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A Product That Has Gone To the Dogs

A Product That Has Gone To the DogsIn July, 2010, after much anguish during the summer and even more so the previous winter and spring, my husband and I made one of the most difficult decisions of our lives. We shut down the commercial flooring company we owned. The business was in place for just over six years. It generated our primary income and paid for our health insurance.

Worried about money, I thought about my Custom Window Treatments business. I had been working part time for the past 20+ years in a workshop in our home. It helped pay some bills and generate “fun” money for the family. It also gave me a sense of contribution and pride. I learned the trade from my mother, whom I assisted as she worked in her basement workshop when I was growing up. I thought I should try to get more business while my husband searched in a tough job market. It would be a necessity.

During the spring, before the decision to close the business, I decided to make dog beds for our black Labradors, Lilly and Abbie. I thought it would be a nice distraction. I made the beds with some of the heavy duty drapery fabric from my window treatment stock. Everybody, dogs included, loved them.

Knowing the shape we were in with the flooring business and considering my static drapery business I knew I had to do something to generate more income for the family. Whatever I was going to do would have to be done on a shoestring budget. We had little money to get it going.

A Product That Has Gone To the Dogs DOG BEDS. That was it! Much of the infrastructure was already in place from the drapery business. I could use the workshop with the 4’ x 8’ table and the industrial sewing machines to reduce the startup costs significantly. It wouldn’t impact my current setup either, so I could continue making window treatments and try to add to that business. I researched the dog bed competition on line by Googling my idea about anything that gave the customer a multiple fabric selection (3 fabrics per bed) and allowed them to choose their own fabrics, making a truly custom bed. Nobody was doing it so we now had a Unique Selling Proposition. None appeared to be hand made and most were questionable about being made in the USA.

I took some of the fabrics I was going to use and tested them for color fast, wear and shrinkage by washing them. This was a low budget task, but gave us the confidence that our product was one of quality. We wanted repeat and referrals so quality was a must, plus our name was going to be on the product.

To get the best bang we knew we needed to be web based. We had to take advantage of the global reach of the internet with a website that was attractive and easy to understand. We purchased Web Plus software (about $200) to aid in our development of the site. Then we hit it hard. My two oldest daughters and I began the design quest. Many unpaid hours went into and continue to go into website development. By August 2010, we thought we could put the website online.

A Product That Has Gone To the DogsWe named the company Lilly & Abbie after our two dogs. The website is LillyandAbbiedogbeds.com. We launched it on 8/12/10 and expected a flurry of sales. A huge disappointment came day after day. No orders. Not a one. We sent out some free beds to be reviewed on blogging sites and even a bed to Ellen. We got some nice reviews and publicity but still no sales. Momentary thoughts would pass through our minds about this maybe not being such a good idea after all.

We rented a booth for a big Holiday Festival at the Trade Center in Boston in November, borrowing money from the drapery jobs I had. We worked at a dizzying pace to get ready. I stayed up late many nights making 50 beds for the show. Like the Web launch, we thought big, that all the beds we brought would disappear by Saturday and we’d be packing up more for Sunday. We sold 3 beds the entire weekend. It was another bitter disappointment. We tried to support each other with reassurance that this was a great idea that was going to take a lot more time, perseverance and effort.

So we continued with web development and marketing. We needed a Press Release to aid sales. We knew we were out of our element, so we used Elance to garner freelancers to write our press releases. For about $100 on 2 occasions, we have received PR’s that we couldn’t have written and in less time.

We were also the lucky recipients, due to coincidental association from a TV show about expensive ($800,000) dog beds made by Lily. People hit our site when researching those beds. Every time that episode ran our Google numbers went through the roof. Boston Magazine called and wanted to put our product on the staff’s favorite list so we got a short blurb in the May addition. My husband got the local paper to do a feature on me and the dog beds.

We set up accounts on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and any other social media we could associate ourselves with. We commented on other blogs and articles, trying to build solid back links. We read Inbound Marketing (by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shaw) – twice. We joined Hubspot and other SEO type organizations and tried to learn as much as we could. Most of the fees were above our budget so we could only take advantage of the limited free stuff.

We started getting more hits. Conversions were not good but you need hits in order to get them to buy. Our bounce rate was okay too. We knew it would take a diligent effort to add content. And it’s not just a once and done. It is a continual and never ending effort. That’s when focus, endurance and belief help enormously.

We use Google Analytics and I did find that I was getting caught up with the analytics part (hey – how many hits today) and not putting enough energy and attention in to getting more hits. It wasn’t productive unless we acted on the info as a result of our actions and we weren’t. So we started to. Now we focus on social media, blogging and SEO strategy. While those will evolve, staying on top of it will always be imperative.

Lack of sales and getting off track almost killed our business but we stuck with it despite slow sales. Selling beds to clients in Switzerland and Australia in addition to North America has kept us encouraged and excited. New product launches have kept us energized too. We added Tote bags in May, and pumped out another press release to cover that product. We added monogramming in June and are adding collars in July.

The one thing we felt we did right was launch before perfection. It takes so much time to get yourself “known” so you need to start the clock ASAP. It’s a case of using the Ready-Fire-Aim approach.

To be more successful we need a daily routine of blogging, reading an hour or so about marketing to stay current with trends and to develop and test SEO logic using analytics. Just as important, to appreciate our customer by sending handwritten thank you’s, asking for pictures of their pets with our products (for posting on the website) and by keeping them updated on our products. We work hard to get clients and want them to be part of our success.

Currently four people work in the company. I am fulltime in Marketing, Product Development and Production. My husband and two oldest daughters, Alicia and Jaclyn are part time with Promotion & Advertising, Shipping and Web Development.

We are still in the red. We need to sell about $1700 per month to break even. But we love the business and the pride that comes from delivering a unique hand made quality product. With less than one year under our belt we are ready to do what needs to be done in order for it to pay off.

Our dream with this business is to have it turn into a huge success, enabling the family to work in it for as long as they want. My husband’s business was staffed with our two daughters and my brother in law. There were arguments and uncomfortable times, but there was no better joy than when they rose together in challenge and conquered the tough times. From my husband’s perspective “it was incredibly special talking together, discussing things with everyone contributing and the feeling of immense pride looking around the room to see it was family.”

Depending on how big it gets, it would be great if it remained a family business. We don’t want the kids to have any identity loss and we want them to be empowered to make their own career choices but we would love to have them all onboard. So much has already been done the first year with everyone chipping in, pushing for success. And everyone shares in the joy of a sale. It’s a great and proud feeling. And the commute’s not bad either.

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One Response to “A Product That Has Gone To the Dogs”

  1. Barbara says:

    Best of luck with your new venture. I think your products are truly unique. Love them.

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