After facing her own personal daily struggle to cart around her twin daughters, their gear and a bag or two of groceries—and breaking many a stroller’s storage baskets in the process—Leslie Stiba decided to create the jack (or maybe we should say jill) of all trades, winning over the stroller market one mom at a time with her ingenious, multifunctioning invention, the Austlen Entourage.
By Crystal Zuzek, Photos by Keith Trigaci, Hair and Makeup by Laura Martinez, Shot on Location at Sawyer and Co.
Leslie Stiba, CEO and co-founder of Austlen Baby Co., says she’ll never forget the first time she saw one of her Entourage baby strollers “in the wild.” It was a gorgeous afternoon in fall 2017, and she’d just finished having lunch with friends in downtown Austin.
“My friends and I were talking in the parking lot, and we saw a woman walk by pushing the stroller I created,” Stiba says. “We were so excited that we ran up to her, and she started showing me all the things the stroller can do. That was a super-satisfying moment for me.”
The Arizona native’s path to entrepreneurship began 11 years ago, after she became a mother to twin daughters, Eve and Bree. Stiba, a former Dell global product manager, found herself increasingly disenchanted with the stroller options available to parents who needed to transport more than one child and a substantial amount of gear simultaneously.
“I struggled with every stroller I had when the girls were babies,” she says. “I broke all the storage baskets and canopies trying to carry all my stuff. The stroller baskets could hold only 10 to 25 pounds of gear. That’s not realistic for what most parents need.”
She wanted a high-quality stroller that would accommodate her family’s active lifestyle and assist with everyday tasks, such as carrying a load of groceries, allowing easy access to baby items and transporting bulky gear on family outings and vacations. No such product existed in 2007. So, Stiba conceived her own stroller design, and the concept for the Entourage was born.
The innately curious and tenacious working mother received the patent for the Entourage in 2011, founded Austlen Baby Co. in 2012 and launched the Entourage stroller and started selling it in stores in late 2016.
“The road I chose is a lot harder, but I’m glad I did it,” she says.
Capitalizing on her strong problem-solving skills, resourcefulness and deep desire to help people, Stiba ultimately created a luxury-grade stroller—aptly named the Entourage—that can hold as much as 150 pounds of weight, children and gear combined. The Entourage can comfortably and safely seat two little ones and glide with ease at the grocery store or on a sandy beach.
Back to work
Nothing could have prepared Stiba for the shift in direction her life and career would take when she went into labor at just 29 weeks. Her girls were in the neonatal intensive care unit for two months. Stiba quit her job to take care of her newborn babies and embraced her new role as a stay-at-home mom.
When her daughters turned 4, she contemplated re-entering the traditional workforce or pursuing her entrepreneurial dream.
“I’d always envisioned that I would be a stay-at-home mom once I had my girls, but as they got older, the more I missed working,” Stiba says. “My husband, Christian, almost knows me better than I know myself. He was amazed that I made it four years and fully supported my choice to go back to work and to pursue my entrepreneurial passion.”
The return to work wasn’t without its obstacles, but Stiba and her husband chipped in equally to keep their family on track. She embraced her new flexible schedule, getting work done when she could.
“Once you become a parent, you have to fit in work where you can,” Stiba says. “You become a better professional because you can’t procrastinate. You’re always a step ahead because you never know when a kid is going to get sick or something is going to happen to mess up your plans.”
Help along the way
The journey to bring the Entourage to market was an arduous one, replete with challenges along the way. But Stiba says a little luck and a lot of help allowed her to accomplish her goal.
Stiba’s background in product management and understanding of intellectual property served her well. The first patent was issued for the Entourage three and a half years after she applied. But she recognized she would need expert guidance about raising funding and a knowledgeable technology partner if she planned to enter the insanely competitive and highly regulated baby-gear retail industry.
In search of help, Stiba connected with the co-founder and chair of Avinde women’s business accelerator, Terry Chase Hazell, who, at the time, was also the director of the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. Stiba enrolled in the accelerator and for the next six months, walked through the necessary steps to start a company and put together a financial model for Austlen Baby Co. Encouraged by some positive feedback about her idea from an investor with the Central Texas Angel Network, Stiba turned her attention to finding a technology partner.
