Read About Our Journey
TENGA Co., Ltd. CEO
With products being sold in 69 countries around the world and over 90 million units shipped, TENGA is the leading manufacturer of sexual wellness products globally. Read below for an interview with Koichi Matsumoto, CEO of TENGA and President of the TENGA Group, on how he started the company, and where it will go next.
Pleasure in Creation
TENGA was launched in 2005, but what were you doing before then?
Koichi Matsumoto : I always loved creating things. Even as a child I was always making things and dreamed of being a craftsman or engineer when I grew up; by the time I was in elementary school I had already decided I wanted to get into the auto industry.
After graduating from vocational school I realized that goal and landed a job immediately. I started off tuning and repairing supercars like Lambourghinis and Ferraris for a repair shop.
It was a fun time, but when the economic bubble burst here in Japan the business went south and I had to leave. I didn't have a place to live, but one of our customers hired me to help with some construction work so I scraped by while living out of my car. After a while though, things took a turn for the better and I landed a job as a mechanic for classic cars.
What did you do there?
Matsumoto : The job was to take apart classic cars and rebuild them piece-by-piece to the customer's desired specifications. It was an amazingly fulfilling job - the look on each customer's face for every perfected car I handed over just filled me with immense joy.
You make something, and hand it to the customer. If they're happy, it makes you happy. It's a simple joy of craftsmanship but it was something that left a very deep impression on me. It made me realize the fun of providing a customer with a product - that in itself had incredible value.
So you found joy in craftsmanship through the building and selling of classic cars?
Matsumoto : That's right. I had been a mechanic for 12 years or so at the time, but I gained a lot during that job. I learned, as I've said, the joy of creating and providing value to your customers, another was my revelation that throughout everything, sexual needs are a very important, core need for people. I know it's a sudden tangent, but let me explain...
The job with classic cars was great, but the economy hadn't yet stabilized and the company itself was in dire straits. During the latter half of my time there I was hardly being paid and couldn't afford rent for over half a year. It was only seeing the faces of satified customers that kept me going.
It might sound a bit ridiculous but it was those hard times that led me to where I am now. I realized that during all that hardship, where I had nothing to my name and no will or cash to do much at all, that I still had a strong appetite for food, as well as the desire to satisfy sexual needs. It proved to me how those two are core, basic needs for people.
So it was those two realizations that helped give life to TENGA?
Matsumoto : Unable to pay rent, I left the job and returned to my hometown in Shizuoka, where I picked up a job selling used cars. I can't tell you the pure elation of being paid a living wage again! With my experience as a mechanic I was able to become their top salesman every month for about three years. I was used to spending so little that it wasn't long until I had paid off my debts and saved a little for myself.
It was as my life started to stabilize that a feeling started to grow stronger from within, telling me to create, not just sell. There was no rational reason behind it.
The voice in my mind telling me "I want to create something that doesn't exist" kept growing, quickly turning in to "I have to do it now". It wasn't long before I had made my mind up that I was going to create something new and send it out to the world.
Developing in Solitude
In Vol. 01 we heard of your decision to create something new. Did you know that would be in the field of sex toys from the beginning?
Matsumoto : No, I had no idea what it would be at first. Every time I had a day off I would visit numerous stores of all kinds, looking at what was being sold. I'd go to electronics stores, DIY stores, car accessory shops and more.
Every product on display was of a high standard of both function and design - I was in awe of the quality of products available on the market. Each one was clearly designed for the target customer, with a clear purpose and way to improve the customer's life.
Half a year or so of this lifestyle and I found myself in the adult section of a DVD store. Hidden away in the farthest corner of this store was the sex toy section, and immediately something felt off.
Off? How do you mean?
Matsumoto : For example in an electronics store, you'll find each product has the name of the manufacturer, details and specifications, branding that's recognizable, and a design that you don't feel embarrassed to pick up off the shelf.
