Running a business can be all work and no play—but for Julie Howard, owner of Leo Kids, having fun with whimsical toys is an imperative part of the job. Julie’s Santa Cruz, Calif. shop (which neighbors Vanessa Ambrose’s store) is teeming with colorful treasures, and her interview below with valuable advice on entrepreneurship and motherhood. Read on for a playful peek inside the Leo Kids shop; plus, get details on a special giveaway at the end of the feature!
Photography by Carlie Statsky
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get to where you are today?
I was born and raised in central New York, and moved to Santa Cruz in 1998 with my husband, Ash. We truly thought that we’d only live in California for one year maximum, but we fell so in love with this little town that we’re still here 18 years later. We have two children—and now a small business called Leo Kids!
How did you decide that you wanted to open Leo Kids? Had you always dreamed of owning a children’s boutique?
I was busy as a full-time mom to my 5-year-old son, Fischer, and my 3-year-old daughter, Lucy, when I started getting an itch to create! One morning I went into my backyard, broke off a branch from my 20-year-old fig tree, grabbed an old basket of tangled yarn and some feathers and made a dreamcatcher. “That’s kind of cute,” I thought. “I’ll make more!” Before I knew it, I had started a tiny little business, which I called “Fig and Branch.” I sold the dreamcatchers to some local shops, had a few trunk shows and even filled a window display at Artisans Gallery on Pacific Avenue. This led to me opening a tiny pop-up shop within a local toy store called “Childish,” where Dyanne encouraged me to go for it on my own. And so it all began! I’m still incredulous.
You carry such amazing pieces. How do you decide what items to stock?
I have always loved toys—especially beautiful wooden ones—so I knew I wanted to fill my retail space with them! Not every toy I carry is wooden, but I do carefully select and edit everything that I offer to my customers. I go for quality and classics, as well as modern trends, while keeping the overall aesthetic clean and simple.
How did you go about styling your store?
I basically wanted to create a modern and colorful environment. I thought about all my favorite stores and what I liked about them: They had good lighting, good music and great displays, and they weren’t too overstocked. I also turned to my talented girlfriends for their advice and opinions on interior design and product lines. Merchandising was admittedly a challenge for me, but luckily I’ve had the best mentor—my retail neighbor, Vanessa, owner of Cameron Marks, who has been doing this for 10 years! I’m still learning and I still ask for advice, but I’m getting there—I think.
Name five favorite brands that you currently carry. What do you love about them?
Some all-time favorite brands I carry would be Kukkia, blabla, Oli&Carol, Moulin Roty and Grimm’s. They all produce some of the most beautiful, original and inspiring products on the market. But I must say: Every product line in my shop has a story behind it and a special place in my heart, and that’s what creates the personality of Leo Kids.
What was the best business advice you received when you started Leo Kids?
The best advice I got was from my close friend, Leslie, who owns two Bar Method studios in the Bay Area. I remember telling her that I was seriously interested in starting a shop, but that I was second-guessing myself because I thought it was an impossible mission—equivalent to running for the U.S. Senate or something. She simply said, “It’s really not that hard.” OK, let me be clear: Owning and running a business is hard. Sometimes it’s crazy hard! But Leslie was right: Starting the business was actually pretty easy! If she hadn’t advised me so confidently, I never would have begun. Keep in mind that I did have help from family, which was the biggest blessing of all. It’s the only reason Leo Kids exists today!
What’s the most difficult part about owning a business?
Owning a business as a sole proprietor is wonderful, but it also has many challenges. I am the salesperson, the bookkeeper, the housekeeper, the manager; the CEO, COO and CFO—you name it. It’s very rewarding, but let’s be real: It’s a lot of work. Vanessa tells me, “Owning a business means making a lot of sacrifices, matey!” She’s Australian, by the way. But she’s 100 percent right. It requires a lot of sacrifices, but it’s also very exciting! I’m always thinking about how I can grow and succeed, which makes all the sacrifice worth it.
What has been one of your greatest successes so far?
OK, I’m not sucking up here—but when Leo Kids was in its fourth month, your founder, Taylor Sterling, came into my shop with her sweet family and asked if she could take a quick picture of the shop to post on Instagram. “Sure,” I replied. My Instagram account gained about 300 followers overnight. It was even more exciting when all of those new followers started asking, via Instagram, how they could purchase items.
What app gets you through the day?
Thank goodness for Instagram! Not only does it generate sales for me, but it also allows me to easily let my followers know what’s new, what’s on sale and what’s to come!
How do you balance being a mom and owning a business?
That’s a loaded question. It’s hard. It is. I can’t sugarcoat it. Running a household is a full-time job on top of my other full-time job. My kids are still young, and I want to be present with them. I try to put work aside and focus on them. I try to set goals and take everything one day at a time. I am definitely still learning. Zoning out with reality TV helps. Dancing to Taylor Swift—particularly to the song “Bad Blood”—with my kids also helps.
What do you love about owning a store in Santa Cruz?
Owning a business is one of the best ways to express yourself! My shop is a reflection of who I am: a mother and wife and lover of toys who is passionate about design. I love that I can be myself because I am my own boss. Most days I don’t brush my hair! I’m not perfect, but I always try to be who I am—and I think Leo Kids reflects that.
What advice would you give to other women who are interested in starting their own business?
Just think about the advice I’ve received: “It’s really not that hard,” but “it’s a lot of sacrifice, matey!” You should always follow your dreams. Don’t be scared! Why not at least try? If you don’t succeed, it’s not the end of the world. And if you do succeed, it’s the best feeling in the world! Don’t forget that you can always listen to Taylor Swift when you’re overwhelmed. Essentially, if it’s your dream, go for it!
What’s next for Leo Kids?
Leo Kids is coming out with a super-exciting mini-film, thanks to Gadgetbox Studios! It’s adorable and fun, and it promotes all the lines that help make the store a success. Also, stay tuned for pop-up shops and events! I’m always thinking big—I just want to create a store that people love!
We’ve partnered with Leo Kids to give away a lovely assortment of goodies! Here’s what’s included:
- Grimm’s Large Stacking Rainbow ($89)
- Sketch.inc Nesting Dolls ($29)
- Made-to-order wool/cotton pom-pom garland, 6 feet ($32)
(A total value of $150!)