Justinia Gardiner is a mother of three who knows the struggle of applying sunscreen to impatient children’s faces. She wanted to simplify the process for parents and caregivers – after lots of trial and error, as well as testing on her own small subjects, she landed on an effective design. The washable, reusable foam applicators she crafted make applying sunscreen to tiny noses, little eyes and more a breeze. Gardiner launched her company, SunnyStik, in 2022 to sell the applicators, and quickly got them into a number of specialty stores. Today, the Austin, Texas, entrepreneur is working out how to expand her market reach to larger retail stores across the country, while continuing to bootstrap her young business.
Here’s our lightly edited Q&A, from The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project.
How is your business different from others in your industry?
I’m a small, woman-owned business. I see my biggest competition as the large sunscreen brands. That said, none of them have applicators that are designed with kids’ faces in mind, and none of them are thinking through how to make the experience fun for children. I really don’t think there is a product like mine on the market. I offer a clever and innovative way to apply mineral sunscreens, which are cream based and often hard to rub in, to kids’ faces.
Tell us about your biggest success so far.
I landed my first retail partnership within the first few weeks of receiving my merchandise. I was incredibly proud of that moment since it wasn’t even a local store, but rather, a surf shop based near the Hamptons in New York, who happened to see my product on Instagram. As hard as it’s been to keep up with content creation, it really felt like it paid off when I landed that first deal.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
Breaking into more retail locations. It takes time to pitch each shop, which is especially hard to do when there are so many moving parts to running a business – and when you’re a mom of three young kids. In addition to needing more time in my day for pitches, there is often a barrier to entry with the cost to doing business with larger operations. I’ve had some conversations with hotel resort shops who tell me that their mark-ups are 3 times the wholesale price. As a new business it’s hard to lower my wholesale price enough to justify placement in their stores. I’ve learned to start with smaller shops as I build my brand, and will pivot to the larger shops when possible.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
No one is going to advocate for you, except for you – so educate yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask hard questions when you’re starting out. As I always say, “You don’t know, what you don’t know.” As a new business owner, it’s fine to ask questions about what things mean.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
My kids are my inspiration. I try to remind myself on the tough days that I’m a role model to them, so I persevere even when I’m tired, or on days when I feel defeated or discouraged.
What is your go-to song to get motivated on tough days?
It depends on the day. Any songs by Bad Guys, Imagine Dragons, Taylor Swift or Pearl Jam are my favorites.
Who is your most important role model?
Spanx founder Sara Blakely. I really admire and look up to her. Her perseverance as a woman who started with an innovative idea and was turned down many times before earning her success is a true inspiration to me. And, I love how down-to-earth she seems to be as well. ◼