Welcome to the first of our Founder Spotlight Series interviews, where we'll share insights, experiences, and advice from some of our client founders. In this interview, we caught up with Stacey Keller, founder and CEO of Ponyback Hats.
Building a startup isn't something you do on the weekends. It's a full-time commitment to bring something from an idea to a market-ready product. When those products are software or service, there's a unique set of challenges. But those challenges can seem small compared to bringing a physical product to market.
There's a saying in startup culture that we all know too well—" hardware is hard." Ponyback Hats founder and CEO Stacey Keller knows this all too well. Her product is an innovative baseball hat that uses a set of magnets to create a seamless opening for the wearer's ponytail. It's a product that many think should have existed already, but for Keller, it was a consumer problem ready for a wearable solution.
While the product is designed to make wearing a hat and a ponytail work at the same time, that wasn't the original problem that attracted Keller's attention. Instead, Keller was concerned about protecting her family's skin from prolonged exposure to UV radiation when playing outside. Keller found herself constantly reminding her young sons to wear a hat when going outdoors until one day, one of her children asked why she wasn't wearing a hat herself.
"This was the first moment where I found myself wanting to buy a hat, but I couldn't find one that I wanted to wear. I'm a hat snob. I wanted a cute hat. I didn't want to wear my husband's Blue Jays hat. I wanted something that was made for me," Keller said.
She wore her hair in a ponytail most of the time, a style that didn't work with any of the hats she found in stores. Searching for solutions online led to a barrage of digital ads for baseball hats with a hole cut in the back.
"I'll wear my hair down too, so those hats won't work. I wanted the flexibility of waking up on vacation in the morning and wearing my hair down, but then in the afternoon and we're at the beach and I'm sweating, to be able to put my hair up. I wanted both of those things in one product," Keller said.
It was then that Keller realized it was a problem she could potentially create a solution. She wrote down the idea—to produce a high-quality hat that would meld together the ponytail and the fullback experience.
As a high school business teacher, coming up with a business idea had been on Keller's mind for years. In 2017, Keller received a promotion to be a department head after teaching for the previous ten years.
"I'm the constant overachiever, so I was mapping out my career that would eventually lead to becoming a high school principal. But I was also having this moment where I was doing some soul searching. If I could do anything in the world, what would it be? I've always had this dream of starting my own business and just never gave it enough thought that I could actually do it," Keller said.
At the start of 2018, Keller created a vision board with "create a business plan" as one of her goals. That summer, Keller found herself spending hours putting together prototypes for a hat that would look like a traditional fullback baseball hat with an invisible opening for wearing a ponytail.
She found inspiration—and parts—at home with some magnetic toys her children had stopped playing with.
"I had never really thought through what was holding those magnetic blocks together before. They're just small cylinder magnets, so I headed to my garage and borrowed my husband's tools to break into them and get the magnets," Keller said.
Keller had been cutting up store-bought hats for her prototypes and found that the magnets were the right shape and size to be sewn into the seam at the back of a hat. She sowed in the magnets and found that her prototype closed up exactly as she imagined it could.
"I asked myself, did I just create a solution to my problem? Is this it? I immediately put it on, I pulled my hair through, and this was it. I took a selfie of myself and I sent it immediately to my husband and told him that this is my new business idea," Keller said.
Keller said she had multiple ideas since first putting down her intentions on the vision board, but it wasn't until that prototype worked that she felt she had something she could make happen.
After the initial euphoria, Keller knew it was time to work on the business plan. Step one was to start a conversation with Accelerator Centre partners Bereskin & Parr about whether the idea was patentable. She also did some research to see if anything else like the magnet closure existed in the market. With nothing similar found, Keller applied for a patent, and her application is currently pending approval.
"That's when I found the Laurier LaunchPad program (now Laurier Startup Lab) and it was the thing that I need to hold myself accountable if I'm going to make a real effort at this," Keller said.
Keller applied and was accepted into the LaunchPad in 2019 and quickly started working towards the manufacturing and go-to-market plans for the hat.
"I made my appointments with the lawyers to draft up the patent application and I finalized and submitted it on June 11, 2019. It was then that I was able to finally tell people other than my husband and the lawyers about the hat," Keller said.
Crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are often the go-to-market strategies for consumer products like the Ponyback hat. But Keller's research on the platforms gave her another idea. She knew Ponyback would be a lifestyle brand, and it would need a community of its own.
Creating engaging and humorous content on Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram has led to Keller amassing nearly 160,000 followers since June of 2020. Keller leveraged those early followers to spread the word of presales for the initial order of hats. During this time, Keller applied and was accepted into the Accelerator Program.
"Everything had switched over to Zoom, which was a blessing in disguise for me because I could be in all the meetings while still taking care of my family," Keller said.
The first few months saw some positive traction for the hat, bringing Keller to a decision point.
"I had to decide if I was going back to teaching or not. We were working through lots of great things at the Accelerator Center, branding work and my customer journey—all these great things. The question from the mentors that I focused on was on sales. Was this a channel play or a direct to consumer play," Keller said.
After looking into channel sales, Keller decided to focus on direct-to-consumer sales and social media.
"From the beginning, all of the mentors said they loved my social media presence and I didn't get it. Like, what are you talking about? I don't understand, I actually think I'm a goof, but I'm just showing up as myself. I remember Rob Farnham saying he wanted me to show all the other founders in the program what I was doing," Keller said.
For Keller, social is about being as authentic as possible—even if you think you're a goof.
"Your uniqueness is your superpower. I feel like when you get to that threshold of being so authentically you that it becomes invigorating for people to watch," Keller said.
Keller said the Accelerator Centre mentors helped her understand how her social accounts and the brand tied together.
"They're all telling me all this great stuff about my presence on social media and I just didn't really get it. Then we had the brand value session where they take you through figuring out what are your core values. All of my own personal core values came flying out as the things that are also representing the Ponyback core values. It totally made sense," Keller said.
Today, Ponyback sells three variations of the original hat in adult and youth sizes. Keller has also recently launched a beanie with the same magnetic closure system. The hats have attracted the attention of retailers and suppliers, but Keller said she is focused on direct to consumer for the time being.
"When I'm looking at wholesale, there's a number of issues. I don't want to lose the margin and I don't have the team to manage that. There's a landscape of e-commerce that I have not tapped yet and there's a lot of things to explore and grow," Keller said.