Many entrepreneurs will tell you that what they are doing now is not what they did in the beginning. Making major professional changes—even in mid- to late-career life—can often lead to more fulfilling and successful results. That’s what our series The Pivot is about. Each month, we talk to founders, business leaders, and entrepreneurs about how—and why—they changed course and found success in an entirely different industry. Here, we talk to Natalie Westlake, founder of the sexual-wellness store, 8850,
Over the years, based in Toronto Natalie Westlake loved to brag about her job when people asked her what she did for a living. He spent nearly two decades rising through the ranks at Lululemon to become a high-level executive as Director of Communities for North America. Nowadays, though, she’s been a little slow to address these questions. “I’ve practiced how to really capitalize on the ‘I sell sex toys’ answer,” she says. Left to Do, an online sexual-wellness store that prioritizes pleasure products made ethically and sustainably.
Westlake got her start in the wellness space in 2004 at age 29, when she got a job with Lululemon as a sales associate, or as Lululemon calls it, a teacher. At the time, it was a private company with about 1,000 employees and a few dozen stores. “I eagerly drink the Kool-Aid,” she says. “I completed self-development programs and read every book recommended to deeply immerse myself in the culture and work philosophy.” (Lululemon’s corporate culture has been referred to as “”)like a cultThank you for your own lingo, encouraged self help development course and reported feedback session called “clearing”.)
Over the years, Westlake created grassroots community-building programs for the athleisure brand across North America. Some of the major projects include the annual Summit Series and 10km running event, and the Blissfeel running shoe, Lululemon’s foray into footwear. “I lived in an environment of nothing but high growth, rapid learning, and scaling,” she says. “I managed, I hired, I fired, I trained, operated, built and expanded stores all over North America—and I loved every minute of it.” Today, the public company is valuable all around with over US$41.5 billion 570 stores Whole world.
starting a sex toys business
During a rare moment of relaxation in 2020, Westlake was reading an article wired discussed how US$30 billion global sex toy industry From now to 2030—growing eight percent year-on-year—revenues were projected to exceed US$62 billion. Another section of the report piqued curiosity, Westlake says: It noted that a lack of manufacturing regulations allowed manufacturers to develop products under the label of novelty toys, and that the materials and chemicals used skips reporting.
An idea for a new, nerdy business was born—but with a conscience. Westlake felt passionately about creating a market that prioritized health and sexual wellness while sounding the alarm about the lack of sex toy regulation. At first, it was a creative concept and fun project to have on 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 if she wanted her own business to grow. It was time to put down the Kool-Aid and pluck up the courage to leave the corporate enclave – and start selling dildos and handcuffs. It left Lululemon and launched The 8850 in April 2022 with a few silent partners. The company’s name comes from the summit of Mount Everest, which is 8,850 meters above sea level. Westlake was “inspired by the idea of aiming for that kind of lofty goal, like climbing the highest peak in the world.”
“I lived in an environment of nothing but high growth, rapid learning and scaling”
“Making the leap from selling tight black stretch pants to a retail world focused mostly on brick-and-mortar growth, where we curate some of the best sex toys in the world, is no small feat,” she says. , She’s got a variety of sleek, well-rounded sexual-wellness accessories, from Laura DiCarlo vibrators and James condoms to Dame Arousal Serum and The Wednesday Company Buttplug.
This product lineup has forced Westlake to adjust its tried-and-true marketing strategies. At Lululemon, she says her bosses encouraged shoppers to entice shoppers inside stores by creating provocative storefront windows. Some examples include running a “conscious uncoupling”-themed bra window, nodding to Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s split, and protesting a “less Ford, more bikes” window, which was a tribute to then-Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Opposes proposed bike-lane cuts. “I remember when I opened a store in Chicago the COO advised me that if I didn’t get a warning from mall management, I wasn’t doing my job well.”
However, running a sexual wellness brand has been a contrasting experience. Westlake faces heavy advertising restrictions in Canada. 8850 has been turned off on Instagram, Facebook and Google Shopping ads for allegedly displaying inappropriate content. “Obviously, talking about lube and showing off vibrators is unacceptable on these platforms,” she says. “Even as the World Health Organization warns of rising global STI numbers, Meta ceases to promote products that provide safer sex options. It’s mind-boggling resistance.”
She hopes she can start changing industry norms; She has already submitted an e-petition to her Member of Parliament to remove the discrepancy in Google advertising rules and allow her to promote sexual-wellness companies and safe-sex products.
Spread the word about sustainable toys
Westlake is also looking to hit back at another issue plaguing the industry. “What makes 8850 different is that we are 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 for disclosing the chemicals and other ingredients used in the manufacture of products.” Because these products are used on and in the body, she believes that people should know as much as possible about ingredients and ingredients.
“It’s mind-boggling resistance”
Eager to celebrate more ethical manufacturers, Westlake created the “SexDex”, a scale that grades each product on performance, diversity and inclusion, social responsibility, environmental and labor impact and transparency, so customers can choose that not only feel good—and look good—but also align with their values. “We think people care about this and will want to spend their time with a community that is curating products with these types of lenses in mind,” she says. “Getting that message across with scale and speed is a heavy lift and a huge challenge.”
Right now, The 8850 is working with Traffic Junkie, a Canadian-owned online marketing agency, and is also hosting Instagram Live conversations with manufacturers to avoid post bans for “provocative” products. The business is celebrating some early traffic wins, with thousands of visitors to its website monthly, plus its Laura DiCarlo products are almost completely sold out.
And so, day by day, Westlake embraces her new job title a little more. “I know it will take time for me to achieve this and I look forward to it – when I feel equally empowered in my new role as chief happiness provider.”