Dirk Bauer should really have won a prize for entrepreneurship by now. He says he started out with capital of just 25 and no loans to speak of, and within just a few years transformed his company into a European market leader.
His products are largely hand-made in the northern city of Bremen. They're expensive but in strong demand around the world. He has satisfied customers in Paris, New York, Buenos Aires and Taipei.
But Germany's corporate establishment is unlikely to give Bauer any enterprise awards. That's because his company Fun Factory GmbH makes dildos and vibrators. "I've often been ask 'How can you do something like that?'" says Bauer. But his tenacity has paid off.
His workshop churns out 4,000 sex toys a day. Sales have surged from 5 million to 13.5 million since 2004. and the workforce has more than doubled in that period. He is currently installing a conveyor belt into his factory to boost output. "There's simply no other way to satisfy demand," says Bauer.
The luxury vibrators don't just look good, they're also of much better quality than cheap products from the Far East, says Nicole Wellems, who runs an online erotic store for women which predominantly sells Fun Factory dildos. "Bauer is a trendsetter," gushes Otto Lindemann, head of the world's biggest erotic products group, Beate Uhse AG. Two years ago the sex giant based in Flensburg, northern Germany, bought a 25 percent stake in Fun Factory.
It's been a success story that originated from sheer necessity. In 1995, Bauer's then partner opened an erotic store for women in Bremen. The problem was that the flesh-colored cheap imitation penises didn't sell and the store almost went bust.
Bauer, an electrical engineer by trade, bought some silicone for 25 and went about fashioning penguin and dolphin-shaped dildos in his kitchen with a friend. "The main thing was that it wasn't penis-shaped," recalls Bauer.
1.2 watt engines
The phallic Flipper has become something of a cult product among dildo aficionados. Bauer is now Chief Executive Officer of a company that has a subsidiary in the US and plans to open further branches in Spain and Japan.
With the traditional German love of technology, Bauer enthuses about the high-tech refinements of his products -- take the 1.2 watt electric motors used in the GII models. Or the ergonomic controls, custom-made by a specialist in eastern Germany.
Bauer is following the erotic industry's trend towards lifestyle and luxury. Fun Factory supplies Paris department store Le Printemps and several upmarket boutiques in New York, for example.
The company has expanded its range to include cosmetics, card games and board games. But while Bauer has no trouble finding outlets in the US, France and Spain, he finds it hard to get German upmarket retailers excited about his products. "Many retailers put the phone down on me as soon as they hear the word 'erotic'," he says.
Helga Albrecht, president of the Federation of German Midwives, fondly recalls a congress in 2004 at which Fun Factory set up a sales stand. "The stand was a big hit, there were long queues of midwives." After all, the "appealing products" helped women strengthen their pelvic floors after pregnancy, she said.
Many female customers send in product feedback by email. "I'm astonished at how openly people talk about themselves," says Bauer. "Sometimes it's just too much information."