Episode 114

Anna Lee ·  Changing the Taboo on Sex and Orgasms Through Science With Lioness

“I can't imagine what else I would do. The question's always, "If you aren't doing this company, would you do another startup?" I'm so mission-driven, it has to be something I resonate so deeply with. That's the only thing that keeps me going.”

Anna Lee is the co-founder and head of engineering at award-winning Lioness, the women-led sexual wellness company that built the world’s first and only smart vibrator that gives you orgasm and arousal data to help improve understanding of sexual pleasure through science. Before Lioness, Anna was previously a mechanical engineer at Amazon, launching the Dash Button’s original concept and the Kindle Voyage Page Press Technology. She has most recently been named Forbes 30 Under 30, featured in a full spread in The Times Magazine, and named Paper Magazine’s Asian Women Creators You Need to Know. She is a big advocate in Lioness’s mission to expand the research in sexual health and destigmatize female sexuality.


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Anna Lee

[00:00:00] Maggie Chui: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Asian Hustle Network Podcast! Today, we have a very special guest with us. Her name is Anna Lee. Anna Lee is the co-founder and head of engineering at award-winning Lioness, the women-led sexual wellness company that built the world’s first and only smart vibrator that gives you orgasm and arousal data to help improve understanding of sexual pleasure through science. Before lioness, Anna was previously a mechanical engineer at Amazon, launching the Dash Button’s original concept and the Kindle Voyage Page Press Technology. She has most recently been named a Forbes 30 under 30 featured in a full spread in The Times Magazine and named Paper Magazine’s Asian Women Creators You Need to Know. She is a big advocate of lightness as a mission to expand the research in sexual health and de-stigmatize female sexuality. Anna, welcome to the show. 

[00:00:58] Anna Lee: Thank you for having me. So excited to be here. 

[00:01:01] Bryan Pham: I know, we’re so excited to have you on the show. I think we met at an LA event and everyone kept tapping my shoulder, saying you have to meet this girl named Anna. And then I look around, I see you running around and talking to a lot of people. I’m like, oh man there’s no way I would talk to you. But behold, we have you here on the podcast today. We’re so excited to dive deep into your story. 

[00:01:21] Anna Lee: Oh, thank you for having me. Yeah. It’s always fun to talk about sex stuff, as much as it’s considered scary and taboo. But I promise it’s going to be so fun, so harmless, it would be great. 

[00:01:34] Bryan Pham: Going back to the beginning, what was your upbringing like? Where’d you grow up and what were you taught about entrepreneurship as a young child?

[00:01:42] Anna Lee: That’s a good question. I was born in LA, but when I was a baby, we moved back to Korea, and then I lived there till six. So I always say Korea is my first home. And I, came back to America, not knowing English, but starting from ESL and all of that. I grew up in your traditional, really religious conservative family. We really came on this mindset of coming for the American dream. And my parents immigrated to the US without knowing anything about US culture to give me my brother and me a better opportunity in life. And so I really had this mindset of wanting to be a good engineer.

I always liked engineering. I always say I want to be a good engineer, I’m going to end up in corporate life. That’s what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life. That’s what I was really set up to do. We never talked about sex. I tell this to people to this day, until 23, 24, I was scared of my own body. I never talked about sex stuff with my partners. I definitely didn’t have the communication skills to talk about what I liked. And so when we first started the company, I always say, I’m just going to engineer stuff.

I don’t want to talk about the clitoris, vaginas, orgasms, or any of that. That’s not me., I always tell people that. Seven years later, I’m doing completely the opposite. So it’s been a journey for me, I started out doing mechanical engineering at Amazon.

It felt like this was the American dream of what I wanted to do. And I remember a couple of years in, I was sitting in my cubicle and I was like, damn, is this thing you’re supposed to do for the rest of your life? I just didn’t feel like I was doing everything in terms of what I was really passionate about, like things that made me super excited every morning. I ended up meeting a founder of a different sex toy company, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was a male founder. I asked, how do you know what you’re building works for people with vaginas?

How do you know it’s a good product? He answered there is an industry-standard where you put the vibration on your nose And that’s what the clitoris feels and I just remember thinking, oh my God, the most intimate product Is made in that sense. And if you go to sex toy conventions, a lot of times they’ll be like, oh, put it on your nose or the skin between your thumb and pointer finger cause there are nerve endings there, and that’s the same thing as clitoris. It’s a crazy industry and I realized it’s super male-dominated. Honestly, could I have imagined where we are currently that it’s a full business? Like we’re running this company? No, like I really thought I was like, I’m going to do this project for a little bit and see what it’s like, and maybe I’ll just engineer it. I just want to be a good engineer. So yeah, I’ll have it’s a little bit like a journey. I don’t think any company really happens overnight where you’re like, I have this great idea. Even the vibrator. We are like, I want to make a cool vibrator, but I had no idea what that was going to end up being in terms of working in the research field, working with doctors, in consumer tech, and constantly battling, taboos, and policies and rules around selling sex.

