Cart Talk is a new interview series dedicated to highlighting innovators in the commerce space. Each month, we’ll have conversations with thought leaders on how they run retail. This week, we sat down with Stefanie Botelho. Stefanie is the founder and CEO of Fitzroy, an online wholesale toy marketplace. Fitzroy gives independent toy brands a platform to sell their one-of-a-kind products. And thanks to Fitzroy’s discovery process, retailers receive curated recommendations on what to stock.
Tell me about your personal and professional journey, and how that led to where you are today.
I grew up in the LA area, but I'm very much an East Coaster. I went to Harvard for undergrad, and from there, had a pretty traditional career in finance before going to business school. I started my career in investment banking, spent some time at a startup, then worked at a private equity investor for technology companies. I focused all my time on their ecommerce vertical. From there, I went to Harvard Business School, where I spent my time largely thinking about Fitzroy.
When I look back at my experiences, I can say that I had a great time at TCV and Morgan Stanley, but I really loved my time at the startup the most. I loved being in a small company, working on a mission, where everyone really owned their day-to-day. You could see the impact you were making—there was work to be done, and if you didn’t do it, there was no one else to pass the buck onto. I loved that sense of ownership and responsibility. That was a large motivator for me to start something of my own.
As an investor, I was spending a lot of time in mom-driven businesses. I was done with the wedding circuit and moving on to the baby shower circuit, so I had just gotten to a stage in life where I was surrounded by kids again. That’s when I realized there was this total gap in the experience: how do people know what to buy for the kids in their lives? I thought, “I can't be the only person terrible at buying baby gifts!” And so, the very first version of Fitzroy was born.
What are some of the challenges facing buyers and sellers in the toy industry, and how does Fitzroy hope to solve them?
For the buyer, our focus is on data-driven discovery. We help buyers find not just what they think they want, but what best fits their needs. We work with a broad range of stores—museums, gift shops, design-friendly stores, pharmacies, garden stores, basically any store that’s looking to stock a kid-friendly version of an adult product. A data overlay based on location, price point, and store type helps buyers make more informed decisions on what to stock. Ultimately, Fitzroy helps buyers discover new products from our catalog, which is curated based on their personal tastes, as well as the type of store they’re running.
For the seller, we’re looking to help them tackle specialty sales through scalability. For the most part, if a brand is looking to get product off the ground, they’re doing what the creators of Barbie were doing in the ‘50s: they’re starting off with the stores in their neighborhood. Instead of looking them up in the yellow pages, sellers are looking them up on Yelp. They’re still going to the store and pitching the product themselves. Quickly, they realize that this just isn’t scalable. Because Fitzroy is primarily a technology platform, we don’t manage inventory. When a retailer places an order on Fitzroy, they’re placing an order directly with a brand, and the brand in turn manages the order and gets the product out to the retailer.
The bulk of sales are still made through trade shows, outsourced sales reps—methods still largely driven by pen and paper. Our goal is to digitize that process, to capture orders accurately. Most importantly, our goal is to bring a world of stores to the doorsteps of the founder. Thanks to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, more people are becoming founders, creators, and entrepreneurs, but oftentimes, these sellers just end up with a bunch of stuff in their garage. It’s almost like a bridge to nowhere: you’ve gotten to that next step, but now what? For someone who’s getting their product off the ground and out into the aisles, we’re that next logical step.
You carry some really unique brands. How do you discover new brands and establish solid partnerships with them?
All sorts of ways. We get recommendations through retailers. We rely on our advisors in the industry. We check out trade shows, maker fairs, and social media. We work with new creators, as well as brands that have been around since the ‘70s. We're always looking for brands that might be a good fit for our retailers.
I would say our mission is to Support Different. If you were to pull any product off our platform, you’d find that there’s something unique about each and every one of them. Maybe it puts a particular spin on an older category, or maybe it was produced by a woman-run business. We're especially interested in amplifying those smaller voices—helping them get louder—through discovery.
At Opposite of Far, owner Jessica Near creates hand-made costumes & masks for playtime.
My Family Builders encourages children to embrace family diversity through experimentation and play.
A lot of what we do comes down to the technology we've built. We make sure people can easily find the particular product they’re looking for. ‘Eco-friendly,’ for instance, is a popular filter. ‘Women in toys’ is our second biggest, and ‘Made in the USA’ is a popular one as well. Fitzroy features specific tools that help retailers identify products with these values. In a way, it’s similar to how a customer might walk into a store and say, “Hey, I’m looking for something that’s eco-friendly.” A retailer can do that on Fitzroy.
What are some of the unique challenges of wholesale? How does Fitzroy uses technology to tackle wholesale in a new way?
When I came up with the idea as a class project in business school, Fitzroy was consumer-facing. But as we continued to work with small brands—many of them on Amazon—our clients kept saying, “This is great, but it’d be even better if you did wholesale.” So that’s when I decided to raise funding for a wholesale platform.
We’re a B2B company, but we still think about our businesses the same way a consumer marketplace thinks about its users. We work with a lot of specialty retailers, so oftentimes, the owner of a store might also be the buyer, the check-out cashier, the person in the back doing inventory, and the clerk closing up at night. These retailers aren’t Target or Walmart. They don’t have the same tools. Our goal is to optimize for their pain points by giving them an experience that levels the playing field. Ultimately, we want to provide our retailers—and their professional buyers—with the same experience they might receive as consumers shopping on Amazon or Nordstrom’s.
What’s the origin story behind the name ‘Fitzroy’?
I get this question all the time! Fitzroy was a term used back when there were kings and courts, and it means 'son of the king.' A Fitzroy was a son or daughter that was illegitimate, and most often, they were banished from court. To me, those are the kids who need toys the most. It's a little tongue-in-cheek. In college, I was part of The Harvard Lampoon, so I always appreciate something that gives a good laugh.
What does an average day look like for you? How have you engineered your life to meet the challenges of your day-to-day?
Everyday is different, depending on what our goals are. That being said, a couple things happen every day: I check in with our brand team—they essentially manage the brands we’re currently working with. I check in with our merchandising team to see if our retailers have any questions on product. I spend some time thinking about higher-level strategy for product—our business is essentially the technology we're building—which then results in me spending time with our product and dev teams to discuss roadmap.
From a roadmap perspective, we want a clear idea of what’s ahead. What are the features we’re looking to launch? What’s really moving the needle for our users? There’s so much we could do to help out small businesses, but what can we first build that would make the biggest impact soonest? Also, because we're wholesale, the holidays come really quickly. We actually start planning for the holidays in January!
Then, I spend some time hiring. As we grow our team, I’m always interviewing for open positions.
At the end of the day, I try to carve out some time for general self-care. Sometimes it’s just visiting friends or family or going to the gym. I find myself to be most productive when I give myself some time to clear my mind.
What's the #1 thing you turn to as a means of avoiding burnout?
For me, it’s strategically disconnecting through exercise. I’m one of those people who loves the sense of accomplishment (and endorphins!) earned from a hard workout. I find that I come back to my work with more clarity when I give myself some time away from my phone and email.
So what’s next?
As we've continued to grow, our position in the market has shifted. Now, many of the retailers and brands we work with don’t just sell or make toys. We work with all sorts of children’s products now. What are some of the problems our future vendors or retailers might run into? From the point of discovery, are there any additional products out there that might be a good fit for Fitzroy as we continue to expand? These are just a few of the questions we’re considering as we tackle the next phase of growth.
We’re always open to chatting about retail. If you’d like to be featured on Cart Talk, drop us a line. And if there are any topics you’d like us to cover in future posts, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.