How National Condom Week Turned Into A Lifelong Entrepreneurial Career
In 2019 I interviewed my neighbor David Mayer, the founder of Mayer Labs, which markets condoms and other contraceptives. While a student at Cal in the 80’s, David started National Condom Week to fight AIDs on college campuses. When he didn’t get the cooperation he wanted from the leading condom companies, he ended up starting his own.
Here’s the edited text of the interview.
Me: I’m here with David Mayer, CEO and founder of Mayer Laboratories. David’s been advocating for access to contraceptives for thirty years. David, how did you get started?
Mayer: I was organizing an education program called national condom week, which started when I was at the beginning of college at Cal. It was the beginning of HIV – the AIDS epidemic. There were few people promoting condoms and no drugs. And so people were looking for creative ways to promote condoms.
After graduating, I worked overseas in Haiti for a year doing community organizing and community health. National condom week was continuing to grow as the AIDs epidemic was growing. We’d started with one college, then it became three, then eight and just exploded.
By 1984 or 85, there were probably fifty institutions doing something to promote condoms. This could have been a huge opportunity for condom manufacturers to promote themselves as forward-thinking marketers. I met with the three large condom makers (Trojan, Sheikh and Ramsey’s), all on the East coast. All of them said, you’re creative, but it’s not what we want to be doing.
I got on the plane and said, screw them, I’ll do it myself – with the naivety of a young man of twenty six. I knew better condoms existed than the American ones. They were thick and smelly and gritty. But that was all American consumers knew.
I knew about Japanese condoms because they were available in Japantown in San Francisco. Those were the condoms that I liked to use. So I decided to to Japan and bring Japanese condoms to the American public.
Me: Before we get to that, your dad was a pharmacist, right? What did that have to do with your starting national condom week?
Mayer: My dad had a pharmacy in Sausalito in the sixties, and I actually grew up in the store. He was very involved in the community, helping create a methadone program in Sausalito for drug addicts. Sausalito had a lot of hippies who lived in the parks, who were trying to clean themselves up and would come every morning for their methadone treatment. It was the beginning of the free love period. My dad saw himself as an advocate of safer sex before it was called safer sex. He saw the pharmacist as being the most accessible healthcare provider in every community.
In the pharmacy, the condoms were in the drawer, out of sight. You had to ask someone to get them for you. Sex was not talked about like we do now. Even now, some people are quite uncomfortable with the conversation.
I remember working in the drug store and having to open that drawer and pull out condoms for customers – I was maybe ten or twelve years old – and not even knowing what a condom was.
Me: You also had another personal experience that influenced you, right?
Mayer: Yes. In high school one day I found myself sitting with my girlfriend at her doctor’s office. She thought she was pregnant. I wasn’t sure what would happen if the results came back positive (they didn’t). But I knew from that day forward, I’d never put myself in the position where I was responsible for an unintended pregnancy.
I became completely committed to taking responsibility for myself and being a condom user and promoting and proselytizing them to my friends who were already sexually active or at the cusp of becoming sexually active…. saying hey, here are condoms.
And even today, anybody I know raising children, I tell them, when you want to have that conversation about sex, tell me because I’m going to bring you a thousand condoms and you can put them in a drawer and tell your kid you don’t know how many are in there. They should take as many as they want, you wont know. I’ve done that for many people. They take me up on it.
Me: Starting national condom week must’ve been hard… how did you do it?
Mayer: It was all mission-driven. I felt that word had to get out, men had to step up. Over several decades we had made birth control the sole responsibility of women. And that just didn’t feel right to me, my idea was this is a partnership.
The idea of using condoms always seemed to me like it would be a negotiated process. You know, are you using birth control, having a conversation up front, not waiting till the last minute. But if you’re going to wait, then take responsibility. The guy taking responsibility and women saying, you know, this is the kind of person I want to be in a relationship with. That’s always been part of it for me.
In the early days of condom day, we’d have a contest which involved a man dressing as a pregnant man. We’d have them go around and be judged by women to see who looked the most pregnant.
The tagline was, would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant? The contest drew crowds, and then it became a more bawdy and we started having a pin-the-condom-on-the-man-contest. This was all to create some hilarity, to bring people in, to break the barriers about talking about sex and control.
