How a small-business owner successfully navigated a business model change in this socially distanced world.
Did you know that Airbnb, Venmo, and Uber were each started during the Great Recession? Economic crashes seem like the worst time to start a small business—but not if you have an innovative business model that fills a new need in a new environment.
I wanted to speak with someone whose innovative new business is taking off in the current climate. For this article I interviewed former Silicon Valley product manager turned small business entrepreneur, Alex Willen, to find out how he’s pivoted business models in order to compete in our new, socially distanced environment. The best part of this interview? It’s about dogs!
From boarding up Plan A to thawing out Plan B
Alex had spent the past ten years working as a product manager for tech startups in Silicon Valley when he decided to change his whole life, move to San Diego, and start his own business.
This was a year ago—back when travel was reaching all-time highs, commutes felt endless, and unsupervised pets were destroying furniture across the country. So Alex got started on Plan A: drafting a business plan for a dog-boarding company in the San Diego area.
But then the world changed. “I was days away from closing an SBA [Small Business Association] loan and starting construction when the pandemic hit and the bank froze its small business lending temporarily.” Weeks later, when banks were starting to issue loans again, it was clear that “taking out a large loan to open a business driven by people traveling and going into the office wasn’t a great idea.” Plan A was in trouble.
Alex decided to cut his losses and move away from a brick-and-mortar business to a more innovative, digital business model. “I had been making a meat-based frozen treat mix for my dog, Cooper, for a while” and saw a potential market there. So Plan B became Cooper’s Treats, a high-end dog treat company that operates fully online.
Getting down to the nitty gritty of dog treats and ecommerce
While you can find frozen sweets on the market, some dogs—like Cooper—just like meat. So Alex took the recipe he’d been using to satiate Cooper and turned that into the Pupsicle mix.
Alex consulted with trusted vets to make sure the products are safe and each recipe had a crude analysis performed. The crude analysis is the standard nutritional testing for pet food in the U.S. and was $250 per flavor.
He started by getting a logo and packaging designed and setting up a Shopify site. Let’s dive in a little deeper here to see how his business model innovation came to life.
Product packaging and logo design made easy
Getting a great logo designed doesn’t have to be expensive. You can look to websites like Fiverr or DesignCrowd, where freelance graphic designers offer their services for one-off requests.
Alex ran a design contest on 99Designs to find a logo he liked best. The winning designer provided him with the digital file types he needed to be able to use them on his website, marketing materials, and custom packaging.
To get custom packaging made, Alex just ran a Google search for mailer box printing and compared the prices and options on the top few results. He chose UPrinting, selected the packaging products he wanted, uploaded the logo image file from the freelance designer, and had custom packaging in hand several days later.
Getting an ecommerce platform live in no time
While he’s still working on the best shipping options for the business, Alex is currently using USPS with a flat rate for all U.S deliveries, and offering free shipping for orders over $50. This strategy lets him focus on proving the business model and reaching market needs without letting shipping costs scare off potential new customers.
Screenshot of the Shopify checkout features on Cooper’s Treats site (Source)
An unexpected source of 10,000+ website visitors
While Alex does social media and Google ads, an informational chat on Hacker News has been an unexpected driver of site traffic and sales.
“I wasn’t planning to post anything on [Hacker News] about this business,” Alex shares. “I just developed a habit of browsing it every morning while I was working in Silicon Valley, and I happened to see a thread asking about what people are working on and decided to post in it.”
Well, dogs and dog treats were quite a hit, and Alex’s post ended up driving about 10,000 website visits—and he sold out of everything in stock. This came as quite the surprise, so Alex had to kick things into a higher gear than expected to fulfill all the orders. But, he shares, “thankfully almost every email I sent about shipments being delayed got an encouraging response.”
Business model innovation that involves a hard pivot from Plan A to Plan B shouldn’t be done in a silo. Your existing network of colleagues, old coworkers, your Facebook friends, or, like Alex, the online groups you engage with regularly, can all be places to look for ideas and even unexpected customers.
And now, as a reward for reading all the way through—here’s Cooper!
Cooper chillin’ (Source)
Cooper’s Treats’ real CEO (Source)
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