Episode 4: How a Tragic Trip to the Vet Led Vaso Karras to Create the Bully Grip

After an emergency trip to the veterinarian, Vaso Karras, a California dog mom, found herself on a mission. She wanted to create a life-saving product that would keep dogs safe as they gnawed on and whittled down hard chew sticks, preventing a devastating choking risk. Despite not having a background in product development or digital marketing, Vaso buckled down and created the Bully Grip. In this interview, you’ll hear Vaso’s journey from idea and development to getting featured in stores across the nation!

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Melissa:

Explain to me what the Bully Grip actually does.

Vaso:

Well, it’s a bone holder. Basically, it holds bully sticks and other treat sticks. Dogs will chew on a hard treat stick and tend to swallow them before they should. So, they’ll end up swallowing about three inches of a bully stick. This product (the Bully Grip) prevents them from doing that.

You twist (the treat stick into the holder) and it holds the bully stick so your dog can chew it down until there’s a nub left, but they can’t swallow it because (the holder) is in the way.

It’s made of all-natural rubber and it bounces, so it’s not going to like hit your floor and make a large clank sound or scratch a floor. It’s dog-friendly and people-friendly too!

Melissa:

Did you always know once dogs whittle down their treat sticks, the little bit leftover could pose a danger?

Vaso:

No. My dog, Tesla, was the reason I created (the Bully Grip). She was swallowing them when she was a puppy, and she would vomit them up. She ended up swallowing a 3 ½” piece, and she got a stomach blockage from it. That was so incredibly scary.

We ended up going to the ER. I knew it was the bully stick because I never let her have one unsupervised. We were watching a movie on the couch and the next thing you know, she’s sitting next to me and she just chugged that thing down. I tried to get it out. I was freaking out and I couldn’t (get it out) – it was down her throat too far.

I kept an eye on her. The next day she was vomiting and she wouldn’t drink fully. We went to the ER and they did an X-ray … That’s how the vet was like, “Well, there’s something there.”

The vet wanted to have her drink something that makes her vomit, to see if she’ll bring it up. But, he said that could cause a secondary emergency, as she might choke on it and we may have to go into emergency surgery to get it out. I was like, “It’s a big piece. I’m not going to risk her trying to swallow that piece.” So, then he said we can do surgery. And I said, “Well, it’s a bully stick. Can’t it be digested out?”

I didn’t want anything very invasive. I wanted to take that chance. We gave her two IV bags with the idea that it would moisten the bully stick and she would pass it, and she did pass it the next day. But that was even scarier because it took almost two minutes for her to actually pass that bully stick out of her system. It was still really hard. We were home, so I ran and put some coconut butter around it, because I knew not to pull on it – that could do serious damage to her. She had to get it out. We just got lucky, and it worked out.

That was I realized it was risky for all dogs to chew on these things. You just never know if they’re going to swallow a big piece… They’re supposed to chew because it feeds their endorphins. Like when we go running, we get endorphins. Dogs chew, they get endorphins. It’s so important for their health. It also cleans their teeth. But we shouldn’t give it to them without having some kind of a device to keep them from swallowing (the stick) whole.

Melissa:

How long did it take from that incident to the time you said to yourself, “I want to do something about this and I might have an idea.”

Vaso:

Well, it was the next day that I said, “I want to do something about it.” But it took a long time to create the holder, even though it seems so simple. It took almost two years to get the prototype finalized. I went through multiple CAD designers. I’ve never invented a product. I’m not in product development, so this whole field was brand new for me. I used Google to try to reference how to start, and I wasted a lot of money in the beginning.      

There are companies out there that will take your idea, but you have to pay them about $70-100,000 upfront. Then they manage the whole project from start to finish, patenting and all of the above. But there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to get you patented. What I did: I found a CAD designer who kept changing the design. I was so frustrated because he said, “The way you want to mold this, it’s not moldable. You can’t take it out of the molding tool like this.” And it is a hard design to mold, that’s true.

Melissa:

Is it because of the spikes inside?

Vaso:

Yeah. When you look at it, you’ll see the spikes are inside. It’s made intentionally so the dog cannot get their mouth right on the edge and then chew on those fatter ends, which is what causes (the chew stick) to lock inside when you twist (it into the Bully Grip)… That design was very important to make the stick stay, and the hard part was getting it pulled out of the mold without damaging those ends.

My dad and I worked on it after I had gone through two CAD designers and I said, “They’re not listening to me!” I went to (my dad’s) home and we sat in the kitchen cutting up different rubber parts. We were gluing the pieces of rubber together until we came up with something very close to (the Bully Grip) and tested it. It worked! We even tested it on Tesla.

So then I sent it to a third CAD designer that I found. His name is Jason and he’s based in Canada. He owns his manufacturing company there and he was really willing to give it a try. He didn’t say, “Let me just change it.” He was just really open-minded.       

Melissa:

Do you have an engineering background? How did you know the spikes had to be placed in a certain way?

Vaso:

I don’t have an engineering background. My dad helped me, though. It was the two of us that did it together. He was a contractor most of his life, so he was able to help me put my thoughts into a mechanical device, which is what we did.

Melissa:

What is your background?

Vaso:

Before this, I worked for the Department of Corrections, and I was in contraband interdictions. Honestly, it was a good job and I enjoyed doing it, but I love doing this. And I thank that job for making this possible, because I was working so hard when I was trying to bring this to the market. I was working 15-hour days. I was working full-time at work and, on all my breaks, I was answering customer messages and trying to do marketing. It was a lot of work.

I quit working full-time for my Department of Corrections job in November and this is all I do full-time now. I have other products that I’m working on patents for right now. So, yeah, it’s really exciting.

Melissa:

What year was it the incident with your dog and what year did you launch?

Vaso:

February of 2018 when the incident happened, and I launched this product in January of 2019.

Melissa:

Once the product was manufactured, how did you gear up for the launch? Marketing also wasn’t part of your background, so how did you tackle that?

Vaso:

Help from friends and Instagram. I just kept meeting amazing people, and they were all so supportive. Women helping women. It was awesome!

I had met a girl on Instagram who lives locally and she was showing me how to use Instagram. I didn’t even know how to use it. I knew how to post a picture, but I didn’t know how to use the right hashtags. She taught me a lot of stuff.

I built this really the old-fashioned way. I didn’t hire a marketing company. I did everything to start. I was my marketer, my manufacturer. I did all my packaging, my shipping, my logo. Everything I pretty much did myself, including building my website, which I’m having rebuilt right now professionally, but I put my website up.

Melissa:

Tell me about that first sale that came through. What was that like?

Vaso:

Oh my gosh, my mom was laughing at me. I called her up. I said, “I got a sale. I got two. Oh my gosh.” I called her back. “I got six. There’s six.” Now we laugh because now I 100 a day, sometimes more.

Melissa:

Do most of your customers come from Instagram, or have you ventured out since the beginning marketing days?

Vaso:

I have a lot of pet stores now. And I haven’t even reached out to them. They’ve found me through their customers. Their customers come into the shop with your Bully Grip, to make sure they get the right sized bully sticks. Then the pet store is introduced to it. Every pet store account I have is actually through referral. That’s why when I say old-fashioned, this is really the old-fashioned way.

