Empire of Love: Q&A With Kama Sutra Founder, Joe Bolstad
Forty-five years ago, in 1969, Joe Bolstad was the trailblazer for a whole new concept of intimacy products that are thriving today. During the July ANME Founders Show, Kama Sutra invited clients and colleagues to celebrate its milestone. In this interview, Bolstad discusses his illustrious career.
XBIZ: Mr. Bolstad, tell us where you came from, how did you end up here in California?
Joe Bolstad: Well, I came out to California from Minneapolis, Minn. in the late 1950s after high school and two years in the military. I was lucky because I had an uncle who lived in California. He said to me, “Joe, come west – and I’ll help you get started with your life.”
I had nothing going for me in Minneapolis so west I came with about $20 in my pocket.
After a year of odd jobs to keep afloat, I applied to The Art Center College of Design, which is now located in Pasadena, Calif. Art and design had always been hobbies for me and I was hoping that I could find a career in advertising.
I didn’t know until later that Art Center was the most prestigious school of its kind in the country, with extremely high admittance standards. Their alumni are some of the top people in the fields of advertising, art and design.
The school accepted me “conditionally” because at the time I had borderline talent. My classmates were all super stars – most of them had graduated from universities with Art Design degrees already – so they were a talented bunch.
I decided to put my head down, work like a dog night and day – and eventually, I became a fairly talented art director and designer in the Los Angeles area. I worked for some of the top agencies on big accounts in cosmetics, fashion, real estate and finance, amongst others. It was lots of fun working with fellow designers, writers, photographers, etc. to solve advertising and marketing problems for our clients. I became pretty good in the business and won many awards in the Los Angeles and New York annual Art Directors Shows.
XBIZ: How was Kama Sutra started?
Bolstad: One of my best friends in the ad agency business was a writer by the name of Hal Hauser. He was a Midwest guy – just like me. He graduated from Northwestern and was a jet pilot in the military – so he was a very together guy. He was the funniest guy I ever met – as well as the most creative guy I ever knew.
Well, one day in 1968, I think it was, Hal and I were invited to a big party in the Hollywood hills on a Saturday night. What a party it was. Full of beautiful models, starlets, guys, girls – it was something; and of course it was the 1960s so there was a pungent odor in the air.
As the night wore on, people were raiding the kitchen cupboards for Wesson oil, olive oil or anything else that was “slippery.”
Why – you might ask? Your guess is as good as mine.
The next morning – late in the morning I must say – Hal and I met for coffee to review the night and get the day started – and that’s where Hal showed his true genius. While I was suffering with a hangover, Hal had come up with an idea for a product he called “Love Oil” based on last night’s experiences.
I’ll never forget it. I had never seen or heard those two words used together like that – and I immediately grasped the marketing and sociological significance of such an idea.
We talked over the idea for a few hours – and ended up shaking hands as partners in the new venture of developing and marketing “Love Oil.”
We were out to save the world. You must remember that this was the late 1960s and the Vietnam War was going on, there was intense unrest in the streets of America.
We walked down to the corner bank, Bank of America on Hollywood and Highland, each put $500 into the bank and started our business. Then we went out and got drunk.
XBIZ: So how did you turn that one product idea into the famous Oil of Love that Kama Sutra is known for today?
Bolstad: Well, we were both experienced ad guys and knew how to solve problems like this. We began to write the “qualities” we wanted in the product… it must be slippery, it must smell good, it must taste good, it must be water soluble and easy to clean up and it must be relatively easy to manufacture.
We talked to many chemists in the L.A. area and it was amazing how free they were with their ideas and suggestions. While talking to one chemist, he casually suggested that we might use one ingredient as our base ingredient – but then he said, “No, you might not want to use that ingredient as it has a tendency to warm the skin.”
Hal and I looked at each other, wide-eyed, and said, “Yeah, that could be a problem…”
We went out and got drunk again.
Then we focused on the container we were going to use – once again we made a list of “must haves.” First on the list was that it must be stock – and easy to get in small or large quantities. After months of searching we finally settled on the serum-type bottle that we use to this day. We then decided upon the color, the waxed cork, the outer cylindrical package and the graphics.
XBIZ: Where did the name “Kama Sutra” come from?
Bolstad: Concurrently, while working on the formula and the packaging, we knew we had to have a “brand name” – a name to build our story around. At first, everything we came up with seemed trite and shallow.
One day I was visiting and browsing in a book shop in West L.A. called “The Bodhi Tree” book store – known to be the source of all books esoteric, philosophical or spiritual. On the back shelf I picked up a book called “The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana.”
You now see books titled “Kama Sutra” all over bookstores and online that are basically books of sexual positions with illustrations or photographs. But the original book I found, based on East Indian philosophies and social behaviors of 2,000 years ago, was quite different.
First, there were no photographs or illustrations. As I read the book, I began to understand its deeper meanings of relationships between lovers and how it elevated these relationships to a high social standard thereby creating happier, more secure citizens.
I almost cried with joy as the total “Oil of Love” concept became complete in my mind by incorporating these authentic and historical guidelines that were so in harmony with our own thinking. So our product became, “Kama Sutra Oil of Love.“
I then applied for and obtained the trademark, “Kama Sutra” – which we now have registered in several different categories in over 100 countries around the world.
XBIZ: How did Kama Sutra blossom into the internationally renowned company it is today?
Bolstad: Well, we found a small cosmetics manufacturer in L.A. and he agreed to run our first 5,000 products. This was the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, so we sold the products to mostly head shops. Our sales people were young women we knew in the business that we called, “Love Oil Ladies.” Sales came in and off we went.
Our next move was to take a bigger step and have a booth at the L.A. Gift Show that was being held at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, long before the Convention Center – this was 1970, I think.
We signed up for the show and they gave us a hotel room on the third floor as our “booth” – basically Siberia. But we had no choice, so we decided to attack the problem creatively and thought of turning the hotel room into an Indian tent of love. We measured the room, found a tent to fit inside the room and began to design a “love tent.”
We draped the inside of the tent with Indian fabrics. We put foam, Indian rugs and decorative pillows on the floor. We had a small, round table in the center of the tent and a brass Indian light hanging from the center of the tent’s ceiling that created an intriguing glow.
Then we had Ravi Shanker music on, playing low and seductively in the corner. We also draped the entrance hall to the hotel room that went past the toilets – so as people walked by they could get a “glance” of something interesting going on inside the room.
We had one “Love Oil Lady” in the tent, sitting and waiting to demonstrate our Oil of Love and one standing just outside the room, in the hallway, to invite people in.
Remember, we were on the third floor. Nothing happened the first morning of the show; by early afternoon a few people started coming up. By the mid-afternoon we had people waiting around two corners of the floor to get into our booth. That lasted for the next two days of the show, orders piled up, manufacturing got in gear and we were off and running.
XBIZ: After being in business for 45 years, how do you see your place in the adult market today?
Bolstad: That’s an interesting question.
We just recently had our 45th Anniversary party where we hosted our exclusive distributor groups and our direct chain customers. I think all who attended had a blast.
Kama Sutra now has 65 products all devoted to the single goal of helping loving couples develop more trust, intimacy and fun in their relationships. We believe the net result is a healthier, happier human being who brings more love to the world. This has been our core reason for being since day one.
Obviously because of our success, others have entered the world we live in – some using our same language and product concepts!
So the marketplace for our category in the adult world is getting crowded – all making similar products, all making similar claims.
I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
We continue to create the best, most regulatory compliant and quality products we can, package them beautifully, price them fairly and treat our distributors, direct chain customers and the ultimate consumer with the utmost respect.
We thank them for their support over these very interesting 45 years.