing the PR for the Erotica Exhibition, where I met lots of weird and wonderful people in the adult industry. This was when Sex and the City was out, Ann Summers had hit the high streets and there was this whole female sexual liberation thing going on. But I found that the whole adult industry was run by men, for men, and that there was nowhere for women to actually be in control, to explore their sexuality without being called a slut, and to feel empowered.

So I launched Killing Kittens in 2006, as an online and offline community for women, focussed on them and their sexuality.

I always joke that when I grew up, ‘I want to organise orgies’ was never something that was a careers chat at school.

But at school, if I didn’t feel something was right, I’d stand up for it, even if it was going against the teachers or getting into trouble. For example, at boarding school, aged eight, every two weeks you had your weight and height measured and I remember refusing to do it, and getting girlfriends to refuse to do it, because I thought, we shouldn’t be getting weighed.

I’ve always had that, ‘screw you’ type of attitude in me. Ten years being in an all-girls boarding school will do that - girls were my family, we had each other’s back, and you didn’t feel any different from the boys. It was only when I got out into the outside world that I realised the imbalance.  I grew up in the Middle East and that was a real imbalance. Plus I had a very controlling dad as well. And I was angry with the way the world around me was when it came to females; it was a very patriarchal society from when I was little. My mum used to joke that I used to run away from home from the age of two if I didn’t agree with something; it was just that my suitcases got bigger! I think my personality, combined with that fire being stoked, and growing and growing, made me go, that’s it, this is what I want to do.

I’ve experienced a lot of trolling and abuse.

I lost some friends at the beginning, people saying “That’s disgusting, what are you doing” - who are crawling back now. I knew society wasn’t ready, but that this was really important, and that one day it would be, that female sexuality is perfectly normal and no different to that of men.

Yes, Killing Kittens started as a monthly party, which the tabloids would just refer to as “sex parties”, but for me it was a much bigger set-up, that I wanted one day to be normal, that women could be whoever they want to sexuality-wise.

Which is why in the last couple of years, with Me Too hitting, Trump setting fire to the world’s female population, I was like right, this is what we’ve been waiting for. We’ve been going eleven years and we need to get out and own it. And we’ve got this community of over 100,00 members, and so we need to be the ones that get ahead of it, so for the last two years, we’ve been going at a hundred miles per hour, to build the tech and platform to support that vision.

I think you get bad publicity if you pretend to be something you’re not,

We do exactly what we say on the tin, we’re not hiding anything. From the beginning I’ve left journalists come in, see what it’s all about, interview our members. I think if you’re honest and open about what you’re about, they’ll write that. It took me a couple of years not to get bothered by Daily Mail posts readers online, but I don’t think I’ve read them for about 11 years now; there’s no point. I’ll always look at press, and say, how will this impact the business, will it get us any more members? Because a Daily Mail headline - 50% of people might say that’s disgusting but 50% say that sounds interesting, let’s Google it and sign up.

Sex is like religion. You can’t please everyone and everyone is very opinionated about it, one way or another. So I take criticism, I even like it; because the day that stops, you know you’re not making a difference anymore.

We’d never needed to have much investment up until about three years ago.

We’ve grown very organically. But when I looked at the figures about three years ago, although 50% of our revenue was coming from the community and 50% from the parties, the team I had were all offline people. The online side was running itself, and we were blagging it. I was doing Twitter, someone else was doing Facebook. I realised, if I know someone that knows the world of digital tech, that side can fly.

I then met Hadley who’s now our COO. He’s amazing, very techy and strategic, and I realised that after the rise of Me Too, we needed new tech - and tech costs money. To me it was go big or go home, so we knew we needed to build something that was kick-ass, and get talent in, who really know their stuff on the digital side, and that costs big money. I was used to event and PR salaries, which is nothing. The tech and digital world is a whole difficult level paywise. So we thought for the first time, we need to take investment on board.

When it came to raising money, institutions weren’t even interested.

We wanted £0.5m, and we thought, we should go the city and meet VCs and private investors. Someone approached us because they’d been told to look at female-founded businesses. But, even though we ticked all the right boxes, and our figures were all great, they would then say, well, the powers that be won’t let us. We just needed a few mavericks to be the first to say, on paper this business ticks every single box, it’s a business, so does it matter that there’s sex involved? But we always knew that would be the hardest, because we were coming from people’s perception of the tabloid sensation, and trying to move it into the tech lifestyle world. None of that was sitting comfortably.

Then we discussed the fact that we had a massive membership and lots of die-hard followers who been around for a decade, a huge community. And I‘d rather four hundred people feel like they own part of the business, rather than five guys swinging their cocks thinking they own an orgy business. So we thought, let’s test it. We emailed out the members explaining what we were looking to do. Now, it’s illegal to ask members for money - the High Net Worths are the only ones you can speak to directly - but you can’t email out, asking people, do you want to invest? So, after we had over a thousand people sign up and over two hundred High Net Worths people sign up interested, we went to Seedrs and Crowdcube – who, a year before, said they wouldn’t touch us because we’re adult.

It’s amazing how much society changes in a year.