I’m working on getting set up in a warehouse with a distribution center so that I can hire some staff to do marketing for me. Take that off my plate so I could focus on these other things. I have three other products that are really close to prototyping and working on the patents. It’s all about making dogs’ lives easier and people’s lives easier.

Melissa:

I’m guessing you don’t have a warehouse right now. What does the operation look like?

Vaso:

It’s crazy. My garage is the warehouse, as well as two big sheds I had put in the back. Then I have an office space. I’m looking for a warehouse right now. It’s really close to getting set up. But, yeah, it’s been in my home this whole time. It’s rough, but I had to start somewhere.

Melissa:

The growth is amazing and in such a short amount of time too. What stores are you in?

Vaso:

I’m in about 31 pet stores in the US, and there’s a couple in Canada. I’m going to list those on my website soon. They’re all boutique pet stores – I’m not in the really big ones. Just the mom and pop ones right now.

Melissa:

Will you reach out to the larger pet stores? Is that something you want?

Vaso:

One thing that I’m concerned with, going too big too fast, is when you start trying to produce too many of these at once, you can compromise the material that it’s made from. They start putting things in the product to be able to produce it faster, because that’s what you have to do when you go to the big stores. You have to sell it for a lower price – they want their margins higher. And the only way to really go inexpensive — cheap-cheap — is to compromise your material. Usually. I don’t want to do that.

I have these lab tested. It’s called the Prop 65 and it’s a children’s toy test. That is a requirement in the State of California, and no one really does it for dog products. (Tesla) is my family. I don’t want her chewing on something that could have a carcinogen in it, so I do the Prop 65 tests. It tests for pages of stuff — anything that could be a carcinogen. It passes, which means it’s safe for a child to chew on it.

If (the bigger stores) wanted to contract with me, I would be very clear on how we’re making this. We can’t speed it up if it means compromising the material. So that’s my only concern.

Melissa:

How many have you sold in total?

Vaso:

Over 100,000 since we started. But I honestly don’t know the exact amount.

Melissa:

The internet is a really large place and people are very loud on there! What are some of the comments you’ve heard on your product?

Vaso:

I’ve had the most amazing comments like, “Thank you so much for inventing this. I was always paranoid with that last couple inches.”

One thing that’s really important, some customers — not a lot, maybe 10% — don’t read the instructions. Or they do and they don’t understand them. I try to make them as clear as possible, and I’m always updating them. They try to push the bully stick into the holder. One customer actually said on her review that she had to hammer her bully stick into the Bully Grip. And I was like, “No, don’t do that.” It’s designed to twist on because dogs can’t twist. If you could push it in, a dog could pull it out. So I try to explain to them. I’ve made instructional videos, and I do my best. But that’s one message I really am glad that I was able to share right now because it’s important not to push it on.

Melissa:

Entrepreneurs. What would your advice be to someone who has an idea and has no idea where to start?

Vaso:

It’s truly determination. There were so many times I honestly, sincerely was a minute from giving up from frustration. Getting the design changed on me – I would come home and get it in the mail right after a long day’s work and think, “I told him this wasn’t going to work. I just spent $1,500 and it’s not going to work.” I knew in my heart that I could make it work, though. If I could just find someone to put my design in a prototype, mold it, and make it. So, determination and perseverance, of course. It’s just those old words.

It’s a lot of hard work. It was more work than I thought it was going to be. I have a friend who I met at a party. She’s an inventor. Patented, like I am. She’s the lady that invented the pillow that has curves in it so you can sleep on the side and it doesn’t cause wrinkles. She’s very successful. And, at the very beginning of the Bully Grip, I showed it to her and she loved it. And I asked her, “What is your advice?” And she looked at me and she goes, “If you want to succeed, you are going to work harder than you ever imagined. That’s what it’s going to take.” I had this fear in my eyes like, “No, I want to go to the beach and put my feet in the sand and have a piña colada. I don’t want to work to death.” But it’s true.

When you’re enjoying it, though, you don’t realize you’re working so hard. It puts a smile in your heart to just feel like, “Oh my gosh, I am helping other dogs.” And 90% of people give me really positive feedback and it feels so good because my intention is to make it safer and bring good products for our pets. It’s amazing!


Find Out More About the Bully Grip

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Episode 3: Rocky Kanaka’s Recipe for Success

Today’s guest is an Emmy-nominated TV host, content creator with more than 2 million YouTube followers, owner of The Dog Bakery, and a pet entrepreneur on a mission to help rescue animals in need. In this interview, you’ll hear the inspiring story of Rocky Kanaka. Plus, find out his number one tip for success in business. A little spoiler: It has to do with hard work.

Read on for highlights from this interview.


Melissa:

You have such an interesting background! You grew up in Hawaii, is that correct?

Rocky:

Yeah. I’m from Hawaii, and then I went to high school and college in Missouri. So, it was a little bit of a culture shock. But my family is still back in Hawaii, and that’s where my heart is for sure.

Melissa:

How early on did dogs come into the picture? Was it back in Hawaii or after you moved to Missouri?

Rocky:

My whole life. My mom was really good at collecting animals. So, just naturally, I was the same way.

Thank goodness, we’ve all helped make it “cool” to rescue animals. Back in the day, though, it wasn’t really “cool.” They were seen as “less than.” If you really wanted a good dog, you went and bought a really expensive dog. The more expensive the dog, the better the dog. But, we didn’t grow up with a lot of money. So, when a dog showed up on our porch, that was our new dog.

And let me clarify: We always searched to see if there was a family. We never just stole dogs.

Melissa:

You took in homeless dogs! How many did you have growing up?

Rocky:

Oh, goodness. I don’t even know, that’s a good question. I’ve never counted. But, we’ve always had a dog.

One of the most impactful dogs in my life was a German Shepherd… When we got her, she was pregnant and then she had puppies. So, at a young age, I got to go through that experience. I don’t remember how old I was, 10 or 12. Some of the dogs were stillborn. One of the dogs we were able to bring back to life with some warmth and rubbing. So, it was a really neat experience at an early age.

Melissa:

How did you prepare for something like that?

Rocky:

I don’t think you do. That’s the great thing about life, right? It just comes at you, and you just do the best you can.

Melissa:

Did you keep any of those puppies?

Rocky:

No, none of the puppies. We kept the mama, and we gave out the dogs to people who had farms and could use German Shepherds. But, I did get to see them over time. It was really neat as I grew up and watched them grow up. That was a fun experience.

Melissa:

Was that in Missouri?

Rocky:

That was in Missouri. The dogs went to farms, which was fun because seeing the dogs get to work and really serve their purpose is neat. I’ve lived in Los Angeles now for 15-20 years, and most German Shepherds aren’t working.

Melissa:

Were you also involved in farming?

Rocky:

We did a lot of back and forth from Hawaii, moving. So, a lot of times, we would stay and work on farms to pay for our living. I grew up bailing hay and working on dairy farms. They were all very — as far as farms go — small farms. But it was a really good experience.

Melissa:

It seems like animals in general, not just dogs, have always been a part of your life. When you first entered the workforce, did you go into the pet space right away?