Me: So this worked at Berkeley… but how did you get on more conservative campuses?
Mayer: We reached out to public university student health services, and none of them wanted to sign up for this, but everybody within the health service would know a student who was interested. So we’d link with a student or two, and put this on – only on public campuses because no private school would allow it to happen. So we were at Cal State Long Beach and UCLA, but couldn’t get on USC because it was private. We did this all over California. And the condoms would get donated. This was before I started Mayer Labs… so it was just B Trojans at the time. Carter Wallace donated them.
Me: How did you start Mayer Labs? Where did you get the money?
Mayer: I did some research, went into the Japanese consulate in San Francisco. I talked about my interest in finding a partner in Japan. I started writing letters to Japanese condom manufacturers, introducing myself, and saying I wanted to bring their condoms to the U.S. market. Once I started getting responses back, I realized I was going to need money. I ended up using the equity in my house to finance the beginning of the business.
I found a couple of business partners, one an attorney and another who’d sold his business to a large paper company. He was a huge recycler, he’d collect waste paper and sell it to Japan because Japan had no raw materials. So he knew Japan. And more important, he had gray hair. It was a culture that didn’t have a lot of respect for youth and and entrepreneurs. They wanted experience and wisdom, and he lent that. So he and the attorney put in some money.
Me: What does the business look like today, thirty years later?
Mayer: We’re still a relatively small company. The condom and contraceptive market has continued to evolve and became more dominated by the big pharmaceutical companies with IUDs and over the counter oral contraceptives.
We don’t disclose our financials. We maintain some of our success by flying under the radar. But you know, we’re one of the four larger condom companies. We also sell the Today Sponge, and some niche products.
We sell in the U.S. and Canada – Canada is a significant market for us. And we export some products to South Africa and to India. We’re mostly outsourced – that’s something I’ve learned a lot about – we maintain our own sales force and accounting people, and I do most of the regulatory work. But we have outsource sales and have a contract warehouse in New York.
Me: So how many condoms do you sell per year?
Mayer: I’ll just say it’s millions.
Me: Has the condom business changed a lot in thirty years?
Mayer: When I first started Mayer labs, we had our own salespeople and would go door to door to independent drug stores. There were a lot of small regional chains. And many different condom distributors, most of them regional, whether in Northern or Southern California. We also called upon institutional agencies, whether it was county governments, or universities.
This has all changed. Today there are two drug stores nationwide. One is Walgreens, and one is CVS. There’s one mass merchant – Walmart – and Target to some degree. And of course the internet and e-commerce, primarily Amazon.
You can’t do today what we did then. Get established in a local market, do local marketing. We became very popular in the Bay area, and then California and then Western States as we expanded. We had a very strong regional brand. And then as the consolidation occurred, the interest in maintaining regional distribution or supporting local brands went away.
Me: What about how people buy contraceptives?
Mayer: Contraceptives globally are primarily purchased by women. In most countries it’s still oral contraceptives and an IUD and sterilization, and those are all women-generated decision-making.
Male condoms continue to be a very small part of the market. The condom used to have a much bigger role in disease prevention, especially as the HIV epidemic started. What’s replaced that is what they call prep or pre-exposure treatments, enabling more and more people to engage in high risk behavior. Basically a cocktail that you can take for HIV pre-exposure. So now getting HIV is not a death sentence, you can live with AIDS for a long time in this country.
So condom use has declined, more people are having unprotected sex, and we have an increased rate of sexually transmitted infections, including the old fashion gonorrhea and syphilis and chlamydia. They’ve gone back up, because there’s in theory a way of getting treated. It’s an extremely high healthcare cost, but that’s another conversation
Me: Is this technology change, or generational change?
Mayer: The number one complaint about condoms has been and continues to be that it interrupts the moment – you can’t really put a condom on hours beforehand. We can’t do anything about that, so we try to address the number two complaint, loss of sensation.
When we first started, American condoms were thick and smelly; people complained but used them anyway. When we came to market with better condoms, it forced our competitors to change. So now you have thinner condoms, less aroma, a smoother texture, more consistent feeling, higher tensile strength. For the consumer it’s all about thinness and sensitivity.
Me: Does it bother you that your competitors caught up with thinner condoms?
Mayer: I’m glad that there are better condoms. People hopefully will use them more.
