Why it took 309 rejections for Polly Rodriguez to get her taboo business funded
Updated: Aug 28, 2019
UNBOUND, CEO FENOM EXTRAORDINARE
Say her name; know her story. We ask phenomenal women to narrate the story of their lives in five chapters. They name each chapter and explain why each chapter is named the way it is, allowing them to share their story in their own words, and showcase their milestones, hardships, and decisions along the way.
When Polly Rodriguez shakes your hand, you notice two things. The first is her firm handshake, and the second is the large gold ring on her hand. Not a wedding ring, this gold bar sits horizontally across three fingers and can’t be missed.
The ring, isn’t a trend, it’s a statement.
The ring like a favourite car, stuffed animal, or other prized possession, has a name– Palma. She’s made with surgical grade stainless steel, is available in silver, and completely waterproof.
Palma, of course, is also a vibrator.
“I think the best thing about Palma is that you can wear it out and people be like ‘oh, it's a cool ring’ and then it's kind of up to you to decide whether or not you share what its secondary feature and purpose is, which I think is cool,” said Polly.
“It gives kind of like the power in the hands of the wearer to decide whether or not you share what it can be used for.”
Sometimes, the worst case WebMD scenario is right.
Polly never expected she’d co-found a sexual wellness company one day. In fact, as a kid, she said she dreamt of being on Broadway, or running away with the circus. But she also never expected to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer at 21, either.
“I first had symptoms when I was 18 years old,” said Polly, telling us about searching up the symptoms on WebMD and telling her doctors she had cancer. They reassured her it was incredibly rare for someone her age to get colorectal cancer and wrote it off as IBS and Crohn's disease. After a semester abroad, Polly came home and demanded tests.
“You see this whole (...) path that you're supposed to go down,” said Polly. “And then you wake up the next day, and you're like, ‘Okay, everything is derailed off course now.’
“ [Cancer] turned out to be one of, I think the best things that ever happened to me– but at the time, it certainly didn't feel like it.”
She told her friends she had cancer, dropped out of school, and moved back home to get treatment.
For anyone at a crossroads and unsure of how to feel about their decision, Polly says you should freak out– so long as you keep it brief. “I think it's okay to give yourself a couple days to like, panic and cry and freak out,” said Polly, “and then I'm like, ‘Okay– now I have to focus on what are actual, tangible next steps I can take to get organized around? What the fuck am I gonna do?’ “
From leaving the GMAT mid-way through the exam, to quitting a job at a prestigious consulting job at Deloitte, Polly has reinvented herself over-and-over again.
She was working at a dating startup when she eventually met her co-founder, Sarah Jayne, through a women-in-tech group. Unbound was born not only as a trend in online-to-consumer businesses, but as a call to end the stigma of sex shops.
After chemotherapy, Polly experienced menopause at 21. Although her doctors warned her she’d never be able to have children, they didn’t explain what she was going through, leaving her painfully unaware of her own body.
Once again, she turned to Google for answers.
“Nobody told me, nobody said, ‘this is a lifelong consequence of what you have to go through,’” she said, “And I think if I had been a man, they would have 100% addressed it– like if a guy was going to have erectile dysfunction as a result of whatever treatment, that would be addressed first and foremost.”
Her friend, a nurse, suggested Polly go shopping for a vibrator and she turned up at the only place that sold them in her hometown. A Hustler Hollywood, off the highway, right by the airport.
“It was just one of those like classic, mortifying experiences of walking in and there's the mannequin and the crotch-less onesie stocking, and like the fluorescent neon lights, and some weird guy in the corner reading a porno magazine.”
The experience stuck.
Direct-to-consumer is a model that allows businesses to cut the middleman out and sell directly to buyers. “I was kind of like, how was no one doing this for sexual wellness products?” The question was answered when they faced the barriers of the industry head-on.
Unbound is “like Glossier, but for vibrators.” They sell well-designed products intended to empower women to explore their own sexual wellness. It will be almost five years since Sarah and Polly started working on it together.
“I remember my mom not even wanting to talk to me, because she was like, ‘why would you choose this as your career? Why would you throw away your reputation? Why would you get into an industry that is so uncouth?’ And I think that was the inherent reason I wanted to this.”
Unlike cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, or drugs, and other vice categories, women’s sexual pleasure products don’t cause harm to people.
From working weekends selling raffle tickets, to waking up at 5 A.M. to tape packages together and getting continuously rejected by investors, Unbound’s beginnings were far from glamorous.
“Nobody would take the category seriously,” said Polly. “So it was this really demoralizing for a really long time.” It took two and a half years to raise their seed round. “I had over 309 rejections, like actual people that wrote me back being like, ‘this is not a fit. This is why this idea will never work.’ 309 times.”
For anyone looking to find purpose in their work, Polly has some advice. Good advice.
ADVICE FROM POLLY
“I think people drive different purposes from what they're doing and what their career is, but I think you have to do the work of talking to as many people as you can.” Her solution to finding the right career path for yourself– go out there and talk to people. The old fashion way.
DMs are fine, but genuine connections get washed in the mix of surface level questions.
“As much as I would love to answer every single one, it's kind of like– you can't always expect all the answers to come to you, right? Like you have to go out and seek them.”
Whether it’s showing up at an event for an industry that you're interested in, or calling organizers of those events to volunteer, Polly thinks those real-life connections go the extra mile and help shape your path as you choose which is right for you.
“So I think it's just a matter of taking a chance and showing up,” she said. “Which can feel daunting, but ultimately, I think is the best way to eliminate what you like and what you don't like.”
Written By: Cat Kelly, Editor-in-Chief of FLIK