However in this corner of that shop, there was none of that. Just about the only thing on the packaging was the price. No manufacturer name, no contact info, no website - some didn't even have a barcode. Imagine that with any other common everyday product. It was as if all of these products were made with the premise that the manufacturer won't be taking responsibility for it. Who would feel comfortable using a product like that?
If that wasn't bad enough, the packaging of these products was covered in lewd images of women or even young girls, and they'd have designs that tried to replicate body parts. These products screamed at you "Hey! Masturbation is a lewd act, and we're here to make it ever more lewd!" That's what struck me as crazy. Masturbation is such a normal thing to do, and these products were making people feel bad for doing it.
15 minutes or so from stepping in that shop, I had decided: sexuality was a healthy, normal need for a human being, and if there were no products on the market for the average person, I was going to be the one to make it. "I'm going to make a safe, hygienic, functional product, with aesthetic designs that stands up to the quality of mainstream products, that makes people more positive and happier."
So it all started from that sex toy store.
Matsumoto : I did a bit of research, and at the time I found that one in every ten men had bought or rented an adult DVD, with a further one in ten of them had purchased a men's sex toy. Most would look at this as a small market of 1%, but to me it was simple: what can I make for the other 99%?
In the auto industry, or in electronics and other mainstream markets, you'll find almost anything you can imagine. The markets are overflowing with products with no space for innovation. The sex toy industry was different, it was uncultivated ground and the possibilities were endless. I wasn't going to fight over a slice of the tiny existing market, but rather make a completely new category of "sex toys as a mainstream product".
When did you begin the actual development of the idea?
Matsumoto : I left my job with savings of 10 million yen, and started developing on my own. Every day from the day I quit, I'd be researching and developing from 6AM to 2AM the following day.
I was going to make something brand new. I had to do it right then. I didn't know how I'd get there, but I moved forward. With that mindset - you could say even a sort of obsession - I worked at it every day.
First I bought every male masturbator (sex toys for penises) I could find. Two of each; one to take apart and research, the other to use. I'd list off all the points I noticed for improvement in every facet of product design. What would make this safer; what would make this easier to use; what would make the everyman want to try it.
After endless rounds of that, I started making prototypes. I'd get inspiration for materials from things around me. For example, the malleable material of shampoo bottles from a 100 yen store (think dollar store) inspired me to make the Soft Tube CUP (now Soft Case CUP) that allows you to change the pressure during use. Or the flexible design of a child's plastic hammer toy gave me the idea for the Rolling Head CUP that allows you to flexibly control the movement of the item.
I wasn't easy on myself during this process though. Even if it took me a month to get a prototype off the ground, if I used it and it didn't feel good, I'd throw it out and start from scratch. Looking back, that was the toughest part of the process. However, as cliche as it may sound, each failure taught me something new - the failures taught me the importance of finding these new lessons.
Throughout your solo research & development, what was going through your head?
Matsumoto : I had already decided that I needed to make something there and then, and that I'd give it everything I had. I didn't take on any part time work, as it would only distract me from the creative process. This was tough too, mentally-speaking. I'd wake up and it's not like I had an office to go to. No one to give me feedback. No idea how far along I had come, or how far I had left to go.
After about a year and a half, it was starting to take its toll on me, financially and mentally. I was at a point where I could give it all up and head back in to a normal workplace, but my conclusion was "You only fail when you give up, so keep trying until you succeed". Thinking of it now, I might have just been ignoring reality!
That said, things started to change after that moment. I stumbled onto the opportunity to present my creations to a distributor. Ignoring reality paid off in this case, and I still think it's important to stay positive in the face of adversity. The presentation went without a hitch, and for the next year and a half I prepared my creations to be launched on the market. I established (the then) TENGA Inc., in 2005, and on July 7th of that year, the 5 original Standard Series CUPs were launched into the world.
TENGA Past and Future
In Vol. 02 we went over everything from the original concept to the launch of TENGA. How were the CUP Series received at launch?