Rocky:

No. That’s a great question…

Like I said, we didn’t grow up with much. So, my thought was, “I need to get to work.” My mom really instilled a work ethic in us…

I went to college, and I personally should not have. I was horrible at it; I barely passed. College was not for me. If I could rewind, I would not go to college again. But I came out of college, ready to fight all my peers to work harder and do better. And what I found is: A lot of people just don’t work hard. So you’re really only in a race against yourself…

If you work really hard, you can do a lot of things. You can accomplish a lot of things. But, that leads to maybe success and maybe some money, but not happiness. What I learned, thank goodness, through some successes and failures very early on, is I want to do things in the spaces that I enjoy. And that’s a no-brainer, right? That’s like McDonald’s saying, “We focus on finding the best locations for our restaurant.” Well, duh. It’s the same thing. Find something you love to do and do it. But, it’s not that easy. It’s really hard. So I bumped around for a while, but eventually found my way to pets and said, “This is it. This is what I really enjoy doing, helping animals and building businesses!”

Melissa:

What was your first project in the pet space?

Rocky:

My first project was a bakery for dogs (called The Dog Bakery). I love food. I love animals. And so I thought, well, this is a no-brainer. I also liked that when I told people about it, they would kind of laugh, but also go, “I’d buy that. I’d get that for my dog!” So that was the first venture, and I still have those stores today. I’ve been doing that for 15+ years.

I still have those stores today because I love them. A lot of times, you’ll build a business to sell it, but it’s just where my heart is. I just love those stores, I love my team out there, they’re awesome. Some of the customers from day one still shop there, which is really cool.

Melissa:

Today, people are into feeding their dogs fun foods, healthy foods. But this idea was pretty novel back then!

Rocky:

Yeah. I timed it right – not on purpose. But this was around the time a lot of dog food was being made in China and there were recalls because a lot of animals were dying. It really helped open people’s minds to the idea: Dogs don’t have to eat dog food. They can eat food. You can’t give them things they can’t have, obviously. No chocolate, onions, or things like that. But why shouldn’t they eat just as healthy as us?

Melissa:

Exactly! How did you know how to make the treats? Did you cook growing up?

Rocky:

Yes, definitely. I was kind of the caretaker for my siblings, just because I was older, I love them, and they needed help. That caretaker mentality forced me into cooking. I am no professional chef. When I was cooking for them, I was making the world’s best mac and cheese. I wasn’t making a five-course dinner. But I knew the basics and I really loved baking. Food is my vice for sure, so I’m always interested in it.

I just started with the basics of baking, but I paid attention to how dogs’ pallets are different than ours. They react to things differently than we do. And you really don’t need big study groups or panels… You can watch a dog and see the way they take food or treats, think about it, and process it. Sometimes they’ll set it down, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That’s like if someone shoves a cupcake in my face, I’m going to pull back and kind of look at it before I (eat it). Well, that’s not true. I’d probably just start eating it. But that’s the case for most people!

So, (I spent some time) watching dogs and (understanding) how they process things. For example, a paw cake. You could make a paw cake taste like a cupcake. But you could also make it taste very sour, almost sour cream-like, and dogs really love that. That’s a fun experience for them.

Melissa:

Do you remember the first time you ever baked a dog treat and what the experience was like?

Rocky:

It was one of those moments where you’re in the kitchen and you’ve got pots and pans everywhere and you’re making different kinds of treats. What I should have done is gone, “Okay, I’m going to make this treat.” But what I ended up doing was going, “I made these 50 treats, let’s try them!” So, it was more of a mad-chef-in-the-kitchen sort of experience. My poor dog, I do not remember what treat they got first.

Melissa:

Did this start as a hobby, where you would bake for your dogs and your neighbors’ dogs? Or, with your business degree and background, did you say to yourself: “I want to turn this into a business!”?

Rocky:

Both at the same time. “This is fun, I really like it. It’s something I can do just in my free time. But, hey, I think other people would also like this. Is there an opportunity?”

I started the first store and now we have four stores in the LA area. I love retail stores, and I would open up so many more of them. But where we really serve our customers the best is online. (For example), if someone in Michigan really loves The Dog Bakery and wants to order a cake for their dog, they can customize it and can help them with that.

Melissa:

Wow, so you customize the cakes and then you ship them too?

Rocky:

Oh yeah! We pack them up and we ship them. And they’re real cakes – you could eat them. We don’t advise it, but you could. It would taste like a sugar-free cake essentially.

Melissa:

Take me through the process of opening your first store. What was that like? That must have been very exciting and scary at the same time.

Rocky:

That’s exactly what it was like — exciting and scary. You open the doors and you hope people will come in, and they don’t. So then you got to get to work.

You can’t be too cool for school. I have handed out so many flyers. Social media is awesome and it’ll take you so far, but it’s also about getting out there. Handing out flyers and meeting people – going door to door… Feet on the street. There was a lot of that.

The funny thing is, I still love doing it. If I’m ever by the store, I still love stopping in to see the neighbors. We have a vet office connected to one of our stores, and sometimes one of the vets, vet techs, or team members will come over and buy something. I’ll go, “Hey, wait. You know you get a 10% discount, right?” Because they’re neighbors. So that sort of thing is really important because we’re a community.

Melissa:

Are you planning on opening up more physical stores? Or will you continue focusing on your current stores and pushing online?

Rocky:

With the world right now, it makes it really hard for retail. But hopefully one day. It would be neat to be able to open a store in New York, Chicago, Dallas, and have stores across the nation that people can go visit. But, right now, we can barely keep up with orders online.

We send out thousands and thousands and thousands of cakes. It’s only capped by our ability to make the cakes. We’re a cake shop – you can’t mass produce this stuff.

Melissa:

How big is your team?

Rocky:

I’d say about 50 people.

Melissa:

So you have some hands on deck making the cakes!

Rocky:

Oh, definitely.

Melissa:

Along with The Dog Bakery, you also run a very successful YouTube channel, which has more than 2 million subscribers. I’ve seen some recipe videos and videos where you make cakes for homeless dogs. Was this originally a spinoff of your dog bakery?

Rocky:

No, it actually had nothing to do with it. I’ve just recently started tying it back in. That channel, the whole point is to help animals. The whole idea is working to show people that pet adoption is the first thing they should consider.

Since I got involved in this industry, really dug in, learned, and visited Los Angeles shelters, I realized, “Oh man, this is really bad.”

I want to clarify: I think a lot of times people are almost embarrassed to say, “Oh, I don’t know anything about it.” But that’s okay. Why would you know anything about it? It’s been behind these cylinder block walls for generations. These pets go into these shelters, and then who knows what happens? Nobody.

It’s my job to show people that (these shelters) are not scary places. Rescues are awesome. They are kind, they are loving. They are doing the best thing for animals. When you go (to a shelter), you won’t have that feeling of, “I’m so sad. I want to rescue them all and I can’t do anything, so now I’m depressed.” That is not the case. You can go in there and you can help. You can get involved, you can foster.

(As we were getting involved), I thought other people would want to view those sorts of things. And so I said, “All right, let’s turn on the camera.”

I had to learn how to edit and film. The videos weren’t that great, but people enjoyed them. They were like, “I want to do that. I want to get involved. I want to help. How’s this work?” They really got behind the dogs we were helping. People were able to share the content to help these dogs get adopted. Each animal has their own story and their own personality. If you just take the time to listen to them, it’s a really neat experience.

