Innovation 1-on-1: Jonah Staw, LittleMissMatched

Jonah Staw, co-founder and CEO of LittleMissMatched, heads-up a lifestyle brand that is based on "innovative and creative mixing and mismatching." LittleMissMatched launched in 2004 with a collection of mismatched socks sold in odd numbers to encourage gi

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
5 min read

Jonah Staw, co-founder and CEO of LittleMissMatched, heads-up a lifestyle brand that is based on "innovative and creative mixing and mismatching." LittleMissMatched launched in 2004 with a collection of mismatched socks sold in odd numbers to encourage girls of all ages to express themselves. The "nothing matches but anything goes" philosophy knocked people's socks off, and sales jumped from $5 million to $25 million in just three years. Today, the LittleMissMatched product line includes everything from socks, winterwear, and sleepwear to books, bedding, and furniture for mismatched mavens of all ages. LittleMissMatched products range in retail price from $5 to $1,200 and are available at specialty boutiques and department stores nationwide. The company recently announced $17.3 million in private equity funding, expanded distribution, a new flagship store in Manhattan, and a series of new products.

How do you define innovation?

Innovation is such a broad term. I was recently on a McKinsey panel discussing innovation, and we opened by going around the room. There were more than 25 chief strategy officers from major US corporations. The moderator asked what was the most innovative product, and 90% of the audience said the iPod. I said the Post-It Note. Why? It is so simple it's obvious. It has become a fixture on the physical American desktop. It is useful. It invented a new category...before there were note cards, stationary, thumb tacks and more. Now we have the Post-it. Innovations are simple, elegant solutions that make things better. Better doesn't necessarily mean more efficient...it could be more fun, easier to use, beautiful. You get the point.

What are the most important areas of innovation in your organization?

My company is 100% based on innovation. We created a company that was founded on the premise of selling three-packs of non-matching socks. Talk about a challenge -- we were completely changing the way people got dressed each morning. We set out to tell the world that it was okay to not match your socks and as such, you should buy them in a novel way. Our socks are uniquely paired to look great together. What we discovered is that our socks are something that are simply FUN. They are so fun that people what to tell their friends about them. Our customers lift their pant legs and say, "Hey check out my socks!," this is certainly innovation in the world of socks. Our challenge is to translate this innovation into other product categories so that our brand is cohesive. At LittleMissMatched we believe that simple product innovations make our success. People will talk about our products if we give them unique products that are easy to talk about. We have furniture that you can draw all over with a dry erase pen. Why have you ever done that before? We have bedding that flips and switches to make 192 combos in one bed set. For us, innovation is key to our long term success. The good news is that every product category in the world can be missmatchified.


What is your most successful innovation? How did you find it?

It depends on how we define success. I personally love our furniture. Maybe that is because I flew to China to help finalize its development. It was a brutally challenging trip so I am enamored with the end result. If we look at units sold, our socks win the award. If we look at dollars/SKU sold, then our bedding wins. Each of these innovations were found by breaking conventional norms to bring a true value proposition to our customer. Imagine a world where now one bed in a bag we sell gives you 192 combos when all of our competition only gives you one option. When we are at our best, we subvert the marketplace...in other words, we don't talk about thread count, we talk about combos. What this means is that we don't actually have competition. Why? Because of our version of innovation!

Which innovation "failure" did you learn the most from, and why?

I don't ever believe in failure. I believe in learnings. Our first sock package almost disintegrated in your hand, but it was a totally unique package...it failed functionally, but it led us to where we are now. We are only four years old as a company, so each step we take is a learning. Success never happens spontaneously. As they say, "practice makes perfect."

What lessons can you pass on to others from how your organization has changed to make itself more innovation driven?

The kind of people who are innovation seekers are what I call "yes to no" people. They are the type that says, "Hey that is a really great idea, but I think it would be even better if..." They are expansive thinkers. They are not the type that says, "Nope, that idea won't work because xy or z." We have worked as hard as we can to hire "yes to no" people. We want everyone to have an open mind, but ultimately, we want them to be filters/curators at the right time so that they can make the hard decisions that will grow our business. If I can pass one lesson on, it is to hire "yes-to-no" people!

In your opinion what are the biggest barriers and challenges that stand in the way of organizations becoming more innovative?

We are a small company with a short history. Our historical benchmarks are not relevant yet because we are rapidly growing. I think the biggest barriers are companies that say they want to be innovative but they don't truly plan for innovation. They look at their historical benchmarks instead of forward at the possibilities. At the McKinsey panel I described earlier, a chief strategy officer from a Fortune 500 company said, "20% of our new products are now required to be driven by innovation." I asked, "Is the company setting aside 20% of your time to develop innovation?" Of course the answer was no. Innovation doesn't just happen. Organizations must understand that they must change culturally and structurally to enable innovative thinking. Ultimately, I believe the executive office suite must also be populated by innovative thinkers or innovation doesn't have a chance of success.

Beyond your organization, who do you admire for risk-taking innovation and what do you think makes them successful?

I admire everyone trying to think differently. There are so many people innovating there isn't just one person to name. I think ultimately innovators are successful because of their passion for success. Remember Steve Jobs failed his first time at Apple and was fired by the board. A good idea isn't the key to success. It is execution, timing, market conditions and a whole lot more.

What innovation are you still waiting for?

If I had a list, I would be working on those innovations instead of what I am doing at LittleMissMatched! With all seriousness, I am very focused on building a brand based on creativity and innovation. I believe our brand has a broad enough foundation to explore the world!