Myla: Charlotte Semler and Nina Hampson
The sex shop entrepreneurs spent ages selling their wares in the City, until they were finally shown the money
Like a circus act Charlotte Semler and Nina Hampson rumbled around the VC circuit. Their reputation preceded them.
“It’s really fucking funny, you’ve got to see them,” was the word winging its way round City finance houses, according to Semler. As a result quite a few doors were left enticingly ajar.
But for six months that’s as far as it got them. The fact is, there was nothing particularly funny about them or their proposition. Theirs was no comedy skit akin to the zenith of French & Saunders nor did they have the freakish appeal of a bearded lady.
Instead, the cause of such mirth was that these two young entrepreneurs were effectively setting up a sex shop. And while amused that they amused, it was something of a relief to meet funders who weren’t stifling boyish smirks to hear their plans. After all, they had done so much ‘relevant work’ on business models, financial models and strategy, and were not about to let it all go to waste. “Who knows, perhaps it would have been easier if one of us was a bloke,” she says. But she’s reluctant to acknowledge a clear barrier despite noting that “only 5% of VC money goes to companies led by women. Whether they don’t look or don’t get is chicken and egg”. Investment in the ‘sex’ industry is also not high on the agendas of most venture capitalists.
Semler and Hampson didn’t get the £5m they were after, but did raise £1.5m from the VCT arm of Singer Friedlander. And Myla was born. The pair’s reputation now is one of success and since the first shop opened in Notting Hill in 2001 the business has grown to a £2m turnover.
Setting up a serious, fast growing and profitable business was always the plan for the quietly forthright Semler. She wasn’t interested in a nice little cottage industry to take her away from corporate life – an image attached to women entrepreneurs that grates her. And the decisions she made to get her there were calculated, not emotional. She tapped up Hampson initially after taking a fancy to her brain. Friendship was secondary. They had worked closely together on an assignment for Tesco and soon realised their aims were aligned. “I’d been looking for a person or people who were willing to do a freefall,” says Semler. Their careers to date had been successful, but fidgety, with neither able to settle in one place for long.
Which was why the constant change and challenge of such a venture appealed. Both have a predilection for new experiences. And they were certain to get them, knowing nothing about running a business, lingerie or design, or the dull necessities such as payroll and the inner workings of VAT. “We’ve learnt various things in depth and a lot in passing,” she confides. But that’s not to paint any level of ineptitude. Being a jack of all trades and master of few is common to entrepreneurs.
To the table they brought bags full of energy, numeracy and vision. They were also bloody-minded. An early focus group found that when women were asked to sum up what was sexy, tarts and boudoirs figured prominently. This was exactly what Semler didn’t want to hear and decreed that these women simply couldn’t comment on what they hadn’t seen before so didn’t necessarily know what they might want from sex. They disregarded the feedback and set about bringing style and luxury to the sector.
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Equally, being used to rejection at an investor level stood them in good stead when it came to suppliers and clients and she still sees it as a bonus. “Nine out of 10 might not want to know. But the ones that get what you’re trying to do are extremely supportive and if anything they’ve treated us very well and given better credit terms than they would a normal business.”
This helps as Semler and Hampson don’t compromise on quality. They offer real silk lingerie, real pearls in the g-strings and vibrators that are works of art. There’s nothing sleazy or dirty and the fact that Selfridges and Liberty, as well the top establishments in Milan, New York and Paris have been quick to endorse proves that their gut instincts were good. Laugh at Semler at your peril.