Career spotlight: Annica Rantala, CEO at Stronger
We had a chat with Annica Rantala, CEO at Stronger, about how she went from pursuing a successful career within the retail space before eventually diving into the world of e-commerce as the CEO at one of the fastest growing DTC-brands in the industry.
Hi Annica, thank you for joining us in this interview! Can you start by telling us a bit about where it all started for you? Where did your career start and how did you end up where you are today?
I’ve always found myself taking on new job positions out of passion rather than prestige. So naturally, my passion for expression through fashion and style led me onto working in the retail space, which was a very fresh and exciting business when I started out – a bit like the e-commerce space is today. I’ve worked with everything from visual merchandising to store operations and department store design, before eventually taking on senior positions and leading creative teams within those areas. A common denominator for all my previous job positions has been that I’ve always worked in hybrid roles between creativity and business. I strongly believe that real magic happens when those two aspects align.
So, to sum it up, I’ve gotten to where I am today by following my instincts and jumping on new opportunities that have felt exciting. And by not limiting myself and being open to new challenges.
How come you ended up working with e-commerce?
Throughout my career in retail, I’ve always been intrigued by the e-commerce business, and everything I’ve learnt throughout my journey in retail transcends very well into fashion and lifestyle e-commerce. So, when the right opportunity came along, I decided to flip the switch and try something new. I don’t regret my decision one bit, and find working directly towards consumers fantastic because it allows you to build long-term relationships with your customers.
What challenges have you faced during your career so far?
Before I started working at Stronger, I managed a lot of creative teams and marketing departments, and one of the most important skills I got from those days was the ability to always try to be a part of the solution, instead of the problem. I think it’s important to get excited about challenges if you want to learn and grow. The toughest challenges I’ve faced are the ones that are out of my control. We’ve had some great examples of tough challenges as of lately; recessions, the pandemic, and everything else that’s going on around the world right now. At Stronger we are doing everything in our power to tackle these challenges head-on.
We’re currently putting even more effort towards sharpening our branding, but are also focusing a lot on giving our customers more reasons to buy our products. For us, that means investing in great quality, sustainable garments and preparing for less purchases but longer use, since households won’t be shopping as much during this recession.
"I always try to be a part of the solution, instead of the problem."
You’ve worked at many big companies prior to where you are now – what made you curious about Stronger?
I’ve always been very passionate about exercise and athleisure clothing. Prior to joining Stronger, I worked at Stadium when they were still a growth company, and after that I joined Rhönish as a design manager and creative director. What made me curious about Stronger was a combination of my interest in athleisure and e-commerce which was a field I was curious to explore and learn more about. Now, I have been here for almost four years, and I very much look forward to the years to come.
Annica Rantala joined Stronger four years ago, after holding senior positions at the athleisure brands Stadium and Rhönish.
What are the success factors behind Stronger?
I think our strategy to go all in on DTC has played a huge part in Stronger’s success, as it has allowed us to control our branding and vision from the start. If you start out as a wholesale brand, there’s always going to be a risk that buyers and store chains that are much bigger than you will have control over your brand experience and how your brand is presented. But since we’ve been in charge of our own brand and positioning since the beginning, we’ve been able to form Stronger as the brand we envisioned – and that is something both I and the founders see as a great win.
I think another reason for our success is that we are an interesting brand in an interesting business. Stronger is a brand that stands out from the crowd. If you look at the leading athleisure brands, they all look very similar. The only differentiator is the logo. They’re also very focused on performance. Stronger is more of a lifestyle brand, which makes us stand out from the bunch. We design clothes that are made for both workouts and everyday fashion.
How has Centra contributed to that success, and helped Stronger grow as a brand?
We have seen a lot of positive changes since switching to Centra. First and foremost, Centra has helped us be creative and build an experience that truly represents the Stronger brand. We’ve also grown in many markets since switching to Centra. The Centra platform has strong support for internationalization and cross-border commerce, which has helped us grow the Stronger brand globally. Our goal is to sell 30% in Sweden and 70% in the rest of the world. To succeed with that we need strong support for efficiently handling multiple languages, currencies, taxes, content, and warehouses – plus the right type of shipping and payment integrations that Centra offers off-the-shelf. On top of that, Centra’s Customer Success team offers great service and flexibility, which has played a huge part in strengthening the value we offer to our customers. In short: Centra has helped us build a stronger brand experience, better customer value, and scale our brand internationally.
Centra was chosen as platform provider after a thorough evaluation of multiple solutions by Stronger’s ecommerce tech team. Since switching to Centra, Stronger has strengthened their brand experience, increased customer value and scaled internationally.
Can you tell us a little bit about your position as a CEO – what’s the best part about it, and the most challenging part?
The coolest part about being a CEO is being trusted with taking care of the incredible company that I think Stronger is; by the owners, the brand, and the rest of our amazing team. I’m not gonna lie though – being responsible for all departments and areas within a fast-growing company is very challenging from time to time. During the pandemic, there was a period when we hired 30 people at once, and it was my job to make everyone feel welcome and seen, while also making sure everyone was aligned with our values, which was a huge challenge when you only saw people twice a week digitally. That part is easier now that we’re back in the office, but on the other hand there are currently many other crazy things going on in the world that we are doing our very best to cope with.
Have you ever faced any challenges, as a woman, in your career – working towards a leadership position?
Personally, I’ve luckily never experienced any discrimination related to being a woman throughout my career. But seeing how the world has looked historically, I know that we still have a long way to go. I have always made sure to speak up, work hard, and not let anything stop me from achieving my goals and I think that has contributed a lot to being where I am today. Stronger is founded by three male founders, Henrik, Joel and Juri, but I’ve never experienced any differentiation or special treatment for being a woman from them, at all. They’re very supportive and have put a lot of effort into making sure we have a strong female representation within the company. I've chosen to support the Stronger brand since I love exercise, athleisure and everything we stand for. However, I do hope more women will dare to become e-commerce entrepreneurs and start brands of their own in the future – since the majority of brands are also still run by men.
What are you doing to feel strong and empowered, both on the inside and outside?
I believe in adapting to the fact that life is imbalanced. And instead of trying to straighten it out, I only try to adjust to it in the best way possible. For me, that means having a high tempo at work, while making sure to consistently recharge with exercise and yoga. For you, it might be a completely different setup. I don’t believe that there is a perfect recipe to finding balance in your life, instead you must find out what works best for you and your own lifestyle.
Stronger designs clothes that are made for both workouts and everyday fashion.
Is there any piece of advice you would give to your younger self, while being at the beginning of your career?
I try to think of my career as a marathon, and not a short race – everything doesn’t have to happen overnight. When I was younger, I was very impatient and thought I had to deliver 100% on every single task. Luckily, I was given the advice from a great boss of mine when I was still at the beginning of my career, that you must level your energy strategically if you want to last for a long time. For example, spare some energy on the minor tasks and deliver fully when it’s crucial. If you are smart in those types of decisions, everyone will appreciate the work you do and you will last a lot longer. Realizing this and thinking about how that could play out in my own life has been an important part of my growth journey.
" I think of my career as a marathon, and not a short race – everything doesn't have to happen overnight."
Finally, do you have any wisdom to share with other women curious about the e-commerce field?
Number one is to go for it – to dare. If you never try, you’ll never know if you will succeed or not. Another thing is to try to not focus on the obstacles, and as mentioned – be a part of the solution instead of the problem. Finally, if you are curious about the e-commerce business, a great tip is to study to become an engineer. It seems that more and more engineers are required in the world to be able to handle everything in the pace of development we are in.