Have you always dreamed of being a “petpreneur?” Has lack of funds kept you from moving forward even though you believe you have an incredible idea? Bootstrapping (growing a business with minimal money) is a way to realize your dream of business ownership without breaking the bank; especially helpful if you don’t have money in the bank!

Over the years we have been fortunate enough to work with many unique pet brands, some of them from their first days. Here is a story of a business that built their success from the ground up for inspiration to others who are just starting out.

If you’re just starting out in the pet space, are a long time pet-preneur who needs a little extra help getting your product to market, email me at my Contact page to set up an appointment to talk so we can see how we can help you.

Tips For Bootstrapping A Business In The Pet Industry

We spoke with Gila Kurtz of Dog Is Good because we knew she and her husband, Jon, had started the now monumentally successful business on a shoestring. “My first ‘desk,’” she said, “Was a hedge in our front yard!” Gila shared, “We had a thick, healthy hedge that was beautifully manicured and that was where I spent my mornings making sales calls.” She said the dogs were running around in the yard and she used the hedge as her desk. “Talk about shoestring budget!” She laughed.

She eventually moved into a spare room in the house, expanded to their daughter’s playroom and down the road rented space for their offices and a warehouse.

Tip #1: You don’t need fancy office space. While you may not use a hedge as your desk, you can certainly grab a corner “office” at the local coffee shop. Need a quiet place to make phone calls at home? Shut yourself in the bedroom or sit in your car and pick up the phone. A start-up doesn’t need a corner office or a prestigious address to get up and running.

Gila said, “When we started we started small because Jon and I were financing everything. We started out with a few ideas, tested them direct to consumers and course-corrected if we needed to.” She said having designs printed on apparel was easy and they didn’t need to make a huge commitment to inventory. “If something didn’t sell we could quickly change things. We started out with having five boxes of five different sizes of t-shirts in our garage — we had five units of each size (only 25 items). We would take the items to events to sell.”

Tip #2: Find suppliers and other business partners with whom you can work. If at first you don’t find a supplier or printer or other service provider willing to work with you while you’re in start-up phase, call another. Be persistent. Share your vision. Stick with those service providers who worked with you when you were in start-up mode.

“You don’t need to hire staff in the beginning, but you may need to find a supplier who is willing to take a chance on you and offer you a limited print run of an item, like we did,” she said. “Many screen printers wouldn’t waste their time on such a small order like we were placing, but they saw our vision and commitment and helped us out.”

Tip #3: Be willing to ask for help. When you’re a start-up there are many ins and outs you simply won’t have knowledge of. You need to be willing to say, “I don’t understand” or “What questions do I need to ask, that I haven’t?” Know your core competencies and ask other professionals for advice, help and even mentorship to assure you’re on the right track.

“I called myself an ‘unconscious incompetent,’” Gila shared. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know so I had to learn how to ask the right questions.”

Tip #4: Be willing to start small. Many people believe they need to jump in with a high end website, pay for advertising, hire a staff, buy new office equipment. This goes along with Tip #1 on not needing fancy office space, but is more along the lines of you, the entrepreneur, need to be willing to put in the time and the effort to build your business.

“It’s easy to want to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity that comes along,” Gila shared. “We could have spent a lot of money (that we didn’t really have) on print advertising (Facebook wasn’t as prevalent when we started back in 2005) or other items. We learned to say no.”

Gila said they may have missed some opportunities, but they had to weigh every dollar spent with what the potential return on investment would be.

Gila Kurtz of Dog Is Good

Tip #5: Believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself and your vision, no one else will. This belief means that you are willing to put in the work — long hours, tasks that just aren’t glamorous and selling your products or services to people who would benefit from them.

“We didn’t hire anyone or take on debt,” Gila said. “We did all of the work ourselves. We put in a lot of hours and did every job imaginable to make the business a success.” She and Jon made sales calls, packed orders, manned tables at trade shows to sell their apparel to consumers. “We didn’t even take a salary in the beginning. The only money we would take is if we sold apparel at an event.”

The money Dog Is Good generated in the beginning was turned around and put right back into growing the business.

“The first person we hired was a lawyer to help us protect our intellectual property,” she said. “The second was a bookkeeper.”

Tip #6: Focus. Focus. Focus. It’s easy to be distracted and pulled in multiple directions by every “bright, shiny object” you see. Whether it’s a way to run a promotion on Facebook, investing in a tradeshow booth or running a contest you need to know what your ROI (return on investment) will be.

“When you’re bootstrapping, you need to be disciplined and focus on the areas where you know you have a good chance of generating revenue and making sales,” Gila said. “In the beginning we did spend money on various things that we couldn’t easily quantify into sales.”

Gila cautioned, “Believe me, when you’re starting out, everything will sound like a great opportunity. If you jump at everything, though, you will get pulled in many directions and may spend money that isn’t going to benefit the business.”  

Tip #7: Marketing and sales need to be integrated. It’s “easy” to market your business online on social media or through an enewsletter or on your website, but you need to pick up the phone and talk to people. If you’ve ever said, “I don’t like making sales” or “I’m not a salesperson,” you may need to rethink your dream of being an entrepreneur. In order to make money and grow your business you need to make sales calls. Plain and simple.

Also, if you don’t believe in your business enough to pick up the phone and try to make a sale, who will?

“You can’t market or make sales individually,” Gila said. “These two activities work together and need to be integrated. Having a marketing initiative is all right, but if no one is out there generating sales… generating business… on a daily basis you won’t be in business.”

Gila is a believer in picking up the phone. “There are too many emails in our inboxes. Pick up the phone. It’s a way to stand out and get your business in front of buyers.”

Tip #8: Stand out. There will be other people selling “widgets” so you need to find a way to make your widgets, or your personal way of delivering those widgets irresistible to your potential consumer.

“If you want to grow your business you have to have a product or service that people love and are emotionally attached to or they need to absolutely need it because it solves a problem,” she said.

Gila said that almost weekly she will receive an email from someone who tells her, “I want to tell you how much your products or your ‘Fur Covered Wisdom’ emails mean to me.” She said, “My heart gets so full when I hear that. We are making a difference in the lives of those who receive our emails or buy our products.”

Tip #10: Know whether you want to go solo or get investors. There are pros and cons to each. If you have investors, you may grow more quickly, but you may lose some control of your business and the decisions you make.

“Even in hindsight, it would have been easier to have had money or to have had investors, but we still would have grown the business the way we did,” she said.

Other words of wisdom from Gila and her experiences from having bootstrapped Dog Is Good:

  1. You don’t need to impress people when you’re starting out. The way in which you project yourself and present yourself and your product to others is what will make you stand out.
  2. We worked to create a company culture that has our team feeling as though the business is their business.
  3. We could have a huge corner office or extra office goodies, but we don’t need them to feel great about where we are what we’re creating.
  4. We help our team with personal and professional development.
  5. We started Dog Is Good at the start of the recession. Other businesses were falling apart, the economy was horrible and we made it because we were bootstrapping.
  6. One of the most important roles we play as entrepreneurs is the opportunity to provide employment for other people. They depend on us for their livelihood and that is a tremendous responsibility.
  7. Look at the bigger picture.
  8. Take time to course correct; it’s easy to do if you start small.
  9. Focus on sales, not on status.
  10. Foster community within your team and with the larger population.

Did you bootstrap your business? What lessons did you learn that you can share?


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