[00:04:27] Maggie Chui: Wow. That is amazing. I thought it was so funny that you mentioned you meeting that one person and they set up the touch of the nose, the similar, I just think that’s the funniest thing. And that’s the first time I ever heard of that, we really appreciate you sharing your background.

I think a lot of people, especially in our age, the Asian Hustle Network community can relate to your story a lot. You working at Amazon. It looked like, is there, is this like all there is to life, and making that jump is like the biggest thing. It is extremely hard. But I do want to know, you’ve mentioned that your parents are very conservative.

You came from a very conservative family. we want to know what they thought about this whole thing and what was their reaction? 

I was really fascinated with the whole nose thing, the hand thing. That caught my attention!

[00:05:21] Anna Lee: I’ve heard that on Tiktok right now, there’s this whole thing about unripe- I want to even get into it- but like unripe avocados. It’s like these really silly things I understand in the sense of, we’re just trying to have things. Talk about it in a way to relate it. Yeah. But, man, that’s some misinformation. 

[00:05:38] Bryan Pham: Can you make a Tiktok video on that ‘rub your nose’ and be like, guys this is wrong don’t rub your nose.

[00:05:46] Anna Lee: I actually totally made a Tiktok about being in this industry and that it started out being like, oh yeah. It’s like people put vibrations on your nose. And then it got pulled down because they were like, this is sexual content. So I was like, oh my God, we’re talking about rubbing noses. 

[00:06:00] Bryan Pham: We’ll send Tiktok. What is going on here? It’s educational! 

[00:06:05] Anna Lee: That’s what I’m really here for! Hey Tiktok and Facebook, like help us.

[00:06:12] Bryan Pham: Let’s talk a little bit more about Maggie’s question. How did your parents take your business idea? Cause I know that you mentioned earlier, sexuality and Asian culture don’t really mix and we don’t exactly have parents that talked to us about sex education, about having sex or sexual pleasure. God knows. We’d never even get to sexual pleasures. It’s just, you just procreate, right? You just have kids skip a bunch of steps to get there. 

[00:06:39] Anna Lee: Yeah. Like get married first, then date then have a baby like all sorts of messed up stuff. So I actually didn’t tell. So I met my two co-founders who are working on the idea of an AI vibrator at the time.

So we would like it to move and vibrate differently just like a robot being smarter. And I was introduced to them by my roommate and I always say, the best thing to do in life is to put things out there, manifest. And I was like, dude, I would want to work on a sex toy company one day. And then my roommate was like, wait, I know two people working on this.

So she introduced me to my two co-founders now. At the time I was like, hey, I just want to help. I’m not asking for equity or pay. I was like, I just want to do it. I just think it’s such a cool project. And so I was going to Amazon to go to work. And then after work, I would go to Berkeley and work on this project till three in the morning.

And then I was doing this for eight months. And there was a moment when I woke up and I missed six of my alarms and my boss at Amazon was asking, hey, are you coming into the office today? And I was like, oh my gosh. I’m at a point where this is unsustainable and I though I’m just gonna jump into it. I was like, I have nothing to lose. I’ll go back to doing a real job if it doesn’t work out. So I worked on Lioness full-time, at the time I actually didn’t tell my mom because one, I was like, it was zero pay. We didn’t pay ourselves for a good year and a half when we started the company.

And then, I lost health insurance, everything that my mom would probably advise to not do, and on top of it’s a sex toy company. So I actually didn’t tell her for a long time. And then one day she decided to come to visit because I was living in San Francisco and my parents are in LA. She said, I just want to see how you’re doing, beause you’re not as responsive, you’re not calling very often. And I was like, okay, this is the time that I’m going to just have to tell her. So she came to our shared desk space at the time. It was like, 10 different companies.

We have one small desk and I was like, Hey, I just want to let you know I’m working on a smart sex toy. Explaining to her, why it was so important to me because honestly, I’m so scared of my own body. For me, it’s a journey to understand my body better. And I just want to feel like I have ownership of my body is what I explained as best as I could in Korean.

But my Korean is not amazing and it ends as a six-year-old leaving Korea. And she was really quiet and I was really, waiting for her to be like, how could you do this? and disown me. And then she was really crying. She was like, I used to own a vibrator once.

 And then for the next two hours, we talked about different sex things. She was giving me advice. I was giving her advice. And then she asked, when did you lose your virginity? Who was it to show me their picture? We’ve never done it again after that, and it was the most beautifully disgusting thing I’ve ever done in my life. So beautiful, and that I was so appreciative, that’s how my mom responded. Cause I didn’t think that she was going to do that, but also discussing, cause like talking about sex with your parents and then giving each other sex advice is super unnatural.

