Home Podcast TOP #51: How to Break Into the Pet Industry feat. Barton O’Brien

TOP #51: How to Break Into the Pet Industry feat. Barton O’Brien

The pet industry continues to grow rapidly, and now more pet owners than ever before wish they could combine their passion for dogs and cats with their entrepreneurial spirit. If you've been thinking about developing, marketing, and selling pet supplies or a specific product for pet owners, this podcast episode is for you.

Today's podcast guest is Barton O'Brien from The Chesapeake Bay Dog Company, a veteran-run eCommerce business selling different types of dog supplies and donating a portion of earnings to charities. I've interviewed Barton about his beginnings and first struggles in the pet industry, and he also shared some helpful tips on branding and running an online dog supplies eCommerce store.

Listen to the episode in the video above and find the full podcast transcript below. For more, visit this episode’s post on the official Theory of Pets website.

How to Break Into the Pet Industry
(Podcast Transcript)

How to Break Into the Pet Industry

INTRO: Hello, and welcome back for another episode of Theory of Pets. I have recently discovered a line of dog products that is currently my favorite to use with our girls. We have a chocolate Labrador Retriever, Sadie, who weighs about 75 pounds, and then we have a little Beagle mix named Molly, and she was just under 30 pounds, so finding a product line that can meet our needs for both dogs can be kind of tricky. But the other day I stumbled upon a company called BAYDOG and it's the Chesapeake Bay Dog Company, their brand is BAYDOG. They have a line of harnesses, collars, leashes, and dog toys, and they have a treat pouch as well. And they actually customize their lines, one is for smaller breeds and one is for a larger breeds.

After doing some research into the company, I realized that I actually had heard of these products before, they used to be called Your Perfect Puppy. And I actually reviewed their products for our sister site Topdogtips.com about a year ago. I did not realize that they rebranded. One of the struggles that I found with the Your Perfect Puppy products were that they were really durable and made with quality materials, but they were a little bit too heavy for our smaller dog, and little did I know the company actually realized that as well. So they rebranded, they're now BAYDOG, The Chesapeake Bay Dog Company. It's actually a veteran owned business.

Today I got to talk with Barton O'Brien, who is the owner and creator of The Chesapeake Bay Dog Company. He discussed with me their products, and we talked about being a veteran owned business and how that affects what he does with his business and how he runs his business. So I got a lot of great tips from him. He talked about the rebranding process as well. I think that anybody that's out there that either has a small company that makes one or two products right now and you're looking to expand or anybody out there that's looking to brand a product or rebrand this is some really beneficial information that I was happy to have.

So I'm going to let you guys listen to the interview and hopefully you got as much out of it as I did speaking with Barton.

Interview with Barton O’Brien

Samantha: Barton, thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate your time. Can you start out by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself, your military service and thank you very much for that by the way. And also just about how you got switched into the pet industry, because that's obviously quite a big jump.

Barton: Yeah sure, so I started out in the military after college I went to the naval academy and I served as a marine for eight and a half years. And after the marine corps I got out, went back to graduate school and ended up working in finance. I moved to London for a while and then I moved back to New York and I worked in kind of a what I would call a complicated area of finance and structured credit. One day I just woke up and said, you know what, I don't want to do this anymore, it's not what I picture myself doing. If I'm going to be in the business world I want to have my own company.

So I quit my job and the very next day I picked up my new puppy and I always wanted to have a dog but as a marine who was gone all the time and then working on Wall Street and traveling all the time I just could never have a dog. So the first thing I did when I quit my job and decided to take a couple months off was go out and get a puppy.

Samantha: Oh wow.

Barton: Yeah, and I named him Walter and he's now a dog, he's just turned three. I spent the first few months just training him. As you know having an eight week old puppy is a full time job.

Samantha: Absolutely.

Barton: And how I got to the pet industry, initially, if you're familiar with it, there's a company called, puppyspot.com and their business model was my original idea, which was basically, helping people find dogs and then taking care of that whole checklist of things that you need to do for people who want to purchase a dog, instead of rescue a dog. Puppy Spot has taken my idea and gone bananas with it and done a really good job and created a company. I had the idea, but I didn't know how to how to monetize it really.

So I had come up with this idea, and I called it Your Perfect Puppy. And matter of fact, if you listen to their radio spots, they even say it will help you find your perfect puppy and they put “your perfect puppy” on their website. But I always thought, I have an idea or two for a product and maybe I can create those and maybe we can sell them online and that could be kind of a side stream of revenue for Your Perfect Puppy which was the name of my original company. What I found out pretty quickly was I didn't really understand the financial model of Your Perfect Puppy and I couldn't make it work. But the products I was creating were becoming kind of popular with store owners in the local area. So I made the decision you know what, maybe I should just focus on that. When I created a few products I thought well you know everybody's selling everything online now, so we'll create products and packaging that's perfect for amazon.com and for e-commerce. And that's what I did.

