Imbesharam, the Nawab of erotic e-commerce who aspires to be India's Playboy

Last Updated: Fri, Feb 22, 2019 18:10 hrs
Raj Armani Imbesharam

Raj Armani is an NRI who aspires to be the Indian version of Hugh Hefner.

When Raj says he is the Co-founder and COO of Imbesharam.com, a naughty grin is evident. But you better control that. Behind a name that translates to 'I am Shameless' is an enterprise with at least half a million customers. Raj reveals that these customers include celebrities, Tv personalities, corporate head-honchos and even top politicians.

The NRI is proud that a good part of his customers are loyal, but is as tough as nails when it comes to sharing who purchased what. Money seems to be the last thing on mind for a man who may have data on what excites whom and how much.

For the record, Raj's enterprising venture is among the top 3 ecommerce avenues that sells erotic. If one were to minus moral policing and rudimentary policies, the Nawab (born in Hyderabad) could certainly be the co-founder of a grand Unicorn (a company with over a billion dollars in turnover).

Raj is not complaining, but in an exclusive chat with Sairaj Iyer of Sify.com shares his experiences. This also includes the rapport with Sunny Leone who was once the face of Imbesharam.

Excerpts:

India is the land of Kamasutra, and the 3rd biggest porn viewer in the world. Yet, Indian sexual wellness market is $450 million or just 0.02% of global numbers. Why this paradox?

Raj Armani [RA]: The ban on Porn may have pushed India a few notches lower from 2nd to 3rd largest porn consumer. The worldwide industry based on XBIZ reports is about $30 billion which could hit $40 billion by end of 2020.

But, living half my life in India, you and I have known it as still a conservative country; a country which has 65% of its population under 35 years yet so conservative.

India is certainly the land of extreme contrast – the 2nd/3rd largest consumer of porn, but we have cultural taboos while talking about sex. We are the land of kamasutra but anything with obscenity is looked down upon. Anything with the tagline ‘SEX’ sells be it movies, magazines, foreign trips, web shows or products but buying a condom needs herculean efforts. Look at it, we have so much of moral policing from uncles and aunties all over but we are still the second largest population in the world. One wonders how!

India’s Adult business market is still considered not more than $450M is primarily because the stats includes only locally available products like condoms, lubes, gels, c-rings and lingerie. This is because there has been no official survey to analyze the size and market of the adult toys as classified and sold on our website.

We anticipate this market to be at least $3 billion in India, and this data is achieved by accounting our average cart size (Rs 6460) by the number of potential customers (1/300th) who have access to Internet (almost 300M internet users) or will purchase at least once a year or if there be no restrictions on marketing it (same way as condom companies can) and that there be no problem with logistics and distribution. 1M x3000 (cart size in half to accommodate lower priced points) is equal to $3 billion.

The other major gap in India is education. Majority of the audience have not heard or seen toys, they have no idea on the purpose and functionality. So, the marketing initiatives also include suitable education that would mean a nationwide reach, wake up the sleeping demand and convert with options that you will not get in offline stores (pharmacies/departmental stores etc).

Tell us a bit about the best-selling products on Imbesharam and the margins?

RA: So for men, Fleshlight (costs between Rs 7999-14999), Toys and the ever expanding line of Porn Star Moulded toys are the number 1 favorite due to the patented REAL SKIN features. Women shoppers have been gravitating to the latest and greatest of tech toys as well as innovative products like the line of Satisfyer Vibrators which offers clitoral stimulation using a pressure wave technique. Bluetooth & App controlled Lush by Lovense is also one of the most popular toys on our store and the Remote controlled bullets as featured in Bollywood movies enacted by Swara Bhaskar and Kiara Advani too are popular products.

The ones selling like hot cakes includes the BDSM line in Fifty Shades of Grey (Evergreen for last 4 years), Panty Vibes and Travel Size Vibrators that look like Lipstick and Mascara from Screaming O and the surprise most liked product (added to cart) has been the Womanizer Premium which guarantees ‘Orgasm in One Minute’.

Our margins range between 50-65%. This may appear high & lucrative, but that is to account for extremely high costs of shipping, custom clearance. Also distribution in India is a major cost owing to challenges from archaic laws enforced upon such products.

How do you maneuver the legal complexities? In India, we have Section 292, then various customs policies and import-export compliances, as well as the need for user privacy.