I was super grateful and I would say to this day, I’m not going to say she’s like a hundred percent supportive of oh my daughter’s making sex toys. She still asks, when are you going to get a real job? Do you think it’s now time for you to like, get into a real career? But with that, I think it could have been so much worse.

And I think the biggest thing for me is when we finally finished developing our product, I was in China, I’m at the manufacturing line getting all of it done. So the first one that came off the line, I actually flew straight back to LA, and I gave it to her. I said I don’t care if you use it or not, but just know this is what I’ve been working on for the past four years.

This is very special to me. I want you to have it. So I don’t know if she used it or not, but I always tell people, if my mom and I promise you, my mom is very scary. I was so scared of her growing up that if she can come to a part where she can open up about sexual wellness and sexual pleasure, I’m in full belief that anyone can do it. So yeah, overall better than expected. My real advice to people, especially to the Asian community. You should just scare them. If you really take this advice, please do not blame me if it doesn’t work.

But I always scare them a little bit until one day. They’re just like, you just do you, and as long as you’re happy, that’s good enough. I got my first tattoo at 18 and then she like cried hysterically for so long. And then I like shaved, then I started dying, my hair is all different colors. And I think the last thing before I started Lioness is like shaving my head, and she said Anna just does whatever she wants. So when I said I’m making the sex toy company. I think she would just be all right. What else can I expect from this child of mine? So I think it helps. 

[00:11:09] Maggie Chui: Oh my gosh. I love that. I got a little bit emotional. When you told us that story too because it really reminds me of like my relationship with my mom. She would never talk to me about sex.

The only thing, she would talk to me about it would be, I don’t have sex, don’t do it until you get married. But then when the time actually comes where the conversation actually comes up I’ll just say, this one time she found a plan B on my desk, before that point, you would never talk to me about sex. But after that point, okay, maybe I do have to have that conversation with her and they just open up. And I think that’s how a lot of Asian parents are, but we tend to forget that they were once kids too, like they did the same things that we do. Our parents have had to go through very similar things that we do. When that conversation comes up, they’re more open to open up and talk to you about it and educate you about it. And just like exchange experiences and stuff like that. I got to realize wow, I couldn’t talk to my parents about this type of thing.

And about you saying just scare them. That is so true because I feel once you like a rebel and you just do whatever you want to, they tend to be like do this like A, B, and C. I can’t be any more surprised if they do X, Y, and Z. But if you like, always just stay within the lines. If you do something that’s like just a tiny bit add blinds, they like to freak out. So I do agree with you that if you scare them a little bit, It’s got to be like, okay, I’m not even surprised. 

[00:12:35] Bryan Pham: Before we continue with this, disclaimer, we’re not giving any professional advice here. 

[00:12:38] Anna Lee: Personal experiences. That’s all, we’re not telling you to do it. Don’t get a tattoo and say that Anna is encouraging you to do it. 

[00:12:44] Bryan Pham: Yeah. I have this tattoo as well. I think my mom wasn’t hysterically sad, but my dad was, he was just like, oh my God, my son has tattoos.

[00:12:55] Anna Lee: My mom was like, oh my God, like we checked in saunas together. And I was like, no, one’s looking. It’s fine. But also like, man, don’t get a tattoo at 18 because it’s very credible. Whatever you think is cool at 18 is not cool later.. 

[00:13:08] Bryan Pham: Out of curiosity, is your tattoo super big, or is it just like something really small. 

[00:13:13] Anna Lee: It’s four inches. And it’s on my rib cage. I don’t know what I was thinking, but it’s the ugliest tattoo in existence.

It ended up looking like the black flags. I don’t know if you’d know the band, it looks like a black flag tattoo, but it’s not, it was supposed to be like Pareto 80, 20 principles, or whatever. And then when I was at Birmingham two years ago, every. Oh, my God black flags. And I was like, it’s not a flag, but now I’m like, yeah, it’s a black flags tattoos. Easier to explain them, me being like at 18, I was so inspired by Pareto’s principle or whatever. 

[00:13:52] Bryan Pham: I want to talk about the products even more. As you mentioned, you gave your mom the product after working there for four years. And as you create this product, what was going through your mind in terms of selecting your target audience. This is my assumption. That everyone is different. And I would assume that everyone’s different ethnicity matters to factor into the type of vibrators and whatever they choose to pick. So how did you pick your target niche?

And honestly, how’d you survey your market to make sure that this is something that people would have? How’d you get the conversation started? Because I would imagine a cold email. Would you like to try a vibrator? It wouldn’t come out. How did you read momentum and traction and feedback on your product?

