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!


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