Purpose, Persistence, and the Development of a Lifestyle Brand with Marissa Grootes
Within minutes of meeting Marissa Grootes, you can sense that this young woman lives her life with intention and attention. The 26-year-old Swiss Canadian designer is the founder of STIL Classics, which is best known for its day planners, and more recently, a leather clutch launched on Kickstarter.
STIL Classics: Goods for modern women looking to add little bits of simple sophistication into their lives.
“I design goods for modern women looking to add little bits of simple sophistication into their lives,” Marissa says, wearing black jeans torn at the knee, a crisp white blouse, and a preppy grey sweater over her shoulders. Her accessories are minimal but eye catching, and her nails perfectly manicured. She looks every part the designer.
She makes strong eye contact as she speaks, her words purposeful, and eyes serious as she shares her story unapologetically. It’s refreshing in a world where too many people are afraid to share honestly about their journeys, their passions, their wins, their losses.
“I focus mainly on stationary and leather goods now, but I’m on my way to developing a lifestyle brand,” she explains. “Down the road, I plan on producing jewelry and clothing — pieces that are timeless and have lasting value, and grow with you rather than get pushed a side. My idea was always to create a few simple things in several colours — like the perfect t-shirt or simple button up — that you can pair with your trend pieces.”
Marissa first created her own product in early 2013, when she created a day planner. She was working as a graphic designer for a real estate marketing company at the time, and the planner was a hobby project.
“I made one, then started making others for Christmas gifts,” she said. At the time she was printing them at Kinkos, and sticking individual gold dots on the covers by hand.
I realized the only thing standing in my way was my willingness to try
“My then-boyfriend suggested I try selling them on Etsy, so I gave it a shot. I would wrap each one, and put gold glitter in all of my packaging — I don’t know why, I just thought it was fun.”
After Marissa had sold about 50 planners on Etsy, she began looking into manufacturing, and what it would take to create 1,000 pieces.
Quitting to Scale Up
“I realized the only thing standing in my way was my willingness to try,” she says. “The day I left my full-time job, I thought I was going to die. I woke up on Monday thinking, ‘Oh my God! I can’t breathe. What am I going to do?’ Everyone thought I was crazy.”
But Marissa’s tenacity quickly overrode her anxiety, and she got to work. When her first planner arrived from the manufacturer, she was overjoyed. “I caressed the cover for, like, an hour,” she recalls.
The day her first 1,000 planners arrived at the shipyard, she brought them home to store in her little Yaletown, Vancouver apartment. “I shipped each one myself, and my mom helped a lot.”
Marissa finally moved her products off Etsy and opened her ecommerce store in August 2014, and only four months after receiving that first shipment, she had sold all 1,000 planners.
Marissa attributes the sales to diligent influencer outreach. “I reached out to a lot of bloggers and influencers, and sent them copies. I didn’t expect them to do anything for me, but a lot of people started to talk about them, which is how I started to grow my following.” (Today the brand has 21.2k followers on Instagram.)
No Doesn’t Mean No
With her increased success, Marissa reached out to Indigo in September to see if they would carry her planner. It was back-to-school season and seemed to make sense, but she didn’t hear back. She reached out again in October, and again in November, each time finding someone different to reach out to.
When someone says “no,” she hears, “not now,” or “I’m just the wrong person,” and then she tries again.
“Eventually they picked them up,” Marissa says. “And then they sold out in two weeks!”
Indigo placed a reorder, but by that time, she had no inventory left to sell.
“The lead time was too long, and the process was too crazy at that point, so I got creative instead. I created notepads, and a 6-month planner that starts in March. Indigo ended up purchasing for the next calendar year, and this year, they bought the 6-month calendar as well.”
My campaign was featured in Fast Company because I emailed them five times in two weeks. If you’re persistent, you can get in anywhere. Honestly, you don’t need a PR company.
One of the most striking things about Marissa is her grit. When someone says “no,” she hears, “not now,” or “I’m just the wrong person,” and then she tries again.
The same thing happened when she launched her Kickstarter campaign this fall, and was determined to get media coverage. “My campaign was featured in Fast Company because I emailed them five times in two weeks. If you’re persistent, you can get in anywhere. Honestly, you don’t need a PR company.”
That attitude has gotten her really far. She has a confident willingness to try, and not see things as a failure if they don’t work out as planned, but rather as a learning opportunity, a challenge to approach things more creatively, or an opportunity to practice perseverance.
“You just need the right attitude. If you feel it in your heart, it will work out.”
That 20/20 Hindsight
“When I started my business, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it anyway,” Marissa says, grinning at her naivety. “I just kind of did stuff and hoped for the best.”
If I had advice for my younger self, it would be to surround yourself with people who’ve already done what you want to do.
“I should have looked into everything that goes into starting a business — how you register, how you’re supposed to charge for tax, and how to remit it. Instead I was just like, ‘I’m going to start,’ and got caught in a shit storm of things I didn’t know. I had such a rough and tumble start. Things could have been a lot smoother if I’d known more, or talked to a few more people about what it’s like to start a business.