[00:14:34] Maggie Chui: That’s a great question. Competition too, there are so many vibrators out there, so I want to hear your thoughts on it, like competition. 

[00:14:41] Anna Lee: Oh, interesting. Yeah, so I guess the first off, we definitely started with this idea of the AI vibrator.

The interesting thing, I think we learned a lot in what surprises people is that the amount of beta people willing to beta test is actually really high, especially at the time when we were hand building it. It was like 3d printed silicone. We can cast it and we were like soldering all the components together.

It didn’t look amazing. And when we were like, Hey, we have a beta list for testers, but then as soon as people hear like a free vibrator, people are like, oh yeah, I’ll sign up. So then when we had a beta list open, it actually oversubscribed me at the closing. Cause we were like, just have to make people and we can build that fast.

So I think one it really proves something. Like it’s that little threshold of, maybe you wouldn’t buy one yet, but if you can get one, people are like, yeah, I totally want to get it.

And so when we were doing these beta tests one of the biggest feedback we got was people saying, oh I know what I like, I know which vibration, I would probably keep it at the same. I can move it in this particular way or I don’t move it at once. It’s hitting the right spot.

But then the question that we kept getting was how do you know what I even would like or what you should change the motor settings to? And we’re like, oh measuring your biofeedback of like your pelvic floor movements, which is one of the best indicators for arousal, orgasm. And people are like, can I see what that graph looks like?

And that was where people were like, this is something that I’ve never seen. Like you’ve never seen an orgasm and then this whole thing of if you change your medication, you have a cup of coffee, something like just any factor. It will change what that graph looks like. And so people are like, that’s crazy that you could see as a direct physiological difference just as if you’re tracking sleep or walking or exercise fitness, all of that.

So it really became this thing of people being like, I want to know more data. And so we realized. The pivot really was to focus on the data aspect. And even if we could be like, here’s our suggestions for what you should try next. The baseline didn’t exist of even understanding your own sexual function.

Like I think most people, if you’re like, oh, remember the last time you masturbated, what was good about it? No one really thinks that hard about it. You redo it and you like to move on with your day. And so we’re like, oh, we need to get people to pause and reflect on what did work, what didn’t work, what can make it better?

Like all of that. So I think that’s where we really pivoted demographic. To be very honest, we really did think it was going to end up being more of your late twenties to like mid-thirties people. Cause it more, cause it was like a tech product at the beginning. It was very like an IoT device, but the coolest thing, I think we’ve seen it’s really all walks of life. Like we have people with penises or men who use our products cause you can get the same data easily. So one, we see that. And then when we see the biggest community that’s super vocal and has given us the most words of encouragement. Some of the purchases are actually from your older community.

So 50 plus community who are like, oh I can’t believe a vibrator exists like this. Like I want to know more about my body or maybe my body’s changing now. And so now I want to understand what those factors are. So we actually really have such a wide range. I think it’s people just curious to learn about their bodies beyond.

What a regular vibrator can do and like what the data means and people that are mission-driven of believing in this idea of expanding the research around it. So I think that’s really become the full sweep of the people that we’ve had as our super fans. We’ve had a personal email and she was in her seventies or eighties and she was like, I just had my first orgasm because of the Lioness.

 I think that every sad moment of my day, I think about that from time to time and it makes you think, we’re doing this, right? Like we’re doing something that makes sense for people. And it’s always been like a big, like encouragement.

The sex toy industry is really interesting. So when we started seven years ago, the coined term sex tech, which is, what investors will use now, like here’s the sex tech industry, the term sex tech didn’t actually exist.

So in terms of competition, it was more kind of old school, traditional companies that have been like, of course, every woman wants a pink and purple vibrator with butterflies on it. Why do we have to change it? So it really started with that. So I would say competition-wise when people started hearing like there was a smart vibrator coming out with like biofeedback.

That’s not going to work, like why would anyone need this? So I think, and to this day, no one’s integrated the technology that we have. There’s no other biofeedback vibrator currently out on the market. So it’s always a little bit of a weird, I think we’re in our own space, but at the same time, I tell this person all the time, like the sex industry is so small.

To me, it’s as if somebody, if another company is winning, it’s actually a win for everyone in the community beause it’s a really hard industry to be a part of. Cause there’s so much red tape. Like when we try to open a bank account, they’re like, you’re a pornographic company. You can’t open a bank account with us.

And so like anytime there’s a win or there’s a huge investment into maintenance to the company, that’s actually a proof point for everyone to believe this is an industry worth investing in to grow in and change the narrative around it. So I would say that competition-wise, we have to keep it super secret.

People DM me when they have a sex toy idea. I’m like, yeah, let me know let me help. I just want to see people growing in this field and especially have more representation. I think it’s still a pretty specific representation in this community, we’re seeing a lot more women, but I think in terms of like people that look like me or people of color like all that stuff is so still limited. And so I would love to just see more people come into the space like that. 

