From Scratch: Oliebollen
Historically, American children's clothes haven't been particularly stylish lots of primary colors, Peter Pan collars, alarmingly Victorian layers of frill and lace. Photographs of your formative years can be cringe-inducing, as a questionable romper-suit choice overshadows family memories. But thanks to Oliebollen, the online brainchild of a former stay-at-home mom, kids with fashion-conscious parents are reaping the benefits of hip, modern threads.
Named for a doughnut-like Dutch holiday treat, Oliebollen (OH-lee boh-len) sells children's clothes, home goods, toys and books with a decidely European flair.
After working for her husband's Internet development company in the late '90s, Ann Arbor mom Margaret Schankler sought to pursue her own online venture. "At the time, e-commerce was at its infancy," Schankler says. "I wanted to do something with children's design and I wanted to do something with the Internet; I had access to programmers and I had the opportunity."
With her young daughter beginning grade school, Schankler found that she not only had time to pursue a new business venture but also the inspiration for Oliebollen. "My daughter's best friend in kindergarten was from Denmark," Schankler explains. "She had all these cute clothes Danish design and Scandinavian design for kids
[they were] the antithesis of American design which was all cutesy-cutesy."
Schankler started conceptualization for a website in 1998 to provide kids gear with a sense of the chic. Oliebollen launched the following spring. What began as an idea for a webmagazine with retail on the side actualized as a full-blown online store.
Schankler sent out an email to a list of 500 contacts "In the first week I got a few orders and was kind of amazed by that" and since that modest beginning, Oliebollen sales have grown healthily. Sales doubled in the first two years, and have experienced roughly 20% growth every year since, Schankler said.
Initially, Oliebollen placed ads in parenting and women's magazines and blogs. Now the company mostly relies on online advertising like Google AdWords. Steady word of mouth and significant press (including mentions in InStyle and on the Today Show) during its first few years definitely aided popularity. But from the onset, knowing what would make Oliebollen successful was more instinctual than anything else.
"It wasn't difficult to grow the business," Schankler says. "It kind of grew organically. We just followed our instincts in defining who our customers might be and what types of things they would be shopping for."
The name Oliebollen has become more familiar in parenting circles today, but the tastes of new moms (and dads) have changed, too.
"Nowadays, young parents go straight for the streamlined, modern aesthetic they don't go through a frillier stage," says Schankler. While Schankler solely carried European lines when the website started nearly 10 years ago, Oliebollen now offers a variety of American as well as European products.
"American things are a little more funky, a little more edgy," Schankler says. "[The parents like] urban looks for their kids."
The site's offerings balance between the two continents: Popular clothing brands include the American line Paul Frank (famous for its bright colors and monkey logo) and imps & elfs from the Netherlands (which reflects the clean, streamlined design tenet). Toys from the German line Haba sell well, but also available are Peace Baby wooden blocks created by Schankler and design partner Deb Pilutti.
A designer and illustrator, Pilutti started with Oliebollen when she was freelancing for Schankler's husband's Internet company, Enlighten. Attracted to the bright colors and retro influences of Pilutti's work, Schankler asked her to help with the initial website and graphic design but soon became a design partner as Schankler's ideas for Oliebollen continued to evolve.
Aside from the Peace Baby blocks, the duo have created clothing items, a suitcase, a product line and blankets. They plan on producing more goods under the Oliebollen signature in the future.
"The direction that we consider
is just creating our own product as opposed to representing others," Schankler said. Pilutti says the two are playing around with concepts for paper dolls and clothing-and-toy combinations.
"We talk about (new products) all the time," Pilutti says. "We don't want to do a product that someone else is doing out there."
A major item they created was the "Olie Loves the World" blanket, the proceeds of which went to the Sitara Orphanage in Peshwar, Pakistan. Through its "Olie Loves the World" campaign, Oliebollen supports a number of charities, both international and local (Food Gatherers, an Ann Arbor hunger relief and education organization).
"[Giving back] was something I always wanted to do with any business venture," Schankler says. "What I believe is to invest some of the profit into something that helps other people." Once Oliebollen became profitable, the first major grant went to the International Rescue Committee to fund Afghani education programs.
"Because we're a site that attracts mothers, we had this audience, mostly like-minded
to direct to charity." For this built-in audience, Oliebollen has expanded to include clothing for moms, too.
Oliebollen receives about 5,000 site visitors a day. Despite the wide array of products and a growing customer base, the store focuses on a more personalized shopping experience
"I think people are looking for certain brands and they come to the site and see a huge collection of products," Pilutti says. "It's really more of a small store than most people realize so we try to make it feel like that, just in terms of the attention."
Additionally, the online rather than brick-and-mortar store set-up results in advantages for both the customer and the owner. The customer can shop from anywhere and at anytime. And because of this, the owner doesn't have to be dependent on the local economy and local buyers.
"One thing with an internet business, my customer base is not here I don't think I would be in business (if my customer base was in Ann Arbor)," Schankler says.
Instead, Oliebollen's customers are in major urban areas. Schankler estimates that 40% of orders come from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta and 55% from all over the rest of the United States. Recently, international orders increased to roughly 5% from less than 1% a year ago.
To some people, the idea that a stay-at-home mom created and continues to run a successful online company may be the most intriguing note to the Oliebollen backstory. For others, that might be Schankler's University of Pennsylvania degree in anthropology.
"When I graduated I decided I didn't want to pursue [anthropology] anymore," Schankler says. "[I've] worked in market research, public health policy, technical writing, computer materials which led to tech marketing writing, which led to doing digital presentations way back when in the '80s
and then my husband's business turned toward Internet from other digital media."
After so many career paths, it's ironic that motherhood provided Schankler with her professional calling. With Oliebollen it seems that she and her customers have found their niche.
"My husbands family had their own businesses, my father had his own business..." she chuckles, "...I have a business person gene I guess."
How do you say "Olie bollen?" Listen here.
Kimberly Chou is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor and frequent contributor to metromode. Her article Fuelish Thoughts ran earlier this month.
An actual plate of Oliebollens (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Peace Baby blocks
Cushy stacking blocks
Peace Baby tote bag
Desk and chair interlock to save space when not in use
Photographs courtesy of Oliebollen