Who’s walking around in Poppy Barley shoes? Here, we chat with our customers to find out who they are and what they do.
Founder of VONBON
Vancouver, BC, Canada
Poppy Barley style(s) I own:
The Slip-on Oxford in Cobra and Black Nubuck
There’s a certain kindred spirit that exists between entrepreneurs. Friendships form quickly, and things get real, really fast. Jennifer founder of VONBON is exactly this type of friend for me – even though we just met three months ago.
VONBON makes stylish and adorable baby clothes. The clothing line uses only organic fabrics, unique prints and cute designs all crafted in Vancouver, BC.
Right before Christmas, Jennifer and I chatted about life – babies, sisters, businesses, resolutions and working out. I invite you to step inside our conversation.
Starting a Company with No Industry Background
Like many of the entrepreneurs I admire, Jennifer does not have any background in textiles or clothing design. Rather she started her career in the dental industry as a dental assistant and then a dental hygienist. It fostered Jennifer’s love of working with people and building personal relationships. As Jennifer’s 30th birthday approached, she recognized a change was required. Being a dental hygienist is physically demanding job, and the tension headaches and back pain were taking a toll. At the same time, Jennifer’s friends were having babies and she was continually shopping for baby gifts without ever finding the right gift, she just started to make her own. Out came the sewing machine to bring the perfect-baby gifts to life. Jennifer sat down with her sister, a graphic designer, to put the designs in her head into digital format to start making samples.
Kendall: I think it’s really interesting because we have no background in footwear. How do you think not having a background in what you do helps you?
Jennifer: I see the disadvantages as far as things would be so much easier if I actually knew what I was doing, but the advantages are exactly that –you don’t. So you set your own rules. You do things your own way. You just do it differently than how everyone else is already doing it. That’s why VONBON is different than traditional babywear lines. It’s a huge advantage for us. We get so many comments on how great our customer service is. I think when you’re so focused on industry standards, you get caught up in product, manufacturing and you forget it’s really about the customer, what they want and their whole experience. We don’t know any other way to do it and it seems to be working for us.
Kendall: I love that. I love that a lot. Sometimes, Justine and I, we don’t even know we’re doing things differently or in an odd way because we have no idea. We are not always intentionally trying different, but nobody told us how we should be doing it. It allows us to create a different future for footwear.
A Story About Sisters
There are three girls in my family: Justine, co-founder of Poppy Barley, and my baby sister, Larissa. In the earliest days of Poppy Barley, we sent out free measuring tapes. Larissa spent hours with us preparing those packages to send out. She was one of our first customers, our HR consultant and still our biggest cheerleader.
Kendall: We’ve bonded over both coming from families of three sisters. You’re the eldest and so am I. Your one sister helped you with business and continues to do so with photography. What about your 3rd sister?
Jennifer: Oh ya, she’s played a role. We’re all tied into this! We’re so close and we want to help each other succeed. When I started VONBON, Amber, my middle sister, took a trip just before I launched VONBON, so she was watching everything unfold from afar and she’s the one with the background in business. When her trip ended, she came home and worked with me. She put a lot of systems in place and got things organized. When you’re running a business, there is so much to do. She helped me focus on the business-end of things: logistics and numbers. The plan was for Amber to take over when I went on maternity leave. A month before I was due, Amber had an amazing opportunity to move abroad and she couldn’t say no to it. It was her dream, so she went. Two weeks before Esti was due, she left. We put out an ad for an intern. She is still a sounding board and full of advice. My youngest sister, Kristin initially helped with sewing, branding and still helps with photography. Her own business has evolved as she grows her own thing. My sisters have their own dreams and passions too.
Deciding to Outsource Manufacturing
Kendall: In the beginning you actually made everything yourself? For how long?
Jennifer: Probably for 6-months. We launched in May 2013 with everything made to order, but people wanted things faster. We came into our first Christmas season and it went bonkers. We literally had to shut down our website, because there was no way we could make all the clothes and have it sent out by Christmas. We closed down and sewed our brains out and shipped and shipped. My husband said you’re going to have a breakdown, you need to find a manufacturer. As much as I was so hesitant because you want everything to absolutely perfect and handing over that control is so hard, I knew there was no way I could continue the way I was. I started researching for manufacturers in Vancouver. Only a couple of manufacturers sew baby clothing, so we did samples with them. We took a chance and YES, we’ve had major, major hiccups along the way. We’ve switched manufacturers along the way. We’re now in great place – the quality is very high and we have a very close working relationship, as I know Poppy Barley has with your manufacturer.
Kendall: Is your stuff still made in Vancouver?
Jennifer: Yes, I’d like VONBON to be made in Vancouver for as long as it possibly can – and if not in Vancouver, then in Canada. It started out as a real trend to shop local, now it’s more than a trend – it’s really important to people. They’re asking a lot of questions and people are smart. I know you guys don’t produce in Canada but in a really amazing way. So there is an opportunity for us to bring our manufacturing overseas, but I’d have to do a lot of research and it’d have to be done very carefully and in the right way. We’re not there yet. I’m proud to say everything is manufactured in Vancouver.