Melissa:

Online is a big place. How did you cut through all the noise and what do you think contributed to the massive growth of your channel?

Rocky:

It really has nothing to do with me. There’s only one thing that has to do with me and that’s tenacity. It’s not easy. When people go, “I want to be a YouTuber, I want to do that!” I encourage them to do that. Most people can’t; it is hard.

What I attribute the growth to is people want this. People want to help animals. They want to be involved, they want to volunteer, and they want to foster. And, so, it really has nothing to do with me. I felt like there were people like me that wanted to learn and be more involves, and so I turned the camera on and found out it’s true – there are people out there that love what I love.

Melissa:

Have you seen a huge spike with COVID? Right now, so many people are fostering and adopting shelter animals.

Rocky:

It is so great! Oddly enough, and I don’t know why, we haven’t really… But I think awareness-wise for animals is great. I never thought we’d be in this position where I’d go to a shelter and I say, “Okay, which one of your pets needs help getting adopted? Let’s make a video.” And they’d go, “No, we don’t have any.” I rejoice. That makes me so happy.

My fear is, when the pandemic is over and we get through this together, people will start struggling with their animals. Frustrations will start to boil up and we will get this influx of animals going to shelters. I hope not. I hope a lot of people are watching content like mine and learning. They have time at home to watch YouTube videos to help train their animals. So, I hope that doesn’t happen. I fear it will, and so we got a lot of work to do.

Melissa:

A lot more content coming our way from your channel for that, I’m sure. What does your team look like for YouTube now?

Rocky:

When I jumped into YouTube, I said, “Okay, do I want to somehow make another TV show? Or what direction do I want to go?” And I looked at YouTube and I saw a lot of “YouTubers.” They would have success and then they would fail… But I think it’s because you have to have a business mindset about this to make it sustainable and ongoing.

I was able to find some people that were building teams around it and having success. Sky’s the limit if you can build a team. So we do, we have a team. We have producers and videographers and editors. But that took years, just like any small business. I used to bake every single dog treat that was in my bakery. I haven’t baked a dog treat now for months. The team now for YouTube is big and I hope it gets bigger. We’re adding team members and creating jobs. It is possible, but it ain’t easy.

Melissa:

Do you have a favorite video and story that you’ve covered to this day?

Rocky:

I love any of the videos where we’re taking a dog out for their best day ever, or working with a shelter. What people don’t realize is those take months. We don’t just go to the shelter and turn the camera on and then the next day we’re done; it’s months of work to showcase and share that story and work with the dog. We can’t just go in there and go, “Okay, dog, you’re up. Let’s film.” It’s on the dog’s schedule. Those videos are a lot of work, and we’re really proud of those.

Melissa:

Between the bakery, filming, other work obligations, and your family, you have a lot going on. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are trying to juggle it all?

Rocky:

I’m always finding ways to cut things and to say no, because you just can’t do it all. But I would say the main things that I focus on are the things that are working. Sometimes those aren’t always the things I love the most, so I continue to do what I love. It’s not always about the numbers, it’s not always about the analytics, it’s not always about the performance. When I go out and I do shelter make-overs and create 30-minute long videos for YouTube, those sometimes don’t perform as well as just a quick Facebook live. But it’s what I love and I’m passionate about it.

It’s so easy to chase bright, shiny lights. My advice is to continue refining and focusing on what is working and what you love. If you can nail those two things, everything else will fall into place.


You can connect with Rocky on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and The Dog Bakery website.

Episode 2: Building a Strong Tribe in the Pet Community with Hannah Zulueta

Today’s guest is a pet entrepreneur on a mission to help fellow pet entrepreneurs take their online businesses and brands to a whole other level. Her name is Hannah Zulueta. If you’re on Instagram then you may already know her as the creator behind the massively popular account, MaggieLovesOrbit, where she shares her journey with her two Boston Terriers, Maggie and Orbit. She’s also the creator behind the tip-filled Instagram account BarkCommunity, which is loaded with advice for online engagement and growth. Hannah has her own social media marketing firm and works with some of the most popular pet brands. Last, but certainly not least, she is the co-founder of The Pet Summit, an event that brings pet entrepreneurs, influencers, and brands together to learn and grow.

In this interview, Hannah dives into the importance of community building, how she developed her own little black book filled with the creators behind leading pet accounts on social media, and how she organizes events that generate a buzz.


Melissa:

I always like to say there are two kinds of dog parents: The person who grew up with dogs and discovered that bond early in life, and the person who didn’t welcome dogs into their families until later in life. Which category do you fall into?

Hannah:

I fall into the first one! I’ve had dogs since I was six years old. My first dog was a retired K-9, and, since then, I’ve had 14 dogs throughout my life. I remember being a child in Papua New Guinea, rolling around in the dirt with the dogs.

Melissa:

The view on dogs today is very different than it was so many years ago. They’re such an integral part of our lives and viewed as close family members. Was that always the case for you?

Hannah:

No. Actually, there’s a scenario with dog ownership where, in the beginning, it’s food and shelter. I took care of (my childhood dogs) … I always played with them. But it wasn’t the way I am now where I think about how are doing emotionally, mentally. Are they learning, are they growing? … It’s definitely evolved through the years.

Melissa:

Even with this evolution, when you reached working age, you didn’t go right into the pet industry. I read you actually went into the hospitality industry first, correct?

Hannah:

I did. I spent 20 years in the hospitality industry. I traveled the world. By the time I reached the peak of my career, I had 26 resorts from Thailand to Mexico, Puerto Rico, the U.S. I did that for 20 years and loved it.

Melissa:

What was your role in the hospitality industry?

Hannah:

I actually started in the call center and then, as I got my degree, I worked my way up. It was a startup. The owner mentored me and I ended up going into sales and marketing, which was my education. By the time I pivoted, I was a sales and marketing director for about 26 different resorts.

Melissa:

You obviously traveled a lot. What was the day-to-day back then?

Hannah:

That was before social media and it was all about making sure we knew the whole experience for people traveling to the resorts. How do we attract them, from when they’re sitting at their desk and looking at their calendar going, “Where am I going to spend the one week I have this year?” And we would really think about that and go, “Okay, someone’s working for 51 weeks of the year and they want to go away for a week.” We knew that experience started when they looked at their vacation balance and we had to figure out how to find that person, talk to them, and basically carry them through check-in, vacationing, check-out. And this is all pre-digital, so it’s very different.

Melissa:

What ultimately caused you to leave that industry?

Hannah:

I wasn’t home and I got lonely. I remember I was in Park City, it was July 4th, and I did a FaceTime with my friends and boyfriend. They were on a sailboat on the bay – and July in San Diego is beautiful. They were there with my dog – my first Boston Terrier, Zoe. They were like, “We miss you and we love you.” And I’m thinking, “It’s July 4th. What am I doing here in Park City?” It was 2:00 pm and it was one of those defining moments.

It was the time between when guests check-out and the next round of guests check-in. I was there overseeing it because it was a big weekend for us. And I said to myself, “This is not the life I want to have – I want to be on that boat with my dog and my friends.” So, I made a plan and it took about eight months to transition out.

Melissa:

What was your vision?

