My name is Emily Sayer and I run a business called Stib which stands for Spark Thinking in a Box. We are a purposeful business that creates ‘good gifts’ designed to spark positive conversations about the things that matter, and encourage children to think and talk about their feelings, worries, dreams, and plans. Stib was founded on the belief that all children have the potential to do amazing things, which is why we give 10% of profits to charities supporting education projects for vulnerable children in the UK and around the world.
Our ‘hero’ products are our Inspirational Colouring Pencils which come in Jumbo and Mini (travel) size; each embossed with one of our ‘spark’ words. These are Great Leader, Good Listener, World Changer, Earth Lover, Self Believer, Big Thinker, Freestyler, TeamPlayer, Storyteller, Problem Solver, Joy Finder, and Peacekeeper. Each word has also been matched with a group of animal characters called the Stiblers, there to visually remind children what the words mean and help them think of ways to get over ‘common life lumps and bumps’. The pencils are housed in a colorful tube which also includes a sheet of Stibler stickers and coloring-in sheets plus a double pencil sharpener. From a brand point of view, coloring is an ideal time to have conversations. It induces a relaxed state of being, and while you sit mindlessly coloring you create a space where chats can happen. We love the quote by C.M Wallace “If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them it has always been big stuff”, yet it’s not always easy to get those conversations going. The words are intended to be prompts to start conversations and see where they lead.
Also included in our range are a series of color-in four-page greeting cards and posters, all based on the Stiblers and the Spark Words, plus Children’s Beeswax Wraps and Seeds. An environmentally-friendly, lunch box alternative to cling film or tin foil they are a great way to raise awareness amongst kids about waste and help them to take positive social action.
We sell into small independent retailers, direct from our website but increasingly on a variety of drop-shipping websites like Friends Of Joules and via Amazon. Like most retailers, since the pandemic, online sales have dramatically increased, with many of our high street retailers also moving to online models. We have recently started to collaborate with other brands who sell our pencils as an addition to their products, including the Positive Doodle Diary and Don’t Buy Her Flowers, which we have found works well for us.
Raising my children, I was reminded about the magical way children see the world, which often gets lost by adulthood, especially in our increasingly tick-box world of measurements. They react with automatic kindness, can offer truly fresh perspectives, and have limitless imagination - all of which adults could learn a fair bit from. It’s estimated that children starting Reception class now will retire in 2070, during which time they will need to learn to adjust to huge changes in our jobs and lives brought about by developments in technology and Artificial Intelligence, often described as the fourth Industrial Revolution; the majority of jobs are likely children haven’t even been invented. The scale of the mental health crisis faced by our youngest generation is vast - 75% of mental illnesses start before a child reaches their 18th birthday; 10% of 5-16-year-olds are now believed to have diagnosable mental health to questions being “I can't remember” and “I don't know”.problem and teenage suicides are on the rise. Yet we are talking less. A recent poll in the UK of 2,000 parents of children aged four to 16 by sweet brand Fruitella, revealed that despite spending more than eight hours a day together, families chat for less than 10 percent of that time The research also found parents who are home with the children after school admit they struggle to get much out of them - with common responses of ‘I don't know’ or ‘I can’t remember’.
Most adults want their children to have a strong sense of wellbeing, be healthy and happy, and to share what’s on their minds. The world also needs them to be creative and adaptable Big Thinkers as we face some of the challenges predicted in the years ahead. Whilst the future for our youngest citizens is unknown and whilst there is enormous and exciting potential in this, the more we can do to bring up our children to have a deep sense of emotional wellness, to have transferable skills, to find and channel their passions, be able to spot opportunities and think laterally about how their skills might be applied - the more we are setting them up to thrive and succeed in the future that almost certainly will look very different from today.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
From an early age, I danced around the idea of being an entrepreneur and always wanted to have a career that ‘did good’. My sister and I would sell crushed juice made from orange squash and blackberries to reluctant passersby in the village we lived in and at eight years old, I wrote to throat lozenge company Tunes to suggest that they make a chewing version called Tuning Gum, which they politely declined. It’s so hard to articulate without sounding worthy and a bit annoying, but for as long as I can remember, I have been driven by a desire ‘to do’ good in the world.
As you become older, you realize that this a complex ideal, but wanting a career that helped tackle social injustices around the world has been a big driver for me. I followed a more traditional path of University at Bristol, where I studied Sociology, followed by roles in PR, media, and communications, which I followed up with a couple of years living in Sydney, Australia. After returning to the UK and heading to London, I joined the Virgin Group, at the now obsolete Virgin Student; running marketing campaigns for students on campuses across the UK and via a student-to-student SMS system. It was whilst I was at Virgin Student, that my boss asked me to attend a meeting to represent him about a new charity that the Virgin Group was launching. It was there that I meet the truly inspiring Jean Olewang for the first time; a passionate champion of social justice if ever there was one – on a quest to bring the Virgin Group of companies and people together around the vision of Business as a Force for Good, with an entrepreneurial approach to tackling touch social challenges at the heart of its strategy.
