By Jeff Baker
Manufacturing across the Prairies includes companies and products of all shapes, sizes, materials, and purposes. This means manufacturing isn’t just about ‘typical’ product lines like food and beverage, energy products, aerospace, fabricated metal, wood products, or apparel, to name but a few.
Manufacturing in the Prairies includes literally any material that’s transformed by people and/or machines into something else of higher value or higher use. It’s companies and employees providing products that address a gap in the market or solve a problem of sorts.
Support and resources for this diverse industry comes from a wide variety of groups, including Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, NRC-IRAP, Women’s Enterprise Centre, Chambers of Commerce, Tech West, and other industry associations.
Manufacturing, as an industry, as a topic, is just what manufacturers and makers do, and the manufacturing community is changing along with the world in which it operates.
Ultimately, it’s the needs and wants of people that manufacturing serves to address. Those needs and wants shift over time to reflect the transformations of our society and our changing definitions of what is a ‘safe’ topic of conversation. Diversity and inclusivity – including gender diversity, sexual orientation, sexual health, and empowerment – are key to business success and manufacturers need to be on board, not just through talk but through action.
In manufacturing that we get to meet folks doing some fascinating work in a sector that ultimately touches everyone’s life at one point or another, and the impact manufacturing has is overwhelmingly positive in countless ways.
Let’s take pleasure tech, for one example. Pleasure tech is defined as any technology designed to enhance pleasure, usually sexual. This is an industry that has a global market exceeding $50 billion USD annually, and sales have been going through the roof for years.
Meet three manufacturers and makers from across the Prairies who are working to provide products to meet some very meaningful and personal needs, enabling pleasure and building confidence along the way.
Roaming the path less taken
New female pleasure tech maker set to revolutionize the industry, improve the lives of customers the world over
You’ve graduated with your finance degree, established a career in the Canadian banking sector, made the switch into pharmaceuticals, and are looking to take that next step in your career. You have entrepreneurial spirit and a Prairie can-do attitude to boot. The world’s your oyster!
So where do you go, or what do you do next?
For Melanie Derwin, that meant building her own company from the ground up and setting out on a path to revolutionize the world of female pleasure tech. Yes Roam and its parent company Serenity Productions were born.
From the get-go, Derwin has connected and worked with several organizations, including CME Manitoba, the Winipeg and Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, Women in Tech at Tech Manitoba, NRC-IRAP, and Tech West, who have provided support in a variety of ways.
“Carrie Schroeder with CME Manitoba has been instrumental in connecting me with key people,” says Derwin. Even before I was a CME member, Carrie had a few brainstorming calls with me, and since joining, she’s invited me to the Women in Manufacturing conference this year. She’s been a champion from the beginning.”
As clichéd as it sounds, it was one of those ‘Aha!’ moments for Derwin that launched her journey into pleasure tech development.
“I found that there wasn’t a lot of real variation or innovation in the pleasure tech sector, especially when it came to pleasure tech products targeted to the female customer,” says Derwin. “There’s really one standard motion, and the differences between products and companies really were cosmetic – colour, material, size, shape, etc – but the movement was exactly the same.”
“You’ve got more choices and variety in lightbulbs than you do in pleasure accessories, and I thought that’s just not right!”
Headwinds from the start
Derwin didn’t know a lot about the industry, but she knew how to do her research and find the people that could help her navigate the uncharted waters.
Despite being a newbie in the industry, and despite facing headwinds from a variety of sources, Derwin kept at the research, prototyping, and testing, working to develop minimum viable products, leading to patent applications in both the United States and Canada.
“It took a good two and a half years, but I finally got the patents awarded in both countries,” says Derwin. “Having those patent numbers definitely helps the credibility of the business, but there are still barriers at play.”
Getting squeezed by the ‘vice’
Developing a new and innovative product is always a journey, regardless of industry or market segment, but when you’re developing a product that many might see as ‘taboo’, well, it just ups the degree of difficulty, Derwin explains.
“I’ve been fortunate to work with a couple of engineering companies who have been open to what I’m trying to do,” says Derwin. “They’ve been very supportive and very professional.”
“But I’ve experienced the opposite reactions too,” Derwin says.
“Securing funding has been a challenge, particularly in the venture capital arena, because a lot of firms have ‘vice’ clauses in their agreements and policies. Even though what I’m developing is non-phallic and with branding that is very elegant and classy, there’s still a good segment of the financial industry that won’t entertain working with me.”
Forging a female-led path
Derwin and Yes Roam were able to secure funding from NRC-IRAP to hire a female engineer to continue the development and prototyping of the company’s products, most of which was done in Winnipeg.
“Even in a product segment that is focused on female customers and female sexual health, there usually aren’t a lot of females involved with the working teams,” says Derwin. “Given what we’re trying to do here and who our customers are, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”
I’ve been working with the Advanced Manufacturing Lab at North Forge here in Winnipeg,” Derwin says, “and it’s been an awesome experience. As we’re developing more prototypes and figuring everything out, it’s been very cost-effective and very useful.”