RA: The challenges we have faced have been many and have evolved over time from launching the brand to date where Imbesharam.com is top shop for adult products in India and for Indians worldwide.

Before we went LIVE, almost everyone, whom we spoke to get a validation of our ideas seemed to believe our idea was suicidal. They said we will be behind bars or castrated. Thankfully or fortunately, that hasn't happened.

When we went Live, Google and Facebook wouldn't let us promote the brand. So, our marketing options became limited. We tried to partner with MTV and Yahoo and sponsor shows such as Splitsvilla and others. But their legal team wouldn't approve our sponsorships.

Also, we were turned down by several magazines because they felt the brand was too volatile & could get them in trouble.

We had problems retaining warehouses as somebody or other in the logistics chain had an issue about the products and would cause interruptions. Then we ran into a tiff with Customs - they labeled us ‘playboy of India’ and shut down two of our warehouses. They took home almost $200k worth of merchandise.

We constantly get fan mail on our Facebook and twitter pages which doesn't bother us really as the more you talk about us the more relevant we become for them.

Challenges that have remained consistent are on the aspects of legality and privacy. When we talk about legality, every product ordered on our site is completely legal and one can use that yourself or with their partners. According to a Supreme Court ruling on porn, every Indian citizen has the right to liberty (Article 21) and thus you can shop and use any adult product as long as you use it in your private space.

Secondly, at Imbesharam.com customer' privacy is a number 1 priority. We maintain it from the time an order is placed and retain it even after an order is delivered. The order information is never shared with any outsider, and financial information always remains encrypted in our servers.

When the package is shipped, the products are securely wrapped inside a bubble envelope and the label ONLY shows customer name and address. The product name is never on the label and thus only the customer knows what’s inside the package. We have built our brand on customers’ trust and over half a million customers can vouch for that.

Tell us a bit about these half a million customers. How loyal are they?

RA: Extremely Loyal.

We have customers from all walks of life, regions, professions- Bollywood & Tollywood Celebrities, Sports Personalities, Politicians, TV personalities, influencers, CEO’s and senior directors of companies listed on BSE and NSE to the average joe, students living in hostel, common men & women from every state and every major city. Customers also include brides and grooms about to be married or already married, couple in mid 30’s and 40s who reach out to us asking for suggestions and recommendations.

I think our customers are quite loyal. We heavily invest, time, energy and training to ensure every customer takes home a happy, satisfactory and welcome experience no matter size of their cart, their questions or anger (at times). While it’s just not possible to make everyone happy, our immense strength on our social media channels is a great testament to the number of followers and audience that have been with us from the longest time.

How secure is handling of customer-data and the overall cyber-security of the website?

RA: Our website is Level 1 PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliant as we host on Shopify, which is World’s #1 Shopping Cart platform. We are very serious about securely hosting our online store and have invested significant time and money to certify Shopify’s solution is PCI compliant. From annual on-site assessments validating compliance to continuous risk management, they work really hard to ensure the shopping cart software and ecommerce hosting is secure. While hackers have not spared government websites, we take all measures available to ensure customers data and their privacy is encrypted and contained within the system.

In the past three years, have you seen annual sales figures increase?

RA: 2017 and 2018 have been one of our most profitable yet challenging years. Competition heated up in 2018, but we have always maintained a great edge with the brand message and appeal, the quality of our service and products, and the overall customer experience which separates us from others.

When Lust Stories released, our sales hit the roof and in one single week we got more women shoppers and sold more female toys than any month in prior 5 years. The second event was when Section 377 was struck off. We spiked for a week and sold almost everything off our shelves.

We are looking to 2019 with plenty of optimism and new marketing initiatives as well as introducing direct from USA shipping models to make customer decision quicker and achieve more revenues by opening up various other categories and collections.

News reports in late 2015 says demand of sex-toys originated from tier-2 cities. Can it be reliably implied that our metros are lazy in their bedrooms? 

RA: Overall, the demand from metros and Tier 1 is still ahead of Tier 2. However, Tier 2 never ceases to surprise us as they end up buying either very high ticket orders or the most unique products. For example we sold 100% of the Sybian Sex Machine (costs Rs 4 lakhs) last year to tier-2 cities. 80% of sales of new Fleshlight (costs Rs 42,000) was tier-2. Of late there is immense demand for love dolls (real-life like) from tier-2. These dolls can cost between Rs 6-10 lakhs and we only accept custom orders and ship it using an extremely sophisticated supply channel.