I joined Jean and worked for an invigorating and whirlwind number of years as Europe Director, liaising with each of the Virgin Businesses to help co-develop their environmental and social strategies and in turn, working alongside a network of grassroots charitable organizations we had identified across the countries where Virgin has a presence to help match their needs and challenges to the resources available within the Group. Visits to our charitable partners in South Africa and the UK, where we also took Virgin Staff as a means of bringing the issues they were connecting with alive, made a lasting and profound impression on me, not only cementing my commitment to wanting to do my small part in striving for social justice for some of the world’s most vulnerable but also being so thoroughly immersed within the world of entrepreneurialism. Whilst Virgin was founded by one of the world’s most famous entrepreneurs, so many of the charities we worked with were so deeply entrepreneurial and inspiring, as were the network of start-up and successful businesses leaders who joined us in developing several initiatives, including The Elders and The B Team, the idea of setting up your own business seemed like a very real and everyday possibility, rather than a distant ideal - why not me?
I returned to the Virgin Group when my daughter, Ella, was nine months old but found that the juggle defeated me. My husband is a Consultant Anaesthetist and his hours are anything but consistent and I found it very hard to adjust my role into a part-time one. We had the chance to head to Australia; so set off to Melbourne and then Mildura for my husband to undertake some of his final year’s training. It was here that my son Doni (Antonios) was born.
Learn to walk alongside doubt. If you wait for the doubt to pass, you’ll standstill. Even on the bad days, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
It was when Doni was around one and we had returned to the UK, that I met with another wonderful leader in the world of social change; Libby Powell. Libby trained as a journalist and has a passion for authentic storytelling. She was setting up a not-for-profit organization called On Our Radar to tackle voicelessness, surfacing stories from unheard groups worldwide by engaging marginalized and remote communities across Africa, India, and the UK to use their mobile phones to communicate the issues that matter most to them and link them with media outlets and relevant stakeholders.
I had three wonderful years at On Our Radar, working in an operational role, part-time as my son Doni was still a preschooler. This isn’t my natural habitat, however, and whilst it provided a firm base for launching my own business, as On Our Radar went from strength to strength, I realized it needed a more experienced and knowledgeable Operations Director in its next stage of development, which coincided with Doni starting school, so with a heavy heart, I left the brilliant team to finally focus on setting up something myself.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
Like so many of the mothers I know, I wanted to be there for my children at school drop off and pick up and realized that going back to full-time work in the sector in which I had experienced, wasn't going to allow me to do this.
The idea of the Spark words was there at the very start of the journey. Initially, I had wanted to develop a series of t-shirts for children, but as I researched the costs and requirements for a range of sizing options, I realized this was beyond my financial reach. A friend suggested pencils as a suitable alternative - coloring induces a sense of relaxation, providing the perfect environment to have conversations around the words plus, they were low cost, didn’t go off easily, and were a staple of most children’s stationery kits, meaning they could be sold as both kids essential, but also a gift. It’s very easy to sit and think of an amazing product, yet the actual design of the product was months and months in development. Whilst I was supported by a brilliant team of freelancers and my family, I look back now at how little I knew and shudder somewhat. The world of retail and product development was so new to me. As the saying goes ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ and I certainly didn’t know much at the start. The initial journey was one of learning. I remember feeling like I was on a rocky set of mountains trying to get from one rock to the next on rope bridges, but each time I found a new rock to jump on, the bridge had disappeared.
Throughout it all, my strategy has been to find people that are particularly qualified in a certain area and to reach out and ask them for guidance. Sometimes, all you need is a five-minute phone call, a bit more, but I find as long as you don’t over-do it, asking for a few minutes of people’s time to give you some very specific guidance is something they are happy to do. I’ve so many learnings, but one would be ‘don’t pretend to know what you don’t know’. I think if you can be open with people about your knowledge gaps, they are invariably kind and take the time to help you grow.
When I finally had the Jumbos in stock, I started by targeting countless small, independent retailers and, with one notable exception from one of my local gift shops, was met with kindness, patience, and support. I was surprised at how easily the shops were prepared to give the product a try. I didn’t have a minimum order to start with, I was just keen to get the product in people’s hands and crucially, get their feedback.
Shortly after I developed the Mini’s and continued to contact small, independent retailers. I built the network to over 50, mainly by contacting them directly or them reaching out to me via Facebook. I was also selling on my website from the start.
