We have six kids between us, and that means we’ve seen a lot of baby gear. Our mom radars are pretty finely honed to distinguish between items that will truly make our lives easier, and items that look fancy but will end up neglected in the garage in short order.
In other words, it takes a lot to impress us these days.
But we recently came across a product that quite literally made us gasp: the Austlen Entourage. Erin made the product rep demo it for about ten full minutes because she couldn’t believe a stroller this cool existed in the world.
And when we found out the company was founded by a mom? Let’s just say we were not surprised. The Entourage has all the trappings of a product designed by someone who really gets how real parents live their day-to-day lives. We were lucky enough to sit down with Leslie Stiba, Austlen’s founder, to talk about how she built her business and became the mom reinventing baby gear.
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WorkKidsWine: Before we get into how you founded a baby gear company and built this awesome stroller, can you tell us a little bit about your former professional background?
Leslie Stiba: I previously worked as a global product manager at a Fortune 500 company, so I’d worked on some intellectual property. I had a fascination with IP and I’d read about it on the side for fun. I knew it was one of the important elements of creating a protectable business.
WKW: You’re kind of a legal nerd like us! So did you leave that role to start your business?
LS: No, actually I resigned from the corporate world when my twin girls were little. They were preemies, and they had lots of medical things going on. My husband and I decided I’d step back from work for a while. So for the next three and a half years I worked on my stroller idea when I could.
WKW: So when did you decide to really go for it and found Austlen?
LS: Right around the three and a half year mark I had a few paths open. I could either go back to the same company, go work for a different technology company, or work on Austlen full time and try to grow it.
WKW: What made you choose like you did?
LS: Well, because my family had already felt the impact of living off of just one salary, we were in a good position for me to go the entrepreneurial route. If I knew then what I knew now, it would have been a harder decision!
WKW: OK that is too interesting of a comment to let slide! Why would it be a harder decision now? What has been the most challenging part of the process for you?
LS: Fundraising has probably been the hardest part. But getting the product up and running was no joke either. We did a ton of market research, did a lot of focus groups, and then we worked to build out a prototype and test the feasibility of the stroller. It was a long process to do it right.
WKW: How long did it take, start to finish?
LS: It took five years of runway! Due to the nature of the stroller, it was a more complex product to get started than most. Plus it required a lot of products right out of the gate: we launched with the Entourage and thirteen different accessories.
WKW: That is super ambitious! We love it. You just recently launched, right?
LS: Yes, at the end of 2016. And now we’re working on marketing.
WKW: What’s on your list for that?
LS: We do lots of in-store merchandising, and lots of work with retailers to get them trained. Plus we do a ton of content – videos, social media, that kind of thing.
I think the smartest thing we did was talk to retailers very early on, while we were still in the prototype phase. We took their feedback very seriously and used it in development to make sure we ended up with a product that would truly be useful. Plus then retailers knew and understood we’d listen to feedback! That strengthened our relationship, which is incredibly helpful now that we’re in the marketing phase.
WKW: Can you talk a bit more about what that was like?
LS: Of course. I think unfortunately lots of entrepreneurs develop in a vacuum. Retailers are talking to your customer every single day about what they love and what’s important to them. So every time retailers have a criticism, you should listen! That piece is so key – to get that input early on and often. We tried really hard to just listen.
WKW: As entrepreneurs ourselves, we agree that this is incredibly smart advice. Was it hard to take feedback on your stroller?
LS: I’m not a person in love with a product, I’m in love with a product that other people love. I want to be a part of something that really helps people and improves their lives!
WKW: What was the biggest difference from your original vision to the stroller sitting in a baby store today?
LS: All the multi-child options! My personal pain point was carrying a lot of stuff. I was focused on a stroller that could carry a case of La Croix out of the grocery store, not on more than one kid. But from the storage came the jump seat, then the rider board, second seat, etc. evolved from there.
We liked the idea of the stroller being dynamic – people can use what they need, then tuck those pieces away when they don’t. It really turned into, “What if this is the first and last stroller a family ever needed? What if they didn’t need to buy a double stroller to get through the lifecycle of their family?”
WKW: We have to ask: What did your engineers think of this whole process?
LS: [Laughs] We definitely took ideas to them that they said were impossible. But then we’d work toward solutions! Everyone wants to be part of something that changes the game. So the challenge was an engineering dream!
WKW: We’ve talked about the hardest parts. What were the most surprising parts of your company’s evolution so far?
LS: EVERYTHING. The journey is so complicated. It’s like unfolding the most complicated puzzle, then solving it, and knowing that just as you walk through the next door you’ll be faced with the next most complicated puzzle waiting to be solved. Every time I get the hang of something, the next challenge is coming!
WKW: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs, to other women thinking about making this leap?
LS: Get lots of the right kind of people around you. And by “right kind of people,” I mean background, experience…experience that is absolutely specific to what you want to do. Get the highest person on the food chain that you can get, and as many of them as you can.
And don’t be afraid. A lot of people feel the idea is the treasure, but it’s not. The idea is actually the easiest part of the journey. Execution is the treasure. So having people who can get your idea executed – that’s critical. And the more people you have around you who want to succeed, the better.
WKW: Love that! Any final thoughts?
LS: Yes! It’s the journey! The good outcome is important, but it’s hard to get up in the morning every day if you’re only focused on the outcome. You have to focus on what you’re going to get done that day. If that’s where your joy comes from, well, those are the people who tend to do really well. Because it’s a long journey!
You can find Austlen’s products on their website and at baby stores near you!