Matsumoto : At launch we had the 5 Standard CUP Series items. In the sex toy industry at the time, it was said that if you could sell 5,000 units of a product in its lifecycle, you had a hit. The TENGA products absolutely shattered those records, selling 1,000,000 units in its first year.
Another thing was that during that time, they said the best products had a lifecycle of 3 months, 6 if you're lucky. The way the other companies did business was churning out new packaging with barely any innovation with the product itself.
That's why their lifecycle was short. However, what I wanted to make was the Coca Cola of sex toys. A product that would be loved and used by people, as a part of their everyday lives.
There are now quite a number of CUPs. How did this lineup grow?
Matsumoto : After launch, what I focused on was providing products that would serve every taste, so I launched the Strong and Gentle versions of the CUPs next.
Just as there are varieties in the strength of the bristles in your toothbrush, to the types of beer you can drink, I wanted to allow TENGA users of all tastes to find something they enjoy.
I was sure that the stronger items would do well but to be honest I was a little worried of how the gentler ones would do. What solidified my resolve for this series was an email from a customer-- "I didn't last long in those Red CUPs of yours - make them gentler, please!"
For mainstream products to have variations is a given. For TENGA, these are products you use on the most intimate parts of your body, so to me it was obvious that there should be variations to suit every person.
What would you say is important for product development?
Matsumoto : 「A lot of people tell me "Man, I bet the stylish designs of your products helped them sell, huh!". I'll be honest, I do love the design of our CUP Series, they're something I have great pride in.
That said, for good product design, the most important thing is the thought and feeling; the soul you put into them. I wanted people not to feel embarrassed about their natural sexual needs, to make sexuality more positive, and for a product to help people feel that way. It was the culmination of these thoughts that led to this design, not the design leading the way.
You've released many products over the years, what are your thoughts behind this?
Matsumoto : TENGA has a vision "To bring sexuality to the forefront, for everyone to enjoy", with the objective to make a new genre of product in the mainstream market. For this, I feel it's vital to keep introducing new ideas to the world.
Unlike other saturated sex toy markets, there is still so much ground left to cover in the realm of sexual wellness items like TENGA. We continue to propose new ideas, new ways to provide value, with the goal of enriching people's sex lives.
What do you mean by a product providing value?
Matsumoto : For example, when I was a kid there was no such thing as face wash. When it first came out you'd hear people say, "Soap, but just for your face?" or "What are you talking about? What's wrong with normal soap?". However, if you tried it out you knew that it was different, in how it felt and what it did for your skin. Facewash is all over the place now, it's completely normal. It didn't exist, but when it came out, it was good, and it made your life better. It provided value.
What I strive for is to provide that sort of value, and I feel that every product we've launched has provided some value to how you can enjoy your sexuality and sexual wellness.
I have never sold a product with no soul.
Recently, we opened our first flagship store in a department store here in Japan. I stood at the store every weekend for a year talking to customers, and I feel this holds true to this day.
I will explain to every customer who is willing to listen, "This is who I want to make happy with this product, and how it will achieve this". It's when that feeling is mutually felt that a spark of understanding emerges. And when that product matches up to the high standard of the explanation, that's when you first feel like you want to purchase it.
The most important thing is to make a product with soul, convey those thoughts and feelings to the customer, and to help them feel the same. Whether I'm talking to an individual person at the store, or if I'm talking to possibly millions through big PR campaigns, I realized that did not change.
We now have over 100 different types of products that we've launched. A lot of people have felt what we felt, and I couldn't be happier to say we've made it 15 years doing what we love.
What are your future goals for TENGA?
Matsumoto : The vision, "To bring sexuality to the forefront, for everyone to enjoy", was formed on the foundation that everyone deserves the right to enjoy their life, their way; without hurting or getting in the way of other people's right to enjoy theirs - one of our core beliefs is compassion.
We will continue to hold dear everyone's right to enjoy their own sexuality, their own freedom, and their own life.
It's the thought I put behind our brand message "Love, Freedom and TENGA". We'll continue to build a world where we can all live free, with love.