Blackbox Republic, Led by Ex-Jive Exec, Gets Seed Funding for Sex-Positive Social Network

7/15/09Follow @gthuang

First of all, Blackbox Republic is not a hook-up site. Let’s just get that out of the way. It’s also not a porn site, sex site, or dating site. It’s a niche social network, looking to fill the void between Facebook, Match.com, and Amazon, and it’s starting out by targeting members of an emerging community called the “sex-positive” movement.

OK, that all sounds scurrilously vague. But here’s my understanding. Blackbox Republic, based in Portland, OR, is trying to create a new kind of social website—one that is more targeted and exclusive than Facebook, more personal and community-oriented than Match.com, and has e-commerce tools built into it like Amazon. The company is announcing today that it has raised $1 million in seed funding from angel investors, and it is gearing up for a full site launch in late summer or early fall. It is led by CEO Sam Lawrence, the former chief marketing officer at Portland-based Jive Software, and April Donato, vice president of community relations and a sex-positive blogger (see photo below).

So what does sex-positive mean? “We mean that sexuality is not an issue,” Donato says. That means people in the startup’s target community don’t have any hang-ups when it comes to other people being gay, straight, bisexual, polyamorous, or what have you. They don’t identify with those kinds of labels. They gather at events like Love Parade, Electric Picnic, Afrika Burns, and Burning Man.

Sam Lawrence and April DonatoI’ll be the first to admit, I don’t fully get what’s new about this movement—or the real difference, say, between a “sex-positive” encounter at Burning Man and “free love” at Woodstock. (I’m dating myself, without having been to either.) It seems to be a guilt-free product of the “millennial generation,” people born between 1978 and 2000, who are projected to make up 40 percent of the U.S. population in 2018. What’s important here is that, by some estimates, the sex-positive community numbers in the tens of millions worldwide—which could be an incredible market to tap. “We think the next big thing on the Web is ‘social niche-working,’” Lawrence says. “It’s finding an addressable market and going after them.”

Coming from Jive, a leader in social business software, Lawrence knows a thing or two about social networks and building online communities. He says the genesis of Blackbox was when he and Donato went to Burning Man in the Nevada desert last summer. “It’s a very emotional place,” Lawrence says. “Two things were going on. People there were establishing really meaningful relationships with each other. There was no goal, no agenda, they were just part of a big experience. Second, there was a thriving gifting economy there.” People would freely give each other everything from hugs to frozen margaritas, with seemingly no expectations in return.

As Lawrence explains, “These are people who are so open about themselves, they are willing to talk and share the most intimate parts of their lives.” But right now, he says, they don’t really have a place to go online to freely express themselves. So he and Donato decided to build a business for this community, and hatched a plan for Blackbox. Lawrence left Jive at the end of March this year, and the two of them are currently on a 50-city tour to promote their site and connect face-to-face with … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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