She discovered her co-founder, Austlen Baby Co. Chief Technology Officer Patrick Laffan, by simply searching for “stroller engineer” on LinkedIn.
“He was the perfect business partner for me. He had a background in engineering baby products,” Stiba says.
Laffan oversaw creation of the original prototype for the Entourage.
“[The prototype] was Frankenstein rough, not pretty and it had some issues that needed to be worked out,” Stiba says.
For instance, the stroller, which could hold 150 pounds, was nearly impossible for a parent to curb mount. Recognizing the mechanical advantage wasn’t right, Stiba and Laffan worked with a team of mechanical engineers at the University of Minnesota to iron out the kinks and get the stroller in proper working order.
Winning over customers
After years of focus groups, competitive analyses, extensive research and development, manufacturing trips to China, regulatory compliance and countless late nights of hard work, Austlen Baby Co. debuted the Entourage stroller, to rave reviews, at the 2015 ABC Kids Expo, a high-profile juvenile-products industry trade show. Right out of the gate, the Entourage earned the highest honor given by the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association: Best in Show.
The stroller’s bells and whistles—car-seat adapters for the front and rear frame, second seat, sit-and-stand jump seat and platform rider for bigger kids, beach wheels, cargo bag, snack tray, adult cup holders, 100 percent cotton seat liners, and rain and mosquito covers—as well as its high-quality design have made an impression not just on the retail industry, but also on customers.
Stiba relishes customer feedback and loves hearing how people are using the stroller to fit their lifestyles.
“We’re still a new brand, winning over one customer at a time,” she says. “We have amazing fans, and our customers are always teaching us about the product. One customer who is a music instructor stacked 16 violins on the Entourage. Another customer in Hawaii put a surfboard on it.”
As of late 2016, the Entourage could be found at 50 specialty retailers throughout the nation, including retail giants Bed Bath & Beyond, Amazon and buybuy Baby. Stiba says she hopes to expand into Nordstrom and Pottery Barn Kids soon. Later this year, Austlen Baby Co. plans to unveil more car-seat adapters compatible with every major brand and an airport-friendly travel bag that can transport the Entourage.
Stiba’s inquisitive and resourceful nature, which she refers to as “a blessing and a curse,” helped her endure the challenges she encountered while working to bring the Entourage to market.
“There were times when the going got tough and I wondered why I was putting myself through this,” she says. “My husband encouraged me to just keep going, and it paid off in the end.”
Leslie Stiba’s top five tips for working mompreneurs
1. Throw out the idea of a traditional work environment.
“You don’t have to have an office to be a legitimate business anymore. When possible, a virtual work environment is ideal for most parents (and people). We all need the flexibility to drive kids to lessons, take care of a sick child or just throw in a load of laundry in between conference calls. Also, some people are most productive at night, while others thrive in the morning. Fostering a fluid work/life culture can be so freeing for your team, and it can optimize their productivity and create stronger personal bonds among team members.”
2. Choose the right people to work with.
“The best people generally underestimate their level of contribution because they’re able to self-reflect and see both their strengths and weaknesses. If someone asks for the moon upfront, be wary. And when someone isn’t the right fit, act quickly. It’s truly better for everyone.”
3. Create protected time.
“Whether it’s dinner and bath time, helping with homework after school or date night with your spouse or partner, create sacred time with your family that can’t be touched. Exceptions will creep in from time to time, but having that time set aside that your family can count on each day will go such a long way for you and them.”
4. To be a successful entrepreneur, you must love people.
“You have to see the best in everyone and believe they are capable of more than they even realize. The number of people who help your business will define your success. If you believe in them, they will believe in you.”
5. Remember, it’s the journey.
“Entrepreneurship takes tremendous tenacity and grit. You’ve got to find a way to keep the wind in your sails. Make sure that on most days, the work you’re doing and the people you’re doing it with brings you joy and satisfaction. If not, chart a new course.”