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.

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