[00:20:18] Bryan Pham: Yeah. Shout out to you. It’s a really tough industry to be in because there are a lot of stigmas against it. And I know particularly fundraising must be insanely hard for you because you have to frame your narrative in a way where it’s technically not pornographic, but tech-base. And that’s like when you look at companies like OnlyFans or PornHub like they can’t raise institutional money because of the stigma against it.

How did you fundraise it? I would imagine this is probably one of the most difficult things you have. What do you have to do to talk to investors and really get the right frame of mind? And it really shows me how gritty you really are because, you are Forbes’ 30, under 30.

Congratulations. Congratulations on that! And on top of that, just continuing on for seven years, that’s a remarkable amount of time to be committed to any sort of project, seven years. So what was that? What’s that fundraising process for you and bootstrapping and all that stuff? I’m pretty sure it daunted your mind a lot in the early years.

[00:21:20] Anna Lee: Yeah. I think for sure we did it, I think even beyond being a sex tech company, there are a lot of interesting factors that played into it that I always joke about, like we probably chose the hardest thing to want to do. As first-time founders, consumer hardware is not a sexy space to be in hardware is a really hard space to get investment in.

So much capital upfront. And on top of it being sex tech, people think it’s a sexual company. So a lot of investors sometimes we’ll be like, oh, our partners are not okay with it. They’re super religious or whatever the thing is, or it’s super male-dominated. So one time, my wife doesn’t masturbate. And then you’re like, okay, thank you for that information. That has nothing to do with anything. But they use it as a proof point of oh, vibrators are super niche things. It’s a wide scope. As first-time founders, beyond the fact that it’s sex tech, it was a big learning curve.

It’s so hard to really navigate. Trying to follow other people’s methods of how they did it. It’s just never going to work for how you’re working. So we did end up raising our like pre-seed and our team, I always have to give shouts or team, I can’t imagine any other set of people that would have been able to launch a project product that was with this much low, like not capital intensive.

And then also just getting the product out there as fast as we did is like an incredible thing in my team. I have nothing but love and thanks to my team for getting that to happen. So we did invent a fundraising round and then we also did our Indiegogo at the time. Cause it was the only time way to prove via crowdfunding that this was a product that was going to do well, or people actually wanted a product like this.

Cause there wasn’t any other product to really compare ourselves to, so those two things happening and then I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned about fundraising, a lot of people get so scared by it, but to me, you have to like, whatever your product is. For us, we always say we’re looking for the dreamers, the beautiful weirdos, the people that are willing to just think outside. I’m interested in just having those weirdos, like beautiful weirdos in the best way possible. So I think we don’t look actually for traditional. Like big names. We’re looking for people that really believe won in our mission.

And then to understanding beyond Hey, this doesn’t exist, this is absolutely going to be a pioneering project. Like you’re either granted or not. So I think we’ve gotten less delicate. Cause now I’m like, Hey, I’m Anna. Do you want to talk about like vibrators with me?

Ask me any question you’ve ever had about sex, vibrators, masturbation, I’m here to answer it. Cause I’m telling you as a person that I was scared of my body. This is where I am seven years from now, because of the line, ask me anything. I’m saying, this is a past year’s learning a thing of just being like, I feel super confident in what we’ve built. Like of course the imposter syndrome, the past six years, it was like so heavy.

And so are we doing the right thing? What am I doing with my life? My friends are buying houses and having babies what am I doing? All of those things, for me, like last year, all of that, I’m really proud of what we’ve built and what we’re doing.

I think it’s the right thing. And I feel very confident in feeling good about it. Yeah, ask me maybe when we do another fundraising round, I would be like, oh, we kicked ass. I came in full force cause we used to be scared to even be like, Hey, it’s a vibrator. We talked about it in medical science, but now. It’s a vibrator. It’s doing cool medical stuff. It’s doing cool research stuff, but it’s a vibrator. I would be so much more upfront about it 

[00:24:47] Bryan Pham: Awesome. I hope it’s not too personal to ask, how has your own sexual journey evolved throughout creating this product? I guess the way that I listened to all your story, it’s so interesting to hear that you evolve not only as of the company boss, but you also evolve yourself along with the product as well. What was your sexual journey? I hope it’s not too private to ask this question. Cause to me, you’re a person that fully embodies the mission that you’re trying to build. That is a perfect sign of a very passionate founder. I’m just curious because I know that conversations like these are still very fascinating to a lot of people. And I just want to hear about your personal journey, what was that process like for you? 

