We interviewed Stefan Johnson, of Stone Journal, to talk about how a Kickstarter and influencer marketing campaign helped create a must-have product for Chefs.
What’s your name, your background and what business do you run?
I’m Stefan Johnson, a 33-year-old entrepreneur from London. I studied documentary photography at university but set up a design agency in my twenties that focused mostly on UX and digital strategy for social enterprises. But a few years ago I came on board as a creative director with notebook brand and former client Bookblock.
In collaboration with Bookblock, I co-founded Stone – a trade and lifestyle brand that creates innovative new products for the food and drinks industry. We focus on making our products as practical and beautiful as possible, to meet the demands of one the most relentless industries out there.
How did you come up with the idea?
I owe Stone to a chance encounter with acclaimed chef, Michael Caines. A client and friend of mine, Eliot Collins, were working with Michael at his restaurant down in Devon. And because Michael works with a prosthetic arm, using conventional notebooks in his kitchen is challenging and most of the ones in there were falling to pieces.
So on the train journey home, Eliot and I began to envisage what the perfect chef’s notebook might look like. A notebook that could handle the pressures of a working kitchen. After an hour of bouncing ideas off each other, we came up with seven unique features it should contain. One of those features was stone paper, this almost magic material made of limestone that is naturally water and greaseproof.
I quickly got some prototypes made up in our workshop and got them in the hands of around 80 respected chefs from around the world. Their feedback was phenomenal and we knew right then we had an idea worth pursuing.
“I owe Stone to a chance encounter with acclaimed Chef, Michael Caines…because Michael works with a prosthetic arm, using conventional notebooks in his kitchen is challenging and most of the ones in there were falling to pieces”
Is there anything in your past that led to opening the business?
My mum always reminds me that, when I was a kid, I would buy cupcakes from the supermarket and sell them for six times the price to tourists queuing up for Wimbledon tickets. So I guess those entrepreneurial tendencies have always been there.
And though I loved running my own design agency, Stone gave me the opportunity to steer away from auditing businesses and organisations and get back to what I really love – building a product from the ground up and selling as best as possible. The cupcakes may have gone but that pure business ideal is still there. I think I’m probably banned from the All England Club now though.
What was the process of designing, manufacturing and bringing your first product or service to market?
One of the benefits of working with a custom notebook maker was Stone had access to materials and manufacturing resources right from the off. We were able to design, tweak and create our Classic Stone prototype in a matter of weeks which meant we could test it out really quickly.
We knew the design was ambitious though. 7 USPs is a lot to cram in to one product and had we not had that early support, Stone may not be here today. Plus we went into real detail about the quality of materials used. Stone paper is much harder to source than pulp paper but its benefits were so crucial that we had to persist.
During these early stages, it quickly became apparent that Kickstarter would be the perfect platform to launch Stone’s first product – the Classic chef’s notebook. Crowdfunding meant I didn’t have to spend my limited free hours on operations and logistics. Instead, I could play to my strengths and plan Stone’s marketing strategy.
Describe the process of launching the business and any issues you had at the beginning
Though many of our customers first came to us via Kickstarter, the launch of Stone actually started a lot earlier. We put four months of work into planning our Kickstarter – lining up collaborations, gathering press interest and putting together our launch video.
But most of our efforts went into gifting the Classic Stone to hundreds of influential chefs. We’d asked for nothing in return but, because of the quality of the product, we were inundated with mentions and endorsements on social media. The more they sung our praises, the more mystery grew around the product and the brand. And because at that time, Stone’s only online presence was a microsite featuring a video and mailing list sign up, we were able to materialise interest into a 3000 strong mailing list. That meant by the time we launched we had a captive market ready to go. Those early customers helped us reach our entire funding goal in just 24 hours.
What strategies or marketing channels do you most rely on?