One piece of solid advice given to me by one of my retail mentors, Henri Davies, was to enter as many awards as was financially viable; indeed many have no cost. To decide which, look at who is judging them and who would be valuable to get your product in front of. Even if you don’t win, you will have gained visibility with key stakeholders in your sector. As such, we won several awards, including Highly Commended in the Rainbow Toys Awards 2019, Highly Commended by Gift of Year Ethical Gift, free space at The Stationery Show through LaunchPad 2019, and were shortlisted in the Little London and Made my Mums Awards.
I have one amazing freelancer who has been with me throughout the journey - Claire Down and whilst it’s easy to focus on social media, influencers, and online, Claire has also focused on traditional PR, which is something to always keep in mind. We have had a significant amount of press coverage from trade and consumer press, and sending press releases on a fairly regular basis to your relevant media is something to build into your communications plan from the start.
I realized after about a year, that whilst the small independents are where my heart lies, to turn Stib into a commercially available business, I need volume sales and for this, I needed to access much bigger online shopping portals. With very mixed feelings I joined Amazon and focused more on my retail strategy building online sales platforms. It was a huge plus to be asked to join Friends of Joules as one of its first brands. During the Corona crisis, all of my sales moved online, which reinforced the need to re-develop the range with online selling in mind, which is what I have been focusing on during the last few months.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I would say overall positive. The future is so murky and unsettled on a global level right now and it’s hard to not feel the weight of that and hold your nerve, but I am bringing out a new range of products, all designed to allow grown-ups and children to go on a deeper journey sparking conversations by using the pencils. We are developing reward charts, height charts, and family planners, which allow children to explore more what the words mean to them and how they can be useful in their own lives. Each pack will include the pencils so that parents have a practical way of putting the words in action with their children.
Don’t get overly attached to one way of doing something in the early days - stay open to change and pay attention to common themes that arise from both informal and formal feedback.
We are also looking at developing some resources for schools, which will help young people who are feeling anxious and worried due to COVID 19. When your brain is in a heightened sense of anxiety, learning is very hard and research shows that coloring and chatting create a safe and creative space for young people to talk about their feelings and worries, but it also can relax the fear center of your brain, the amygdala. It induces the same state as meditating by reducing the thoughts of an anxious mind.
I have also now added my logo to each of the pencils. I was contacted frequently by other brands wanting to use the pencils in their products, which I am now able to do. I love the idea of collaboration and I think very tough times are likely ahead and supporting other small businesses and working in partnership with them is key.
I have huge plans for Stib. I truly believe there are so many opportunities out there for brands wanting to engage young people in social change and help them navigate the sometimes tricky waters of childhood.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
There’s a lot you can do yourself to save cash at the start and skill yourself up. I created my website in the beginning, using Squarespace, and only called on professional help when I got stuck. Now I’m at a different phase of the business and am upgrading to a new platform which I will invest in a little more, but where you can stay lean in the early days, do so.
Decide how much building a brand is a key to your business success. Building a strong and recognizable brand isn’t necessary for all businesses. I realized with Stib that this was as important as the products I am selling. From my Virgin days, brand development was a world I was fairly familiar with, but if this is a mission for you too, ensure you take the time to work through a branding strategy. I see building a strong brand as another means of adding real value to your business that can become an asset in its own right. Some of the calls I get asking me to advertise, or sponsor assume Stib is a lot bigger than it is, and although I’m not at the stage where I can take up these opportunities cash-wise, I get a real thrill thinking that the brand is perceived that way.
Even if you are launching an innovative and new product, it’s imperative to ensure that it fits within a recognizable online selling category. Think about what your customer will search for to find you? How easy will it be for them to understand what you are about without you or a shop assistant explaining what your product does? If you can add differentiation and added value to products that are selling well and commonly understood by your customer, then your chances of success are a lot higher.
Postage is king when you are designing small, relatively low-cost items. If you are going to be creating a product that is fulfilled online, a huge amount of additional cost lies in the postage. Many platforms will be keen for you to offer free postage and it’s a big driver of sales when you do. Think about sourcing or designing items that are cost-effective to post and if they aren’t, then ensure you build the cost of postage into your product margins.
I had an idea at the start of who my customer was - parents and grandparents who were invested in their children’s broader emotional well being, worried about the state of the world, and the plight of the vulnerable and fitted a broader ethical shopper profile. For me, Instagram is a brilliant way to better understand who your brand resonates with, but not quite so much who my buying customer base is. One of my best friends recently finished a Facebook ads course. I attempted to run these myself and realized it’s quite an art. The targeting of image, message, and customer that it allows is quite remarkable and the insight it provides is incredibly valuable. If you can invest in Facebook ads at the start to drill down into who your customer is, it would be money well saved in the future.
