Co-founder of online sex toy retailer Lovehoney, Richard Longhurst now loves to play golf and has invented a new gadget to measure a golfer’s time searching for a ball. He tells us about this, as well as his life in Bath, and why golf is the best game ever.
How long have you lived in Bath? I came to Bath to study business at university in (gulp) 1987. We started a family early and when I graduated in 1991 I got a job as a staff writer on the launch of PC Format magazine at Future Publishing. We were very happy in Bath, Future was a great place to work in the ’90s and so we never thought about leaving.
Where do you live? I am lucky to live in leafy Weston, which is great for instant access to the countryside for walks up Kelston Roundhill and (unusually for Bath) flat walks into town through Royal Victoria Park and along Royal Walk. Every time I make that walk I am reminded how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful city.
What is special to you about Bath? I think it’s small but perfectly formed. Yes, it gets busy with visitors and the Georgian roads are not best suited to 21st-century traffic, but the sheer beauty of the place far outweighs these inconveniences.
How much has Bath changed in the time you’ve been here? For me it’s a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Most recently some of the changes have not been for the better, as anyone who drives down the Upper Bristol Road will have noticed. The mess they’ve made of the Approach Golf Course isn’t great either. I do love the booking system for the rubbish tip though!
Tell us about some of your favourite places to visit in the city. Bath Golf Club is an obvious choice for me, a great course with fantastic views. I have been a member of Bath Golf Club on Bathampton Down for 20 years. It’s a very friendly club that has a wonderful Harry Colt-designed course. Beyond golf, Restaurant Menu Gordon Jones on Bear Flat is always a treat, as is a meal at Peking Restaurant on Kingsmead Square, a Bath institution.
Why is golf one of your favourite things to do? Golf is the best sport in the world – it can alternate between being absolutely infuriating and hugely rewarding in the space of one hole. It’s great to be able to spend so much time in the company of my friends, visiting some storied golf courses around the world. It’s also the only sport where plucky amateurs can play a game with the professionals and give them a match, thanks to the handicapping system. I was lucky enough to be partnered with pro golfer and Bath native Laurie Canter at The Manor Golf Club this September – seeing him play up close was incredible. Our match was halved when our opponent slam-dunked his approach on 18 for an eagle 2. Anything the pros can do, we can do too!
You were the co-founder of Lovehoney with Neal Slateford. How did the idea for the business come about and how quickly did you realise that it was a winning formula? Neal and I met at Future Publishing in 1995 when I was editor of .net, The Internet Magazine. When we left Future in 2000 after the dotcom boom had turned to bust, we had already decided to set up an ecommerce business because we thought it would be easy (!). We knew how to build a website but we didn’t know what we would sell. We researched several different product areas and after a nervous trip to the Erotica Show at Olympia we decided that we would make a female-friendly store selling sex toys. Neal came up with the name Lovehoney and off we went. Neal was definitely the more creative brain in the business and I was more technical and logistical, but we were both fanatical about customer service and providing great value for money, which were our big strengths in the early days of the business.
When did you make the transition from publishing to being a business entrepreneur? I worked at Future throughout the 90s – the glory years of Sega versus Nintendo, the launch of the PlayStation, the popularisation of the internet and the use of PCs as gaming and entertainment machines. It was a fantastic time but after 10 years it was time to move on. In 2000/2001 it was possible to start an internet business with very little outlay – Neal and I each put in £4,500 to start Lovehoney – and the rewards were potentially enormous.
Lovehoney set out to re-brand sex toys from something associated with the porn industry into a sexual wellbeing brand for the masses. How difficult was that to achieve? Lovehoney was a leader in explaining that a fun and fulfilling sex life can be an important part of everyone’s general health and wellbeing. We called ourselves ‘the sexual happiness people’ to show that a good sex life is about pleasure and enjoyment – happiness – not pornography. It was a long haul over the years and the mainstream media was at first very slow to accept our advertising or even write about us. We were helped massively by our partnership with the wonderful Tracey Cox (one of the world’s leading sex experts) and a close relationship with Fifty Shade of Grey author E.L. James.
What was the key to Lovehoney’s success? It was our emphasis on sexual happiness and our relentless dedication to providing first-class customer service. In the days when customers were suspicious of online retailers in general and sex toy companies in particular, we introduced a no-quibbles 365-day money back guarantee, even if you had used the product. No other company even came close.
Why did you decide to sell Lovehoney? We had founded Lovehoney in 2002 and had had a brilliant 15 years growing the business to be the leading online sex toy retailer in the UK and Australia, and growing fast in the US. We recognised that running an international business with a turnover in excess of £100m might need different skills to those we were able to offer, so in 2017 we started a process to sell a share of the business. Of course there was also an element of taking money off the table in order to secure our families’ futures. We were setting Lovehoney up for the next stage of its growth – and so I could spend a lot more time on the golf course.
Tell us about your recently released Pocket Timer, an easy-to-use golf gadget? The idea for Pocket Timer came about partly through necessity – golfers really don’t time the three minutes they have to search for a lost golf ball – and partly as a fun project. It’s made in one of the factories that makes sex toys for Lovehoney, so of course it vibrates. It was interesting setting up the Pocket Timerwebsite on Shopify, a service that was not available when we started Lovehoney which was built from the ground up. Shopify and other services like it make it easy for people to start a business by providing all the mechanics to create a storefront and take payments, but what is much harder than when we started Lovehoney is getting traffic to the website. Social media remains a mystery to me and I’m only just getting started with Facebook advertising, currently a bottomless timesuck.
How have your golfing friends reacted to the Pocket Timer? Some of them love it – several of them have even bought it! – and some of them think it’s a stupid idea. More fool them when they lose a ball and they don’t have one to hand. I have orders on the Pocket Timer website from Shetland, Denmark, Sweden and Austria. If I pull my finger out it could really be a success.
What plans do you have for the future? Family and golf are the priorities now – I have no hankering to be a serial entrepreneur. I guess some people are motivated to prove that their first success was not a fluke, but I am happy to let Lovehoney’s record and the two Queen’s Awards for Industry that we won speak for me.