Hannah:

I don’t know if I had an image, but I knew that I could do it. When you work for a startup, you’re used to figuring things out as you go along. We had a saying that we were building the landing as a plane was coming down, because in a startup you basically have limited staff, limited resources. You might open the hotel with very few people and you’re just growing as the business grows. I said to myself, “Well, if I’ve done this for 20 years for someone else, I can figure out how to do it for myself.” And so I said, “Well, I’ve got 20 years of hospitality experience, I’m going to start consulting in hospitality.” But I never knew I would end up in the dog space.

Melissa:

So, at this point, it still wasn’t about dogs!

Hannah:

I was used to working a lot of hours, but (when I first started working for myself) I only had one client. It was Wyndham – they had resort properties in Hawaii and I was overseeing their social media. It was only about two hours worth of work a day. So, I would look over at the dog bed and I would sit in here taking photos of her. Then, when she napped, I would edit them and I would go on social media. I was trying to figure out social media – I never really understood it until I had my own Instagram account. And then things started happening.

Melissa:

How long ago was this?

Hannah:

I started working for myself five years ago. And it was very different back then in terms of Instagram for dogs. I think there was Doug the Pug and there were very few famous dogs. I was just there because I didn’t want to flood my Facebook feed with all the photos of my dogs.

Melissa:

So, you’re just starting to post pictures that you take at home and you’re noticing people are attracted to them. You’re gaining more followers. What was the message back then? Was it really just, ‘Here’s my cute dog?’

Hannah:

It was a lot about what she was doing. She was growing up and the aha moment was when she had a health issue – she threw up and I talked about it (on Instagram). Before that it was a very surface-level interaction. Then I lowered my walls.

I didn’t know how to raise a puppy, so I started asking about that. And all of a sudden, the community started volunteering. I remember I was doing something around the house and then I looked at my phone and said, “Wow, there are 30 conversations going on here.” 30 might not seem like a lot, but, to me, it was. And that’s when I knew you could have an online friendship of sorts.

Melissa:

When did that turn into the blog, maggielovesorbit.com?

Hannah:

I created the blog a year later. Again, I didn’t know what I was doing. I just thought, “Well. I sat down for a photo session and I only posted one on the (Instagram) feed and I’ve got eight more, where do they belong?” And I put them on the blog.

Melissa:

Did you also write your stories on the blog, or did it just start as an extra photo album?

Hannah:

It was an extra photo album. And I started to become a little bit more interested in Boston Terriers as a breed. So, it became a place for me to start documenting and cataloging things. I thought, “Well, if I’ve learned something new and it took me a week to learn that, someone else might find this useful.” That’s how the blog was born.

Melissa:

As the blog is growing and your Instagram is growing, you still have clients on the side … and they’re not in the dog space. When did you transition to solely dog-related work?

Hannah:

It was very organic. I was doing a lot of work with my sister-in-law, who is also an independent and has her little marketing company in Glendale. She was in all industries, so I had a client that was HVAC. How exciting is HVAC? Marketing is marketing. Marketing is storytelling, marketing is relationship building. So you can know marketing and apply that to different industries.

As Maggie and Orbit grew, different companies would come to me and ask for my advice. So I would just give it. And then I started @BarkCommunity because I said to myself, “I’m answering the same question 20 times, I just want one place to say, ‘Here, I answered it.'”

Then different companies started to ask if I could handle their social media or consult for them. So, through the years, it grew and, as of last year, I transitioned fully out of other industries. I do 100% for pets now – all my clients.

Melissa:

You have two very massive Instagram accounts. @MaggieLovesOrbit has 138,000 and @BarkCommunity has just under 70,000.

Hannah:

As you know, in the dog space, the majority of dog Instagram accounts are not run by people who are in marketing or in storytelling. They’re teachers, they’re counselors, they’re mothers. And, so, they’re just sharing photos of their dogs. They’re not keeping up with what’s going on in marketing and they would ask me questions too. So, I started answering in DMs and I thought, “I’m answering you 20 times, I’m just going to start building one place to answer.” And, if I didn’t know the answer, I would look it up. And I thought, “Well, since I looked it up I might as well type it out.”

Melissa:

When did the idea of The Pet Summit come about?

Hannah:

That is actually the brain child of Gal’s Best Friend, Megan Rose and Chelsea Evans. They are the team who runs Gal’s Best Friend. I met them three years ago at BlogPaws, which was a great conference for bloggers.

The first time I went was the last year, which is so devastating. And, so, there was gap left. Megan and Chelsea put their heads together and said, “We should have an event and have it more social media-centric.” Because, as you know, media has evolved. It used to be newspaper, radio, and TV. Then the webspace came and then social media came. Before, bloggers were the only influencers, and then social media came and you started seeing people with very large audiences. So, they thought we needed a space to talk about best practices, how to network, how to help each other. Because, again, for a lot of the people who have massive followings, it’s not what they studied. It just happened accidentally. A great, happy accident.

They wanted to have it in Austin and they asked me to be part of it, but I knew with my workload I couldn’t go to Austin and handle logistics with them as a team. But, with COVID last year and pivoting to the online space, I thought, “Well, I can do that! I can do it from my office. I can be part of the team.”

Paige Chernick is the fourth woman on the Pet Summit team. It’s been great for me to observe (and work with) like-minded people. I could never do that event on my own, but the four of us can come together and create a strategy.

We genuinely want to help influencers because we know what it’s like… We wanted to build a community where we could share information because a lot of people like to hold their cards close to their chest and not share (their success strategies). But, the community will only grow if we grow together. And all four of us are social media managers as well. So we want to make sure we help educate new accounts that are turning into little businesses.

Melissa:

What categories did you cover?

Hannah:

We covered:

  • How to be an influencer
  • The different social media platforms – Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Facebook.
  • How to build a business
  • How to take photos
  • We had Rachel Fusaro talk about what makes a video great
  • We had you! You’re a very accomplished blogger.

It was like a love fest. We said, “Who do we love out there, and let’s invite them!” And each one of us had our little Rolodex of who we wanted to be part of it. So we just reached out to our friends or people that we quietly, secretly admired and they didn’t even know it.

Melissa:

When it came time to do outreach, you already had so many people that you were connecting with through @MaggieLovesOrbit and then also @BarkCommunity. Then, the women you worked with are powerhouses in the pet space. With a really nice little black book of influencers and brands, how much of that do you think contributed to the success of the event?

Hannah:

It really helped that we had a good Rolodex. See, that’s how old I am, I’ll say Rolodex! At the same time, though, nothing replaces elbow grease. We had a list of people who we wanted to reach out to and it was straight: How many people can I DM? We would even lock ourselves out (of our Instagram accounts) because we were doing too many DMs.

Melissa:

A lot of people are very intimidated to do outreach and connect with people on social media, even though that’s what social media is for: You’re getting social on your media! What tips do you have for people?

Hannah:

Outreach doesn’t start when you need a project. Outreach starts every day through the relationships that you make. If there are people in the industry that you admire or aspire to be like, or want to learn from, or want to build something with, it starts with interacting with them. It might be something simple, like liking their photos and making genuine comments.

When it comes to the actual physical outreach, you just reach out and it’s a numbers game. And the worst thing that they could say is no, or maybe they don’t even respond, but then you just keep going.

Melissa:

How many teachers did you have at The Pet Summit?

