Courtney Bonzi is the founder of Spark*l and the inspiration behind just about every band and accessory you see on this website. Backstories and origin stories of founders always get a little filtered, and accounts tend to read like a highlight reel in the afterglow of success. But Courtney is still in there, every day, pushing for Spark*l to become not just the company she envisioned but one with more surprises in store.
Here, some of her keys to success and a few things that have surprised her along the way.
Spark*l has grown fast over the last couple of years: But it wasn’t always a fast trajectory. “When we started putting bands online, we were making some sales but not a lot. So we were doing trunk shows to get the word out and meet people in real life. I’m very introverted, and I was encouraged by another designer to choose that path, but it didn’t really take.”
At the same time, the online sales were not going very well: “We were selling a couple a week, maybe. I was pretty done—just kind of disenchanted by the whole thing. I felt very much like a failure. I felt—I was on a walk with Joe, my husband, and explained to him that I should just give up. I was really sad and just felt like it was time to give up. He said, “Just keep at it, keep going if you love it, keep doing it. Don’t worry about whether or not you’re selling a certain number per day. Maybe it’ll just grow slowly.” He gave me encouragement. I used Instagram initially, but things only happened after Joe, and I had our talk. Then a certain influencer shared the bands, and that’s when it happened. About a month to the day after our walk, it took off.”
Changing the definition of success as you go: “My vision of success was to make one band a day. Make my one a day, contribute to my family, and have some flexibility in my schedule. It took off, and suddenly our home was taken over by bands—so it was time to expand the business.”
And then came a pandemic: “The first thought we had was people aren’t going to be spending money—but that was OK because, at that time, there was no substantial financial investment or risk. No lease. Three or four employees. So we thought, OK, well, if people stop buying these because they are frightened with their money right now, it’ll just be me making the bands again, or I’ll find something else. And I’m good with that.”
We quickly realized: “We were getting a boom in orders. It grew so fast, but we were having a hard time with employees because we were afraid to hire people during COVID. And we were working out of our home. And it was lockdown. We were hiring family members and roommates, so we didn’t go out of our COVID circles. We had to quickly shift and send [unbuilt band] packets home with workers. Our seamstresses took our sewing machines home—we were coordinating everything remotely and in lockdown. It was a lot. But we learned a lot. Shifting around employees and making sure everyone’s safe, then growing and having remote workers, and then a crisis of materials —it’s been one thing after the next. It’s stressful, yes, but worth it.”
My vision of success was to make one band a day. Make my one a day, contribute to my family, and have some flexibility in my schedule. It took off, and suddenly our home was taken over by bands.
Just as there was a little breathing room: “We lost a dear friend in the middle of all this craziness and expansion. It happened in a tragic accident that we were witnesses to. It was our best and oldest friend, and we’re grieving in a home that had no privacy and dealing with the growth of the business—all in a pandemic… I don’t miss those days. A lot of founders look back and get whimsical about the early days. I don’t.”
Time to get stronger: “As a result of where we’ve been, the small everyday challenges: computer issues, sourcing, finding the right formula with employees, don’t seem so big. Things happen every day beyond your control, but you have to put it in perspective. You put people in place who know how to find solutions, and it works out. The [people we’ve hired] have surpassed our expectations. When we walk in and see our team do the things they do, forming a relationship with customers and building these bands, and creating content—it really blows us away. To do this and connect with nonprofits and connect our emotions to our mission to the world outside—and all this happened with a handful of watchbands, it’s just… When you have the best employees and the friendliest customer base in the world, it makes the other stuff seem easy.”
The challenges ahead: “We’re not [located in] a big manufacturing area. Hiring is a challenge right now. I know it is everywhere, but we’re not a big metro. We don’t have a reputation for high fashion. And people who want to work in textiles, in manufacturing—people who’d find satisfaction and happiness working with their hands, they’re not in abundance here. It’s really important that people who work for Spark*l enjoy what they do, that they like their job, that they’re feeling well-paid, taken care of. It’s hard to find that type of workforce anywhere, but no matter what, we’re always keeping the HQ and studio here. We’re not going to ever give up on SLO, so we just have to continue to want to make this a place people want to work for.”
Courtney’s favorite: “I’m gonna say it’s the bow band in Vachetta, my birthday band. It’s my ride or die. The Vachetta is so timeless it goes with everything, and the bow band is my first style that we created that was uniquely different and 100-percent completely designed by me. And really, the beauty of raw leather changes. The longer you wear it, the more character it gets. It kind of signifies Spark*l in general. At first, it’s new and shiny, and then it gets scars or marks on it, and you figure it out. As the wear goes in it gets more and more interesting, more and more beautiful. It’s like if you have a Vachetta band, if you splash water on it, you say, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I did that!” Eventually, it sinks into the leather and darkens—and then you take a good look and realize it becomes more timeless with wear.”