Do you have any advice on starting a pet-focused business?
3 successful entrepreneurs tell us about their journey and the pets that inspired them along the way.
Tue, May 15, 2012 at 06:31 PM
It’s 6:30 a.m., time to make the biscuits.
Before most Atlantans check the traffic report, Lauren Janis has bypassed congested roadways and started assembling ingredients for her organic dog biscuits inside borrowed bakery space 20 miles from home. The six-hour window goes quickly as she mixes and bakes Cheese Bites, Doggie Dinner Mints, Peanut Butter biscuits and Turkey Bacon Bites. Six hours later, Janis bags the goodies and starts making deliveries. That’s followed by a few hours searching the Web for potential vendors, returning phone calls and posting blog entries on behalf of her dog Big Daddy, the company mascot.
Janis ends the week with a tour of local farmers markets. On Thursdays, you’ll find her swatting mosquitoes and handing out samples to four-legged customers at the East Atlanta Farmers Market. On Saturdays it's time for the suburbs as Janis tackles the Marietta farmers market while her mom sets up shop in Alpharetta, and a friend represents Big Daddy Biscuits in Atlanta’s famous Piedmont Park. At 6:30 a.m. on Monday, she’s back in the bakery to start all over again. During a time when 40-hour workweeks have become all but extinct, Janis doesn’t mind putting in long hours for her own cause and a bigger slice of the $50 billion pet industry.
Each year, thousands of budding entrepreneurs kick-start dreams of being their own bosses. In 2009, an estimated 552,600 new employer firms opened for business, while 660,900 firms closed shop, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. Owning your own business has its rewards and its risks. The administration reports that seven of 10 new employer firms survive at least two years, and a quarter stay in business for 15 years or more. Three entrepreneurs who have weathered the economic storm share their experience launching pet-focused businesses.
Start with a strong game plan: Benetta Green always wanted to own a business focused on pets; she simply couldn’t decide whether to open a dog daycare, kennel or pet-sitting company. With free assistance from the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Georgia State University, Green drafted a business plan and set goals to turn her dream into reality. Entrepreneurship happened sooner than she anticipated. Green’s job was eliminated and in June 2011, she opened Gone to the Dogs Pet Care.
“You hear about people being downsized and their jobs eliminated all over the place,” says Green, a professional dog walker and pet sitter. “You find a job where that can happen again or you make a decision to do something else. I had a business plan on my laptop so I was ready. This was something I was going to do either way.”
Set your plan in motion: Armed with advice from the SBDC, Green started networking with other pet owners at dog parks and meet-up groups. She also got bonded, joined the Georgia Network of Professional Petsitters and took pet CPR classes to differentiate herself from the competition. Gradually, Green managed to build a loyal list of clients and spent her 12-hour workdays focused on pets. Fees range from $15 to $20, based on the number of visits per week. Customers get daily text message updates and she provides a report card detailing a dog’s activities during her visits. Green also makes time to pamper her own pack.
Anticipate the slow periods: After a strong holiday season, Green started getting discouraged around the beginning of the year. Regular midday walks, which can be more lucrative, began to dry up. “I wasn’t getting calls anymore and feared I would have to get a real job,” she says. “But no, I hunkered down, did some marketing, had some postcards made and went out and talked to the public again.”
Soon, she will be ready to expand and hire a team to help meet growing demand beyond the 5-mile radius of her East Atlanta home. But for now, she focuses on slow, deliberate growth and advises others to consider the path of entrepreneurship — and living from paycheck to paycheck — very carefully before diving in.
“If you can be persistent and build the business then go for it,” she says. “But you have to have that desire to make it work. It won’t work sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.”
Always have a Plan B: Consider it the perfect storm of bad luck. Within a four-month period, Janis was burglarized, her dad passed away and she got laid off after 10 years on the job. Unsure about the future, something clicked when family members offered a quirky suggestion: Make dog biscuits. She bought a $99 mixer the next day and got busy.
“I wanted it to be healthy,” says Janis, owner of Big Daddy Biscuits. “If I was going to do something named after my dog, I wanted to do something I was proud to make, even though I never baked in my whole life. With the whole ‘buy local, eat local’ movement, I wanted to support my loconomy as much as I could.”