Me: What about the contraceptive sponge?
Mayer: The sponge was the most popular over the counter birth control method in the mid-1980s, not just for women, but even for men at one point in time. More sponges were sold than almost anything, because it was a disposable diaphragm. A woman didn’t need to go to the doctor. It was effective. If you had intermittent sex it gave you 24 hours of protection. So you could put it in before you went to dinner. If you had sex, you were protected. If you didn’t, you’d pull it out.
Back then, women were educating themselves more and more about birth control options. Empowering themselves. It was part of the feminist movement.
What’s changed is that the medical profession has become much more active in counseling women on their birth control options. and so there’s heightened awareness about more effective means of birth control, whether oral contraceptives or diaphragms. Which is all good. But products like the Today Sponge, which is considered older and of a different generation, have kind of been left behind. It’s still an important non-hormonal birth control method, with very little side effects.
Me: Business-wise, would you call Mayer Labs primarily a distributor, or a marketer?
Mayer: A marketer. But for regulatory purposes, we’re the manufacturer and the importer, because the FDA looks to us to have all the regulatory compliance and quality assurance as if we made the product. So we go and inspect the factories or have third-parties inspect the factories to ensure they’re in compliance. That’s what we do.
Me: Designed in California, made in…
Mayer: Japan. They go into our warehouse in New York, the customers will contact us and we’ll bring the product into their warehouse and then they sell it. And we work with them on cooperative programs like advertising or promotion.
Me: You also have a lube product, right?
Mayer: Yes. We’ve had lots of products. We used to market the female condom. We used to have a line of examination gloves, early in the HIV epidemic when there were lots of people taking care of loved ones at home. We were the first company to bring latex gloves into drug stores. So those plus the Kimono condoms and Today Sponge, Aqua Lube and Blossom Organics lubricants. We have a female clitoral arousal gel as well. All part of sexual wellness.
Me: Are some of these products more profitable than others?
Mayer: Margins are better on the more consumer-based products, versus condoms. We sell lots of condoms to public institutions and nonprofits, and those are deeply discounted. But it’s important for people to get them.
The availability of a variety of condoms in brick and mortar retail stores has declined because there’s not much volume left for what I’ll call bit players like us. The anonymity of buying over the internet has made condoms available to those who were embarrassed and may not have even bought them in the past.
The hard part is that a lot of people also wait till the last minute. I’ve always said that the best condom is the one you use. I think we make great condoms, but if you don’t like mine, I don’t care. Just use a condom.
Me: If you could give advice to your thirty year old self, what would you do differently?
Mayer: In 1987, at the height of ‘condom mania,’ I got an offer for a million dollars for the company. My young self maybe should have taken that: in 1987, a million dollars was a lot of money. But I thought, geez, if it’s worth a million now it’s going to be worth a bunch later.
They offered me a job and a salary, to work for them and help expand the product. They had lots of experience, they were a private equity company that really knew brands. So that would have been an interesting path.
The other I’d give my young self, I’m not sure I could actually do. Which is to focus.
I’m not able to stay focused on anything for a long time. Had I been able to focus on just one brand (Kimono condoms) and not try to do other things like a lubricant or licensing the technology for a bi-directional condom, I might have been more successful at expanding the Kimono condom brand to be much more ubiquitous.
Maybe bringing in somebody to manage the business, and more financial resources. I was certainly interested in that, but I saw a different path, which was to grow the number of products we offered.
Me: You chose to build your business in Berkeley, which has a reputation for being unfriendly to business. Did that affect you?
Mayer: Berkeley has a huge reputation, sometimes justly deserved and sometimes undeserved. There are many pockets of people.
People love that I’m in the healthcare and sexual wellness business. They love talking about condoms, and lubricants, and when I bring party favors.
But Berkeley is also a thinking town, that thinks business is dirty. The nuts and bolts of running a business is something most Berkeley people don’t know and don’t want to know. So it’s not a welcoming place to be in the world of business.
That said, there’s lot of creative people here who do good business, and a lot of good thinking goes on. That’s launched many companies at the university. The comparison would be Palo Alto. But that’s an environment that loves business. Berkeley loves creativity and it spawns business, but people end up having to go somewhere else because it’s not necessarily a community that loves business.
Me: Thanks David.
Mayer: Thanks for having me.