Nardone did not set out to become a sex-toy tycoon. Born and mostly raised in Boston, he studied mechanical engineering in both college and grad school, and got a job as an automotive engineer at Ford’s Detroit firm, writing business plans and developing new product ideas. But he largely abandoned engineering when he opened PriveCo. The company struggled initially; in the late ’90s, Money magazine called it a “net loser” for not using a mailing list and predicted its swift downfall. But PriveCo held on and went on to launch several new websites, including Vibrators.com and Bachelorette.com, throughout the next decade.
Then the recession hit—and PriveCo’s profits went through the roof. Sales of sex toys, particularly those purchased online, skyrocketed during the downturn. PriveCo, once disdained as the Pets.com of the discreet-purchases market, made a significant profit throughout the slump. “The only thing that affects our business,” Nardone says, “is if Google puts us first when you type in vibrators.”
It was the surplus profit that allowed Nardone to purchase his first industrial-grade mower and start his Mower Gang. Few of the admiring articles about Nardone mention his day job; one that does describes PriveCo as a website “which features personal care products, such as nose hair trimmers.”
I asked Nardone what he tells people about his company. “It’s brutal,” he says. “I avoid it. You know, I have three kids, and I wonder: Do these people know my kids? Will they talk to their teacher?”
I asked if his kids understand what he does. “They know I sell embarrassing things,” he says, “but they don’t really understand the concept of embarrassment yet. They’ve been to the warehouse, so they’ve absorbed some of it.”
In terms of the dissonance between the nature of his business and his family life, Nardone downplays any strain—but the tension is there. “I hope I’m not screwing up my kids,” he said. “That would take away the purpose of this whole thing. I do what I do to earn a living so I can raise my kids the right way.”
He also does it to buy and maintain his expensive high-quality mowers. Nardone clearly thrills in being a tinkerer, a problem-solver. To him, the paucity of good sex toys—and reliable sexy toy information—was a problem that needed solving. The same is true of his Mower Gang: Detroit had a problem, and Nardone knew how to solve it.
Nardone’s stature as a community hero to Detroit is steadily increasing—and Detroit needs all the problem-solving it can get. Poverty, unemployment, and homelessness are rampant in the bankrupt city. In order to pay off its debts, the City Council has considered selling its art collection. The Detroit public school system has faced brutal cuts and school closures year after year. There is very little hope in Detroit.
On some level, Nardone recognizes this reality; yet he also seems unable to accept the city’s fate. Paradoxically, the same economic trends that guided America through the end of one century and the beginning of a new one—and to a devastating collapse, for the people of Detroit and for so many others—were also the trends that lifted Nardone into success. His first job, as an automotive engineer in Detroit, is now more or less extinct. Like the rest of the world, he jumped on the Web-startup bandwagon; unlike the rest of the world, he was buoyed, not wounded, by the recession. Unlike his fellow successful entrants into online commerce, he didn’t turn his company into a data-mining enterprise, but instead put a premium on their ever-diminishing privacy. And at a time when charitable giving continues to nosedive, Nardone invests a significant portion of his time to aiding a downtrodden community.
Nardone is only one man, but cities like Detroit will continue to rely on one-man theories of economic recovery—because even as the American economy limps toward recovery, small-government nostrums and new volleys of sequestration cuts are weakening or obliterating basic services for which the government was once responsible. The duty to maintain parks and playgrounds—or to feed the poor, to fund the arts, to fight diseases—has fallen to people like Tom Nardone, or on a grander scale, to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, or billionaire industrialist David H. Koch, or Kickstarter. Detroiters might not like Nardone’s day job. But they need him too much to care.