Building a Close-Knit Community: How StomaStoma Uses Apparel to Change Lives
Nick Abrams is a freelance graphic designer with a passion for illustration. But his greatest love is his wife Darlene, and their strong 4-year-old son Owen. These three musketeers are the essence of the online store StomaStoma.
Offering t-shirts and baby one-pieces with empowering quotes and fun illustrations, StomaStoma isn’t your regular apparel store. Every design has a unique touch to it. A touch that not everyone can recognize or relate to right away.
Driven by my curiosity, I reached out to Nick, asking him to share the story behind his store and what makes his customers and products unique.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
A message that resonates
“Almost 6 years ago I started working as a freelance graphic designer. During that time, our son Owen came into this world. Born premature at 24 weeks, he weighed 1 pound 2 ounces and had a really long road ahead of him.”
Nick says that during long hospital stays he saw other families wearing inspiring t-shirts, and he thought it was a powerful way to bring people together. It didn’t take long before he decided to design a product with a special message himself.
“We decided to make shirts for our family and friends that said Keep Fighting. At that time it was our mantra that inspired and created a support group around us. Creating these shirts was my first introduction to Printful.”
The Abrams told their family and friends about the shirts. To their surprise, a lot of people bought them.
“We also had them [family and friends] send us pictures wearing the shirts. We then put these pictures on the wall, over time making a collage in Owen’s room in the NICU.”
Nick thinks that t-shirts are a universal thing than anyone can wear. And by adding a custom message on these shirts you can tell your story.
“It made so much sense for us.”
Owen spent 5 months in the intensive care unit before he was brought home. However, not long after, he got a little cold and was sent back to the children’s hospital. At the time the Abrams didn’t know that their son’s stay at the hospital would be 784 days long.
“When you’re born as early as Owen was, your lungs develop last. So, midway through this hospital stay, he had trouble breathing. A little less than a year into our stay, the doctors recommended he gets what’s called a tracheostomy.”
A tracheostomy is a surgical procedure which consists of making an incision in the neck and opening a direct airway in the trachea. For Owen, it meant having less trouble breathing and focusing all his energy on growing strong.
Nick says that this was one of the biggest decisions their family had to make, one that would deeply impact Owen’s life:
“It was very scary and overwhelming. We didn’t know anyone else who has gone through this, so we felt overwhelmed with this decision. But after he got it [the tracheostomy], it became a little more normal to us.”
The Abrams decided that on this journey, instead of feeling sad about themselves, they’ll focus on everyday joys.
“There are a lot of people out there dealing with the same thing which can sometimes feel scary and overwhelming. So, we thought, we can use humor and joy to lighten up the mood a little and, hopefully, normalize this thing that felt super abnormal at first for us too.”
That’s how Nick and his wife decided to make a shirt for Owen and other kids with trachs:
“The initial trial run creating shirts for family and friends has helped StomaStoma become what it is now. We thought Hey, let’s come up with some other designs and see how it works. It kind of grew from there.”
Products that tell a story and connect people
Apart from being eye-catching, Nick’s designs tell a story of kids and families that are on a similar journey as the Abrams. But most importantly, StomaStoma products help make the everyday life of these families brighter by focusing on the good and positive.
Nick admits that creating designs for StomaStoma is a lot of work, but he has fun doing it. And when asked about where all the ideas come from, he says:
“Actually, I have a running list of ideas what to design next. Whenever something comes to mind, I write it down. Then, I filter through those ideas, make a few illustrations. The ones that stand out, I put up on the store.”
For the winter holidays, the Abrams did something different and truly special – introduced a t-shirt with 4 design variations.
“The idea for the Christmas design was to let people choose a design that they connect with the most. Not having the insider’s knowledge this might sound confusing, but there are different types of trachs. These trachs can also be in different states or have different caps. We just wanted everyone to feel included and welcome [to the community].”
