"He couldn't afford anything in the store," said Mike Herman. "His thought was, 'Wow, I don't have enough money to be kinky.'"
Joel's girlfriend suggested that he just make the stuff himself, so he borrowed some of her leatherworking tools and began making bondage utensils on his living room floor.
That was the beginning of Stockroom.com, now the largest manufacturer of BDSM gear in the world.
"Joel's vision was to make quality bondage gear at affordable prices," added Herman, president of Stockroom. "Not cheap gear, but things a real player would use that offer the customer value. Joel actually was interested in this stuff, so it wasn't just a matter of him seizing a business opportunity."
Tucker began selling his wares through an online newsgroup in 1989, which makes Stockroom one of the oldest e-commerce companies in the world. When he started, the Internet did not even have a single dot-com address, and also featured no pictures.
Now, 20 years later, Stockroom operates out of a 30,000 square foot, vertically integrated, three-story manufacturing facility on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. The first floor handles shipping, receiving and warehousing. The second floor is for leather production, and the third floor is split between offices and latex production. In all, Stockroom employs 55 people there.
But assuming that Stockroom is just a giant clearing house for fetish gadgets is a big mistake, according to Herman.
"Stockroom is really a design house," he said. "We're pioneers in bondage and BDSM with our patented designs. We have fashion designers in-house, creating our latex clothing and leather bondage gear. We patented our Bolero Straitjacket, and we have a medical patent pending on it in addition to a utility patent. We've also got patents pending on our candy ball gags, and on our interesting over-the-door cuff design.
"One thing about Stockroom is that we are innovators. While people are buying knock-offs made in China, we're turning out quality products at sensible prices. The big difference is that Stockroom employs players who are into the genre, not just businessmen. This comes out in our design, and now Stockroom is stretching out into intellectual properties."
The aesthetic of Stockroom's brand and its products has made it necessary for the company to patent and copyright all of its offerings, and to hire legal firms to protect them in court — even its marketing material. The new, 20th anniversary Stockroom catalogue provides plenty of evidence why this has been the case. Its 78 pages are in full color, marvelously photographed and written.
"Some will say it's the Victoria's Secret catalogue of the adult business," Herman said, "but I think that would be an insult to our catalogue. We've used some of the best models in adult, shot by a world-renowned fetish photographer. We did location shoots in the Czech Republic, where we rented an entire chateau and a power station. We also rented a whole hospital in Los Angeles. Nobody puts that kind of energy, time and money into shooting sex toys and bondage gear. That's what always has differentiated us from the competition. Even our descriptions in the catalogue are special, because we hire copywriters on staff. They've been so well-written that some people have stolen them, and now we're involved in three federal lawsuits defending our copyright. I actually chased down one company in China that was violating our copyright, and got them to stop."
Amazingly, the most popular items in the Stockroom collection are still the cuffs and collars that Joel Tucker designed 20 years ago. Of the newer items, the Jawbreaker ball gag has been a hit, and the Bolero Straitjacket is the biggest high-end seller, even though it costs $465.
"It's patent pending, so nobody else can make it," Herman said. "We primarily sell all of our products on the Internet, and we're releasing our latest item, the Fireball gag, this month. We have the patent on candy ball gags, so it doesn't matter what candy we use."
But Stockroom isn't resting on its laurels in the fetish market. The firm is launching a new affiliate program that will provide a strong presence in the nonfetish sex toy market.
"The new affiliate program is much more robust, with a lot of self-service features," Herman said. "We plan to add a vanilla toy store that is not fetish. We already stock all the vanilla toys. In all, we stock more than 4,000 items.
"The new affiliate program will open us up to the rest of the market, outside of the fetish market. We intend to make it a lot more webmaster friendly, allowing customers to design templates for their own stores in just about 10 minutes following the initial signup. And we're currently working on a feature that will allow webmasters to make their sites either PG or X-rated."
All of this is good news to a customer base that is almost maniacally loyal to the Stockroom brand.
"Our customers love us," beamed Herman. "I've worked for plenty of other companies, but I've never seen the degree of fan mail that Stockroom receives. We take customer service very seriously. We have reps available seven days per week. The main thing for us, in addition to being more than savvy about Internet marketing and building our brand, is the need for repeat customers. When you look at our analytics, you see that more than 20 percent of our traffic comes from either type-ins or people searching specifically for stockroom.com. I don't know how many places can say that that many customers are direct traffic looking for their brand."
While practically all of the customer feedback has been positive, Herman admitted that he did read one funny complaint recently. It was from a man who said that one of the Stockroom toys hurt him.
Well, it's supposed to, right?