How I juggle an international business, 3 kids and the relationships that drive success: Entrepreneur Adina Jacobs Featured

Adina Jacobs is the co-founder of STM Bags, creating laptop bags and sleeves, tablet cases, and phone accessories.

She kick-started the trend for bags and accessories that could carry and protect our appliances way back in 1998 – when she was then only 23, and met her co-founder Ethan Nyholm (then an IT manager) while working as an accessories buyer for companies like Hound Dog and Seafolly.

STM now has offices in Sydney, San Diego and London, and makes more than $10 million a year designing, manufacturing and distributing accessories.

The business looks set to get even bigger, after Jacobs was selected as one of five Australian women to take part in the 2016 EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program.  

Below she shares what’s behind her success, and how she structures her day to truly “co parent” her three kids with her husband while managing an international business. 

Who or what inspired you to become an entrepreneur?

At the time, I didn’t think that what I was doing was “entrepreneurial”. We were looking for something that didn’t exist, we created it thinking that other people had to be looking for the same thing and then we pounded the pavement, talking about it and selling it. I remember a key turning point before we’d made a real commitment to start STM, we were just talking about it and doing some research. I was standing on the street talking to my Dad on the phone. As I explained the idea to him, I heard him take it in and it was like a lightbulb moment- if I could say it in a way that he understood and he was excited about, then I could do the for others. It was a totally unique idea at the time, and if my professional/doctor father saw the merit, then others would too.

Did you leave a corporate career behind?

I’ve never worked corporate, never worked in the city. In my adult life I’ve always worked in product. Ethan and I met while working together. That company set the stage for a lot of things we make a point of not doing at STM. We value people, we strive to be a valuable partner, with customers and suppliers. Quality is very important to us and we do whatever we can to achieve it.

Where did the idea for your current business come from?

Ethan and I worked together, he was the IT manager and I was the accessories buyer. He bought a laptop and was looking for a backpack that suited his work and university lifestyle, and he couldn’t find anything. He bought a padded envelope from the post office, put it in his hiking pack and that was that. We spoke and concluded that surely he couldn’t be the only one in that situation, so we created a small collection of high quality, protective laptop bags that didn’t look like laptop bags.

Can you name three major contributing factors that have led to your businesses’ success so far?

Relationships relationships relationships. You need to be important to your stakeholders and they need to be important to you. An example of this for us is the very early relationships with the independent Apple reseller network in Australia. They were our original gateway to the market we were trying to reach. This has followed through over the last 18 years to direct relationships with Apple, STM product in Apple retail stores globally.

Management of cashflow. Ethan is a master at this. It’s not just about making money, it’s about making sure you have it in the bank to pay your bills, it’s about knowing what’s coming and planning for it (as much as you can)

Getting into the heads of our consumers. And really understanding what appeals to them and what they need, then designing and building product to suit.

What do you believe is the number one trait that makes a successful entrepreneur.

Choosing one is really hard, I really think it’s a combination of taking risks and learning from the results, positive and negative.

As well as your business, what other priorities do you juggle?

I’m married with 3 young children, and part of a large and close extended family. I’m involved in the Sydney entrepreneurial community through the Entrepreneurs Organisation and others groups, and I have a wonderful group of friends who I don’t get to see enough but we’re connected to each other in a way that overcomes that.  

Can you describe an ‘average day in the life’? 

As I open my eyes, I check my emails, respond to anything urgent and make a quick hit list for the day. Sounds so ‘now’ but my husband and I co-parent. I leave before the kids wake up every day and 3 mornings a week I train. The other days I go straight to the office (via my favourite café, Gertrude and Alice in Bondi). My husband, Marc, gets the kids up, ready for school and drops them off. We have an office in San Diego, and they’ve already been at work for 4 hours by the time I get in, so mornings are filled with skype/zoom conversations and things I need to do with them before they finish up, around midday our time.  Our Head of Product is in northern California and our Marketing Director is in San Diego, with others spotted around the US, so it’s important to have those conversations first.