Like I mentioned, influential chefs have been our prime marketing source. They’re born influencers. They’re highly trained, ruthlessly honest and naturally authoritative. So we set out to align Stone with the very best in the game – Pierre Koffmann, Gordon Ramsey et al. And thanks to 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’ve since expanded our marketing efforts to, for lack of a better term ‘foodie’ influencers. Writers, food stylists and recipe bloggers have all been happy to post about us for free. And I’ve been really pleased with how authentic those posts feel. Our goal was to paint Stone as an industry-led brand and our gifting plan has helped that happen.
We put a lot of time into our own social channels too. We’ve got some great photographers and videographers in the Stone team and our high production content has pulled in a strong following. I’m a designer at heart so I want all our channels to match what Stone is all about – simple, beautiful design. In fact, there was a period when Instagram, due in part to a carefully targeted ad campaign, was our biggest source of new customers.
But now we’re veering away from overtly promotional material and focusing on collaborations with top chefs to further cement Stone as a voice of authority within the industry. Our latest video series ‘Written in Stone’ sees great chefs talk about one dish or ingredient and has proved a big hit. It may not be generating direct sales, but it’s doing great things for Stone’s brand awareness. And it’s kind of the dream method for a company like ours – low cost and really effective.
What platform, tools or software do you use for your business?
For all the jazzy tools my developers have tried to get me on to, I’m a sucker for the humble Google Doc. It just works. And I guarantee in the future, when we’re all strapped into machines, the spreadsheet will still be alive and well.
Having said that we use do use Jira and Slack, both of which are great communication tools. We also fulfil through Blackbox, the guys behind Card Against Humanity. They’re essentially a tech company but they’re more capable than most to manage 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.
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What does the next 12 months look like for your business, and for yourself, professionally?
For us, the next year is about expanding the Stone range in a way that feels authentic to the professionals we’re targeting within our industry. It would be easy for us to start flogging all manner of Stone branded goods off the back of our early success but we want to Stone to grow organically while maintaining its core audience.
That means creating well-considered 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.
But the project I’m most looking forward to is the Stone Magazine. Over the last few months, we’ve been putting together plans for an annual print magazine. An ad-free, recipe-free annual that showcases stories from some of the most intelligent and charismatic figures in the food and drinks industry, all beautifully told with amazing visuals. Throughout my career, I’ve worked as a food photographer so it’s great to have a chance to meld together two of my strongest passions.
“the next year is about expanding the Stone range in a way that feels authentic to the professionals we’re targeting…we’ll only release products that we feel hit the Stone goal of being the most beautiful and practical tools possible”
What have you learned through this process that you didn’t know or think was important beforehand?
Without a doubt, the biggest challenge for us has been fulfilment. It’s so important to have the necessary infrastructure in place when you start a venture like this. After our Kickstarter, we had to fulfil over 4000 bespoke orders for customers all over the world and we’ve definitely learnt a thing or two about streamlining wherever you can.
What do you wish you knew before starting?
I wish I knew that my early hunches were correct. There were times when we scaled back on Stone because some clients or advisors couldn’t quite see the niche. But we always knew there was a clear market for our range of products. I guess it comes down to trusting your own judgement.
Not everyone is going to get swept up in your excitement so if I could go back again, I would tell myself to back your idea as hard as you can. If you’re not fully invested, why should anyone else be?
What resources would you recommend for others looking to start a business?
I love podcasts. I mean, everybody does but they are amazing at turning dead time into something totally useful. 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 solid stories told brilliantly, with simple and confident editing. Sometimes you can learn as much about business by listening to intelligent people outside of your domain.
Do you have any words of wisdom for other entrepreneurs looking to start their own ecommerce business?
At times like these, when uncertainty is the order of the day, it’s up to you to bring that sense of assurity. So be sincere in what you do. If you don’t believe in your product, no one else will. But if you throw your weight behind it, that will make the whole process so much easier.
At the same time, it’s so important to respect your audience. Make sure you’re selling a product that people want. It’s easy to get lost in branding, marketing, operation etc but you have to ask yourself two crucial questions. Would your audience buy it? And how could you sell it to them? It kind of all comes back to cupcakes.
“Be sincere in what you do. If you don’t believe in your product, no one else will”