Asked if she’d like to keep the manufacturing close to home once the product is ready for scale-up and release to the market, Derwin offers an unreserved ‘yes.’
“I think there’s lots of opportunity out there to do this locally or domestically,” says Derwin. “Tons of manufacturers proved they could pivot and take on some really creative products during the last 18 months of the pandemic, so I think there has to be some that I can work with.”
The not-so-perfect storm
Like almost every other manufacturer or soon-to-be-manufacturer, Derwin’s company is facing tremendous challenges just getting things going, thanks mostly to the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on global supply chains.
“When I spoke with my electrical engineering folks earlier in the autumn, they said they’d been quoted a November delivery at the earliest for microchips and other electronic components… November 2022,” says Derwin.
“And there’s no guarantee on delivery actually happening that far out,” Derwin says. “It’s an awful situation that just seems like it can’t be real.”
Beyond the electronic components, Derwin says that sourcing for just about every component or material, including silicone, for Yes Roam’s products is exceedingly difficult at this point in time.
“With the delays in electronics, silicone, and other components, it’s putting pressure on the business,” explains Derwin. “Without the parts, we can’t manufacture the products, and we can’t generate the revenue to pay the increased prices for the parts.”
“It’s a vicious circle right now,” says Derwin, “but I just know there are local companies in the region who I could work with.
Getting out from the shadows
Derwin explains that even advertising opportunities for Yes Roam are limited on social media channels such as Facebook and Instagram. And that’s not good news for a new product in a market that sees most sales being online.
“There’s a ‘shadow banning’ that takes place on these sites, where we can’t even use full words like ‘sex.’ You have to purposely misspell things or embed text in images, which really isn’t ideal,” says Derwin.
“I want to bring together a quality sexual health product with credible medical expertise and consumer education, and it’s a real challenge to not get lumped in with the pornography industry. This is just another product that addresses a real part of the human experience; it’s nothing shameful or embarrassing.”
Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials, including Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, were recommending methods for safer sexual encounters and acknowledging that sexual health is an important part of overall health for Canadians.
“When you have folks like Dr. Tam offering advice for safer sexual encounters during the public health emergency, it helped and continues to help change the conversation and make people more comfortable talking about this topic,” Derwin says.
“The pandemic led to sales in pleasure tech increasing by something like 26 per cent over the previous year,” says Derwin. “Female-focused pleasure tech is already an industry worth $15 billion in North America alone, and that’s only about one-third of the global market.”
“There has to be room for quality products backed by credible experts and advice,” Derwin says.
Confidence in the making
Social enterprise helping trans people skill-up and build confidence
Begun through a friendship between a trans man and an ally who are both committed to supporting the trans community and to creative problem solving, Get Your Joey is a Winnipeg-based social enterprise designing and making apparel, accessories, and – most importantly – joeys for customers around the world.
A joey is a fabric pouch that holds a silicone prosthetic for trans men and people who pack. The product’s design is unique in that it allows folks to choose their own underwear and pin the joey to it.
A family affair
“My business partner, Ro Walker, and I met about seven and a half years ago, and he’s always felt like chosen family,” says Kalyn Falk, co-founder of Get Your Joey.
With family, comes laundry. That’s when Falk learned about packing and why Ro often had socks with holes in his laundry basket.
“I said that if he’s got holey or old socks, he can throw them in the garbage,” Falk says, “but he told me that’s not why he was hanging on to those socks.”
Walker shared more with Falk about packing and what it meant, and Falk knew there had to be something better; that she and Walker could do better.
“I realized he was manufacturing these socks – these pouches – himself, so we worked on things and found there was a real need for something out in the larger community,” Falk explains. “There had to be something better than an old sock, that there could be something designed just for these folks, for this purpose, and it would let them feel better about themselves.”
And that was just the start for a business that has been in operation for more than six years.
Around the world
“We started with just an Instagram account,” says Falk, “and folks just found out about us and began to email us requesting joeys. We’re now shipping joeys to dozens of countries around the world, and that’s largely from social media and word-of-mouth.”
While trans folks are members of communities around the world – in every culture, country, and demographic – the level of acceptance varies widely and means folks often need to be very sensitive and aware of their surroundings and activities, including on-line shopping.
“For some destinations, we have to be extremely cautious with our shipments,” says Falk. “We’ll even alter our company name on the packaging so nothing is searchable from our parcels. We’re very aware of our customers’ privacy and safety.”
Still, Get Your Joey is delivering products to customers around the globe through a network of distributors in countries like Finland and the UK, and direct-to-consumer across North America, New Zealand, and Australia.
In between the competition
Falk explains that Get Your Joey products fall into a sort of middle ground between two ‘extremes’ of competitors: old socks and specialty packing undergarments.
“The DIY market with socks with holes is huge, but our biggest competition is probably the packing underwear,” says Falk, “but it’s a lot more expensive than what we offer. It has to be a particular size and shape, and then folks have to buy multiples of them.”
“Our joeys can be worn with almost any undergarment out there, and since they’re not sewn in or an integral part of a garment, they can be easily swapped between items, depending on a person’s mood or wardrobe choice on a given day,” Falk says.