Afternoons are for working on product briefs, research, and anything I need to work on with the team in Australia. Even though I hit the ground running in the mornings, it often mentally takes me time to warm up through the day, and I usually hit my productive stride right around the time I need to leave to pick the kids up from school. There’s always a long list of things that haven’t been done that get pushed to tomorrow’s list, I’m never really done for the day. I try as hard as I can not to work when I’m with the kids- it’s impossible to stick to it all the time, especially when I leave before 5- but I try. Because of that, I often have a list of things that have to be done after the kids go to bed.

Late afternoons and early evenings are for sports activities, homework, making tomorrows lunches and tonight’s dinner, bath time etc etc etc etc, everything that goes into family life, with the odd urgent work call or email thrown in for good measure.

We try and eat together as a family a few nights a week. It’s a new thing that we started this year and it’s really great. The kids are trying foods they wouldn’t normally eat, and it’s great to have time to sit across from each other and talk. Things come out that we weren’t getting when every afternoon was just about coordination of that day or the next. One of my kids doesn’t have a very broad pallet and eating together is opening his repertoire up a bit. There are some meals where we all eat the same thing, but more often than not there’s a kid friendly meal and an adults meal. 2 of the kids eat both meals, 1 eats that one and Marc and I eat the adults meal.

After dinner it’s bath, relax and bed time. Once the kids are asleep, I do a little work, Marc and I watch some tv, I read a bit and then go to sleep, ready (or not) for the next day. I love books fiction, non and everything in between) and I make some time every day to read, even if it’s just a few minutes. There’s sporadic time in the day for social media, online research and the like, but I cap off every day by reading a book.

I travel a lot for work as I type I’m in Denver at a company strategy workshop. I often go to China and Vietnam for product development and to other places for material sourcing, research, company meetings etc. At those times, everything goes out the window and I focus on what I’m there for every waking minute.

What books and online publications do you read to keep up with the news and advice relevant to what you do?

Since we follow what happens in the tech industry, I read a lot of blogs in that space. Mac Rumors, Tech Crunch, MacNN are a few etc. I’m getting involved in the Sydney start-up community and the entrepreneurial space so I read up a lot about that, and I also follow what’s happening with the companies I’m interested in.

What do you believe needs to change in Australia for us to see more successful female entrepreneurs?

I think a lot of it is about awareness, and making women feel like they can do their own thing, and they know where to go for support. The numbers of women in the startup world and female CEO’s in larger organisations are low, but they’re creeping up. Things are starting to move more in Sydney now, especially with programs like EWW and Blue Chilli’s SheStarts, Jo Burstons Rare Birds movement, and others like it.

What opportunities are you hoping to gain from being selected for this year's global EY Winning Women Entrepreneur program?

I’m really looking forward to the learning and sharing that comes with being part of something as inspiring as EWW. I can’t wait to meet like minded people, hear about their experiences and hope that they can learn from mine. I can’t wait to be inspired by what these amazing women have achieved, and I want to hear how they manage to keep all their plates in the air and how they manage when they drop one here and there.

What are your future ambitions for the business? How big can it go?

As we focus on bags and cases for digital devices now, we are essentially an accessories company. There’s a lot of scope in this, and we are making plans for how that expands out over the next 3-5 years, both by product and by geographically. We recently acquired an American brand of very high end phone cases called Element Case. The last few months and the near future are all about merging the operations of Element Case into the STM house, and managing the identities of the 2 brands (that have 2 very different markets and products) completely separately.  

Which women inspire you?

I’m inspired by a lot of women in my life- women in my family who juggle work and family, and those who are totally committed to their kids and have patience that I have never experienced. Outside my family, I’m inspired by all walks of life, but the ones I’m really fascinated by are women who have walked in my shoes- those who juggle family and a company/brand, and I’m desperate to know how they practically manage their day to day lives. 

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