Adult content is one of the biggest markets in the world—and it’s changing fast. In previous generations, U.S. production companies ruled with VHS and DVD. Then the dominant players were free platforms, like Pornhub. At present, subscription-based platforms, like Onlyfans, are on the rise. New business models are commonplace for porn. At the same time, the industry can’t quite get rid of its sordid reputation. And it’s precisely this hole that Berlin-based startup Cheex wants to fill. Founder Denise Kratzenberg told OMR why the market is ripe for a fundamental change, how she was able to sell 100,000 subscriptions in just two years and how marketing works despite naked skin on the platforms.
“I was never really interested in founding a company,” Denise Kratzenberg tells OMR in an interview. In fact, she studied finance accounting, got her feet wet in the startup scene at the Axel Springer accelerator Plug & Play in Berlin and later worked at the food delivery company Foodora. In 2020, she launched the erotic platform Cheex together with Maximilian Horwitz. “I wanted to build something that provides sexual liberation,” she says. Cheexoffers subscription-based erotic movies, audio stories, live tutorials, workshops and a learning area. Since launch, she says that the company has sold about 100,000 subscriptions (not the same as currently active customers), is now active in more than 100 countries and that by the end of 2022, the company will have a seven-figure turnover.
Netflix for erotic content?
“I talked to friends about their porn habits. There were big differences between men and women. Men were relaxed and open about their experiences. Women were more reserved about it, often for fear of being thought of as dirty,” says Kratzenberg. “I then simply asked myself how it could happen that there are such big differences.” So she suggested to co-founder Horwitz that they start a company that reconnects people with their sexuality. The first thing that came out is a flop. “We first built a terrible relaxation app that we tested on a few female friends of ours. They told us to stop immediately.”
The overriding feedback from friends is that the desire for porn is there, it just has to be done well. “We asked ourselves if we really wanted to get into porn,” Denise Kratzenberg explains. “The answer was yes, but under certain conditions. We want to know who the performers are and how they were paid.” Because the industry can only get away from its slutty image if the platforms on which people consume erotic content undergo fundamental change. “There is a lack of humanity in the industry. Instead focusing on people, everything revolves around objects of lust,” Kratzenberg says. That’s why she focuses more on the actors as personalities. But films on Cheex have an entirely different vibe and are more passionate. “Standard pornography is often repressive. Focus is only on the performance and female sexuality is ignored entirely.”
Robust content offering
So that’s precisely what Cheex aims to focus on. Step one is only working with production companies that produce fairly. “The biggest challenge at first was finding out just how the performers were treated. That’s why we decided to work with and paid them directly,” says Kratzenberg. “Then, over time, we found out which production houses the performers liked to work with. We felt it was the only logical move as there is no central watchdog for quality.” The erotic films at the center of the service are produced by companies such as ErikaLust, Sinfulxxx and Sinn Sage. Whether it’s couples’ sex, group sex, LGBTQ+ sex or fetish sex, Cheex users should always be able to assume that all performers are really enjoying themselves. “In all of our content authenticity and pleasure should be at the fore,” she says.
Cheex, however, has much loftier goals than being than just Netflix for porn. On the platform there are therefore also erotic audio stories and live workshops. “We are not just a fairtrade Pornhub or Sexflix. The education factor is very important,” says Kratzenberg. She adds that couples, in particular, are exposed to the band via workshops and sign up for subscriptions—an important target group for the platform. “We want to provide users with a roadmap towards sexual freedom. Maybe that’s why the product still seems a little cobbled together.” In total, Cheex offers nearly 1000 pieces of content (movies and audio content) and regularly works with 200 performers, Kratzenberg says. In addition, there have been about 30 workshops in the past year and a half, which currently take place every two weeks.
