Q&A With Our Founder, Eli Yonas
September 19, 2022
Meet Eli Yonas, the founder and owner of Toki Mats, who also goes by the names CEO and Mom. As the beating heart behind a successful company, it’s hard to fathom how Yonas manages to not only run her own business, but also parent three young children (Noam, 8; Shaya, 6; and Boaz, 2) and work a full-time job as a developer partner manager at Meta (formerly known as Facebook). Juggling three huge responsibilities like these might be impossible for the average person, but it’s clear that Yonas is cut from a different cloth. Although she was born in sunny Los Angeles, California, she was working on Wall Street during the financial crisis of 2008, and found herself craving a big life change. She packed her bags and moved across the globe to Israel, where she met her now-husband. After the birth of their first child, Noah, the family relocated to California, where her daughter was born a few years later.
Yonas searched high and low for the perfect play mat—one that was comfortable, high-quality, and non-toxic, where she could play on the floor with her baby and toddler together. Unable to find one that lived up to her standards, Yonas refused to settle and instead set out to create her own. They say, “If you want something done, do it yourself,” and Yonas agrees. It is this dogged mindset to find solutions that sets Toki Mats apart from other companies. Although a full time job in tech, a toddler, and a newborn left Yonas with little time to begin an entrepreneurial venture, she seized her window of opportunity during her maternity leave (crazy, we know). After much researching and prototyping, the first real Toki Mat was born. Fast forward 5 years, and our natural latex foam mats are loved by families all over the world. We sat down with Yonas and spoke about how she designed the perfect play mat, how she manages her time, and her secrets to being a (very) successful entrepreneur.
Q: Why latex foam? How did you come up with the idea to use latex foam for a play mat?
EY: I searched for months for the perfect material for the play mats, and I knew I wanted something sustainable, green, organic, non-toxic, and safe for babies and kids, but I couldn’t find the right material anywhere in the baby space. So, I started searching in the adult mattress market. I kept going to fairs and conferences to learn more about bed mattresses, and I went to an eco-friendly, green conference for the bed industry in San Francisco. There, I saw all this organic and natural latex foam for all these new and high-end mattresses, so that’s where I got the idea to use it in play mats.
Q: Since Toki Mats was inspired by your children, do you think you still would have become an entrepreneur if you weren’t a mom?
EY: You know, even though I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, I don’t think I would’ve found myself starting a company if I wasn’t a mom. The idea for the product was inspired by my kids, but my motivation to keep going through the hard times to make this work is also inspired by my kids and family. If I didn’t have them as my North Star, I probably would’ve given up by now.
Q: Was entrepreneurship more or less challenging than you expected it to be?
EY: Definitely more challenging. I think one of the hardest parts is how lonely it can be. It’s really hard to get the support I need from family, the team, or friends. Most of the time, people think I’m crazy and they don’t understand what’s in my head or what the goal is. But, at the end of the day, I’m the one who has to figure everything out. Luckily, I’ve met other entrepreneurs who I really connect with—especially mom business owners who have filled that gap for me, which is fantastic. I’m so appreciative. The other part that’s challenging is that it’s kind of never-ending and never really lets up. It’s a 24/7 job instead of a 9 to 5 where I can clock in and clock out. Because I am my own boss, I can also be a really difficult boss who just sets crazy goals and wants to keep pushing and pushing to get Toki Mats into as many families’ houses as possible. It’s pretty exhausting and I should probably give myself some vacation time!
Q: What has been the biggest hurdle that Toki Mats has had to overcome so far?
EY: I’d say we’re still working through our biggest challenge, which is finding a balance between offering the highest quality materials we can find and, at the same time, making the product accessible to as many people as possible and getting the costs down. We’ve gotten better at that since the business has grown, except that we’ve also grown during the pandemic when supply chains were disrupted and cost of goods has skyrocketed. Because of that, we still haven’t gotten the price point as low as we want, but we’re continuing to work on that.
Q: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you were a successful business owner?
