Disruptive Technologists’ writer Xiling Gu talks with Leah Callon-Butler, the founder of intimate.io, about how she started her career and how she deals with the media about the delicate business of sex.
XG: Could you tell us a bit about your education and career background before becoming a co-founder of intimate.io?
Leah Callon-Butler: My career has been a lot of fun. I delivered a sustainability award-winning community bulk-buy project that saw $6.5mil worth of solar technologies installed in regional Australia; I transformed a ‘scratch and sniff’ startup into an international sensory advertising agency; I’ve been involved with a number of female empowerment initiatives including a movement which mobilized leading Australian CEOs to commit themselves to building the pipeline for young women in senior leadership roles; and I started a company which provided bootstrapped startups access to top-notch sales talent on commission-only terms.
While studying for my MBA, I became extremely passionate about social enterprise models. So much more than the standard box-ticking practices of many Corporate Social Responsibility charters, these are business models that treat the financial bottom-line in line with the importance of driving ROI on social and environmental initiatives. This led me to work on some insanely cool research projects, like the time I was sent to Philadelphia with a group of six other Executive MBA students to conduct a research project on behalf of the United Nations Environment Program me Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) with the goal to align the profit interests of the global reinsurance industry with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Perhaps ironically, my start in the renewable energy sector is what got me into blockchain many years later. Over a casual coffee catch up, one of my mentors showed me a case study on the Brooklyn Microgrid, a ConsenSys project between LO3 Energy and Trans grid, which was the first-ever proof of concept for energy P2P trading on the blockchain – and I immediately became enamored with the phenomenal application potential for distributed ledger technologies. I really believed that blockchain had the power to re-imagine the world as we know it – and from that moment – I knew I wanted to pivot my career into that space.
XG: How old is the company and how many staff are there in Intimate.io? How many of them are female?
LCB: intimate.io was launched in October 2017 when Nathan Smale and I joined Reuben Coppa as co-founders. Reuben has deep experience in both crypto and adult, having been involved with a company that introduced the first Bitcoin ATMs to Australia, as well as being the founder of an app called Rendevu which facilitates on-demand bookings for escort services.
Nathan has over 15 year’s experience in mobile product development and has extensive experience in the gambling arena (a sector which experiences many of the same challenges as adult). Since then our team has grown to 15 people across the world, of which seven are women). We have capabilities across crypto, tech development, sales, marketing, community, finance and legal.
XG: How does cryptocurrency from intimate.io help make the sex industry safer, more reputable and more empowering?
LCB: intimate.io is a cryptocurrency facilitating trust and safety for the Adult Industry. Currently, there is a big trade-off between people’s desire to keep their personal data anonymous while also wanting the sense of trust and safety that comes with data disclosure and transparency. We solve this problem by:
- Providing a payments solution to address industry-wide difficulties with accessing basic banking products and merchant services due to moral bias;
- Enabling a pseudonymous reputation system which affords users the right to transact – both online and in the physical world – with privacy and trust;
- Partnering with industry to develop a clear framework which differentiates between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ actors on the network, to protect human rights, define industry best practice and support ethical conduct;
- Partnering with oracles for off-chain verification of information such as personal ID and Sexually Transmitted Infection health checks.
XG: It came a bit of a surprise to hear the connection of the blockchain technology with the adult industry, but it does make tremendous sense since the core concept of cryptocurrency being a decentralized system that redistribute power to the individual, would you say your company is the first of its kind in applying the technology in this area?
LCB: intimate.io is the first to design a cryptocurrency that can be used by every segment of the Adult Industry. This is one of the oldest industries in the world and yet it is still largely unregulated, its workers are marginalized, and very often, neither supplier nor customer is protected or empowered.
Institutional bias has made it near impossible for sex tech entrepreneurs to rely on traditional mechanisms of payment and identification, while many mainstream banks and payment gateways – such as PayPal and Stripe – won’t deal with retailers in this space at all.
So, Adult needs the decentralization properties of Crypto, but Crypto also needs Adult. Blockchain is a technology crying out for a use-case and intimate.io brings together several different blockchain-based technologies, to demonstrate unprecedented real-world utility through application to an industry that is sorely in need of emancipation from centralized bodies who have assumed the role of moral arbiter for too long.
The intimate trust and reputation system, which includes features across smart contracts, staking and two-party escrow, is notably ambitious as its functionality is not exclusive to the Adult Industry. The team at intimate fundamentally believe that this innovation has the power to completely redefine ‘who’ and ‘how’ we trust in every industry in the future.
XG: Have you encountered more difficulties and hardships being a female entrepreneur in sex tech? Have you encountered any less than pleasant situations when people hear about the business?
LCB: Sure, absolutely. I’ve had people refuse to have photos taken with me, people constantly assume I’m a sex worker (as thought this would be a less than desirable professional history, if it were true about me), and my own business coach – whom I’ve been working with for years – recently dropped me as a client because he felt so fundamentally misaligned with what I’m doing now.
Sex is – unfortunately – still a controversial topic, so I can appreciate that there are many people out there that still have quite conservative views about the industry, and thus, they will take any opportunity to question my integrity and denounce the legitimacy of my work. But honestly, this kind of pushback only propels me to fight harder, as it reminds me how critical it is that we summon the courage to publicly challenge this deep taboo that is preventing our society from taking a more open, inclusive and humanistic approach to our sexuality.
