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Safety first: Homegrown condom company bets on community

Two months ago, Lynda Musselman and Rebekah Franklin, co-founders of Alaska Condom Company, decided to roll the dice on their new business venture. They quit their jobs, invested in their idea and pushed forward to become what they say is the first company in the Last Frontier to sell Alaska-themed condoms and personal health products.

In late May, sitting in the one-car garage that doubles as their warehouse, the women were awaiting a shipment of nearly 85,000 Alaska-themed condoms. They laughed almost constantly while discussing the successes and challenges of being condom entrepreneurs in Alaska.

They envision the Alaska Condom Company as a way to make condoms fun and approachable -- a chance to decrease stigma around sex while featuring local artists and focusing on the Alaska community. They want to "bridge the gap," Musselman said, providing unique condoms at events or locations where perhaps you wouldn't have seen the product before. Accessibility and approachability go hand-in-hand with increasing condom use, Musselman said.

"The condom is appealing, you want to pick it up," Franklin said. "It relates to you, it's Alaskan, it's something you can be proud of."

Franklin, a quick-witted 27-year-old from Chicago, moved to Alaska seven years ago. Like many Alaskans, she came up to visit a family member one summer and never left. She gave birth to her son roughly a year later, and Alaska became home. Alaska is "where I came into my own skin," Franklin said. "Alaska is love."

Musselman, 24, is more reserved than Franklin, but quickly opens up to reveal a keen, determined side. Musselman moved to Anchorage from Southeast Alaska in October. Soon after, Franklin took Musselman under her wing when they began working together as servers at the downtown restaurant Orso.

When the two women became friends, they were both "at the bottom of our ropes in our personal lives," stressed out about their jobs, and craving change, Franklin said.

During a coffee date one afternoon, Musselman mentioned an idea she had for a personal lubricant called "hump-ease." The product, with its Alaska twist -- the name references a nickname for pink salmon, or "humpies" -- was one that she hadn't seen anywhere else in the state.

"I latched onto (the idea), because I'm so intense that way," Franklin laughed.

Soon they were swapping ideas for condom themes and researching the market. They realized "we can really do this," Franklin said.

Alaska Condom Company was born soon after, in early 2014.

Motivated by community

Friend and local graphic designer Betty Brownson created the logo and helps with graphic design. Alaska artists Devin Deuel Young and tattoo artist Ayla Reynolds have designed the condom art, and several other artists have approached Alaska Condom Company, too, the women say. After the design is complete, the condoms are then manufactured by a private firm in New York state.

So far, Alaska Condom Company has four condom designs, which they plan to release in stages over the summer. The pair say they have concepts for dozens more. Conceptualizing the designs is easy, Franklin said, "when you love Alaska so much and are so passionate about the people who live here."

"Really our community is our motivation for the design," Franklin said.

For instance, the silver salmon design, outlined by a pipeline in the shape of Alaska and bearing the tagline "protect your silver," addresses many topics: The state's fishing industry, Native peoples, subsistence living, and mining and natural resources, among other things.

Condoms cost $10 for a pack of three if purchased directly from Alaska Condom Company. Hats will be available this summer for roughly $20, with more apparel and personal lubricant for sale later this year.

The women want to continually introduce new products and designs into the market, Musselman said, and will work to create a new line every year. Several businesses, including Bottoms Boutique in downtown Anchorage, already carry the condoms.

The plan this summer is to tour as many festivals and events as possible, while staggering the release of new condom designs. They also plan to donate a portion of their condom orders to various health care providers around Alaska.

Trial by fire

Their first challenge was securing funding. Initial attempts to apply for bank loans were rejected. Then they applied for an Alaska Airlines business credit card and got the green light. The women said the support of family and friends was crucial in starting their business -- a regular customer at Orso even chipped in when they told him about their business plan, they said.

So far, money is tight, but they are making it work.

"We pinch every penny," Musselman said.

In April, both women quit their serving jobs. "We had to," Musselman said, to put in the necessary hours for the new venture.

Soon after, they became roommates, saving them time and money. They estimate that each works upwards of 75 hours a week. "Every day we start with a to-do list, and by the end of the day it literally quadruples," Franklin said.

Musselman concedes that their business partnership is one-of-a-kind. "I can't see doing this with anyone else," she said.

The first few months have been a crash course in all things business management, they say. Franklin likened it to the first year in college.

"You don't know if you're going to succeed, you don't know if you're going to fail," she said.

Both women have bachelor's degrees in unrelated fields and have dabbled in self-employment before. Still, the trial-by-fire approach has them climbing up a steep learning curve. Issues they never dreamed of have come into play -- complying with FDA regulations, dealing with shipping delays and website development, coordinating with East Coast partners, or overcoming the stigma some associate with sex, they say.

Overcoming stigmas

So far, they've encountered mixed reactions to their product. Some people question whether their business is real. Others wrinkle their noses, or are unclear what products they are selling. Some are curious, others excited.

Some question what's special about their product.

"Is it revolutionary? No. It's a condom," Musselman said.

But they are the first Alaska company to take a crack at the market, and along the way fund local art and local jobs, she said.

For some people, discussing sex and condoms can be "intensely comfortable," Musselman said. The pair has been turned down by some store owners who shy away from selling condoms. Musselman said one bank teller wouldn't even say the name of the company when she went in to deposit money.

"Condoms mean sex, and sex means 'I don't want to talk about it,'" Franklin said. She wants to make buying condoms "as fun and easy as buying a chocolate bar from Alaska," she said.

They've also found themselves educating people about STDs, family planning and sexual health -- issues that the state of Alaska has tried to address in its own satirical "Wrap It Up" campaign.

The women were surprised to find that many people don't use condoms, or aren't aware that condoms help prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Franklin says she never knew how passionate she was about promoting health until she began the business.

"People are having sex because they want to. We understand that, we respect that," Franklin said. Yet not everyone is being safe about it, and put themselves at risk.

"This is self-love. This is taking care of yourself," Franklin said.

Although they're still waiting on some products in late May, Franklin said they were happy they dove into selling their product, instead of waiting until they were "ready."

They aren't sure where they'll be in a year, or two. This autumn, they'll re-evaluate their business plan, and what they have learned over the course of the summer.

"Anything could happen," Franklin said. "We'll be ready."

Reach Laurel Andrews at laurel@alaskadispatch.com

 


By LAUREL ANDREWS
laurel@alaskadispatch.com