Emma Sayle is the founder of Killing Kittens, an adult company with an online platform and events programme with a focus on female empowerment. Despite facing years of stigma, Killing Kittens was financially self-sustaining for its first decade and recently smashed its crowdfunding target to expand its tech offering.
Emma also runs the Sisterhood, a group of women who complete extreme sports challenges and raise money for charities. Emma herself ran the world’s hardest ultramarathon across the Sahara, won the women’s Great Amazon raft race, climbed Kilimanjaro, swam 6.5km across the Bosphorus, and swam the English Channel.
Here, Emma speaks to BLM about facing stigma, building community, and being a force for female empowerment.
What was your background before founding Killing Kittens?
I was in PR and events – first in finance, and then for the adult industry. It was 2005 and there was a lot of buzz about female sexual revolution, but I felt that it was a lot of talk. Nothing was actually happening; it was still a man’s world.
What was the vision for Killing Kittens?
I wanted to tip the norm on its head. I wanted to create an online and offline community and safe space where women could explore their sexuality without being judged and where they could feel in control. It started as one party a month with a small online side to it, then the online side started to grow and we did more events and expanded overseas.
Given your background in PR, how much of the draw of Killing Kittens was the great story angle?
There’s real yin and yang to it. Killing Kittens has a story and a journey – it’s been 14 years – so when we were raising money, unlike most start-ups, we had a track record. People could see we’d done what we promised, and we had the growth and financials to back it up.
On the other hand, though, there is still massive stigma surrounding the business. It’s only in the last year that people have stopped asking me when I’m going to get a proper job. In that way, the story can be a hindrance, because people don’t see it as a business.
So much has changed in the last year, though. People are starting to understand what we’re doing, and why there’s a need for it, and we’re gaining traction.
Killing Kittens has quite an unusual story in that the business covered its own costs for the first decade. What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs who maybe don’t have access to funding and who want to replicate that model?
It’s tricky because we’re living in a digital world now. When I launched Killing Kittens, I think Facebook had come out that year. Most businesses were offline businesses with maybe a website – and that’s a lot cheaper than when you get tech and digital costs involved.
In any case, people have a certain idea about what it takes to build a business. They spend so much time and money and effort building a product, and then they sit back and say, “Why is no one buying it? What is no one signing up?” Because they haven’t looked at the marketing side.
So my advice would be: if you have money, spend it on your marketing strategy. If people don’t know it exists, you won’t have a business.
What have been some of the particular challenges of building a business in the adult industry?
I’ve had abuse from day one and lost friends who said that what I was doing was disgusting and seedy. A few of them are crawling out of the woodwork now, pretending to be my best mate again, but that was rough.
You only have to say the word ‘sexuality’ and people get embarrassed. That was the hardest part on a personal level. You’d go out and be introduced to someone and they’d back away like you had a disease. There’s a presumption that if you work in the adult industry you must be a massive sex maniac with issues.
There were business challenges too. There was no way I could have got a bank loan, for example. We weren’t allowed to use Killing Kittens Ltd as a company name for the first five years because no bank would give us a bank account, claiming cruelty to animals.
On the flip side, have there been any particular high points?
A major high point was smashing our fundraising target in half the time expected last year. A lot of our members helped the raise, so seeing that loyalty and hearing those messages of how we’d helped people – that was a real high point.
Also, in the last two years, we’ve started to be put in lists and recognised. After having so much crap thrown at us, we’re being acknowledged and admired as a business. I’m still getting my head around that.
What are your plans for scaling Killing Kittens over the next few years?
We’re going Hell-for-leather on the tech side. We launched our platform a few weeks ago – a sort of edgy-Bumble-meets-Facebook. It’s a big social network and there are loads of adult brands out there which can’t advertise at all on the mainstream social media channels. So we’re building a big brand side of the business, with a lot of major brands on board, where they can use our platform to advertise and launch campaigns in ways that they’re missing out on with Facebook and Instagram.
Then on the events side, we’re looking to launch in new cities and try new concepts and push our educational offering. Over half of the events we do now are talks and workshops and couples’ weekends which focus on the mental health side of sexuality. Because no one’s going to get naked if they’re in a bad place mentally.
Can you talk a bit about your Sistr app?
On the side of Killing Kittens, I’ve been running a group called the Sisterhood for the same amount of time. It’s a big group of girls and we do loads of crazy sports events, like swimming the Channel this weekend and running from LA to Vegas in March. We raise money for charities and do a big ball, and so that whole project is just me. It’s what makes me tick.
The Sistr app is sort of an extension of that. It’s about female empowerment. The Sisterhood, Killing Kittens and Sistr – they all come from the same ethos. But Sistr is an app which builds community and allows professional mentoring between women.
What is the draw of extreme sports challenges for you? Do you think it’s related to your drive in business?
There’s a bit of ADHD to it. I want to experience and do everything and travel everywhere. I’ve always been like that. There’s no such thing as can’t.
When you do ultra races and endurance events, it’s not like doing 5k runs. It becomes so psychological that it really pushes your mind into weird and wonderful places. It toughens you up and teaches you to manage your fear, and you can absolutely use that in business.
What is your top piece of advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs?
My advice would be to join as many networks as you can, and go out and meet people. Look at women who have done what you want to do and see if you can connect. Get a mentor. And don’t assume that you already know it all.