Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, my name is Stefan Johnson and I am the co-founder of STONE.
STONE began at the beginning of 2018 when we launched our first product - the STONE Classic, a notebook designed for chefs. In April of that year, we launched our Kickstarter, hitting our target in 24hrs and eventually becoming one of the most backed food projects in Kickstarter history.
Fast forward to 2019 and we have launched 6 new products with a further 12 in development, are launching an editorial side of the business and are now average around $40,000 USD per month in revenue with over 45,000 products sold.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My background is a little unique…
I used to run a design agency working with social enterprises and startups before becoming a partner and creative director of one of the companies we worked with - Bookblock - a company that manufactures bespoke leather and customised notebooks.
On top of that, I am a freelance food and documentary photographer.
The creation of STONE, or rather, our first product, came about when I was shooting at a restaurant with two Michelin star chef Michael Caines. Michael has a prosthetic arm and I noticed that when he was using his notebook on his metal kitchen surface the notebook was sliding around.
Make sure it’s a product that people want. I think it’s quite easy to get blinded by self belief and ignore that most fundamental question. You can have the best branding in the world, the best marketing, all operations in place, but if you can’t get beyond the hard sell then eventually you’ll burn out.
On the way back from the shoot I mentioned to my client, Eliot (who would later become a co-founder of STONE), that Bookblock could create a notebook with a magnet at the back which would make it easier not just for Michael to write in, but all chefs. As fate would have it, our train was delayed and after an hour of bouncing ideas off each other we came up with seven unique features the perfect chefs notebook could contain. One of those features was stone paper, a material made of limestone that is naturally water and greaseproof. Its a product that has been around for a few years but has never really found its use beyond being a gimmick. However, we think it had found a nice home in a chefs notebook.
We quickly made some prototypes and got them sent to around 80 respected chefs around the world, to get feedback. The response was incredible and we quickly discovered that the concept had legs.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The entire process was incredibly easy. Bookblock specialises in custom notebook manufacturing and are considered one of the world’s two leading companies offering this service.
You work towards something not really knowing how it will be received, going through contrasting emotions of arrogance (‘we’re going to smash this’) and self-doubt (‘what if no one buys it!’). So when we did over £20k in sales in the first day it was gratifying to get that validation.
This meant I was able to quickly produce different samples with the guidance of our head of operations and factory manager, testing different cover materials, finishes, packaging and paper stocks.
We were incredibly lean with our spending, with pretty much our entire budget spend on organic marketing. This constituted gifting as many chefs and industry giants as possible, letting them spread our product as much as possible pre Kickstarter launch.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We had around three months of build where big international chefs were sharing images of our product and this almost cultish exclusivity naturally grew around the product. Young chefs were seeing their icons talk about this new industry tool that wasn't available anywhere, which made it both easy and enjoyable to market.
The great thing about chefs at the top of their game is that they are natural influencers but either dont see the value in their influence, or simply don’t care. I think that comes from cultural sincerity in the indusry. If they like something, they’ll talk about it. I think it also helped that the people involved in STONE were from the industry. People are more likely to back their own.
Launching the Kickstarter was a massive buzz. You work towards something not really knowing how it will be received, going through contrasting emotions of arrogance (‘we’re going to smash this’) and self-doubt (‘what if no one buys it!’).
So when we did over £20k in sales in the first day it was just so gratifying to get that validation. At that point it becomes less about the money and more the appreciation of the work you’ve done. The money was just a metric.
The nice thing about Kickstarter is you have direct contact with your audience, and that became a focus point of our marketing during the actual campaign. Regular engagement with our backers, subtle incentive schemes and generally making them feel part of our journey, which they were. I think this endeered us to our customers and meant they were much more inclined to share and support our campaign.
It’s quite rare in business to get such clean correlation between the work you do and its results. Spending a month doing micro-marketing campaigns for the Kickstarter, as it ran, was very enjoyable for that reason. In the end, we did close to $250k in sales and felt like we had really done something special. That was until the hangover kicked in, in the form of fulfillment.
One thing you learn from fulfillment is just how angry some people can get about the most trivial things. We had one person complain because we told them the notebooks would be sent with DHL and they arrived with UPS… utterly bizarre.
Ultimately, we live in an Amazon Prime age, so despite the vast majority of our 5,000 backers being lovely people there was the odd hundred who just didn't understand the nature of Kickstarter, that they weren’t simply purchasing an item from a shop. I think my one bit of advice to anyone doing a Kickstarter, beyond how to market it and build your audience, is to prepare yourself for that onslaught.