“If I had advice for my younger self, it would be to surround yourself with people who’ve already done what you want to do, and to get advice from them, and ask questions about things like manufacturing and importing, and what the rules are.”
The Art of Naming
When she first launched her planners, Marissa created them under her original brand, Design Love Co.
“I never went through the process of actually birthing the brand, so when it started to take off, I realized I wasn’t connecting with it the way I wanted to.”
With a vision to create something she could love and grow with, Marissa gave herself a full year to rebrand, and in April relaunched as STIL Classics.
“I had filled an entire book with words just to figure out what my brand was going to be called. I bought somewhere between 15–25 domains, and so many times had thought, ‘This is it, this is my brand,’ but then I’d tell someone, and they’d respond, ‘Yeah, that’s cute.’ That wasn’t the reaction I wanted.
“It finally came to me on New Year’s day while playing on Pinterest on my living room floor. I started thinking about the name, and realized I wanted to do something related to who I am, and the design I enjoy, so I started looking into Swiss and Dutch design, my two backgrounds. Everything they do is already what I preach and love — monochromatic, clean, lots of white, crisp, and everything functions really well. It’s very minimal and design-forward.
“There’s a Dutch design movement called De Stijl that uses a lot of primary shapes and colours, and black and white, which is literally everything in my life. So I decided to use the German word for style — Stil — and used it in a way that essentially means a way of living. And Classics just made sense — because they’re classics!”
Staying Patient is Easy When You Love Your Work
One of the most important takeaways Marissa shares with other entrepreneurs is to practice patience.
“The biggest thing is time,” she says. “People are really impatient and wonder why people aren’t buying their products, but you need to let things settle. People need to see it, and see it on other people, and need time to talk about it. And then a year down the road, if you keep going, people will start to take notice. You just have to be willing to go on a longer ride.”
Freedom to Work on Your Own Terms
While Marissa has the freedom and flexibility to work from anywhere and set her own schedule, she chooses to rent a desk at L’Atelier, a co-working space in Gastown, where she often shows up at 7:30am to get a head start before anyone else gets in.
If on Wednesday I want to get a pedicure in the middle of the day, no one can tell me not to.
“The best part about being independent is that I can work wherever and whenever I want, and don’t have to feel guilty about it. I don’t have anyone telling me how to do things, and when to do them. And if on Wednesday I want to get a pedicure in the middle of the day, no one can tell me not to.”
Riding the Roller-Coaster With Heart
While Marissa has an extraordinary amount of courage and confidence, she has also experienced setbacks, and has no shame in sharing them. It’s part of the authentic quality that not only makes her endearing, but also makes her a trustworthy role model because you know what she says is real.
When things get really hard, I cry, usually by myself.
“When things get really hard, I cry, usually by myself,” she shares matter-of-factly. “A former boss once shamed me for being overly emotional when I cried at work. That was the last time that happened. Now I go home, take a shower, and make myself cry. I’ll listen to a song, and have a pity party for an hour or two. I’ll usually call my mom, then treat myself to some of my favourite things, like chocolate chip cookies, wine, popcorn, and pizza. And I’ll go to bed early, because I won’t have much brain space, then I’ll wake up at 6:30 a.m. and go at it again.
“I really let myself feel everything. It’s important to let yourself do that. It’s almost like my sleep is my reset button, and I don’t want something that bothered me the previous day to bother me into the next, otherwise it becomes this snowball effect.”
The Power of Kickstarter
Earlier this fall, Marissa launched the Metropolis Clutch on Kickstarter, and reached her funding goal in just 12 hours. “The day I launched the campaign, I thought for sure I was going to fail. I was coming up with all sorts of ideas for what I was going to do if I didn’t reach my funding goal.
The day I launched the campaign, I thought for sure I was going to fail.
“The most surprising part of the experience was that people really loved the product — even strangers. I probably only knew about 30% of the people who supported the campaign.”
After raising $16,211 on the platform, Marissa says she would absolutely launch another product on Kickstarter, and highly recommends it to others as well.
“The thing is, money is money,” Marissa says. “It doesn’t matter how you get it. Just use all the resources you have.”
Marissa filmed her Kickstarter video herself, a skill she learned from watching YouTube tutorials on how to edit in iMovie. “I also watched a lot of videos from bloggers I follow, and paid attention to how they film and what they do with the camera, then mimicked them.”
Marissa already had a background in photography — she started with pinhole photography, then got into black and white, and even developed her own film. Today she shoots digital, and has a beautifully curated Instagram account.
“The same rules apply from photography to videography,” Marissa explains. “I already knew all the basics of lighting and composition — it was just a matter of figuring out how I wanted to film.”
The beauty of living life on your own terms
When we asked Marissa what was going well right now, she paused and took a moment to think with a smile.
“Recognizing the pleasure I take in my own independence, and how much I enjoy my life, my work, the place I live, and the people I surround myself with. I’m lucky to have a circle of really good friends who encourage me. It’s also important to know what you want, and what you like.”