Seedrs said, yes, we want you, it hasn’t been done before, you’re the first adult industry people, so we went down the Seedrs route. We went to some of our High Net Worths who had registered interest to be some of the seeds who wanted bigger tickets – £10k-£50k – and we had the platfrom private for two weeks, where we raised almost £400k. We then sent it out to the public. It was more of a marketing exercise. And we had to close the round early. We raised just under £600k in four weeks.

Because we’d changed our mind as to how we’d raise the money, the round was delayed. And we were building an app called Safedate that was delayed, because tech and apps are always late.

So what happened in the last week of July was that we closed the round, launched the app and I had my third baby. I remember, I had to pull over in the car when we closed the round and spoke to Hadley and sobbed in the car over my steering wheel. I don’t know if it was the hormones.

The concept of Safedate came from our chat groups

When we were building the new platform, we’d notice that in some of the girl only chat groups would, they’d share the details of the Tinder date they were going on. They’d put in the group, I’m going on this date, and if you don’t hear from me, this is where I’m going to be. They were safemates, and we thought, well we need to put it in the new tech. When our tech guys were building it, we realised this could be a much bigger entity, something you want schoolgirls to have, parents to have on their phone. And so we developed it as a standalone app.

It’s a very simple app where you put in all the details of your date, where you’re going, their profile, any info you have on them. You list your safe people with their email addresses or numbers, and you put in that you want to check back into the app at a certain time. If you don’t, your safe people get a notification. It integrates with Whatsapp, and we’re adding a gps tracker and an emergency button later this year.

No one’s doing a particularly good job in educating young people about pornography.

There are new laws that when you go onto any porn site, you have to verify your age. To me, that’s putting a plaster on a very deep cut. Teenagers are savvy, they’ll get round age restrictions, or they’ll go deeper into the dark web and see really sick stuff.

You have start at a grass roots education level and change the whole dialogue – move it away from the line that girls are responsible for boys behaviour. Which it is at the moment.  “Don’t wear short skirts, you’ll encourage them”. The dialogue is very much, ‘women are responsible because guys can’t control themselves’. You should be teaching the boys that girls can wear what they like and that doesn’t give them a right to take a photo up their skirts. The new sex ed curriculum they’re meant to be bringing in in 2020 has porn education involved in that; hopefully that’ll be a good thing.

The “No sex please, we’re British” attitude doesn’t seem to apply any more.

Originally the Europeans in our community were a lot more open than the British, but now the British are very open.  The  Americans are much more secretive, behind closed doors, they can’t be seen to be doing it in front of friends. We’ve also got an Australian set up and they’re a decade behind the Brits.

The openness around gender and sexuality more generally is definitely going forward. There was so much outrage about Trump and his harassment cases, and just the way he operates; even his marriage is old school, not like the Obamas, who were equal partners. But everything he’s pushing through, or allowing to happen, is going backward. I think the US has a massive problem. But Northern Ireland is worse than Alabama, so… But with this progress, there’s a lot you have to be careful about. Like the narrative that if you’re a women, you shouldn’t wear pink. Well, why can’t girls wear pink? I’ve got a two and a half year old girl, and a four and a half year old boy, and from birth, she liked pink and t and playing with dolls, and she also likes kicking a football around.

I’m already talking to my kids about these things.

I’ve already started with my son, because he’ll already use phrases ‘it’s boys only’. He came in the other day - we’ve been having the garage renovated, and he calls it Bob-Bob, as in Bob the Builder - so he said, ‘I’m going to help Daddy Bob-Bob’. I said, ‘I’ll help’, and he said, ‘Girls don’t Bob-Bob. And they don’t garden either.’

You should have seen my husband’s face. He was like, they do, they all do. And I wwas like, we’ll have to get some YouTube videos out. He’s four and a half, and he’s already saying stuff like that, which hasn’t come from our household.

It’ll be similar when it comes to talking about sex. To me it’s about boundaries of consent, respecting girls and not expecting them. For example, he would pull down his sister’s pants when he walks past, and I have to say, you can’t do that to girls. Or boys. It’s already started, the things I can do to talk about it.

You can have it all but only if you have the right teams behind you.

Workwise, I’ve got an amazing team, and everything would continue if something happened. Half the team in the office have been around longer than five years. It’s the same with home life. My mum’s ten minutes away, and we’ve got a great nursery. We’ve got about eight of the nursery teachers who, if needed, will babysit. My little baby’s been in and out of hospital for seven months, and on one weekend, I was away with work, and James had the other two kids, so one of the nursery managers stayed in hospital for 48 hours. Having friends has been crucial for my sanity, mental health, and wellbeing. I’ve got a great group of girlfriends and run a group called the Sisterhood, that’s been going about 11 years, which is that’s loads of girls doing crazy sports events for charity, and that keeps me sane. I go at 100 miles per hour in all aspects but with a team. Like a Formula 1 driver.

I’ve just been reading a business book called Mission about leading entrepreneurs – just to check I’m doing it right.

It’s written by guys who have big corporate communications agency, and they’ve looked after Virgin and Apple, and all the big names. They’ve written a book about how the entrepreneurs and founders think, the mindset of the best of the best. They found they all have similar behaviours and mindsets. Just to see that I’m on the right track. Which is batshit crazy.

I run off loyalty.

If you’re loyal, you’re on for the ride. If something snaps, there’s no going back. Within our members, there’s that loyalty and having each other’s backs and community. I’ve always been part of a big community and that sense of belonging is at the core of our business.

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