EY: This actually happened pretty early on with our first sale. We launched on Small Business Saturday, and that very first order that came from a real person, who I didn’t know personally and was an actual customer, was such an “aha” moment! And I think the second time was when we first got a product review from a customer who I didn’t know in real life. That was just mind blowing for me.
Q: Why do you think Toki Mats has resonated with parents in a way that other play mats haven’t?
EY: I spent an entire year researching, designing, and prototyping our playmat before we even launched our company. I really spent that time talking to other parents and pulling from my own experiences to find the challenges that we face in daily life and playtime with our babies that we could solve with this play mat. I think that when people get their first Toki Mat, it solves problems that they didn’t even realize that they had, and it really brings magic into their home, into their family time, and into play time.
Q: You’re a full time mom, a full time employee, and a full time business owner. How do you manage to balance everything without stretching yourself too thin?
EY: [laughing] Oh man, who says I’m not stretched thin? It’s a lot. Quite frankly, it’s too much. I’m trying to prioritize myself more, my partner more, and my family more, but I just get so energized by all of these aspects in my life that it’s hard to give any of them up. So, I am a work-in-progress!
Q: When you have time to unwind, what is your favorite way to relax?
EY: We are big cuddlers in this family, so if I do find that I need a break from all of the things, I’ll find one of my kids or my partner and we’ll just have a cuddle session! It’s the best!
Q: What’s your #1 guilty pleasure?
EY: Eating a whole container of Jelly Belly while catching up on my TV shows.
Q: What is your favorite unconventional way to use a Toki Mat?
EY: A wrestling mat for my kids or a mat for me to accidentally sleep on all night while getting my baby to sleep in his crib.
Q: What has been your favorite Toki Mats pattern to date?
EY: Ooh, okay, this is my favorite and a lot of customers’ favorite: A Rifle Paper Co. print in Monstera leaf that was just gorgeous!
Q: Who has been your biggest supporter? Is there anyone that gave you the push you needed to start your own business?
EY: My biggest supporters are a group of women who have also started and grown their own eComm businesses. They are my absolute rock and have become my best friends.
Q: What is the best advice you have received as an entrepreneur?
EY: To listen to my customers. If I’m getting negative feedback, it’s helpful to know what I need to fix. If I’m getting positive feedback, it’s helpful to know what people want more of. Because of this, I’m reading every comment in our VIP group, and I still look at every single support email that comes in. This has really helped guide the direction of our company to develop products that people actually want!
Q: What is the best advice you have received as a mother?
EY: That all my kids need is me to be me. They don’t need anything more than who I am today and what I can give them.
Q: Have you always been a go-getter? What was your personality like when you were younger?
EY: Definitely. My personality type has always been go, go, go, accomplishing, and being productive. Only until recently have I learned the downsides of that, and I’m trying to slow down a bit. But, I’m grateful because it’s gotten me where I am today.
Q: What is your favorite personality trait in each of your children?
EY: My oldest has the sweetest heart ever, and always stands up to bullies at school, which I’m so proud of. My middle is, hands down, the funniest human on the planet—all documented on my Instagram, of course. My youngest is super mischievous, knows it, and loves it.
Q: What is a characteristic that you have that you think is integral to running a business?
EY: Being able to not take things personally and have an objective view, which is super critical whenever I get a mean comment or bad feedback. Otherwise, it would just be so hard to continue. I think it’s important because no matter the business, not every product is for everyone. So, even if you have the best product in the world, there will always be people who it’s not a fit for, and you will hear about it.
Q: What advice would you give to other moms who are thinking about starting their own business?
EY: Make sure you have avenues of support. Not even when times are hard, but just to keep the train going. So, extra help with the kids, emotional support when it gets hard, like-minded people in your circle whom you can lean on for advice.
About the Author: Alice
Alice Mendoza is a copywriter and blog writer based in Los Angeles. She began writing for a baby brand while on maternity leave, and realized she had found her niche. Today, she writes exclusively within the baby space, using her BFA in Creative Writing and her own experience as a mother to guide her. When she’s not working, you can find her chasing down her toddler, going on walks around the neighborhood, or watching reality TV.