Blog Post Written By: Nicholas Journeyman
Angie Rowntree launched Sssh.com in 1999. Wanting to create adult films and content that appealed to women, Rowntree became a pioneer in feminist adult entertainment. To date, Sssh.com remains longest-running porn-for-women site. A tech entrepreneur to her core, Rowntree was one of the first directors to explore 360 VR erotica and has recently created Sssh Soirée – a video platform that allows Sssh.com members to watch movies with guests in virtual video lounges. In addition to these verticals, Rowntree has directed several award winning movies – such as Invictus, an erotic dystopian film and Mirror Game, a psychological thriller – and persistently advocates for ethical porn. Wanting to learn more about her career and her approach to business, I was able to interview her for Sex Work CEO.
You can learn more about Angie Rowntree by following her on Twitter at @AngieRowntree.
Nicholas Journeyman: One of the reasons why you founded Sssh.com was that you didn’t think enough adult content was being made for women. How much do you think the industry has changed since then?
Angie Rowntree: The industry has changed enormously, in countless ways. Many of these changes have been positive. Such as the involvement of more women as filmmakers, company owners and executives, more diversity both in terms of people and the kind of content being produced and the development of platforms and technologies that enable performers to produce their own content, distribute it, develop their brands and build their fan bases.
Journeyman: Sssh.com was founded in 1999. Could you take a moment to describe just how different building a website business was in the late 1990s?
Rowntree: What hasn’t changed about building and running an online business since then? From a filmmaker’s perspective, the biggest difference is that people can watch your work online in a high-quality format. In the late 90s, in most places, online “video” was sort of a misnomer. It was very low resolution with a low frame rate – nothing like what we can offer today.
When I first started (mid-90’s), there were no domains (we used an IP), our web pages were hand-coded and there were no billing solutions. The market was much smaller (both in adult entertainment specifically and other online sectors), and almost no people producing and distributing online content. In fact, we were told, in no uncertain terms, that “this world wide web thing wasn’t going anywhere – don’t invest your time or money into it”. The business environment was as different from the current one as it could be.
Some things haven’t changed, of course. There’s still a strong current of anti-porn sentiment to swim against, many people are still disrespectful to and dismissive of people within the adult entertainment industry, and content piracy is still a big problem.
Journeyman: In regards to your current business setup, what are some of the standard tools you regularly use to make sure business continues to run? For instance, would your world fall apart if QuickBooks was no more?
Rowntree: If QuickBooks went away, some other product would emerge to replace it – or just as likely, QuickBooks would have gone away precisely because something had already emerged to replace it. As an entrepreneur, you must be willing to learn and adapt, or you’ll fail. That’s one of the things I love about being an entrepreneur – it’s always challenging and never boring.
Journeyman: With the rise of OnlyFans and other amateur focused platforms, did you ever feel pressured to pivot in that direction or did it motivate you to refocus on highly narrative content?
Rowntree: I don’t feel pressured to move towards or incorporate Sssh into a fan platform, just as I’ve never felt inclined to launch a live cam network. These are complementary spaces, as far as I’m concerned – other potential avenues for the adult performers I work with to explore and use to generate income. This might sound a bit cliché, but it’s also true: an important thing for entrepreneurs to remember is to focus on their core competencies. For me, that’s filmmaking and developing/employing technology to enhance my members’ enjoyment of my site, my films and all of the content we produce.
Journeyman: Sssh.com’s latest addition is Sssh Soirée, which allows people to GroupWatch Sssh.com’s content together even if they are geographically apart. Do you see your business as more focused on adult entertainment or more focused on adult technology?
Rowntree: I’m focused on both, honestly. The two are inextricable, from my point of view. I use technology to enrich my members’ experience – and since the web is constantly evolving and new technologies emerge all the time which can enhance their experience, it’s critical that I stay current and find ways to take advantage of those new technologies.
Journeyman: One of your degrees is in business. Reflecting on what you learned in college versus what the real world taught you, how would you approach teaching people about business? Do you remember a specific lesson that is now widely out of date?
Rowntree: The problem with school is there is never enough practical, hands-on experience, which I believe is far more valuable than sitting in a classroom. There are things I remember from school that are useful and created a foundation, but I think if you started your own business without ever taking a single business class, you’d eventually figure those things out on your own. In fact I know of a number of brilliant business people and filmmakers that never even finished high school, such as Sir Richard Branson and Quentin Tarantino.
Journeyman: On top of the many things you juggle, you are also focused on promoting ethical porn. In a market as unregulated and intensely consumer driven as porn, how do you incentivize the production of ethical porn? Are there specific successes on this front that you are proud of?
Rowntree: At the end of the day, behaving ethically and engaging in ethical business practices comes back to the individual people involved. The energy industry is regulated, but that didn’t help much when the guys at Enron decided to be crooks.
What I encourage people to do is communicate their ethical commitments openly. If you produce content, publish a Performer’s Bill of Rights and post it on a public-facing webpage so everyone knows how you operate. Make it clear that informed consent is a prerequisite for everything that takes place on your sets. Most importantly, once you’ve established your policy, then you must live it.
Journeyman: From VR to Augmented Reality to Cryptocurrencies to robotics to enhanced social platforms, there are a lot of new technologies entering the sex industries just as many are becoming more sex positive. With that said, what are some developing trends or new tech that you are optimistic about? Are there any you see a lot of profit in?
Rowntree: I see potential profit in all of them. That doesn’t mean that Sssh will profit from any of them, of course. What I will do is what I always do: Look for ways to apply these technologies to making Sssh.com a better, richer and more enjoyable place. A big part of that will be listening to Sssh members, of course. It’s amazing how often feedback from my members, even if it’s not directly related to a specific technology, inspires me to explore and incorporate something new.
Journeyman: On the flip side, anti-porn rhetoric does seem to be increasing. From a business perspective, are there any potential and/or actualized obstacles you are worried about?
Rowntree: I wouldn’t say I’m ‘worried’ about any of them as existential threats, just because anti-porn sentiment and calls for stronger regulation or even prohibition have been around since long before I started making films and running websites. There are some concerning developments I will keep an eye on, though. Among them are additional attempts to carve out exceptions to Section 230 like the one created by FOSTA/SESTA, the ongoing discrimination against people in the adult industry by financial institutions and social networks, and a campaign on the part of some anti human trafficking activists to intentionally conflate all sex work with sex trafficking.
Journeyman: Finally, what else are you working on at Sssh.com and your other ventures that people can look forward to?
Rowntree: People can look forward to me doing what I always do: Making ambitious, story-driven, erotic films and looking for ways to improve the Sssh.com experience. As a team, Sssh is always inventing and reinventing. We have to; it’s the business we’re in.
Remember, you can learn more about Angie Rowntree by following her on Twitter at @AngieRowntree.
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