During a recent trip to Paris, a retailer recognized you as that guy from Imbesharam. But, he also felt that products sold via your site were lesser priced. Do your Indian users espouse similar thoughts?

RA: I like to believe it as Yes they do, this is only evidenced in their

  • First time order sizes/ticket values that can range between Rs 20,000 - 75,000. No questions asked.
  • Repeat customers who spend anywhere between Rs 1-3 lakhs in a 2 year life time.
  • Mostly Positive (almost 15000 reviews) online and on our website. Also Audio and Video customer testimonials that are a gold standard when you talk about a brand in-spite of the stigma of being judged.

You speak about the concept of 7 failures. Did you actually face 7 failures in your life?

RA: Haha! This is a japanese proverb : "Nana korobi ya oki" (literally: seven falls, eight getting up) which means fall down seven times and get up eight. This, speaks of the Japanese concept of resilience.

No matter how many times you get knocked down, you get up again. Even if you should fall one thousand times, you just keep getting up and trying again. You can see this ethic reinforced in all facets of Japanese culture including education, business, sports, the martial arts, Zen, etc.

I relate this quote with my career choice, mistakes, learning, success and accomplishments, and very deeply relate to it.

At the moment, not many are manufacturing sex-toys in India. Theses are mostly made in US or China. Are you planning of making them in India?

RA: Yes, they (manufacturers) will very soon manufacture toys and related adult products in India. How it will be packaged and marketed to comply with laws and changing times will be the grey area. But I am already aware of enthusiastic individuals who have started producing adult products in India. The quality and packaging may not match the US brands and products we carry (70% Made in China) but it’s a start and with the chances of laws relaxing in the coming times, we will certainly see this industry pop up and thrive to cater to the demand of low priced products in the same category. Overall, I think we should wait and watch.

Traditional e-com found COD (Cash on Delivery) too spicy to handle a few years ago owing to different reasons. Imbesharam had a COD option for a few geographies.  What does your experience say about COD?

RA: In 2014 we did extensive research and testing to check if COD was a feasible mode of payment for our product category. We realized that while our return rates were lower than that of industry (1-3%) and the demand was high for COD, it did add more costs to manage and maintain and when returned the products would sometimes be rendered not saleable. So, we had paused COD option till we figured a better way of handling COD.

For now the request for COD has substantially decreased, but we will be re-launching COD full-fledged from April 1, 2019.

What prompted opening a Global Store for Indians outside of India?

RA: We realized the impact Imbesharam had on the Indian community, both in India and abroad. We get over 120 emails every month where we get asked Do you ship to Morocco, Casablanca...Algeria… Kenya...Fiji...Maldives….Manchester...Canada and many other places.

This was an eye-opener. We realized our brand had built the necessary goodwill and deploying it to the user base right by our homes was the next logical step. The cost of acquisition was far lesser as we would ride high on ethnic marketing, word of mouth, existing fan base and brand recognition.

We also realized that Indians were the most affluent immigrant community in the US (and in the top in many countries as well) with professions ranging from Doctors, Engineers, Scientists, Accounting and computer professionals to many others.

This ‘Aha’ moment didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the size of the opportunity, the unexplored potential and strategic positioning we have with our east-west background and expertise. We realized that Indians are almost in every country and they are looking for Imbesharam to be their first choice for adult products, so we decided in 2016 that we will launch our ‘International Store’ soon to cater to this new demand for customers across the world. Instead my wife and I launched our second child. The family grew and so did my responsibilities. The ambition of International Store had to be placed on the back-burner till I could relieve myself of the diaper duties and lullaby sessions.

Well, 2018 proved to offer some relief so we started early on this year to identify the core challenges and as we worked on the backend, we started planning how and why and when gradually and steadily.


Imbesharam's co-founders Raj Armani (left) and Salim Rajan during a promotional event.

How was the experience of working with Sunny Leone?

Working with Sunny was a mixed bag experience. It started off well but after she got a movie offer from Mahesh Bhatt, she and Daniel wanted to abandon their obligations to the contract. She eventually delivered but it was not a happy ending for us. However we have no regrets on having Sunny Leone as the face of brand. Having her helped us propel in social media and generate lots of publicity. We are now actively looking for a New face for the brand to launch our Global Store.