Interview with Condomerie
In this blog post, we aimed to explain the idea of the social business by having an interview with one of the founders of a unique and pioneer example, Condomerie.
What is Condomerie?
Located in the Red Light District of Amsterdam, the Condomerie is a social business, considered as the World’s First Condom shop. It sells various condoms (in different sizes, colors, and funny designs), as well as lubricants, gifts etc… Besides this, the shop is not only providing good products, but also good services for a purpose: to take preventive actions against sexual diseases and to keep the act of making love pleasurable and safe. This combination between a business and a social entity based on services is not really common, especially in the healthcare sector. This is why we wanted to interview Theodoor van Boven, one of the founders of the Condomerie, to learn more about his understanding of the concept of social business.
This interview is conducted by our lovely padawan Marion Bossavit on May 2018.
Marion: Why would you consider this shop as a social business?
Theodoor van Boven: When we began in 1987, AIDS was a deadly disease, which was not nice. We thought it was a wake-up call for sexual hygiene: there is the virus which causes AIDS, HIV, but we can also find other viruses. We had the project in 1987 and it took us 20 days to turn the idea into a real social business: on 10th April we thought about it, on 20th April we thought about implementing the idea and we finally opened the shop on 30th April. One of the main reasons we did this is because we wanted to bring back the smile with making love, indeed, if you make love and you have to think about death, it is not nice. However, if you use a condom, it brings back the smile! Then, we thought of making a foundation, because it was also for promoting safe sex, but we finally gave up the idea. When you have a foundation, you have subsidy from the government, which means that somebody from the government would be looking over your shoulder what you are doing. We wanted to be independent in our actions and thinking, with no pressure from the government, which is why we chose to become a business as an entity. It is also riskier, but at least we are free! Of course, we always had our ideals in mind, but it is not in front, it is there in parallel, behind us, but we have to pay the light, the rent, we have to eat, for this reason the first year we were looking for a balance to survive. That is why besides it, we had other jobs, I was selling cartoons to the newspapers and all the money involved was brought back to the business. Only after three years, we managed to live from our business but we always have had that combination of business and ideals. To be honest, I don’t believe that it is normal, for the healthcare field, to consider it as a business approach. Indeed, the dogma now is that the market is always right, but I learnt from my father, who is a protestant priest, that you can work efficient also if you are an entity like a foundation, school or government, because the purpose of a business is to make profit in the most efficient way and the purpose of an entity is to provide a service (for example for a school, the service given is that your student would be educated in the most efficient way. ). Also, in healthcare, the answer to the patient would be relevant advice to stay healthy; and if you reflect in a business approach, for the case of a dentist for example, you will say to the patient that he needs something precise to cure his mouth, but you are not saying to people how you can prevent mouth diseases (to brush the teeth etc…). So, in this example, the prevention is a service, and we consider ourselves as a mixed: in addition to the business part of the healthcare, we can teach people how to prevent getting ill, which is important. But there is the difficulty as a social business: if you only talk about prevention but nobody pays you, you can’t be considered as a business. That is why we are always looking for a balance, even now 31 years later! We invest a lot in research and we participate in good causes, but we still have some limits in time and resources, so we can not help everybody because we have no budget. One thing also that we did is that we are a member of ISO, that’s how the standard of quality for condoms is made on the world level and for Europe, and we have to pay it by ourselves. I put also on the table the idea of ecological production of condoms based on the circular economy but the goal number one is that quality should stay high. Then, you need to convince people, to make a coalition, which takes a lot of time! It can take years, between 12 to 18 years, but since 2008 we have been going in the good direction. Again, it deals with searching where is the profit waste and non-profits as well as being sure we stay socially responsible, so it is a mix. Another thing we did, which is for me normal, is that we have a complete waste separation (98%) in Condomerie, we checked our light, but I would call it as normal social responsibility. We pay our people, above minimum not a lot like in healthcare, but if they are good they can get a contract for life or for some years, which is another form of social responsibility.
Marion BOSSAVIT: Last but not least, how do you see the future of this business?
Theodoor van Boven: It sounds crazy but I hope we would go broke when all the venereal diseases are away, for my children and for you young people, I hope that tomorrow there is a solution for sexually transmitted diseases! Of course, you need also a family planning, but that is another thing! But I think that now we are still needed, because we get good answers and besides that, we also have very nice gifts, so it is a combination!
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