Kendall: When we started, our goal was Canada as well but we couldn’t quite find the right talent. We receive lots of questions about the origins of our products. We think it’s exciting to connect with people who share our values.
New Years Resolutions and Intentions
Kendall: On your blog, you talk a lot about organizing yourself, your time and your one-page productivity planner. As we go into 2016, can you tell me how you’re going to organize yourself?
Jennifer: When you sent me that question, I laughed out loud when I read it because I have all these intentions to be as organized as possible –I’ve created a dayplanner, editorial calendars and reminders. And, sometimes things just fall apart – especially when you have child. When I first had Esti, the whole idea was she was going to fall into my life and I was going to continue doing what I was doing. There’s all this talk about schedules and regimented routines and I thought – forget that. She’s going to roll with me and I’ll be a working mom. After a few months, I realized this isn’t going to work. Having a child has put in my face how much I need routine. I like to think that spontaneity is where it’s at – and roll with the punches. But staying on a routine is key to me being organized. For me, 2016 is all about executing the routine and schedule I’ve set.
Kendall: Ahhh, I’m so naïve. I totally think I can have a baby and she’ll just integrate right into my life! Even though I know that’s not possible.
Jennifer: Because you don’t know anything else. My husband and I always laugh about the things we said pre-kids – we’ll never let our kids sleep in our bed, our kids will never do that. After baby, it becomes hilarious that you even thought that way!
Kendall: I think you have to be naïve – with starting a business, with having a baby. That never-ending optimism and thinking you can tackle anything forces us to persevere and enter things so whole-heartedly, right?!?
Jennifer (laughing): Agreed.
Is it Possible to have Life, Fitness and Business Goals?
Jennifer: Before having a baby, I imagine myself running with a running stroller down the seawall a few times a week. That didn’t happen. And, I can see how it’s taking a toll on me. People talk about losing themselves when they become mothers and how they want to get back to being themselves. I never really felt that because I always had my business and I had the mindset that I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing. But there’s not time for everything. One of the easiest things to throw out the door is working out and taking care of yourself. I can see how the lack of being able to exercise is having a negative impact on me. One of my biggest focuses is making sure I have a schedule and am keeping my well-being a priority. Working out is not for looking good these days, it’s about having an outlet and maintain health and happiness in my life. I’ve missed it so much. I have all these business goals, but am I risking my health, my happiness, everything by working so much to grow my business? Sometimes I feel as though my business is running me! It’s hard trying to manage my family’s needs, my business’ needs and my needs. It’s emotional. My business has so much potential – it’s exciting. But I think – is that what I want to do? Sometimes I’m sacrificing my own personal health and wellness for everything else.
Kendall: It’s refreshing to hear because Justine and I have been talking a lot about this – neither of us has a child (yet!). Even if you remove a child, when you start a business there is so much focus on growing. Lately, we’re having really honest conversations with ourselves about where that growth fits into your own lives. We could grow 100% this year, but what are you risking and giving up to make the growth happen? Is that what we want to be doing with our lives? Poppy Barley is important to me and it matters to me, but there is a list of other things in my life that matter to me too. It’s such an imperfect place. Something is always giving and I can’t even imagine adding the incredible element of a child into that conversation. In 2015, I reached this place where I had to learn to be gentle with myself because I was being so hard on myself. There is so much pressure.
Jennifer: I’m pushing myself to take a step back and ask questions – why do we want to do that? What does that mean for me and my life? So far taking on the risk to grow VONBON always works out. I know I can do it. But can I do it and be healthy and happy?
Kendall: It’s not about not having a vision for the company. For me, very personally, it’s about having the right conversations with myself. Sometimes I think I just need to adjust my timeline. Am I trying to do everything in one major sprint? I’m scared of missing the opportunity. I’m unsure about babies. I’m a couple months away from being 34 years old. I’m feeling a time crunch on life too. I can’t have a baby forever, but I can grow a company for a while. Should we just go for it?
Jennifer: Sometimes I think yes, sometimes I think no.
Kendall (laughing): Me, too.
Really Smart Words for 2016
Jennifer: When I look at my daughter, we celebrate all the small moments – when she lifted her head, when she crawled, the first step – we celebrate every little thing that happens. As entrepreneurs, we’re so hard on ourselves. We so easily overlook all those milestones because we’re always looking at the bigger picture and where we want to go next. We forget to say “hey, that was something to celebrate”.
Kendall: You’re right. I’m horrible at that. Even when we do something outstanding, I’m always asking what’s next? I’m sure it’s what drives my team insane about me. I’m the person who is never satisfied. I love the comparison with a baby and how incredible it is.
Jennifer: Can you imagine if we only celebrated when our children graduated from grade 12? With a baby, miracles happen every day. Those same moments happen in our companies. We need to acknowledge them.
Kendall: That’s my intention for my business in 2016 – to be better at celebrating!