❌ Failed startup
✅ Successful startup

Stone: The e-Commerce that mastered word of mouth to $40k/month

Stef is a 33-year-old raised in London and the co-founder of Stone, a brand developing innovative trade and lifestyle products for the food and drinks industry. Through harnessing the marketing power and endorsement of chefs, Stone is now generating $40,000 in monthly revenue.

United Kingdom
Up to 50K

Stefan Johnson

September 4, 2019

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Hi Stef! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?

I'm a 33-year-old born and raised in London.  I am the co-founder of Stone, a brand developing innovative trade and lifestyle products for the food and drinks industry. 

The business began 18 months ago, when we launched our flagship product - the Classic Stone, a notebook designed for chefs. Since then we’ve created a full range of stationery and are about to launch our apparel range as well as an editorial side to the brand. 

Stone 3 Journals

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

My family would probably describe me as someone who had entrepreneurial tendencies from a young age. When I was around 9 or 10 I would buy cupcakes from the supermarket and sell them for six times the price to tourists queuing up for Wimbledon tennis… I like to think my business practice is a little more principled now.

Having studied documentary photography at university I found myself with a degree that didn't let me move too far beyond freelance work and soon found myself forming a design agency, which I spent the next five years building. The agencies services naturally evolved and we gained a reputation for UX and digital strategy. 

As much as I enjoyed auditing businesses and organizations (the majority of our clients were NGOs and social enterprises), helping them develop their strategy and digital presence, I really wanted to go back to the proverbial cupcake selling. So when one of my clients, a notebook brand called Bookblock offered me to come on board as a partner and Creative Director, my core team and I jumped ship. 

Fast forward a few years; I find myself in a Michelin kitchen with chef Michael Caines and a client, Eliot. Michael has one prosthetic arm and I noticed that when he was using his notebook on his metal kitchen surface the notebook was sliding around, and it gives me an idea... I mention to Eliot 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.

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.

Stone Journal Coffee

I quickly got some prototypes made up in our workshop and got them out to around 80 respected chefs around the world for feedback. The response was incredible and it was clear early on that the concept had legs.

How did you build Stone?

Stone began as a bit of fun. My background is very mixed, from documentary and food photography to UX and marketing strategy. Stone was a meeting of all these worlds and gave me a chance to put into practice everything I’ve learned. 

Having always worked for myself I never really had someone explain to me what to do and what not to do. You start at a big agency and from day one you’re learning from people far more experienced than you, which of course is hugely beneficial. But I can safely say that there is no better way of learning then failing. As long as your analytical about it all. It’s a somewhat cliche term these days but failures are the pillars of success. 

Stone Journal Chef

From an early stage, we decided that Kickstarter was the right platform to launch the product from. Rather than having to work on operations and logistics from day one I was instead able to focus on my strongest areas. One which is a marketing strategy. 

Chefs are natural influencers, in that if they like something they will tend to talk about it, and their endorsements will matter. We had created something that was considered a genuinely useful tool and we, unlike a Moleskin, were from the industry so the chefs we were reaching out to were very happy to talk about what we were doing. This was a wave we had to ride.

For two or three months we gifted hundreds of influential chefs. We asked for nothing in return but just let the marketing run itself, bubbling away in the background as we built up our design assets. With very little information out there and chefs popping up on social all the time with our new product, singing its praises, this mystery grew around what we were doing. The only thing people could find was a form to put their email address. By the time we launched our Kickstarter, we had 3,000 emails. This meant that within 24hrs we hit our $30,000 target.

Stone Journal Chef 2

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Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

The marketing power of chefs really can’t be underestimated. Known for their frankness, their endorsements carry huge weight. That’s why we set out to align Stone with the very best in the game - Pierre Koffmann, Marcus Wareing, Matt Abe. And thanks to the strong existing relationships and bit of string-pulling, we could make that happen. With these names on board, we had a great reach not just within the industry but also out to the public too. We had a nice amount of press coverage when the Classic Stone first launched which certainly helped our marketing efforts but chef endorsements have been key in the long term.  

Food influencers have been a big pull too. Writers, food stylists and recipe bloggers have all been happy to post about us and I’ve been really pleased with how authentic those posts feel. We’re not selling chocolate bars or 2 grand sunglasses. The Stone range is designed to be genuinely useful and a lot of our marketing focuses on that. 

We’ve had good traction on our own socials too.  We’ve got some great photographers and videographers in the Stone team and we’ve put together some really good content that has drawn us a strong following. In fact, for a while, Instagram was our biggest source of new customers. I’m a designer at heart so I want all our channels to match what Stone is all about - simple, beautiful design.  

