In Conversation with Isharna Walsh of Coral
Describe your business in a few words?
Coral is a sexual self-improvement app for all humans. We are on a mission to normalize sexual wellness and help the world be happier and healthier.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
A few years ago, after a long-term relationship fell into a sexual rut, I dove deep into sex-positive research and was surprised to learn just how essential healthy sex is to human happiness — and how difficult and expensive so many sexual wellness products and experiences can be. When I started talking to more people about it, I realized that many of us are suffering in silence and think we’re alone. If sex is seemingly everywhere, why is it that so few people are actually having truly great, pleasure-centric sex? (Short answer: a lack of pleasure-centric sex-ed and experience.) The more I learned, the more not trying to solve this massive problem that affects nearly everyone felt harder than taking the risk.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
I have a law degree and have worked as a management consultant for BCG, at a high-growth technology start-up, and as a venture capitalist. Looking back, I knew deep down that I wanted to start my own mission-driven business, but I had to try a lot of different things first before I felt ready to listen to that inner voice.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I always knew I wanted to do something that would help people, and I thought that might be starting a business but I’m only now realizing that I have the qualities you need to be an entrepreneur (resilience, a commitment to an idea even when people think it’s crazy, etc.). Part of that is because I’m a South Asian woman and most of the “entrepreneurs” I saw growing up were either men or celebrities—not people who looked anything like me—so I didn’t even think to wonder if it might be for me.
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
The subject matter of our business can be difficult to talk about let alone advertise. Sex is often a fraught topic and the concept of sexual wellness is essentially brand new. So when we launched we did something a little bit risky considering that our product addresses sex: we started growth through paid social. And this, plus word of mouth, has been great for us.
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
Oh my god, I’ve made so many, you want me to pick just one?! In all seriousness, I’ve made the mistake of lacking confidence in my own decision making and judgment at times. Without getting into too many specifics, I can recall deferring a decision because I was trying to collect feedback from other people, which led me to miss a deadline, which seriously stressed me out. I ended up going with my gut in the end anyway, which is what I should’ve done to begin with. Particularly in startups there’s very rarely a “right” answer: the best path forward may be to seek counsel when you have literally no clue what you’re doing, but it’s just as important to trust your own judgment. Often a fast decision is better than a belabored decision in an entrepreneurial context.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
There’s two! One is building a team who really enjoy working together and who I personally enjoy showing up to work with every day, and the other is the impact and change that Coral drives in the lives of real people.
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
I always ask people about failure and what they’ve learned from it. Have they taken creative risks? How did they grow when those risks didn’t go as planned?
As for hiring tips, I’m Australian, so I don’t know anything about the American school system and don’t automatically pick up on cues about someone’s background that Americans might. I actually think this is a huge advantage in hiring, because I don’t make unconscious assumptions about interviewees based on whether they went to state school or an ivy league. I prioritize diversity in hiring. Our team is international and varied in age, which is a huge strength: we don’t reinforce a homogenous culture or worldview within our company and by extension what we put into the world.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Our downloads have actually skyrocketed since the pandemic. Last Spring, our colleagues at the Kinsey Institute discovered that despite the fact that more than 40% of people’s sex lifes declined since the pandemic, one in five people reported trying something new. So, while sexual frequency may have been down, the willingness to get creative was actually up for a lot of people. People are using the time at home to make exploring sexual wellness a priority, just like diet or exercise, which makes me so happy.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
We’re launching a whole new product! I don’t want to give away too much, but our latest feature gives couples a private, secure space in which to deepen communication skills and improve their intimate lives. In the next few years, I expect to expand Coral’s content as well as expand our reach: we’re a mission-based company, and until sexual wellness is as normalized as a healthy diet and exercise, our work isn’t done!
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
I never thought I’d say this, but pack a few more clothes than you think you’ll need! Right before the pandemic, I headed home to Australia for a visit with an ad-hoc bag of clean laundry, thinking I’d be back in California in a couple of weeks. Well, it’s now nine months later and I’m still wearing the same pair of jeans.
On a more serious note, and from an entrepreneurial perspective, you never know what curveballs life is going to throw. You can’t control everything, but you can control whether you show up with a positive attitude and are ready to improvise. Coral is a barrier breaker and leader in our field. It’s important to keep learning and adapting.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
I have a strong, daily meditation practice that keeps me grounded. If I feel myself starting to slip, I often use the mindfulness meditations that we provide in Coral to get back on track. It keeps me connected to my body.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
I think anyone starting a business has to accept that a huge part of their mind share and life will be dedicated to what that they’re trying to create in the world, but self care is an essential part of that journey. If you aren’t healthy and happy it’s going to be that much harder to sustain the energy and drive you need to succeed. Keeping my focus and mission in mind actually makes it easier for me to maintain that work/life balance, because I know that it’s all in service of my larger goal.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
I’ve lived in four continents and spent four years in my 20’s just traveling the world. I haven’t always been behind a screen creating board decks!
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
I’m deeply proud of being a female founder of a majority female company. I’m aware of the privileges I’ve been denied as well as those I’ve been awarded because of my particular identity, and hope to raise up other women and marginalized people in my business practices and through Coral’s mission of shame-free sexual improvement for all humans.