[00:25:24] Anna Lee: Super happy to answer it. Yeah, so I do dive a little bit deeper. When I say I was scared of my body like I experienced some trauma when I was a kid. And so that was what made me feel like. I don’t own my own body. Like I don’t deserve like this whole narrative of my head of I don’t deserve sexual pleasure for myself cause I don’t own my body. Growing up my entire life while into my mid-twenties of having relationships and people being like, oh what do you want?

I think a lot of times, I hear this is like a really common story and the same for me is like I learned about sex. Because of my first, like losing my virginity and like having a partner. So you learn it a lot of times in the scope of somebody else, their experience, their pleasure, what they think that sex should feel like or sexual pleasure should feel like all of that.

So I think that was so much unlearning for me. And there’s this constant narrative that if you’re in a relationship, you don’t need to masturbate or you don’t need to have a toy. There’s that constant narrative I hear to this day. And I think a lot of times you’re like does that make me weird?

Does that make me too hypersexual? And then I’ve had relationships where they’re like, Hey, don’t tell my friends what you do or they won’t tell their parents. You have this question what’s wrong with me? Am I broken? And so for me, I think, also I’m not going to like negate therapy. Like I’ve had therapy right after graduating college and knowing about therapy, first of all, it’s super helpful. But on top of it, it was the journey of Lioness for me. Learning about my body and knowing these are just physiological reactions.

And it made me super excited to be able to do that. Instead of being like, Hey, I feel the foreplay sucks or anything that feels super argumentative which sometimes people can take personally. I was like, for me, it just takes this long. I need it to be their specific way.

 I was becoming just more empowered about myself to the point where I’m going to start an Instagram where I just talk about everything I’ve ever learned about sex or like on Tiktok to talk about things. 

[00:27:17] Bryan Pham: Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about Tiktok, Instagram, for you guys that don’t know, please follow Anna on her Instagram and Tiktok because it’s very educational, but also very entertaining. So Anna, let’s talk more about your social media. 

[00:27:34] Anna Lee: It really started actually from Instagram. It was one of those questions. I was like, damn, I can’t believe I didn’t do my job to for you to know that answer.

And so my Instagram was super tiny, it was just my friends at the time. And I was like, I’m going to just do a series of things I’ve learned about sex. Cause I’ve learned so many random things over the past seven years like that we clearly don’t get into sex education for most people.

So I started this as a really random story on my Instagram stories of here’s what I learned. In the history of sex, like sex toys, where do sex toys come from? Why they are the way they are now? Like just random stuff. And then people were like, kept like messaging me oh my God like I had no idea.

And it’s things that I take for granted that I’ve known for so long now. Everyone knows that you’re never supposed to use a Jade egg. And then I realized it’s not common knowledge I realized I should just post this on social media. And then it ended up being just ending up on Tiktok. You’re like the quick thing I’ve learned, a research paper on relationships where people know about your vibrator usage and how that increases romantic relationships build a strong relationship, like literal research proof on it.

And then I was like, here’s my data on drinking coffee versus not having coffee, like stuff like that. The community really built itself because I really didn’t expect it at all. And it just proves the point of how much lack of information there is and how desperate people are to get information.

There are a lot of questions I can’t answer. A lot of medical questions or research have never existed before. But it’s just man, so many people want to know things. And it doesn’t have to feel gross or scary. So I try to talk about it.

 I’m still on this journey, I’m still learning stuff about myself. I’m still learning the right terms, the right language, and ways to talk about stuff. And I’m just like hoping people come on the journey of meeting. This is what I learned and I like all of that. I would like to call it a little placeholder until sex education in the state, country, and the world gets significantly better than it is. 

[00:29:35] Bryan Pham: Yeah. I  love your energy. I love your vibes. It’s how you are in your Instagram videos. It’s just how you are in this podcast. Very bubbly very educational. And it just shows that you are very authentic to your branding and who you are as a person.

And I chose this on a podcast, you are very comfortable with who you are. And we love that. We will want to see more of that. So we love that a lot. I know we touched base on this earlier, but what was the turning point for you where you started to shed your imposter syndrome?

 I know you mentioned like the first couple of years, like the first year and a half, you didn’t pay yourself. You were struggling. You doubted yourself, your friends are buying houses, but looking at you now, like your company’s almost seven, you’re Forbes 30 under 30, what was a major turning point where you’re like, wow, we kept doing.

[00:30:17] Anna Lee: That’s a good question. For me, as much as I’m super grateful to be listed as an under 30 at Forbes, like all of those different things, it felt again, so imposter syndrome of other people on the list, they are finding cures for different diseases. What am I really doing? And you started going into this whole did I make it because someone accidentally boosted it. I feel like a lot of times it adds to it because people think there’s a certain presence that you have, then you’re like underwater swimming and you’re frantic a duck Ray.