And now we’re veering away from overtly promotional material and focussing on high production collaborations with top chefs. Our latest video series ‘Written in Stone’ sees great chefs talk about one dish or ingredient and has proved a big hit with followers old and new. It’s kind of the dream method for us - low cost and really effective. 

Stone Black Journal

At no point since we launched have we hit a lull with sales. The initial excitement in what was seen as an innovative product has died down, and getting people to talk about us when we are now considered established in the industry is increasingly difficult. However we have found our feet with ad spend, learning about our audience and refining who we target, and because we are ultimately selling a good product we are getting return custom. 

My basis of comparison is limited but I think there are consumer brands that get a higher customer satisfaction than us. We never have to go through social and delete negative comments. We just don’t get them, well, certainly not about the product anyway. So I believe we are at a really healthy juncture. We have the foundations right, the principles of the product right and we think we understand the audience. So we are now ready to make the next steps in the business.

What are your goals for the future?

We want to expand the Stone range in a way that appeals to the pros within our industry. We want to create apparel, accessories, and stationery for the more niche corners of the food and drinks space - baristas, brewers, bartenders. But we’ll only release products that we feel hit the Stone goal of being the most beautiful and practical tools possible.

Stone Different Journals

By the end of this year, as we grow both our online store and our retail presence, we’re hoping for a revenue of $500k. Of course, as things grow we may look to bring in a few extra members of staff but as small as the current Stone team is, I think it works really nicely. 

But the project I’m really excited about is the Stone Magazine. I’ve always wanted to explore a print publication and the Stone brand lends itself perfectly. Working with a load of food writers, editors and photographers, we want to create an annual magazine and release it worldwide. But we don’t want to be another recipe heavy Sunday pull out style publication. We want genuinely thought-provoking stories told by the most intelligent and charismatic people in the industry, all beautifully presented with the goal of cementing Stone as a true voice of authority in the food and drinks space. I might even take a couple of snaps myself. 

Bookblock is also at a very interesting stage as we launch our leather range and consumer gifting website. We have ambitions to really grow this company in parallel with Stone.

Stone Black & White Journal

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What were the biggest challenges you faced and the obstacles you overcame?

Like so many brands, Stone was born from one idea and a couple of beers. But I think sometimes people forget the amount of time and energy it takes to see an idea through.  So for me, even holding our initial design felt like an achievement.  But we work with quite a specific set of materials so we’ve faced setbacks with sourcing, labor and production costs. But seeing the response of those in the industry towards our products has always reassured me of just how big Stone can become. 

Stone Journal Old Chef

On a personal note, I faced the challenges of fulfilling one of the most successful food crowdfunders in history and becoming a dad within a few months of each other (not sure which one was more stressful). Shipping over 4,000 bespoke orders across the world was hell at times. But, and it may sound corny, my kid Beni is one of the reasons why I’m committed to making Stone a success. I just want to show him that if you have an idea and you’re passionate about it, nothing should stop you from making it a reality.

Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?

Perhaps that I can be grumpy. If you feel passionate about something you get these waves of enthusiasm and energy. I try and utilize that as much as possible. But it's hard to maintain that. Better people than I can keep those levels stable but my mood can drop at times. I hear that's not uncommon though. The main thing is to be aware of it and manage it. 

From a market perspective, we’ve already seen a few competitors, let’s say, ‘borrow’ ideas from the Stone range. We are still a small company so, particularly with our stationery collection, we need to stay one step ahead of big manufacturers like Moleskine. That’s one of the reasons why we’re expanding the range, to make Stone a multi-faceted lifestyle brand with its own unique appeal. 

And yes we’ve made mistakes along the way. I could mention collaborations that didn’t work out or wholesale deals that weren’t financially viable but, as I said, I really do think that failures are the most valuable thing. As long as you establish why they weren’t useful, they’re incredibly useful. 

If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?

I think perhaps I would’ve set a clearer set of goals right from the start. Stone is always growing and changing and I love it for that very reason but sometimes having one or two concrete targets to hit can help focus your efforts. That and get a haircut. 

What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?

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. I think you can learn more about business from listening to intelligent people outside of the domain. 

Where can we go to learn more?

You can see Stones range of products and explore some of our early editorial content here. We use Facebook rarely so most of our social can be found on our Instagram. If you’re interested in our design-led manufacturing business you can visit Bookblocks business site or our consumer site.

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