Self Serve Created a Community That Celebrates Sexuality

by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, February 15, 2010

Molly Adler and Matie Fricker didn’t expect to become entrepreneurs.

They didn’t expect to pluck themselves out of Boston and settle in Albuquerque, or to raise nearly $100,000 over the course of a year to start a business that no bank would fund. They hoped to find a community once they arrived in the Southwest, but they certainly didn’t expect to build one.

But if there’s one thing the two women have discovered, it’s that they tend to exceed their expectations.

Adler and Fricker are co-owners of Self Serve, a sex shop that is far more than a sex shop. The store is as much about education and self-love as it is about toys and fetishes.

Self Serve caters to a diverse clientele: women over 60 looking to experience their first orgasm, married couples who want to keep their sex lives healthy, people recovering from trauma, new parents, those who like things kinky and others who, when talking about sex, can only speak in a whisper.

Adler and Fricker make it a point to make everyone feel welcome. By offering weekly classes and workshops, and hosting and creating a slew of events, the owners of Self Serve have quickly become an Albuquerque fixture.

The idea for Self Serve was born in 2005, when Adler and Fricker were working at a shop in the same vein in Boston called Grand Opening. Over a bottle of wine one night, the two flirted with the notion of starting their own store. So they enrolled in a three-month business plan-writing workshop.

At the end of the workshop, a contest was held to see which business plan had the best chance of success. They won, but they were also told that no bank would ever loan them startup funds because of the nature of their proposed shop.

Adler and Fricker spent the following year gathering about $90,000 in small, personal loans, mostly from friends and family. With that, plus about $10,000 in funds on their credit cards, the two moved out West. Self Serve opened in Nob Hill in January 2007.

“People are so excited about what we do,” Fricker says.

Customer Elisa, who asked that only her first name be used, agrees. She and her now-husband started going to Self Serve the year it opened. They learned about it from the Pornotopia Erotic Film Festival, a five-day event Adler and Fricker created that celebrates alternative, independent, thoughtful adult films. Now Elisa and her husband are regulars at the store, volunteer at the yearly festival and help Self Serve with its float for the city’s gay pride parade.

Elisa says what she likes about Self Serve is “the community it has fostered, the purely social events, the classes they hold.”

She’s also a fan of the store’s ethos: “They encourage communication. And safety and health above everything else.”

Nick Pisano, vice president of the Nob Hill Main Street Program, says he has worked with Adler since the program’s inception.

“They’re very welcome in the community and they’re considered an integral part of the community,” he says of Self Serve. “They benefit Nob Hill in particular, in terms of the local area, but Albuquerque in general. They work toward a well-adjusted community where people work well together, and that’s always a worthy goal.”

But in addition to raising money for their store one small loan at a time, Adler and Fricker faced other problems because of the nature of their business.

The two were set on moving into Nob Hill. But the area’s zoning requirements meant that less than 25 percent of their merchandise could be classified as “adult.” So the sex shop filled the rest of its shelves with gourmet chocolate, massage candles and products focused on fertility planning and new parenting. Although the diversity of its stock helps bring in different kinds of clientele, it doesn’t do much to help pay the bills.

“About 80 percent of our money comes from 20 percent of our products,” Adler says.

Self Serve gets 51.3 percent of its revenue from sex toys alone. Candles, on the other hand, bring in about 2.9 percent of sales. Classes bring in about $5,000 a year, but Adler and Fricker continue to offer them because they believe in the education they foster.

The two women have a positive outlook when it comes to their challenges, as well as their mistakes—which could be why they won the National Association of Women Business Owners’ Tough Cookie Award.

“They’re all opportunities for growth,” Fricker says of bumps in the road.

The store’s Web site is an example. In the first two years of operation, Adler and Fricker spent between $15,000 and $18,000 to build it. They love the appearance and functionality of the site, but now realize they could have done it for less. Still, the investment seems to be paying off. Last year, the site accounted for $14,000 in sales, and they’ve learned to maintain it on their own.

The recession also has been a learning experience for Adler and Fricker. Last year’s revenue was down 3 percent from the previous year, but profit has gone up. By selecting their merchandise more carefully—stocking top-selling items and not ordering as many obscure items—they say they’re using their money more wisely.

It breaks their hearts to not have everything they want in the store, they say, but they help make up for it through special orders.

Plus, as Fricker says: “The baby has to pay for itself.”