Subscription model nets millions in revenue
While the content offering appears to resonate with users, Kratzenberg declined to reveal how many of the 100,000 Cheex subscriptions sold in the past two years are still active users. A monthly subscription costs 14.90 euros and an annual membership is cheaper on a monthly basis at 118.80 euros (9.90 euros per month). Access to affordable pornographic content is difficult for many, she says, so the subscription offers a transparent solution that also means guaranteed and predictable revenue for the company. What does a typical subscriber look like? Cheex users are 70 percent female—as opposed to approximately 30 percent on typical porn platforms. But there is also an exciting trend among male Cheex users. “I thought we were mainly appealing to emancipated women. But we also have a large intersection with Playboy readers,” says Kratzenberg. And that is an extremely enticing cohort.
Cheex is not alone on the fair porn market in Europe. Femtasy from Berlin, for example, is specialized in erotic audio, offering audio stories, sex sounds and audio journeys of discovery of one’s own body on a subscription basis. And then there are the new hardware providers also dedicated to education and social recognition of pleasure. Denise Kratzenberg isn’t afraid of more companies in the field and says that she would welcome five more platforms in the Cheex home market of Germany.
Influencers as a safety blanket
Platforms and retailers of erotic content cannot fight this battle for target groups as freely on all platforms as other companies. Even this article would not make it through the content filter for Meta ads. Therefore, performance marketing on Google, Facebook, Instagram et. al is not at their disposal. At first, Kratzenberg took a very naïve approach to marketing and sought to cobble together a standard, diverse marketing mix. Instead, Cheex has had to alter the word “sex” to “Se+” on its own Instagram account with just under 50,000 followers so as not to risk suspension. Cheex’s advertising strategy on social media is therefore based mainly on influencer marketing. “I started with influencer marketing because you are in direct contact with the target group,” she says. “It also works quite well with our brand and the strategy is not used by other adult sites.”
Dedicated influencers can detail the product in stories and posts, while authentically recommending it. Many of the Cheex’ partners talk about sexuality on their accounts as it is, as in this example, and can incorporate Cheex content natively. To measure success, Cheex relies on coupon codes—just like many other companies do. There’s also one development that could benefit the company in the future. Porn performers are increasingly becoming creators themselves, with their own reach (see Onlyfans). Cheex aims to keep step with the emerging creator economy in the porn business. “We started giving names to the performers right away. It makes total sense that the stars are in the foreground. That’s where we need to go and we’re expanding that more,” Kratzenberg said. On the company’s Instagram channel, for example, performers introduce themselves in “Nice To Meet You” videos.
Content marketing and expanding projects
However, Cheex has already plateaued with its influencer marketing, she said, and other channels are becoming increasingly important. Three current strategies the company is using are a free digital magazine on sex and pleasure topics to attract new users, upping their SEO game and, most recently, the first Cheex podcast, which is intended to introduce potential customers to the topic and the platform. “Cheex Talks” was started by a colleague on her own accord, and the format has since brought in a surge of new users.
Last but not least, the platform invested a lot of money in May 2022 to produce its own erotic film “Muse.” “We made our first film to create a media push,” says Kratzenberg. “We wanted to show a film with people of different body types all having fun having sex.” In the meantime, she says, that thanks to all these strategies it has built a reputation that helps it get ads placed with major publishers. That’s how Cheex keeps popping up in the Playboy space, which, as we’ve already pointed out, is where very interesting synergies in the target audience is, who is mostly older men willing to spend money on erotic content.
Investor interest in porn?
In the near future, Cheex wants to become even more of a brand that stands for more humanity in the erotic business. “We want to become the global brand that ensures fairness,” she says. So far, business angels have been the main source of help. Audibene CEO Marco Vietor, Wefox co-founder Fabian Wesemann and Urbanara inventor Claire Davidson have invested in Cheex.
The path via business angels is almost unavoidable. The planned loan from the company’s bank for the start-up never materialized in 2020 because of its line of work, and development loans are not available for pornographic sites. And many VCs do not invest in the erotic business on principle. “We didn’t even think about talking to VCs,” says Kratzenberg. The fresh money from AIs should now go into the product, which must now keep step with growth. Cobbled together, Cheex should soon no longer seem so.