Q&A With Oxballs' Owner Stephen Lane
Oxballs, a specialty manufacturer of men’s sex toys, was born with a fashion sense. Company founder Stephen Lane, aka “Ox,” took his expertise from designing men’s apparel to create what has become a widely recognizable brand within the gay community. With an emphasis on unique designs and a wide variety of color options, Oxballs is enjoying growing success as the mainstreaming of men’s toys continues to broaden its customer base.
“Male products have become more acceptable,” said Ryan Fraga, Oxballs’ director of sales and marketing. “We’ve had to expand and shift our vision because the course of the consumer has shifted. We’ve become approachable to such a wider audience than just gay men or fetish communities.”
Fraga joined Oxballs a couple of months ago and clicked with Lane right away.
“Oxballs is poised to really grow,” Fraga told XBIZ. “The excitement is there, it’s a name that’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue and I knew that before I joined the company. It’s an impressive brand. When I first came to meet with Oxballs, it was obvious just by talking with Ox that he and I would be a good match for each other. He is an absolutely excellent designer, and is so focused on how a product will perform for the end user, namely the consumer.”
Based in Chatsworth, Calif., Oxballs designs and manufactures its silicone products onsite. Oxballs’ design team creates 3D models based on Lane’s sketches that are then replicated by 3D printers to produce shapes and molds that can be tested within hours.
With a staff of 21, the tight-knit company works diligently in shifts to meet the demands of a growing customer base. Oxballs maintains a cozy environment complete with pets and full kitchen for office gatherings. Lane told XBIZ that Oxballs has outgrown its current location and is looking to move into bigger facilities.
In this exclusive interview with XBIZ Premiere, Lane discusses the company’s growth, the brand’s notoriety and plans for the future.
XBIZ: Tell us about the history of Oxballs.
Stephen Lane: It started about eight years ago. I was an apparel designer specializing in men’s apparel — sweaters in particular, so I made all those Bill Cosby sweaters … It was my specialty but then the industry began shrinking and it became more cutthroat. I wasn’t satisfied with it anymore so I decided to leave after 13 years. I also loved New York but wanted a change so I took three weeks off to go visit a friend out here [in Los Angeles]. He created this magazine that was sort of a gay fetish magazine but it was also very political. It was a lot of things, really unique — so I came out to help him deliver the magazines from a small van because it was a very small operation and I would go to these stores and I’d look around.
Because I came from the apparel industry I would always question, “what’s good?” “What’s selling?” “What does this store need?” Every store would say men’s products that are really geared towards men; that are high quality, sturdy and well made. It just set this idea in motion, and I thought, “I could do this.” So I came up with the brand and started experimenting with materials.
I really got into it and decided to move to L.A. I bought a house in Silver Lake, Calif., that had a big enough garage to start the company in and started creating products.
I spent six or eight months just making stuff — because the way we do it, we’re really able to crank out quite a bit with the silicone. The import stuff came later.
When I discovered how to manufacture overseas, I started making products over there [in China] and that’s when we really noticed a boom because they were mass-market friendly, more understandable so that’s when it really took off. Even today, our TPR products perform better in mainstream stores, while our hand-poured silicone products do best in specialty stores where the consumers really understand the value of the material.
XBIZ: Why did you choose to work with silicone?
Lane: I wanted to be high end right from the start. There weren’t really any companies that were making these products [cock rings and ball stretchers] out of silicone. It was mostly dildos and insertables that were being produced but no one was making cock rings or ball stretchers that weren’t made out of leather or metal.
I’m proud keeping our silicone manufacturing here in the U.S. — I’m able to employ a large staff. Sometimes we have as many as 30 people here just processing products.
XBIZ: How has Oxballs evolved over the years?
Lane: It’s evolved a lot. When I started it was mainly just me going to the stores and selling. I took the easiest route by visiting stores that are local like Mr. S in San Francisco and Rough Trade here in Los Angeles. When those stores would have our products, I’d be flooded with phone calls because they would see our products on our retailers’ websites. So it was organic the way we grew. The company is morphing again now as we move into more mainstream stores that have different needs — up until four years ago, our products had been sold in zip lock bags out of cases in specialty fetish stores, but now we’ve decided to create packaging. Although we’ve grown, we’ll always stay true to our roots. We’ll never be that company that sticks with “safe” designs. Even for those with very narrow fetishes, we’ll have something to cater to that man’s fantasies.
XBIZ: How popular is Oxballs in the GLBT community?
Lane: We’re known by name. They go into the stores asking for the Oxballs brand. It’s really humbling because I created the brand on my own, with no marketing company or anything and it’s managed to become recognizable. What’s really great is that consumers can look at our products and know that it comes from us and that shows how good we’ve been at keeping our vision and maintaining the look and feel, without ever wavering. While working for big companies like Calvin Klein in the apparel industry I learned that branding is everything. It’s really important to keep the brand in your face and printed on the products themselves, which we do. If a consumer finds a toy that they like, the brand is easier to recognize and becomes memorable. Some companies try to keep their products anonymous. I don’t why… but I’ll slap my name on everything I make — I want it to be known.
XBIZ: How would you describe the product development process at Oxballs?
Lane: I come up with the ideas mostly. Our test team is pretty diverse — we have a lot of guys here and friends in the community who are all very free with each other. We’ll toss around ideas and people will tell us what they think. We are all very invested here and it’s really cool because we’ll definitely hear feedback that really helps. With silicone products we can be from sketch to mold in about one week. Sometimes we’ll make a small batch of products and partner with retailers to test them with their consumers and get feedback that way as well.
XBIZ: How expansive is Oxballs’ product range?
Lane: It’s a vast collection with about 13,000 SKUs including various colors. Coming from apparel, I love color. Most men’s products come in black or flesh. I think I was the first to design men’s products in six or seven colors and in colors like fluorescent orange and glow in the dark. We have metallic blue and even army green, and it doesn’t cost us that much to offer a variety of colors. That’s one of the luxuries that we have here — we can produce small amounts in various colors.
XBIZ: What inspires your designs?
Lane: We are part of a community that is sexually charged so we’ll go to events and get ideas there from people that tell me about products that they’d like to see. But mostly I’ll look at fetishes and do research. I try to think about what is something that a guy will really want to use and how it’ll fit into their experience.
XBIZ: What are the company’s goals for the future?
Lane: We’re changing all of our packaging so that’s exciting. In the long-term we will continue to make excellent products and grow. We are a company that’s self-financed — we’re doing it because we love it. It’s profitable of course but we’re not trying to build something that is going to be publically traded or even have many partners. I never want to sacrifice the quality or style of the brand. We’re design-driven, not doing it backwards by prioritizing marketing or packaging. I want to make good products that people want and hopefully get to more and more hands.