Many of the freelancers I work with feedback that entrepreneurs in the early days get very frustrated if their ads or targeting in social don’t ‘work’ straight away. I learned from reading The Lean Start-Up by Eric Ries, that although if something doesn’t work it may be frustrating or less satisfying it also offers opportunities to gain valuable information and insights for the future. When ads just don’t get the results you expect, it’s good learning for you - what’s not hitting the spot? It makes you sharpen, re-focus, and improve your communications. It can hurt when you are so close to your product and brand, yet cold hard data is important at times to prove that the assumptions you are unknowingly emotionally attached to need tweaking. This honest detachment is what will move you forward more than anything else and save an awful lot more money in the longer term.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I hadn’t really engaged with Instagram before I set up Stib, but during those early days of launch, I became hugely appreciative of the platform, and still am to this day. I know social media brings with it a baffling array of challenges – some of which are the very cause of the decline in mental wellbeing in young people, which our pencils are trying (in their small way) to address. Yet, it is also a means of connecting with a quite amazing network of people, surprisingly willing to digitally cheerlead and support you in a way that took me by surprise. The majority of the shops that took me on and continue to do so have come from Instagram. Even now, when I can feel the pressure and fatigue of posting again, I get a call from a business which isn’t following me or has never engaged with one of my posts, saying ‘I’ve seen Stib on Instagram’ and I realize that for me, it’s by far my most valuable business communications platform.
In addition to Instagram, we also use Facebook and have an account on Pinterest. We have recently begun targeting using Facebook advertising to some success. Our website was built using Squarespace, but we are in the process of moving over to Shopify due to its additional eCommerce functionality. I have used Alibaba to source some of my products and also Fiverr to recruit freelancers where I couldn’t source through my network of contacts. I also use Instasize, Re-Post, Adobe, Canva, and Amazon Seller almost daily.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I feel you can take nuggets of inspiration from most people. You can listen to a podcast, read a book, speak to a friend, have a chat with a taxi driver, hear someone in the supermarket saying something that makes you think, connect with a news story that sends a shiver down your back, read an Instagram post that is just there at the right time for you, hear a lyric in a song and it can seep into your decision making and thinking positively. I think that’s how we grow the most – from paying attention to, and being inspired by, a wide, wide range of people, not just the obvious candidates, like Michelle Obama or Ken Robinson (whom I adore).
I love listening to Ted Talks and Hay on Wye lectures, am an avid Radio 4 listener and dip in regularly to Instagram and Twitter. I also stay abreast of children’s literature and news, mainly through Newsround, The Week Junior, and TikTok.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
If I’m honest I feel that giving advice is something I’m not sure I have the right to do. I am not sitting here as someone who has made their millions, or even a regular salary, by any means. I’ve had some real lows and spent many an hour working from home, with the dog pawing my leg for another walk, the washing machine beeping, the day grey and cold outside, willing myself to keep going, whilst longing for colleagues and a regular salary at the end of the month.
Yet, the highs can be high and the idea of giving up on Stib now just seems unthinkable. There’s too much investment of every kind in it - financial, emotional, and time, and every day, I get deep satisfaction from seeing that something that was just an idea in my head is now something that exists in the world.
Some of the things I have found, which I appreciate are personal learnings are that sometimes the most stinging comments that family or friends can sometimes make and that keep you awake in the early hours of the morning, are the ones that move you forward the most.
Look at the networks that you have and don’t be afraid to ask for help, but – with a word of warning - be careful who you ask. Negative voices can get into your head, so focus on the voices that you value and learn to tune out the ones that won’t help you.
Learn to walk alongside doubt. If you wait for the doubt to pass, you’ll standstill. Even on the bad days, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Take care of your mind. If you are working solo, it's hard sometimes to keep your morale going. When you are going to an employer, someone cares if you don’t show up in the morning. When you have an idea in your head, something that doesn’t exist yet, if you don’t drive it forward, there’s nobody to hold you to account to do so, except yourself.
Take massive pleasure in your successes and be sure to properly note and celebrate them. When you look back at what you have achieved it’s incredibly rewarding and makes you feel a wonderful sense of satisfaction, that helps drive you forward.
Don’t believe all that you see about other businesses. I love the quote ‘My overnight success was 10 years in the making.’ Don’t go comparing yourself, you need to follow your path and define what success means to you from the start.
Don’t invest too much upfront. Test the market with a Minimum Viable Product before plowing ahead with endless stock and an all singing and dancing version of everything. See it as a journey, where you can learn as you go. Don’t get overly attached to one way of doing something in the early days - stay open to change and pay attention to common themes that arise from both informal and formal feedback.
Accept you’ll make some whopping mistakes, buckle in for the ride, and if entrepreneurialism is an itch you need to scratch, then go for it.
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