Hannah:

We had over 70 classes, and they’re still online at ThePetSummit.com. We had about 700 people tune in. So, for our first event, we were very excited.

Melissa:

You had a lot of good built-in advertising from the speakers because they all had large audiences of their own. Was that intentional or an added bonus?

Hannah:

That was just an added bonus because we also had speakers who had very small audiences, but they had very good content. We went with the people that showed — through time — they knew what they were doing. I know bloggers who might be getting over 100,000 page views a month on their blog, and making six figures on their blog, but when you look at their social media following it’s not corresponding in size. So, we knew that people were good at what they did, their expertise, and we brought them in, regardless of the size of their audience.

Melissa:

From the idea of this to the actual event, how long did it take to put this all together?

Hannah:

Gosh, 2020 is such a blur! I want to say maybe two, three months.

Melissa:

That’s quick!

Hannah:

It was quick. We worked on it every night. We would get on the phone and do a video call every Thursday, some weeks we’d do two. We would split up different tasks and just wrangled everyone to come together. Just to gather all the videos, to edit them, to upload them – it was a lot of work.

Now we know we probably want to double our prep time and start six months, maybe even longer, maybe eight months.

Melissa:

Was it all in-house?

Hannah:

All in-house with exception of the video editing. We did hire someone for the video editing, but each one of us knew how to build ads, how to build a website, marketing, social. I mean, we just put our heads together.

Melissa:

How long before the event did you start selling tickets?

Hannah:

About a month prior.

Melissa:

So, within a month you were able to get 700 ticket holders?

Hannah:

Yes.

Melissa:

That’s really impressive. What do you think contributed to its success?

Hannah:

I think it was a combination of things. All of the speakers had their own audiences, so that was one. And there really is a need in the industry to provide an educational component. Because, if you think about it, all these pet parents who are posting at least once a day to their feed and then creating stories, they’re marketing storytellers without even calling themselves that. They’re doing it naturally.

I will tell you, I did not understand social media running resorts until I had a dog account. We thought, “Oh, just put up the pretty pictures.” We knew how to story-tell to wholesalers and to travel agents, but it’s very different when you’re talking to the consumer. You almost have to be not as polished, that authenticity is really applicable when you’re speaking directly to the consumer.

Melissa:

What lessons did you learn in the hospitality industry that you applied to The Pet Summit?

Hannah:

Storytelling. And I learned that from Tom LaTour. Tom LaTour was the CEO of Kimpton and then he retired in Wine Country. But he didn’t do retirement very well. So he came out of retirement and formed a brand called LaTour Hotels and Resorts. And we would go into very unknown destinations and open up a high-end resort. It’s the elevated version of timeshare where people are looking to have a second resort home, but they’re looking to only be there for maybe a month at a time or six months at a time. So they would buy into a resort and they might spend anywhere from $100,000 to $2 million, just to have a little fraction of this little property.

At this point in my career, I’d been in the industry for 16 years. I was in sales and marketing and he would say, “Hannah, tell me about the menu.” And I’d run through the menu with the chef. And then he would say, “Now, tell me about the drink.” And I’d go, “What do you mean?” “So, you have a margarita. Where’s the alcohol from. Where’s the tequila from? What region?” And he would get down to the granular level of what’s the story behind this drink? How was it born? What’s the name of it? And we would go through the whole property — the sheets, and the soaps. We would think about every little detail because, in the resort industry, a room is a room is a room. You really just need it to go to sleep and take a shower, and then you’re out vacationing wherever you’re going. So, what I learned in the resort business is to really think about the experience that you want someone to have when they come to your property and the stories that they tell other people when they go home.

We wanted to talk about the transformation that people would have and the experience that they would have by going to the Pet Summit. When we were reaching out to other attendees, and in the ads that we would run, we wanted to touch on the trajectory they would have the minute they sat down…

We’ve had some great testimonials. The perfect attendee we targeted were those that had less than 10,000 followers. That’s the audience we wanted to serve.

And we helped rescues! Each of us selected a rescue and we donated the proceeds to our rescue of choice.

Melissa:

How much of that was in your storytelling when you were advertising the event?

Hannah:

We made sure that we share that at least 70% of the time, and that was very important. Even though now I have dogs that I got from a breeder, my background came from going to the shelter and just picking up the dogs that looked like they needed a home… So I brought in Frosted Faces, which is out of San Diego. They take in the dogs that no one’s adopting. They’ll take them into their shelter and then foster them out and then eventually place them. Each of the organizers had an organization that was near and dear to our hearts.

Melissa:

Are you looking at doing a similar two-day event in 2021?

Hannah:

We are. That was the accident we learned by having it online: We were able to reach more people. If you think about going to a traditional conference – you have to book a hotel room, you have to get on a plane. Who’s going to watch my dog or cat if I’m not taking them with us? So, we really did have that aha moment. Not only did we reach more people, we were able to reach people globally. So we will continue to have an online component. We still do want to have an in-person event, but with everything going on that probably won’t happen until 2022.

Melissa:

Any advice that you would have for someone else inspired by the work that you’re doing?

Hannah:

To just imagine the possibilities you can do when you collaborate with other people, and the only thing that’s stopping yourself would be your own limitations. I always say, ‘Yes, you can. You’ll figure it out.’ I am not a great athlete. For example, I wanted to run a marathon. I’m five feet, I’m slow. But I knew that if I showed up every day and hit the pavement I could get to 26 miles. And it’s the same thing with any project or goal that you have.


You can connect with Hannah and her pups on Instagram (@MaggieLovesOrbits), Instagram (@BarkCommunity), Facebook, Twitter, The Pet Summit!

Episode 1: The Founder of iHeartDogs Shares the Importance of Audience Listening

Today we’re chatting with Justin Palmer, the founder and CEO of iHeartDogs. In just a few short years, Justin, along with his team, has grown one of the largest online communities for dog lovers. They attract more than 25 million people across their many social platforms and newsletter, 5 million monthly website visitors, and they ship out over 45,000 monthly customer orders. In this interview, Justin shares his key to massive growth in the pet space: Audience listening.

Justin:

At iHeartDogs, our mission is: Healthy dogs, happy homes, empty shelters. Really, we’re a pet lifestyle brand. So, we’re really just here to be along the journey with pet parents from the beginning all the way up until the end, and we do everything in between. We’re not really a product company, we’re not really a media company — we’re a mixture… And, one of the things we do, and really tie into everything we do, is build in a cause. So, when you purchase from us, you get to see the impact. You see the exact number of meals that you provide for a shelter dog. You see how much money you’ve funded for a veteran’s cause, or how many miles of transport you provide to pull a dog out of the kill shelter into safety. So, we’re really passionate about giving back and that’s built in the DNA of who we are.

Melissa:

I’m guessing that passion comes from somewhere! What’s your backstory?

Justin:

It’s interesting, because I grew up with no pets at all. I was allergic to dogs and cats. I still am in some ways. And a couple of years after I got married to my wife, she wanted a dog. I did not want a dog. So, we compromised and got a dog. We showed up to a Siberian Husky rescue, and I immediately had an allergy attack. My eyes were watering, I was sniffing, sneezing. It was obvious: I was allergic to dogs. But, I fell in love with a two-year-old Husky named Splash. We ended up adopting her, which didn’t really make any sense considering my allergies, but we brought her home. I never had a problem again. So, it was crazy.