If you are starting a brand it’s likely that you would have put your heart and soul into it, so getting people abusing you and your business really quite hurtful. But it’s a learning curve, being able to step away from the emotion and just do your best to improve it bit by bit, removing the nastiness from the feedback and just taking in your stride happens over time.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We always wanted to align our products with the best and most respected figures in the industry. That’s why a majority of our marketing efforts have been focussed on gifting.
We put aside a healthy gifting budget that allowed us to get our hands in the products in the hands of Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing and Pierre Koffmann among others. Highly trained and naturally authoritative, these figures are incredible influencers and led to our products becoming instantly recognisable for customers within the industry.
But in terms of consumers, Instagram has been a key part of our success to date. Our high production video content featuring big-name chefs has proved particularly popular with our target customers. Our products are luxury items and we always wanted our content to follow suit.
As such, our launch video which focused on the features and design quality of our flagship product amassed some 100k views. That same video, hosted on our website alongside an email update sign up form generated over 5000 leads.
Of course, Instagram’s targeted advertising has helped immensely. As we provide a very visual product, we’ve had great engagement from sponsored posts and achieved $70k in direct sales directly through the site.
Our early PR efforts were helped by our product’s USP. A waterproof notebook is a simple yet intriguing concept and got us featured in online press outlets like Metro, Uncrate and Fine Dining Lovers, generating sales of $20k, without us having to fork out for expensive PR. We also offered some pay-for-post press outlets commission on sales through their sites which helped attract customers while keeping out marketing costs low.
But Kickstarter helped us to establish a committed customer base. Crowdfunding has that innate sense of interconnectivity and we regularly offer our early backers discounts and early access to our latest products as a thank you for their support. We also ask customers through social and email campaigns what products they would like to see. By shaping our product line around our key group of consumers, we’ve been able to retain customers while also expanding our product range.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Thanks to strong relationships with corporate clients and a positive retail trial, we’re looking to hit a $500k turnover in 2019. And with plans to introduce our product range into more stores across the UK, US and Europe, triple our number of SKUs and build our corporate offering we hope to double that turnover by 2020
For us, the next few months will see us expand our product range to target further corners of the food and drinks industry - baristas, bartenders, winemakers etc. Alongside our core range of notebooks, expect to see aprons, tools and accessories before the end of 2019. We also want to expand our social presence through influencer marketing to help further establish ourselves across the UK, US and Europe.
But as well as new products, we want to expand the editorial side of STONE. We already publish food stories from around the world on our website but we’re currently working on an annual print magazine. Circulated globally, this high production, ad-free publication wouldn’t feature recipes but instead focus on unique and untold stories from the food and drinks industry. The aim of the magazine is to help strengthen STONE’s position as an authority in the food and drinks industry while providing a brilliant marketing resource for our products.
Ultimately, we want STONE to become a lifestyle brand that is synonymous with the food and drink industry. Just as brands like Patagonia and Carhartt have established themselves on the back of specific activities and occupations, we want STONE to be the go-to for professionals and consumers in the food and drink space, renowned for its design and physical performance.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I’m a little old school when it comes to software. My developers have introduced me to 101 different tools to help workflow, improve efficiency etc etc. But it’s pretty hard to beat the humble google doc. Softwares will come and go but a spreadsheet will be there to the end.
Having said that we use do use Jira and Slack, both of which are excellent communication tools. We also fulfil through Blackbox, which is eveptaveily a tech company managing our fulfilment. They’re not the cheapest option and do eat into our margins, but it takes away the headache of fulfilment and allows us to concentrate on marketing and product development, which for me is the fun stuff.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I really enjoy podcasts. Anything by The New Yorker or Gimlet Media is going to be good. I just love good editorial, things like the Caliphate or The Drop Out, both of which are stories told brilliantly, with simple and confident editing.
Business wise I listen to the pitch where you can learn a few bits, mostly just how much entrepreneurialism is a modern trend full of pretence and ridiculous terminologies… but I’m clearly a sucker for it.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Be sincere with what you do, if you believe in your product that will shine through and make the entire process so much easier.
But also make sure it’s a product that people want. I think it’s quite easy to get blinded by self belief and ignore that most fundamental question. Because you can have the best branding in the world, the best marketing, all operations in place, but if you can’t get beyond the hard sell then eventually you’ll burn out.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website: https://www.stonejournal.co
- Blog: https://www.stonejournal.co/explore/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StoneNotebook/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/stonenotebook/
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