Industrial Designer with a Pet products brand - AMA!

Hello Core77!

I’m a longtime lurker, but reader of this site since it’s birth way back when. After ID school at Pratt, I worked a couple corporate jobs before starting my own product company in 2007.

I’ve been designing and manufacturing and selling pet products for many years, and have touched every part of the business.

And I’m here to help you! Ask Me Anything!

How was the transition from working for a company to starting your own?

Hey Michael! Love your work!

When I started, I reduced the “day job” hours and worked on the pet brand part time. I was earning enough to get by, and put every other hour and dime into the new company for the next year or so.

Financially it was a bit tight, and although I had less scheduled time working for someone else, I ended up working way more than full time overall.

Creatively, it was amazing! I finally got to work on something that was important to me, and that I had total control over. In a strange way, design gets harder when someone else isn’t giving you the boundaries.

Because I was (and still am) running the brand solo, I’ve had to learn a TON about sales, marketing, operations, manufacturing, and finances - all of which were tough, interesting, and ultimately made me design new products much better, taking all the elements of business into account.

It’s certainly a roller coaster of ups and downs, but I am happy to be in control of my own business and still get to make stuff that I care about.

Do you have some new ideas cooking that you’d like to make/sell?

What is your target gross profit?

Do you consider yourself a Businessman first that understands the design process/pipeline. Or a Designer First that knows how to run a business.

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I wrote a long reply, but it seems it needs to be approved by a moderator…

It kinda depends on direct retail, wholesale, big box and distributor sales.

I began with my landed costs and planned for a retail price that would allow profit in any sales channel. This has changed over the years. I started out with a fat margin, planning for the eventual day when I would sell to a big box store. For reference, they usually ask for about 20% off wholesale (or more), so for a $100 retail product, I’d sell to them at $40. For example: one of my first products landed at ~$30, and I set retail at $150.

My focus now is direct retail through our site and amazon.

Over the years I’ve lowered my prices and am currently experimenting with a target gross margin of 66% and net of 33%. Then other business costs would come out of that 33%, with a target overall net of 20%.

I do run my business very lean, and I think I can make this happen. In my category, lower prices seem to do well. Add in the high MOQ from the factories and everything points to low retail prices and sell, sell, sell!

I do plan to distribute overseas, and when those prices will likely be about 10-25% over factory cost. That would be container QTY orders only.

I am absolutely a designer first. I do and always have loved business, but not nearly as much as making great stuff.

It can be a bit of a right/left brain challenge to do everything in a company, but like many trained ID’rs I have a pretty good handle on process. Whether it be a design project or a business project, the ID process can be applied well.

Before getting my Masters in ID at Pratt, I studied Art and Small Business Management, so I’ve had some exposure. But learning on the job is much more comprehensive/real/challenging.

I was saving for a downpayment on a house, and used that money for my first production run instead.

Success can been seen many ways. Did I sell all the product I produced? Yes! Am I mega rich now? No!

Setbacks have never been major, like losing 10’s of thousands of dollars on a unsaleable product. The biggest challenges have been around getting the products made exactly as I wanted, for the price I wanted (rarely possible - there has to be some give and take).

At this point, I am confident that almost any product I make for the brand could sell for above break-even, so the risk is lower. It’s taken a while to build and to get to know my audience though. Audience is the #1 asset for a brand like mine.

Where there specific setbacks that you were thinking about?

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Did/do you have a roadmap of your launches, or just release one product at a time whenever it’s ready?

150 retail sounds like it could be a rather complicated product - how long is the time to market given that you have to wear all the hats?

How do you do QC for the container qty amounts?

What would be your first hire? Sales rep, controller, another designer?

Edit: Figured out your brand. Can’t go wrong with cats in this internet day and age :wink: Was the internet-cat-craze a calculated target audience on your part, or did you just invent something for you cat and took it from there?

I’ve been thinking of starting my own business and started sketching out a business plan. HR is something that I’m not confident in though.

I was thinking of hiring a designer and engineer to handle product development, a supply chain/logistics/purchasing person and a sales person. Then outsource graphic design, marketing, warehousing/fulfillment and accounting. All the while doing production in Asia.

If you could start over, what positions do you think you need to keep in house and what could you outsource?

I launched an ecomm site and was lucky to partner from day one with the leading modern cat blog.

Depending on your volume, a farmers market or local event of some kind is a great way to start!

If you have product ideas I can help you brainstorm first sale ideas…

No brand secrets! Just wanted to keep the thread about making a biz, not about my company :slight_smile:

Road Map: Honestly, no. I started and grew this company in probably all the wrong ways. I largely rely on instinct, which is admittedly not ideal.

A bigger thing regarding Road Maps is actually the overall plan for a new company. I started it as an experiment, and grew it part time over many years. It’s still a tiny company, and only in the past 3-4 years has it been a FT effort. Because I did not launch with any product dev or dales goals/targets, I did not have a map laid out to get to them. I do not recommend following my approach! I will apply everything I have learned the slow slow slow way to the next brand I build and should be able to match my current sales within 1 year, not 8.

PO to delivery is a standard 90 days, with ocean shipping. Development can take 1-2 months for sketches, proto’s, etc. Sampling from the factory is an average of 3-4 weeks per round. Go to the factory to work with them directly if you can! It’s eye-opening.

QC is a bit of a challenge. I used an agent that I knew and trusted to source the factories, and they watched QC. But I did not have a real QC process in place, and I do regret that. Luckily, there haven’t been any major issues - my products are quite simple - and any issues that have come up are mostly the last 10% of getting the product to look or function “just right”. I am alway MUCH pickier than my customers, and rarely have any QC complaints that have to do with production.

My first FT hire would be a Marketing Director. Online marketing can be endless and can eat up every minute of the day. Once the websites, warehouses, and production is set up, the day to day is mostly automatic, and doesn’t need any hands on to work.

I would like to hire a designer/developer on a project basis to help to get my sketches and proto’s documented into spec and engineering files that I can send to the factory. Know anyone? :slight_smile:

CATS! I did have cats at home and did want to make products for them. To learn more about the market I went to a couple trade shows and saw that there was definitely a lack of well-designed cat products. And the LOLCAT phase was just kicking in as well, so it was a a perfect storm.

I would outsource repeatable tasks that don’t need much/any creative decision making. Everything else I would keep in house. Now, I do plan to hire a CEO at some point, and they’ll likely be remote, but I do consider that in-house.

Let me push back a bit on you - what part do you WANT to do? I’ve had hands on every part of my business, and although that may be the slower way to grow, I’ve learned everything and can now understand exactly who to hire and for what role (when the time comes).

Tell me more about your ideas (or PM if you don’t want to share publicly)

Primarily, I want to set strategy and coach. When needed, I’ll design, engineer, graphic design, sales, marketing, publicity, verify accounting (AR, AP, taxes, expenses), negotiate with suppliers. I imagine that year 1 I would design and negotiate with suppliers 70% of my time and do sales 15-20% of the time. Year 2, I would hope to be able to spread myself across more of the business’s activities.

Follow up for you: why a remote CEO?

BTW: Just looked at your company. I love your work! I wish I still had my cat!

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I run the business from my laptop, from my house or where ever I am traveling, so there’s no office. A remote CEO would have to be happy to do the same…