I wasn’t a dog person – my wife grew up with dogs. But, I developed this close relationship with Splash, where I was walking her multiple times a day, because she’s a Husky and she needs the exercise. And I really just fell in love with her and fell in love with being a pet parent. And so that was before I started the company.

Melissa:

Did you have a background in digital marketing, or was this a completely new space for you?

Justin:

In my career, my background was in e-commerce and marketing. I had been with several e-commerce companies. Nothing in the pet space, but I had that background and that skill set of being able to sell and market products online. Where it merged the two things (marketing and my love for dogs) was about 2013, I built a Facebook page about dogs. It was just called: I Love Dogs. And we just started posting inspiration. We posted submitted pictures and stories about people rescuing their dogs and I posted some pictures of Splash. Really, it just snowballed and it started growing.

Then we started running Facebook ads and growing it even more. And before long, (that first Facebook page) actually splintered off into breed-specific pages. We had Huskies and we had German Shepherds and we had the other top breeds. We built a community for each one, and built a team with moderators that started posting content.

Melissa:

How many Facebook pages do you have?

Justin:

I think we have about 80 different pages right now that we manage, and then there’s probably another 60 Facebook groups. So, we have a lot of volunteers that are passionate about specific dog breeds and they manage those for us. It’s quite a large community.

But at this point, we didn’t have a business, we didn’t have a product. We were just posting photos, really. That was the beginning. I just realized the passion I felt about my dog was not unique. It was something millions of pet parents have. And I think that was the beginning in thinking about, “Okay, what are products I can build to serve this community, what’s content we can create to serve this community?” and that’s the genesis of the story.

Melissa:

Let’s back up for a second. You start these Facebook pages, where you started with one and then built on and added more. When did it start taking a turn where you said, “Okay, this is really catching on. People are liking what we have to offer. I think we should take this one step further”?

Justin:

One thing just led to another. At that time, I was working another job. I started just in the evenings posting content, scheduling content throughout the day. Pretty soon after that, we started connecting with a few pet brands. They would reach out to us, they would offer to pay us to post about their product, and we would post about their product. I began to see what kinds of products and things people were interested in on social media. People wanted lifestyle statements about who they were. There’s plenty of places you can buy a dog collar, plenty of places you can buy pet food, but people really wanted to make a statement about who they are.

So, we saw success with car magnets, t-shirts, mugs, and stickers — things that basically say a little bit about what you believe about animal rescue and about being a pet parent. So, those are the kinds of products we started promoting. And, eventually, very soon after, started building ourselves. We hired a design team, and we started doing t-shirts on teespring.com before we even had our own store.

A lot of people expect there’s some grand vision and we had it all planned out, but that’s not at all what happened. It was just one step at a time.

Melissa:

What was your first product and how was it received?

Justin:

The first product that we actually built ourselves with our own manufacturing was actually a pet memorial bracelet. It was a beaded bracelet. It had 22 beads and was just a simple, classy white bracelet with a little silver paw on it. And this is where we began to bring in a cause into the sale of every product. So, we partnered with a charity called GreaterGood.org. We said, “Okay, every bead on this bracelet is actually going to represent a donated meal in honor of your pet that has passed away.” And what we found was: The journey of pet parents doesn’t end at the time in which your pet passes. You have all these memories and all these emotions around that experience. We realized that wasn’t the end. That was actually the beginning. And we actually came alongside people.

I think we sold about 100,000 of these bracelets in the first year — it was just incredible. We couldn’t keep up. And, again, we just realized how much our niche was coming alongside of pet parents in their journey. It wasn’t necessarily selling them dog food or anything else they can buy anywhere. It was filling this void of, “I want a product to say how much my pet meant to me and how much my dog means to me today.”

Melissa:

On the surface, you have a bracelet. Other companies can sell bracelets as well, but you’re saying: It’s the story behind the bracelet. Do you know to build this story around the bracelet because of your background as a marketing manager for e-commerce and what you were seeing inside of your Facebook pages?

Justin:

Yeah. I definitely think the marketing background helped. I think it helps to tell a story, and we were able to hire a great team to help take good pictures, to tell a good story, to write good copy. All that matters, for sure. But, I think the advantage we had that maybe other businesses don’t when they start, is being able to iterate a product or an idea and get your community’s feedback in real time. So, at that point, we had many Facebook pages that were over a million fans… When you post a product and then you immediately see the feedback and you see people ask: “Well, can you do it this way?” We’re able to iterate on that really quickly.

So, I think the unique advantage we had: We were able to listen in a way that most companies can’t. It takes much longer to get that feedback if you’re selling a product at PetSmart or whatnot. It’s very hard to actually hear what your customer’s thinking. Whereas 10 minutes after we post, we could see 20 comments that say this one thing. And we can make a change or we can tell the story slightly different so it’s a little bit more understandable. That’s the advantage we had with starting with community and starting with an audience before we even made a product.

Melissa:

You obviously have a very engaged, high-quality audience. What would you say was your biggest contributing factor for the amount of growth you saw so early on?

Justin:

I like to say that, “Oh, we’re a genius. We just figured it out.” And, part of that might be true – we figured it out. But, there was a timing aspect. We started our Facebook communities at the beginning of the growth phase of Facebook pages and Facebook groups. So, there’s a timing aspect that if we were to try to do that again today, it couldn’t happen…

It just so happened that, at that same time, we were able to figure out how to run advertisements that would actually kickstart those communities in a way that we’d be able to spend a dollar and get a hundred people to like our page. So, by kickstarting it with advertising, at that time, we were able to actually snowball these communities. They still grow pretty rapidly for us today, but nothing like they did before.

Now we’ve moved on to more content on our website, and email is a big thing. Instagram for us is where we spend a lot of time these days.

While it was really just partly timing, I think it’s also understanding and following what people are passionate about. We didn’t really have an agenda. We just said, “Look, let’s actually build useful communities for people around breeds, that are around animal rescue, that are just on things that they care about.” And I think that’s what led to the success.

Melissa:

If you come on to iHeartDogs, you see two different components: You have the blog-style reads that are filled with a lot of tips and resources for pet parents to help better take care of your dogs. You also have the store. When did the website come about, and when did the blog appear?

Justin:

About a year after I created the Facebook pages, I met my business partner, Marshall, and his background was media and advertising. He know that world – I didn’t know that world at all. I knew products and I knew e-commerce marketing. So, we merged our skillsets, and he really took the blog to the next level in terms of development and building a writing team and creating content that people absolutely love and figuring out how to engineer traffic off of Facebook in those days. So, really, it was a merger of both of our skillsets that led to this business that we have. That’s both media and products.

Melissa:

Did you see a huge spike in sales once you brought in the website/blog component?

Justin:

We actually had a pretty well-read blog before we started selling the products. The interesting thing about that is: By having so many eyeballs on our website, we were able to show products and sell products quite easily. That’s something I always encourage other entrepreneurs to think about. If you have an audience, you can build any product. Your first product can be a failure, and your second can be a failure, and your third can be a failure. But, because you have a built-in audience, eventually you’re going to find something that works for them.

We were fortunate to basically have our marketing and our advertising for free, because we had that audience.  