Prepare for a learning curve: Janis knew that success would not come overnight. She tried several recipes starting with a Flee Flea biscuit made with brewer’s yeast, and conducted taste tests with friends’ dogs. “You have to have patience and tenacity,” she says. “If one thing doesn’t work then always have a Plan B in your head.”
In 2009, she started selling her organic dog treats at local farmers markets. But Janis learned quickly that a good product is only part of the puzzle. Free SBDC courses at Georgia State University helped her understand day-to-day tasks such as handling the books, paying taxes and setting goals for the future. She also built networks among pet rescue organizations and small business owners. Janis called on that network of friends and associates to invest in her Kickstarter project, with the goal of raising $5,000 for a 30-quart mixer and two commercial-grade ovens. The project fell short, but Janis secured an investor who believes in the company and helped her purchase those ovens without loans.
“I want to make it on my own, and I’ve been able to do that,” she says, adding that loans are not an option. “It’s hard enough to pay your bills when you have a small business. If I fail — and I’m not going to fail — that’s just one more bill you have to pay.”
Savor the sweet smell of success: Currently 35 retail locations sell Big Daddy Biscuits, including eight Whole Foods stores in Georgia. Every day still feels like a Monday, until she hears from customers on market days. A steady stream of people and pets flock to her tent for 5-ounce bags of $5 treats made with local ingredients. They also tell her their dogs won’t eat any other biscuit.
“Of course I want my biscuit company to grow and be known all over the United States,” Janis says. “But if I just make that one dog happy and that one person appreciates it, then I’m good with it. And to have my community embracing what I’m doing, it’s very humbling.”
Blaze your own trail: Tobi Skovron planned to be a podiatrist, but life got in the way. The Aussie turned his focus to ergonomics, chiropractic care and releasing office dwellers from life chained to a desk. Then he fell in love, and that changed his path once again.
“I bought her a dog as a gift — as our first child — and realized we had a huge problem,” says Skovron, who quickly tired of taking Subii, the couple’s Cocker spaniel-poodle mix, out to relieve herself on rainy days. That minor nuisance inspired the Pet Loo, a litter box that includes faux grass and a drainage system. After about 20 prototypes, Skovron’s wife, Simone, appeared on a television show called “The New Inventors” in 2006. They sold 500 in the first 24 hours.
Start small, think big: Skovron’s father-in-law loaned them $20,500 to register patent types. The couple ran their business from a spare bedroom, repaying the debt in less than three years and maintaining their full-time jobs. Skovron made several unsuccessful pitches to manufacturers who doubted that dogs would use the product or they offered unreasonably high production costs. Once again, Skovron carved his own path, investing in a manufacturing facility in China. The Pet Loo comes in three sizes with prices ranging from $99 to $149 on the company website. Major retailers Amazon and Petco carry the product, which is now available in more than 84 countries. The “backyard in a box” concept also has expanded to include other products such as cleaning solutions and degradable containers under the company name Pup-Pee Solutions.
“We’re delivering a solution to the global pet industry,” says Skovron. “The desire is to solve people’s issues and break down the barriers to pet ownership for people in dwellings that don’t facilitate owning a pet, like nursing homes, townhouses or boats.”
Be strategic and set realistic expectations: Even if you have the most brilliant idea in the world, Skovron says it pays to do your homework. Speak to patent and trademark attorneys and understand the market before diving in with your product or service. Skovron also advises against mixing business and family, even though his wife and father-in-law are involved with the business.
“There have been tempting times when I wanted to fly off the handle because something wasn’t taken care of and someone dropped the ball, but I have to see them at family dinner later that night,” he says.
Follow your passion: Even in a down economy, U.S. pet sales continue to rise and the Skovrons have taken notice. The family business moved stateside to Los Angeles, where they live with two dogs and a daughter named Madison. Pup-Pee Solutions also has given birth to another company called Dog For Dog that sells peanut butter and energy bars. For every item purchased, Dog For Dog donates a Dogsbar energy bar to a shelter or rescue organization.
“I just see the industry getting bigger and bigger,” Skovron says.
— Morieka Johnson, @soulpup
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Click for photo credits
Biscuits: Chad Hanson/webmarkcreations.com
Green: Morieka Johnson
Janis: Big Daddy Biscuits
Janis: Big Daddy Biscuits
Skovron: Damian Rinaldi