It seems that every little detail behind StomaStoma is thought-out. When asked about the origin of the store’s name, Nick responds:
“The word stoma is a medical term that means opening in the body. Our son has a stoma for a feeding tube, and a stoma for his trach tube, so – StomaStoma.”
Side-hustle on a lean budget
Working as a freelancer, Nick was able to test his skills in many different creative spaces. Before launching StomaStoma, he was improving online stores for his customers. During this time he also had a chance to explore illustration and visual storytelling, which turned out to be one of his greatest passions.
“Thanks to this experience, I was able to leverage my creative background to create the artwork and come up with the concept for the store.”
Nick says that everything that you see on StomaStoma is a result of his and his wife’s hard work.
“StomaStoma is our side hustle, so we do everything ourselves on a very lean budget. We use free apps and a website template from Shopify. Printful’s mockup generator is a real lifesaver, too – I don’t have to worry about product photography for every shirt.”
When it comes to marketing, the store’s growth has been organic for the most part as Nick hasn’t tried paid advertising yet.
“Facebook and Instagram are our main communication channels that let us reach out and connect with people. Having an email newsletter sign up form on the store has helped to grow the store too.”
Another thing that Nick mentions is the importance of organic SEO. He admits that he’s very mindful about website optimization for search engines, especially writing meta descriptions and alt texts for images.
Building a close-knit community
During our conversation, I quickly learned that StomaStoma was created to build a community, and change the lives of others.
“Our goal is to show people that joy and humor can be powerful weapons in a situation that is overwhelming and when there’s a lot of unknown. That’s why we want to continue connecting with families like ours to let them know they’re not alone on this journey.”
And it seems that StomaStoma is doing a great job. Not only did families join the community of joy-spreading fighters, but also the people that help kids like Owen – doctors, nurses, and respiratory specialists.
Nick proudly shares that StomaStoma has partnered up with children’s hospitals in Houston, Seattle, Colorado, Chicago, and Arizona to create custom t-shirts for their teams.
“They’d pick up a design they like and ask us to personalize the shirts a little – put their hospital logo or department name on the back.”
Nick believes that by wearing StomaStoma shirts, doctors and nurses get to tell a story. They also help to spread positive thinking to families they’re working with.
But selling custom apparel isn’t the only way how Nick and his wife build a close-knit community for kids with trachs or families in similar medical situations. The Abrams use social media to connect with people who are familiar with the ups and downs of this journey.
The Abrams also share useful resources and downloadable content on their website. This year, Nick created a sign for families that have a medically fragile child at home.
“We created a handy door sign asking visitors to wash their hands, take off their shoes and not come in if they are sick. We’ve found it super helpful to set proper expectations and avoid potentially awkward conversations with anyone who stops by.”
Last but not least, StomaStoma connects with customers by sharing their inspiring stories. Every now and then you can stumble upon empowering pictures of little fighters who’re rocking StomaStoma shirts. And the community’s reaction to these posts couldn’t be more heart-warming:
“Honestly, the best part of what we do is having people send us pictures of their kid wearing a shirt saying Hey, my kid is going to wear your shirt on his first day at school. He’s so proud of it. Or hearing how our customers’ kids found the animal designs with different types of trachs close to them. Those are the stories that keep us motivated, keep us wanting to create more designs, more art that serves the community.”
Nick is happy to share that Owen is a happy kid who continues to grow and develop every day.
“It’s been about 14 months since he was discharged from the hospital. He’s now going to special ed pre-school while continuing physical, occupational, and speech therapy. We feel like this year will be a turning of the tides for Owen and our family — a time to catch up on things that were lost along the way.”
Coming back to StomaStoma and its success, Nick has one piece of advice he’d like can give to future and current ecommerce business owners:
“Your business has to solve the problem for the customer. If you focus on yourself, it will be a lot different than if you focus on providing something valuable for others.”
And then he adds:
“There’s something special about using your story and available tools to serve and love other people. It’s truly powerful and rewarding.”