Last month, Fast Talk spoke with Richard Pessall, a British entrepreneur experimenting with new ways to sell condoms through his company, Forplay. Soon after we ran the piece, I received a feisty email from a rival condom entrepreneur, Joe Nelson of TheyFit, another recently launched British company that offers custom-fitted condoms in 95 sizes. "Thursday's article drove a lot of traffic to us (good) but also kind of slandered us (bad)," he wrote. "The statement, part of a quote, ‘custom-made condoms are completely unneeded’ is as staunch as it is incorrect. I'd like the opportunity to fight my corner please!" Fast Company recently gave Nelson him that opportunity, which he took up with gusto. Readers are advised that our exchange contained lengthy discussion of the male anatomy, including multiple uses of the word "penis," and no fewer than three of its synonyms. This is a condom company, after all.
FAST COMPANY: So you were working on TheyFit concurrently with your gig at Goldman Sachs, where you were an algorithmic sales trader for years.
JOE NELSON: Everyone at Goldman has side projects, and most people have quite a few—it’s just the nature of the place. I used to follow patents on a website that would display the top 10 interesting patents. I saw something on custom-fitted condoms back in 2006, and thought, "That’s really interesting." I decided to dig a little deeper, and after a lot of searching, I found the guy who owns the patents, an American named Frank Sadlo based in Louisville, GA. Now, having a great idea and executing a great idea are two different things. Frank and I met up in Amsterdam, and started up a friendship, really, more than anything. Fast-forward to 2011, and we've managed to bring the product to the European market. The biggest hurdle was getting a CE mark [the EU equivalent of FDA approval]. Condoms are a Class IIb medical device—serious stuff, up there with heart stents, and for obvious reasons: If you use a condom and it doesn’t do its job, at the easiest you end up with a baby, and as the worst you end up with something a lot worse.
Don’t condoms already come in various sizes?
Firstly, there is no such thing as a small condom, for obvious reasons: The psychology of penis size is well documented. On the other end of the scale, we found in our investigations that the physical difference between condoms marketed as standard and extra-large was one millimeter of width. It’s more a question of marketing than actual difference. Why? Because it’s so bloody difficult to make in various sizes. Condoms are made on what are called latex fitting lines. So if you can imagine a machine that has lots of penis-shaped glass formers—
Imagine 200 of them in a line, all pointing upwards, so that the teat of the condom is at the top. They’re all pointing skywards, and you attach those to a mechanical chain, all in a line, and you set the mechanical chain in motion such that they go along, they pass over a bath full of liquid latex. What’s the key there? All the formers are the same size. It churns out batches of half a million—it’s tremendously cost-efficient.
You managed to tweak this process affordably. How much are your condoms?
Mine are £6.99 for a six-pack. Traditionally, when I was growing up, condoms in the U.K. were a pound a pop. These have a five-year expiry, so what we say is, if you know your size and enjoy using them, why not buy in bulk? Two packs is 13 pounds, three is 18, four is 24, but 10 packs—which, by the way, is remarkably popular—is only 40 pounds, a cost of 66 or 67p.
For changing the way condoms are made, you call yourself a "condom revolutionary."
This is the biggest change to how condoms are made, basically, ever. The biggest revolution up till now was the latex revolution, in 1934, nearly 100 years ago. A side effect of the latex revolution was that in order to make condoms quickly and cheaply, you had to make them in one size and rely on the fact that latex stretches. But there are a lot of flaws to that thinking, not least that the more latex stretches, the more the reciprocate force is expressed back onto the object, i.e. the penis. So it causes a feeling of tightness, and tightness does not equal comfort or pleasure, especially when it involves your Johnson. What’s your shoe size?
If I gave you a shoe that size, you’d be able to tell right away. If I gave you a size 12 shoe or a size 13, you’d say instantly, "Wait a minute, Joe, it’s loose." And that’s your feet. So take the sensitivity of your feet and times it by 1,000, and that’s the sensitivity of your Johnson. If someone no longer faces a choice between good unsafe sex and bad safe sex—if instead he gets to choose between good unsafe sex and good safe sex—most men will start to change their behavior.
It seems to me that a lot of the adverse consequences of unsafe sex have to do with hasty decision making. But fitting yourself for a bespoke condom seems to require a lot of foresight.
Is it a lot of foresight because it’s actually a lot of foresight, or is it just that we’re not used to it? There’s the idea of the stereotypical guy who gets lucky in a bar, needs condoms, runs to the bathroom, and off he goes and has some fun. I can tell you categorically that the reality doesn’t play to that stereotype. A number of condom machines in U.K. bathrooms have stopped selling condoms and instead try to sell other stuff: "male enhancement products," little blue pills meant to be suggestive of Viagra, vibrating cock rings, and so on. These have now taken over the infrastructure for selling condoms in the bathroom. That’s how farcical this idea is that condoms need to be available for a hasty decision.
OK, but 95 sizes? When I catch sidelong glances at the gym, I don’t see that much variety.
No one disputes for a second that dicks come in different sizes. If you go to Wikipedia to see the distribution of penis sizes, in pretty much every survey, you get remarkable, remarkable variation. To clarify one detail, I assume that in the changing rooms, you’re observing not erections but flaccid penises.
That is correct.
OK. I don’t know what gyms are like in the U.S. But look at the other things that nature bestows on us: height, weight. People say, "There aren’t 95 different sizes of shoe," and I say, "Are you sure about that? When you take into account baby shoes, and children’s shoes, and women’s shoes..."
Don’t tell me you’re selling these to infants and children.
I can tell you this: It took 72 hours to sell every length and every width in those 95 sizes, plus two queries for sizes not on the chart. The smallest one is three inches and the largest one is 10 inches. And of course you could arguably say people are buying it as a joke, that it’s a fun present, to give the largest or smallest condom. I would concede there’s probably an element of that. However, there’s absolutely no reason to buy the next smallest condom, or the largest-but-one, as a joke. Frankly, it wouldn’t be a very fun gift.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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