Fishtown firm's eggplant-shaped vibrator aims to remake the sex-toy industry

Joe Vela and Kris Fretz are all about delivering good vibes.

The co-founders of Emojibator, a “humor-first” novelty sex-toy brand, the pair has sold thousands of vibrators — in the shapes of fruit and vegetables — to customers all over the world.

Though the idea for the Philadelphia-based company started as a joke, it’s become a provocative side-hustle for the former University of Delaware classmates.

“We’ve really changed the sex-toy industry,” said Fretz, who talks about using comedy to break down sexual taboos. “These allow people to talk about female pleasure.”

Vela, 28, and Fretz, 25, know about creating a buzz. Vela once worked for the red-hot Philadelphia e-commerce start-up Curalate. Fretz was a political organizer who segued into a job as an operations manager for a top tech-talent recruiter.

In 2016, Vela quit his gig at Curalate to become a full-time drummer with Tweed, a Philly-based electronic funk band.

“I was brainstorming about business ideas I could do part time and remotely,” Vela said, on the phone from his Fishtown “office” at  Front Street Cafe. “And I landed on this.”

 

 

Camera icon EMOJIBATOR
Fishtown start-up Emojibator began as a joke.

“This” was an idea for a small hand-held vibrator in the shape of an eggplant.

“I figured if there wasn’t something like that already, there should be,” he said.

Vela called Fretz, his best friend, with whom he had worked to  stage Delaware’s BassCampus music festival.

“I loved it,” she said.

Why an eggplant? And why is it funny?

“It’s the ubiquitous emoji for ‘penis,’” Vela said. “It’s iconic in text culture, you know.”

(For those of you who don’t text, an emoji is a small symbol such as a smiley face or a heart. It is used as shorthand for a bigger concept.)

Vela and Fretz hired a designer and found a manufacturer in China that could fashion a 10-speed aubergine-hued device out of waterproof silicon. The unit sells for $29.

“The day we got our first product, we got one into the hands of a writer at Cosmopolitan magazine,” Vela said. “The [Aug. 25, 2016] story kind of blew us up. We had 200 orders in one day.”

The eggplant was followed by a device in the shape of a red hot pepper and another in the form of a small banana. Their customers are primarily millennials, “but it’s really people of all ages who buy from us,” said Fretz, who is based in New York City.

Camera icon EMOJIBATOR
The Fishtown company’s product line.

“We’re working on a male sex toy, but that’s all I can tell you right now,” said Vela.

Emojibator has had a tough time getting the word out. Though sometimes dismissed by its critics as a $10 vibrator cloaked in $20 worth of marketing, a conversation starter it most certainly is. Unfortunately, most social media sites ban the promotion of sex toys.

“We’re extremely limited in what we can do,” Fretz said. “With Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, we can’t advertise. With Google we can do adwords, but we can’t do any targeting.”

That has forced Vela and Fretz to get creative.

Fretz stages in-person events at street fairs and pop-up shops, primarily in New York City with the trade group Women of Sex Tech.

“Sometimes I have moms who bring their 18-year-old daughters to buy one,” Fretz said. “It represents a new way of forwarding the conversation. It’s not something to be ignored just because it’s uncomfortable to talk about.”

She also promotes Emojibator at international trade shows including the Brooklyn Sex Expo and the Venus Erotic Trade Fair in Berlin, Germany.

The devices are also sold at the Museum of Sex gift shop in New York, the on-demand convenience store GoPuff, and such online retailers as Good Vibrations and Unbound.

“I’d like to have a storefront someday,” Vela said, “but our business model is to be able to work from anywhere. If I wanted to live in Thailand tomorrow, I could still do that.”