What really upsets me is when people attack with statements like: No woman would ever make the conscious choice to work in the sex industry. In fact, I have met many female sex workers and adult performers who thoroughly enjoy their job and derive a great sense of fulfilment from the industry. But that’s kind of beside the point. It’s this exact type of stigmatization that only perpetuates the idea that adult-focused professionals are ‘bad’ in society, when really, they are hardworking, contributing, tax paying citizens, no different to you or me. If people really cared about women’s protection and empowerment, they would stop with the moral judgment and social exclusion, and instead act to ensure that workers in the Adult Industry are afforded all the same rights and respect that people in other industries take for granted.
But overall, I only have positive things to say, as I’ve been so humbled by the incredible support and mentorship that I’ve received from my peers. For example, the wonderful friendships that I’ve developed with sex workers and adult performers such as Charlotte Rose and Lacey Starr, who have been so open and honest in sharing their stories with me, or the camaraderie I feel with my fellow members of Women of Sex Tech, which comes from that deep sense of shared experience being a group of female entrepreneurs who have rallied against all the same roadblocks along our journey to fund, launch and grow amazing businesses in the field of adult. This industry is represented by so many truly strong and visionary people who inspire me every day.
XG: Do you foresee your company changing the business environment in the adult industry, furthermore, even changing the societal perception of or bias against adult industry?
LCB: From a commercial perspective, the current issues with processing payments have leaked huge profit potential from the Adult Industry. Taking online adult entertainment as just one example, this is a multi-billion-dollar industry, but it is nowhere near reflective of the industry’s profit potential. To illustrate my point: Many people say that they wouldn’t pay for porn because they can watch it for free.
But not too long ago, people were saying the same thing about music – then iTunes made it possible for people to purchase content selectively, inexpensively and seamlessly. Since then, the market has progressed so much that we think nothing of paying our monthly fees to Spotify, Netflix, and all other content subscription services. Imagine the impact to be had on the porn industry if people were given a safe, secure and private payment method.
At a broader industry level, the difficulty in accessing basic banking products, merchant services and financial instruments has created incredibly high barriers to entry for any entrepreneur thinking about launching a new product or service in the Adult Industry. As a result, we are seeing a severe lack of entrepreneurial diversity in this space, with the wider industry going largely underserved and whole market segments going completely unrecognized.
If we can level the industry playing field to make it more welcoming to new entrants, I firmly believe we will start to see far more innovation and a far more varied representation of target markets and segments, which ultimately creates a more inclusive space for everyone.
The truly world-changing feature of intimate.io, however, is the trust and reputation system. As mentioned before, this system has the power to make the entire world a safer and more inclusive place. We’ve already seen the potential for peer-to-peer marketplaces to reinvent the way we transact, interact and trust the people around us, but to-date, these social spaces are still controlled by centralized bodies such as eBay, Airbnb, Uber and so on.
This means you cannot transport your personal reputation between different services – it is always platform specific. A decentralized reputation system opens-up this sense of ‘trust’ to a far broader and thoroughly diverse global ecosystem.
XG: Are there any potential hazards for your cryptocurrency since it might enable illegal activities happen without supervision?
LCB: A monetary system with no moral code and no reputation system is more in line with criminal intent – for example – Bitcoin, or a privacy coin such as Monero or ZCash, or the ultimate favorite – cold hard cash.
But to delve into this further, and from a societal perspective, we have a problem because there is currently no framework to help distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ actors within the industry. A sex worker operating within legal jurisdiction still finds it difficult to get banked, cannot publicly advertise their services, does not enjoy the same rights and protection as other workers, and is subject to judgment and social exclusion by much of society.
This creates a very murky environment where contributing citizens are regarded as outlaws, and thus, it becomes extremely difficult to distinguish their work from immoral activity such as human trafficking and pedophilia. This homogenization enforces inaccurate assumptions about the entire industry being ‘dirty’ or ‘wrong’.
It’s not uncommon for people to think of the sex industry as homogenous in nature and they often fail to make a distinction between legal businesses and illegal operations. But this would be like assuming that a fully regulated and compliant pharmaceuticals multinational, such as Pfizer or Glaxo Smith Kline, is operating in tandem with the illegal drug trade.
intimate.io will solve the moral bias facing legal business operators by providing a secure and reliable payments solution. In addition, the intimate trust and reputation system – coupled with a comprehensive code of conduct – will raise the bar for safety and social conduct throughout the sector, while empowering the community with a censorship protocol to enforce the ethical rule set and ‘blacklist’ any immoral activity.
- Do you have a short-term goal and long-term goal of the company?
LCB: Our goals for the short term are straightforward: Provide fair and equal access to payments services for business operators in the Adult Industry. We will do this by making it easy to implement the intimate.io API and SDK on existing platforms, to provide another payment option for customers.
We have already signed a number of payments integration partners to the intimate ecosystem including BaDoink VR (a Virtual Reality adult content producer); MojoHost (a hosting platform for 700+ adult content websites); Emojibator (a designer and manufacturer of emoji-themed vibrators); Paul Raymond Publications (an adult content publishing company in print and digital); Urban Resorts Japan (a property group specializing in Love Hotels); Rendevu (an on-demand app for booking escort services); Sexpo (an exhibition for sexual wellness and lifestyle); Prudish (an online retailer of adult products) and others – see our white paper for more.
Over the longer term, intimate will continue to develop its industry-wide trust and reputation system. This is the real game-changer as it has the potential to define the future of trust for every industry across the world.