Leslie Stiba turned the pitfalls of entrepreneurship into a more meaningful career.
By Jess Bugg
It was over three years ago, in March 2018, when Leslie Stiba first graced the cover of Austin Woman. Needless to say, a lot has happened since then. Stiba is the CEO and co-founder of Austlen Baby Co., which specializes in innovative stroller designs. She and co-founder Patrick Laffan, created the Austlen Entourage, their award-winning stroller, based on her own stroller needs as a mother of twin girls.
In 2018, Austlen was in over 100 retailers in the United States, experiencing major growth with direct sales and had just completed its onboarding with Nordstrom. Stiba recounts receiving love letters from parents, gushing about how much they adored the Entourage. Her goal of making life easier for parents was actually coming to fruition.
However, as a startup, Austlen relied on a sizable loan from the Small Business Association (SBA) to fund development and operations. The loan came with high monthly payments, and the company struggled. Even though sales were climbing and Austlen’s distribution strategy was a success, it wasn’t enough in those early stages to keep up with the payments. The company needed more time to pay off the loan and began working with a local lender to restructure the debt. This felt to Stiba like a clear path to satisfying everyone involved.
Not on the Same Team
There was just one problem: the chief lending officer. “The number of meetings we had to sit through where he mansplained to us how he was going to make this work with or without us was pretty infuriating and, frankly, insulting.”
He came to the table with a myriad of bad ideas from liquidation to taking over the entire business himself. Stiba jokes, “Apparently we made this look way too easy.” While she laughs and smiles through speaking about this difficult time for her business, it’s clear by the tone of her voice how painful this setback truly was.
It turned out the lending officer’s plans were in direct conflict with the SBA, and once they got wind of what he was doing, they immediately put a stop to it. Unfortunately, the damage was done. Stiba recalls replaying the scenario over and over in her mind but still struggles to understand what happened. “If you’re playing a game and the other person is dead set on losing, how do you play?”
Legally unable to share the details with her customers and those who had been a part of the Austlen journey only added another layer of isolation and distress.
This period not only came with devastating career setbacks, but personal, family tragedy as well. Stiba was in the process of losing her mother to ovarian cancer, and one of her daughters was diagnosed with epilepsy. “To say it was tough is an understatement.”
Stiba has been through major personal struggles before. Her twin daughters, now aged 14, were born at 29 weeks and spent two months in the NICU. Speaking about this time still brings tears to her eyes. But the resilience she acquired through these previous hardships is palpable. She surrounds herself with like-minded people and describes her team as determined but optimistic—the kind of people who can still crack jokes even at the worst of times. While the lending officer created huge setbacks, Stiba says, “With any start-up venture, shit’s going to hit the fan in a million different ways. All this stuff with the lender was just one thing. There were a million other things throughout the journey of building this company.”
She credits her team and those who supported Austlen (as well as a little luck) with making it through to the other side.
In 2021, Stiba & Laffan were able to buy the business back. Through all of the hardships, they were able to retain their core team members. The partnerships, manufacturers, vendors and everyone who helped make Austlen what it was the first time around. “It feels like we got the band back together.”
Being in direct contact with customers and maintaining those relationships is incredibly important to Stiba. Going back to its roots, Austlen is now selling directly to customers. “The magic of Austlen has always been the people.”
Messages of Support
Even with her inability to confide in her customers about all of the behind-the-scenes struggles, Stiba continued to receive messages of support. “The customers made us feel like if we could do it again, we should.”
Her desire to help other struggling entrepreneurs was also a major factor in her not giving up. “As a female entrepreneur this is such a tough journey, even when you have all the right ingredients.”
Previously, the company was not set up to easily support a philanthropic arm. But thanks to their newfound freedom, Stiba puts philanthropy as a core tenant of who they are as a company. Stiba hopes to support the next generation of entrepreneurs by putting 10% of Austlen’s profits toward supporting underrepresented entrepreneurs through education and direct funding of their ventures. “We’ve always had a really diverse group of people support us; we’ve had women, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, every stripe imaginable. I feel like it’s our turn to support them. For me, that’s the ‘why.’ I want to pay it forward.”