How Lisa Will launched Stonz and turned it into an international brand
Stonz was launched in 2004 by Lisa Will after she discovered a need for simple yet functional outdoor gear designed specifically for kids. Beginning with the Stonz Bootie, over the years Lisa has continued to grow the product line, guided by customer feedback and her own experience and needs while raising two children. With the goal in mind of keeping kids outside longer, comfortable and protected, Stonz now offers a variety of footwear, accessories, and apparel sold in over 16 countries.
What inspired you to start STONZ?
I had always wanted to have my own business. I had run disco lessons, many garage sales, drink stands and summer schools as a kid. Although the latter was not very appealing to my sister, I had the bug even as a youngster!
The STONZ bootie came from multiple struggles I’d had with getting my son’s chubby feet into warmer footwear — and then having the shoes or boots stay on became my next challenge! The final straw was up at Whistler, Canada and it was about -7 Celsius. I had Lachlan (my son) in a backpack carrier. He was about 9 months old and he again had kicked off his little shoes and began working on his socks. Being cold he started to cry and then scream. We were a few kilometers into our outing, and we couldn’t turn back.
I began looking for something that could go on over his shoes — and stay on — and also be used outside if I put him down. I couldn’t find this item I had imagined anywhere. I had used outdoor slippers while camping, and thought that their concept of two toggles could would work well for little ones.
I later met up with someone who had tried this approach, and we set out to make it happen on a bigger scale. Stonz was born in 2004 with the first booties being made for the Vancouver Gift Show.
You started in STONZ in 2004 with just one product, and now you have several product lines sold in over 16 countries. What do you think enabled you to grow into the success you are today?
I feel it was being in touch with what a parent needed and solving what their challenge was. I don’t believe in making more stuff — the world has enough! What I want to do is have Stonz give more time to kids and their parents outdoors. This means making the best and most simple gear to do just that. Every piece we do is designed specifically for kids, taking into consideration their movements, safety, outdoor play and desire for freedom.
What was the biggest lesson you learned through all that growth?
Don’t introduce things too quickly, but also don’t wait too long to change things up. It’s a challenge finding that balance of wanting to keep current and refresh, and having the original DNA as an integral part of the products we make. We need to be commercially viable but not deviate from building long lasting products that are tested through and through at labs and by kids and their parents.
Women entrepreneurs often have trouble securing funding. How have you been able to finance the growth of your company?
I unfortunately have fallen into that category of not being able to secure backing from a commercial bank. Where I have had help was Women’s Enterprise Centre, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), and Export Development Canada (EDC). EDC have supported me immensely the past 18 months. Having someone believe in you and support your vision has significant impact and serves as fuel and confidence to try new things.
“You must believe; believe that there is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and that it’s possible to get to that pot, and the journey in getting there is worth enduring because it will be quite a journey.”
This year, you participated in the Cisco Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle of Innovation program. What tech problem were you tackling?
We were struggling with having too many systems. I am a big believer in systems and technology and also in planning your growth so you’re able to scale successfully. I knew we had adopted many systems but no longer could work with so many. The program enabled us to research an ERP system suitable to our stage now and growth into the future. We ended up trying several programs and selecting one which is going into implementation as we speak. A live date is scheduled for March 1, 2019 and represents a big turning point for us in integration and efficiency.
As part of the program, you were assigned to work with Brandon as your intern. What did he tackle for you?
We needed someone to research our needs and wants for an ERP system and also what is in the market. Brandon did just that — he also helped us transition from our e-commerce platform to Shopify. This too was a big move and went well with his support and technical help.
Brandon was fabulous! He came with parents that owned their own business so he understood what it was like being pulled in many directions in trying to both run a business and also grow the business. He is a 3rd year Engineering student so obviously bright, but he has personality and character and commitment beyond his years. We were fortunate to have him come out to Vancouver for a week. He fit right in like he’d been here for some time. Even bowling!
Would you encourage others to get involved as you have with this program?
I think the program is fabulous. As a smaller entity it can be costly to have interns working with us. Even the time can be tight, since everyone at a small business is normally fully occupied and wearing many hats, making it difficult to train someone of Brandon’s caliber properly. He made it very easy due to his initiative and desire to learn and also be helpful to us.
How has technology helped your business?
We thrive on it. I find even as I get older I’m excited by systems, apps, efficiency technology… even the phone wallet! I feel the same within Stonz. If we can be doing things day-to-day in a more efficient way I’m wanting us to look at it. We were using 16 different systems/apps and are now down to 11, mostly because many now integrate around our more crucial systems like our ERP or our B2C sales platform. Tech has allowed us to do more with fewer people, and look like a big company while doing it. I’ve been told numerous times that the types of systems we use are not often adopted by businesses at our stage or size. To me this is a compliment.
What keeps you inspired today, both as a designer and a business owner?
As a designer I love solving problems. I find I see the world a little differently. When I look around I see prototypes. I notice when something could be tweaked or changed slightly to make it extraordinary. I know not every product is meant to be extraordinary but I am really frustrated with the rate at which products are being made with little regard for their usefulness or long lasting properties. I feel by making something long lasting we are at the very least being earth aware.
I am excited when I get a phone call from a customer who has an 11-year-old bootie and just needs to have a toggle sent to her as the one on her passed-down bootie finally wore out. That to me is success as not everyone was meant to have brand new goods.
What piece of advice would you give to other aspiring women entrepreneurs?
You must believe; believe that there is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and that it’s possible to get to that pot, and the journey in getting there is worth enduring because it will be quite a journey.
The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs Circle — a program led by Cisco in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) — addresses some of the obstacles women-led businesses face in building their tech capabilities. Are you a business owner? Fill in a short survey to register for free virtual training from the Cisco Networking Academy and fill in your knowledge gaps, or try the BDC digital maturity assessment tool to find out in less than 5 minutes where your business stands compared to your peers, and how you can improve.