Melissa:

It seems like you’re always evolving and expanding. Tell me about your current products team.

Justin:

We have an amazing product development team. They’re just incredibly talented, all the way from design to production to sourcing products. And we’re actually expanding.

Most of our products in the beginning were for pet parents, not for pets. They were lifestyle products. The last couple of years, we’ve actually spent more time on the other side, building products that help us with our mission of healthy pets. My dog is now going to be 15 this month. As I’ve seen the whole journey of pet parenthood, from when they’re young to when they’re older, we’re passionate about building products that help dogs age well. Whether it’s a supplement, whether it’s CBD oil, or whether it’s products that make your dog more comfortable, these are the things we’re really passionate about and have spent a lot of our development time on in the last year…

When you bring a puppy home or you rescue a new dog, you love them. But not as much as you love them in their senior years. It’s so different. We think that lots of other stores and retailers focused very well on the beginning of the journey, whereas we tend to be more in the senior years. That’s really where we focus our development, and also our content as well.

Melissa:

Just going back to your dog Splash for a second, the products that you have on iHeartDogs, gearing them to pet parents with older dogs, it probably hits home a little bit more now because you have a senior dog. But if you look back to the beginning of iHeartDogs, you got her when she was two years old, but you still did focus a lot on older dogs and pet parents who have older dogs. That’s why you had a bracelet that was a memorial bracelet. So it does seem like catering to that older dog audience was always something that you did, regardless of what was going on in your own personal life. Is that because that’s what you were seeing in your community Facebook page?

Justin:

Absolutely. It was when we talked to people, we saw comments, and we saw pictures of what they’re posting. The reality is, most of the people in our communities either had dogs that were in their senior years, or have had dogs that passed. So, we focused very much on the memories, and keeping them healthy and happy in those senior years. We didn’t plan on doing that, because I had a young dog at the time. But we just realized that this is actually the underserved part of the pet market.

Melissa:

There’s a whole lot of audience listening there. It seems like that’s really the key to your success: You had these communities, you really paid attention to what they were saying, and you made sure you were serving exactly what they are.

Justin:

If we’ve done anything well, it’s really just listening and not bringing an opinion to what we want to make. We have opinions, and we say, “Oh, it’d be cool to make this product,” but if our community is not interested in that, we let that check our intentions. We do a lot more scientific surveys now, where we show people renderings of products, and say, “Hey, would you buy this? And would you buy it at this price? Or would you want this over here?” So we try to actually merge the art and the science around product development these days, realizing it really was the listening to our community in the beginning that made us successful in the early days.

Melissa:

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Justin:

Great question. Lots of challenges, a couple that come to mind. Because we did build on the back of social media, we know every time Facebook or Instagram or somebody changes their algorithm, there’s always an adaption where we have to say, “Okay, that’s not working anymore. We have to drive traffic this way, or we have to do marketing this way, or now our advertisements cost more.” But we’ve been able to navigate those and always end up in a better place. So that’s probably a bit unique to us, being a social media based company.

I think another challenge is: We’ve chosen to stick it out alone, in the sense of Marshall and I are the sole owners of the company. We’re debt free, we don’t have venture capital behind us. So, really, we’ve been running off of our profits. If we’re going to grow, we have to grow profitably. So that’s been a challenge in the sense of sometimes we grow too fast and we have to slow down, and we make mistakes and we have to undo those mistakes.

There isn’t this pile of cash that’s saying, “Go out and just go crazy.” We’re staying independent. Part of the reason for that too is the pet industry is massive, and many people would say lucrative. But we want our growth to be driven by our values. We don’t want to be driven by whatever’s hot in the pet market… We’ve never aligned with any partners that want to come and invest, because we have just such a vision about what we want to do. We want to grow at our own rate.

We also want to create a lifestyle for our team members that’s similar to what Marshall and I have. We work from home, for the most part, with our pets, with our kids. And we just have a balanced life. Tthat’s actually the meaning behind HomeLifeMedia, which is our parent company’s name for iHeartDogs.

Melissa:

At what point did you say, “We’ve grown enough. We want to see independent, but we need to have a team of writers, a team of sales, a nice warehouse to ship things out. It’s not going to be in the garage”? At what point did this grow, and you really felt you needed to expand?

Justin:

It was probably a couple of years in that we realized, “Okay, we should probably get an office. Probably working at a Starbucks isn’t going to work. We should probably hire some professionals to manage these aspects of the business.” That was hard for me, but it was absolutely necessary… Now it’s just incredibly rewarding to see your team do something truly better than you can. And that’s just been amazing, in the last couple years of your development.

Melissa:

How large is your team?

Justin:

We’ve got 60 people right now. That’d be the whole writing content team, marketing, product development, and we have a large team too in Anaheim that ships products to our customers.

Melissa:

It’s still pretty lean! For how much you ship, that’s pretty amazing that you’re able to get a team that’s that dedicated and have everything working like a well-oiled machine.

Justin:

That just speaks to how amazing that team is – they’re able to ship so efficiently. We have a relatively small warehouse, and it’s pretty crammed right now with product for the holidays. But they’ve just done an amazing job. Also, in the world of COVID now, and keeping everybody safe, healthy.

Melissa:

Has COVID changed a lot for you guys?

Justin:

Well, in a lot of ways, it hasn’t. Because most of our team members work from home. But, as you know, there’s been a boom in pet ownership, and fortunately the shelters emptied out in March and April, which is amazing. And that’s been a boom to a lot of pet companies, and it’s been a boon to us as well. Our growth was pretty strong at the beginning of the year, but once the coronavirus pandemic got into full swing it took off even more. So it’s been an incredibly challenging year, but incredibly rewarding, and pretty fast paced growth.

Melissa:

What do you see next for iHeartDogs?

Justin:

A great question. So, like I mentioned, we’re really focused right now on the healthy-dogs aspect of our product development… We’re heavily focused on expanding our CBD product business, but also other supplements too. (Up until this point), we’ve sold primarily on our website and haven’t used (other websites, like) Amazon. We may be testing that in the next few years.

Melissa:

For someone just starting out in the pet space, what advice do you have?

Justin:

The exact path (we took), you probably couldn’t take … because of the timing. But, the formula you can take. Building an audience is important because you have somebody to run ideas off of, and you also are not so reliant on whether your first product is a hit or miss. Because sometimes it’s a miss…. So we love building an audience first and, today, audience development might look different. It might be TikTok, or it might be Instagram. It might be another platform. But there is massive growth potential in a lot of these new channels.

We also are big believers in just old school email. Email is just a great place, building a newsletter that helps pet parents in a particular life stage. Maybe it’s dogs with a disability, maybe it’s rescue dogs, maybe it’s a particular breed. You can build a fantastic business off of just focusing on one particular area. So, that’s what I would say: Focus on a niche and focus on a cause, and then also focus on building an audience around what you believe in, before you necessarily introduce a physical product.

I would certainly encourage any entrepreneur who is passionate about the pet industry. This is such a fun industry. There’s nothing like it to be able to build products that satisfy a need, but also: Pet parents are just so fun to work with because they’re so passionate and pets bring such joy to our lives. If you’re considering a business in this arena then you’re on the right track and you’re going to have a lot of fun doing it.