I think startup life is not glamorous. I don’t love it, especially in Silicon Valley, there’s so much to like glamorization of startup culture. You’re supposed to grind yourself down to the bone. I don’t love that. Maybe the turning point was really last year. I was just dry. The only thing I can remember is I was like driving home to the city. And then I just had this moment of I think maybe it’s like finding moments of gratitude and for what you’ve done. We’ve been around for seven years. And then I just started being like, oh my God, we’re one first-time founder.

This is already against the statistics of surviving the song as like first-time founders where two women founders, our team is almost entirely women. I thought I was gonna be strictly on engineering and now I’m doing, the world of marketing, the world of media, just everything that I like.

And then just realized like hardware companies don’t usually survive very long. It’s a really hard space. And just kinda man, we did that. We did that with five people at the time. My co-founder and I were like sleeping in the dorms in the Chinese manufacturing facilities to save money.

And then also be right next to the facility, as soon as it opened until it closed, at the last minute, as all of those things. It has been insane. I can’t imagine what else I would do. And I think the question’s always okay if you aren’t doing this company, would you do another startup?

I think for me, I’m so mission-driven that it has to be something I resonate with so deeply. I think that’s the only thing that keeps going. It would be nice having amazing health insurance, there are all these things that could be nice. But I think I really thought about what my values are in life and everyone’s values are different. So you can’t knock like a person killing it in a corporate job.

If that value is there, so amazing. I think for me, I realized like I was really fulfilling my values, but I was really, maybe the past year is comparing my values to someone else’s values and being like their values to make a lot of money and then have a, start a family as soon as possible. And I realized that I can’t compare myself to that because my values are different. And I think as soon as I realized what my values were and then realize that I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.

I felt really at peace with myself. I’m doing the thing that I wanted to do and then just leave it at that. I think also age just helps a little bit like the I definitely believe as you did like in the twenties, you really go through like this.

You find yourself asking what am I doing? I just turned 30 this year, there was a turning point of me not really caring about what people think about me. I’m just doing what I can, the best I can. And it felt really freeing and I’m sure it only gets better as you keep aging and you just keep experiencing.

[00:33:26] Maggie Chui: I love it. Oh my gosh. You have had such a crazy journey and it’s just so amazing to hear. And just like Bryan mentioned, I can just feel that you just own who you are, and if you had told us that you were scared to talk about vibrators or Lioness to potential investors, I would have not even believed you because of how confident you are in your own skin and confident about your own product and your own company.

And to be honest yes, it is natural for us to compare ourselves to others. But you are literally changing lives, Anna, like going back to the fact that like people were interested in getting a free vibrator. I think a lot of people, myself included, didn’t feel comfortable buying a vibrator.

I was never confident enough to do that. I was always very scared to go into a store and buy something like that. You are literally changing lives and some people don’t get to experience it where you ask them for their entire lives.

And to hear people say that they’ve had their first orgasm at the age of 70 something, that’s amazing. You’re literally breaking barriers and helping others understand. There’s so much more to the sexual wellness industry other than the stigmas that we hear on a day-to-day basis. 

[00:34:36] Anna Lee: Yeah, I appreciate it. It’s totally been fun. I think what we’ve gone through in the past like there are so many fun things that have happened or something. Crazy things that have happened to us and there are moments in you’re like I’m going to keep a list of all the companies that have said no to us, or banned us from staff, or like all sorts of fun stuff at the same time.

You can’t live like that. You just have to have this whole fun with it. So I think that’s also a good way to keep creativity alive in small businesses instead of getting bitter, we should do something funny about this. It’s always the kind of cure for all of it.

[00:35:07] Bryan Pham: Yeah, very off-topic, when I mentioned to Maggie that, Hey, we should get Anna on the podcast, she kept giggling. She’s oh, I’m so excited for this podcast. She kept looking really forward to this. So thank you so much for being on the show. Like we truly appreciate that and we’ll continue to support you in any way that we can.

So we do have one final question. And that question is, what advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur trying to break into this unconventional space, because there is a lot of barrier to entry and not just any barrier entry, but a mental barrier as well. What advice do you have for them? 

[00:35:43] Anna Lee: I would say two things. A once more recent one, I’ve been harping since five years ago. The more recent one is I truly believe that there’s no entrepreneurship DNA. The only thing I think that makes somebody survive in it, it’s just doing it.

Like I realized the biggest friction is just like to do it. Cause you can constantly talk about what you want to do, like what your dreams are, but the only difference between somebody that has a business or doesn’t, or started their entrepreneurship journey is to just do it. And yes, it’s going to feel like, what am I doing?

Am I doing the right thing? But as long as you’re doing it, and then you keep at it. It is the only difference between an entrepreneur and not. The other one that I always harp on since five years ago is to really focus on your intersections of skills versus like your core skills.

