Many entrepreneurs will tell you that what they’re doing now is not what they initially set out to do. Making major professional changes—even mid- to late-career—can often lead to more fulfilling and successful outcomes. That’s what our series The Pivot is all about. Each month, we speak to founders, business leaders and entrepreneurs about how—and why—they changed course and found success in an entirely different industry. Here, we speak to Natalie Westlake, the founder of sexual-wellness store, the 8850.
For years, Toronto-based Natalie Westlake loved bragging about her job when people asked her what she did for a living. She’d spent almost two decades rising through the ranks at Lululemon to become a high-powered executive, as director of community for North America. Nowadays, however, she’s been a little slower to address these queries. “I’ve practiced answering how to really nail the ‘I sell sex toys’ reply,” she says. Westlake left Lululemon after 18 in the spring of 2021 years to launch The 8850, an online sexual-wellness store that prioritizes ethically- and sustainably-made pleasure products.
Westlake got her start in the wellness space at age 29 in 2004 when she got a job with Lululemon as a sales associate, or, as Lululemon calls it, an educator. At the time, it was a private company with approximately 1,000 employees and a couple dozen stores. “I eagerly drank the Kool-Aid,” she says. “I completed the self-development programs and read every book recommended to firmly immerse myself deep in the culture and working philosophy.” (Lululemon’s corporate culture has been referred to “cult-like” thanks to its own lingo, encouraged self-help development courses and reported feedback sessions called “clearings.”)
Over the years, Westlake created grassroots community-building programs for the athleisure brand all over North America. Some major projects include the annual Summit Series and 10km race events, and launching the Blissfeel running shoe, Lululemon’s foray into footwear. “I lived in an environment of nothing but high-growth, fast-paced learning and scaling,” she says. “I managed, I hired, I fired, I trained, operated, created and scaled for stores all over North America—and I loved every minute of it.” Today, the public company is valued around US$41.5 billion with more than 570 stores worldwide.
Launching a sex toys business
During a rare moment of relaxation in 2020, Westlake was reading an article in Wired that discussed how the US$30 billion global sex toy industry was growing eight per cent year-over-year from now until 2030—with revenue forecasted at over US$62 billion. Another segment of the report sparked curiosity, Westlake says: It mentioned that the lack of manufacturing regulations allows makers to develop products under the label of novelty toys, and skip reporting the materials and chemicals used.
An idea for a new, naughtier business was born—but one with a conscience. Westlake felt passionately about creating a marketplace that prioritized health and sexual wellness while ringing the alarm about the lack of sex toy regulation. At first, it was more of a creative concept and fun project off the side of Westlake’s desk. She wasn’t planning on leaving Lululemon, but, after about a year, she realized she couldn’t do both jobs if she wanted her own business to grow. It was time to put the Kool-Aid down and muster up the courage to leave the corporate enclave—and start selling dildos and handcuffs. She quit Lululemon and, alongside a couple silent partners, launched The 8850 in April 2022. The company’s name comes from the summit of Mount Everest, which stands at 8,850 meters above sea level. Westlake was inspired “by the idea of that kind of elevated goal setting like summiting the world’s highest peak.”
“I lived in an environment of nothing but high-growth, fast-paced learning and scaling”
“Taking the leap from selling tight black stretchy pants in a retail world focused mostly on bricks-and-mortar growth to pivoting into an e-commerce business where we curate some of the world’s best sex toys has been no small feat,” she says. She’s handpicked a variety of chic, streamlined sexual-wellness wares, from Lora DiCarlo vibrators and Jems condoms to Dame arousal serum and Wednesday Co. buttplugs.
This product lineup has also forced Westlake to adjust her tried-and-true marketing strategies. At Lululemon, she says her bosses encouraged luring shoppers inside the stores by producing provocative storefront windows. Some examples include running a “conscious uncoupling”-themed bra window, nodding to Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s split, and a “less Ford, more bike” window to protest then-Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s proposed bike-lane reductions. “I recall being advised by the COO when I opened a store in Chicago that if I didn’t receive a warning from mall management, I wasn’t doing my job well.”
Running a sexual wellness brand, however, has been the opposite experience. Westlake has to contend with heavy advertising bans in Canada. The 8850 has been shut down on Instagram, Facebook and Google Shopping ads for displaying so-called inappropriate content. “Evidently, talking about lube and showing vibrators is unacceptable on these platforms,” she says. “Even as the World Health Organization warns of rising global STI numbers, Meta remains closed to promoting products that provide safer-sex options. It’s mind-boggling resistance.”
She’s hopeful that she can begin to change the industry norms; she has already submitted an e-petition to her member of parliament to address the inconsistency in Google advertising rules and allow for promoting sexual-wellness companies and safe-sex products.
Spreading the word about sustainable toys
Westlake also wants to hit back at another issue rampant in the industry. “What makes The 8850 different is that we’re shining a light on the fact that the sex-toy industry is an unregulated business globally,” she says. “This means that manufacturers are not responsible to disclose chemicals and other materials used in the making of products.” Because these products are used on and in the body, she believes people should have as much information as possible about ingredients and materials.
“It’s mind-boggling resistance”
Eager to celebrate more ethical makers, Westlake created the “Sexdex,” a scale that grades each product on performance, diversity and inclusion, social responsibility, environmental and labour impact, and transparency, so clients can pick products that not only feel good—and look good—but align with their values as well. “We think people care about this and will want to spend their time with a community that’s curating products with this type of lens,” she says. “Getting that message out with scale and speed is both a heavy lift and a big challenge.”
Right now, The 8850 is working with Canadian-owned online marketing agency Traffic Junky, and is also hosting Instagram Live conversations with makers to get around the post restrictions for “arousing” products. The business has been celebrating some early traffic wins as well, with thousands of visitors to its website monthly, plus its almost completely sold out of its Lora DiCarlo products.
And so, day by day, Westlake embraces her new job title a little more. “I know it will take time for me to own this and I look forward to that—when I feel equally as empowered in my new role as chief pleasure purveyor.”