“We’d really like our joeys to become the packing pouch equivalent of Q-Tips or Kleenex, so when folks talk about packing pouches, they immediately think of a joey.”
Making a difference at home
Get Your Joey’s mandate as a social enterprise made the decision to design and manufacture their joeys locally a no-brainer.
“Both Ro and I are very involved in the trans and non-binary community, and six years ago there were a lot of barriers to employment for our friends,” says Falk. “Some barriers were physical requirements of people who were binding or people that needed access to bathrooms, so that would prevent them from working at some workplaces. Some were mental health-related issues where they needed a supportive, understanding environment.”
Falks explains one of the reasons why Get Your Joey was started was to provide just that supportive, understanding workplace that would provide members of the trans community with meaningful and safe work experience.
“I can provide them with a good reference letter for future employers, and they have some income, which makes a huge difference,” says Falk. “The training part of the work gives them employable skills, and that’s just as important to us as the manufacturing and sending things out around the world.”
“We’re really about giving people the ability to live and work as their authentic selves,” says Falk. “We want trans folks to know that we’re really taking the time to think about meeting their needs and ensuring they can live their full lives.”
“For cis-gendered folks, they might not know this need is even a thing, but it’s real, and it’s worth our attention.”
Knowing the ropes
Artisan ropemaking captivates customers
Haven Kink was born in 2010 by Steve “Zemyn” Wayne (Zemyn is the pseudonym used by Steve in the kink community), originally as a venture to create the shibari rope and toys that weren’t available at a quality that lived up to his standards.
As things progressed, the goal shifted to creating a place that would be a haven for kinksters and skilled craftspeople to explore themselves and their desires in a safe and accepting environment.
Accidentally getting into business
Explaining how Haven Kink started as an accidental business, Wayne says he would show his friends the results of his crafting handiwork, and they would often just hand him money and take the items with them.
“People would just give me more ideas and ask for my input on their own creations, and I’d go build whatever it was,” says Wayne, “and they’d buy it and tell their friends about it.”
Wayne realized he was onto something, serving a market with an unmet need with products that he was making in his home workshop.
“I started trying to make it a full-fledged business, not just a table at a local craft- or flea market every six months,” says Wayne. “Then other people came along and started building things with me.”
“There’s now six of us in the family, if you will, and every single one of them just met me in the community and said, ‘Hey, will you teach me how to make this thing,’ and they just kind of never left,” Wayne says.
Artistry and precision combined
The artistry and precision of what Wayne and his collaborators are making runs right from the very start of the process, well before any shibari play happens.
“Everything we sell is individually handcrafted to a ridiculously perfectionist level, because that’s what our customers and even ourselves demand,” says Wayne.
“Our artisans use either a rope-making machine with a counterweighted system, or they’ll use a mobile twisting point that moves back and forth,” Wayne explains. “It takes patience and precision to get the fibres to properly twist and counter-twist, and make sure the tension is right.”
Improve the process, remove the torture
Wayne figured out a technique to force a tighter lay into the rope by twisting individual strands of the same tension, then laying them together using hand tension.
“I started doing that by hand, but I eventually switched to using a power drill,” Wayne says. “Nobody really wants to do thousands of turns by hand on a single length of rope. That was true torture!”
Wayne says that the ropemaking isn’t just hard on the hands; it’s also a great way to get your steps in.
“The process – the quality control and attention – is very hands on, so when you’re laying the rope,” Wayne says, “you’re walking back and forth with every strand – as much as 100 metres for each individual length.”
Each length of shibari rope made by the Haven Kink artisans is 10 metres long, and Wayne says that while he’s made a hundred lengths in a week going full tilt, he really couldn’t lift his arms for a while afterwards.
“A few months ago, another one of our creators made 600 lengths, and this is only a part-time gig for him,” says Wayne.
It’s not about sex
Wayne explains that kink is something very individual for each person, and there’s not a single definition for what is or isn’t ‘kinky.’
“Often it’s about removing people’s control or inhibitions in some way,” Wayne explains. “It’s really about anything that will get somebody high in their own body without any other chemical stimulants. The boundaries and limits change all the time depending on the place, the person, the culture… all sorts of things.”
“There’s a misconception out there that kink, including shibari, is just about sex,” says Wayne, “but most kink and kink events are not about sex. There’s a sexiness to some aspects, but it’s more about making a human connection, having an experience, and even working through something inside themselves. It’s a real community.”
It’s a journey
Wayne says his own kink journey has taken years and has given him the opportunity to learn more about himself and what makes him tick. It also gave him the freedom and flexibility to turn a hobby into an accidental business venture that is serving customers both near and far.
“I was looking for high-quality, aesthetically pleasing toys like floggers and whips, and especially natural fibre rope, but those things just weren’t available,” says Wayne. “If it was available, it wasn’t of a decent quality at a decent price. So, I just made it myself.”
“I’ve always been a crafty person, and I spent the time to learn to craft the ropes until I’d gotten it just right, Wayne says.