For me, I was so harping on being a good engineer and I was like, I don’t want to be known as a really good engineer. Like I need to only do engineering stuff. I only want to run engineering projects, stuff like that. Like it’s not conducive to building a business because there’s so much more that goes into the business, beyond the engineering aspect of it.

And there’s a lot of engineers that are going to be really good, probably better than what you’re doing. And that goes for like any skill set and hobby. But really what the intersection of what you do, and your passions and the other things you’ve liked doing, that’s what’s going to make you the special talent, that’s going to make you the only person that can do the business that you’re doing.

So for me, I’m already super passionate about sexual wellness and doing the science behind it and doing the engineering. And now I love to help people as much as possible about it. And that all combine into the strength of our company and the brand that we felt. And I always say think about where your intersections are.

And even if it’s things that you would never think intersect with each other. I promise it comes back. Like I always say I’ve always been really into like skincare stuff. And I was like, oh, I think this is just something I like, but now I’m like, we talked to a lot of like beauty influencers of figuring out, like how do we talk about sex in a way that makes sense.

I already watched so many beauty influencers like that. I just genuinely love stuff like that. These are the people that I want to reach out to because I know exactly as I’ve always loved them. And so it’s really cool to start seeing those intersections all come together.

 Before you think that you shouldn’t do that hobby. It’s a waste of time. Maybe I should be working instead. Do the things that you liked doing. Cause it makes you like a whole person and it makes you the person that can find your company and not like just an engineer. 

[00:38:05] Bryan Pham: As a fellow engineer or former engineer, I totally know what you mean.

[00:38:11] Anna Lee: Yes. Oh my God. I tell engineers all the time, to take a writing class. If I can go back in time, I wouldn’t take philosophy classes, writing classes and so many more humanities courses. Like I hate this glorified engineering, what everything is like that only gets you so far. 

Yeah, I know. I remember Bryan was like, I want to be the best engineer. I feel like a lot of people tend to think that way, you know what they want to be the best in one specific thing, but to be all-encompassing and to be a good founder, you have to be good at, you have to do and try different things and just be very versatile.

[00:38:42] Bryan Pham: And the disclaimer, being a founder is freaking hard. So it’s not as fun and carefree as we make this podcast sound, but it’s extremely difficult and it forced you to look really deep. Sometimes it’s too deep. What am I doing? You’re going to ask yourself that question all the time as a founder. It never goes away. 

[00:39:01] Anna Lee: Unfortunately, it’s very soul searching. Yeah, that’s maybe my other real, very realistic advice you can and have access to therapy.. They’re like, I guess I’d say everyone should have to get there. It’s the one thing that I think keeps me sane like a sanity check beyond like my friends and, people that know me.

And it’s nice to get some outside perspective of like, why am I thinking like this? Or how do I get better at this? Or like all of this stuff? Yeah, it’s a constant soul searching as a founder. You’re constantly working with other people. You’re trying to build other people up to in your life.

[00:39:36] Maggie Chui: And I thank you so much for that advice. I want to give our listeners an opportunity to find you and the Lioness online. So tell us how we can find you.

Yeah. So our website is Lioness like the female lion.io.

Our Instagram, our social media handle is lionesshealth, which is also really a fun account. And then my personal account for Instagram is @Annaisaverage. And my Tiktko is AnnaTheAverage I’ll merge it at some point, but that’s one, 

[00:40:03] Bryan Pham: One quick question. Why is it called Annais average? 

[00:40:07] Anna Lee: Oh, can I tell this story? Is there time? It’s really short, this is such a classic of my personality. So in college, when you first enter freshman year, if you’re with like your dorm, they do ice breakers. And I was like, this is how I’m going to reinvent myself. I want to be known. So funny, like I’m going to be great. And so the ice breaker was to do the first letter of your name, as an adjective, and then your name, like awesome Anna or whatever. In my head, I was like, it’s so funny if I say average Anna, like I just thought it was like funny at the time. And so I said it out loud when it was my turn and everybody was like, don’t say that about yourself. Like girl, you’re not average. You’re amazing. And then everyone went around saying like different adjectives, starting with the letter A that’s oh, awesome. Amazing. And I’ve listed. So horrified. And so the rest of the year in my dorm, people were like, thought of me like this like very low self-esteem, just like a sad girl. And yeah, to this day, people will say: you’re not average, like all this stuff and I have to explain the story every single time. 

[00:41:07] Bryan Pham: I’m glad we got the backstory as opposed to being like, Anna, you’re not average.

[00:41:10] Anna Lee: Maybe my humor is average. 

[00:41:16] Anna Lee: but I’m keeping it.

Yeah. Thank you so much again for being on the podcast today. It’s an awesome episode. We definitely enjoyed it and thank you so much again, 

Thank you so much. Appreciate you both. Appreciate it. 

[00:41:32] Bryan Pham: Thank you.