So like our leashes came in these really nice boxes and things like that, but as it turns out, really our business was centered on the wholesale side and store owners want something that displays properly in a retail setting. So our leases coming in boxes and our treat pouches coming in boxes it wasn't a great fit, but people really liked the product so they bought them anyway and we ended up in about 300 stores. I kind of realized, we live in Annapolis, Maryland and my colleague Molly, who works here, we were talking, we said if we're going to grow this into a real business instead of just a couple of products, we probably need to reinvent the company for retail.

Our idea was to, if you're familiar with the brand Vineyard Vines in New England?

Samantha: Yes, I actually I live in Maine, so yes.

Barton: OK, sure. So, Vineyard Vines is a great brand, and they're kind of centered around Martha's Vineyard and that whole kind of New England coastal lifestyle. But whether you're buying a Vineyard Vines shirt in Arizona or in Massachusetts, it's always got that kind of geographic affiliation with it, with a certain lifestyle. And we went to the Maryland waterfowl festival which I didn't even know existed, but Molly grew up here and she's been going since she was a little kid. I didn't even realize this, but the Chesapeake Bay where we live is the best duck hunting region in the world. And with that there's a lot of sporting dog culture, and we went to this thing that we sold thousands of dollars of dog harnesses in just a couple of days.

We decided to create a company that like Vineyard Vines for people has a geographic and cultural affiliation. Only instead of Martha's Vineyard, ours is the Chesapeake Bay. That's how our business, The Chesapeake Bay Dog Company came about and we sell into the brand BAYDOG.

So what we did was we took those original Your Perfect Puppy products and we upgraded all the packaging and made it great for retail and we really listened to our store owners about what they wanted to see. We upgraded all of the products and then we built out the line to be a more complete line, that a store owner can stock the entire line instead of just one or two products. We re launched the company as BAYDOG, just at the Global Pet Expo about three weeks ago.

Samantha: Congratulations on that, that's very exciting. First of all, thank you for your service. My husband too he was he was in the army, but he was in the military. So thank you for your service, of course.

And for anybody that's listening that follows my reviews and my articles on Top Dog Tips I've actually tried — I believe it was late last year — the Your Perfect Puppy products, the harness and the leash and the treat pouch as well. So I did reviews on those. I think along with what you said, I agree with the packaging and things like that. But, the products are very high quality. One of the things that I noted in my reviews for our viewers, I always have people asking me for quality products at a reasonable price point. Quite often people in the pet industry will recommend, beds come to mind, they'll recommend these like super awesome orthopedic dog beds, but they cost four hundred dollars, and not everybody can afford that. You can see that in any type of product and especially I think with training products for dogs, you can just get into these outrageous price points that people can't afford.

So that was another thing that I really liked about Your Perfect Puppy, it's not only were they quality products, they were at a price point that most people can afford. So I was happy to see the rebranding into BAYDOG. Now, you have some other harnesses and additional products coming out, which is great, I'm excited to try those. I actually just received some that I'm going to be testing out and posting reviews for those as well. And when it put this up on… Oh, sorry, go ahead.

Barton: No, I was going to say, I can make a couple of points on that. So as part of the BAYDOG rebranding one thing we decided was strategically as a company we're going to be dedicated 100% to supporting independent retailers, which means we're not going to be on Amazon and we're not going to be on Chewy. You're never going to have a customer walk into your store if you're a store owner, see a BAYDOG harness, try it on your dog and then pull out your phone and buy it for eight bucks less on Amazon. So we're 100% committed to supporting the independent retailers. And as part of that we had to think about if we're going to be in stores where are we're going to fit in the retail structure and this is to your point about a quality product at a better price.

So we try to create products that compete with the premium brands in the market so Ruffwear, EzyDog, Kurgo — I think our products really do compete on that level. But think about some of their harnesses that you see retailing for $40, I think our Chesapeake harness is as good as anything on the market, even better than most. And we try to keep the retail price around #30\. So when I think about it from a store owner's perspective, they all have kind of a commoditized brand which are your basic leashes, collars, harnesses and then they have a step up brand, a premium brand for people that want a nicer option. That's where we want, to be, but we want to be that option that people can afford instead of having to pay for $40 for a harness or $30 for a leash.

Samantha: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. Often times people look strictly at price point and then you're shopping for a leash that cost you four dollars, at Walmart or one of the big box stores and it's a very thin, cheap nylon product that's going to fray and come apart and you're going to end up buying another leash down the road. So I think one of the things I always recommend to people is don't look strictly a price point, but at the same time everybody's on a budget and you do have to factor that. So finding the highest quality product at the lowest price point does definitely for me, seem to be one of the biggest issues for pet parents and it's not just in supplies like leashes and harnesses, but everything from food to grooming products and everything else. So that really piqued my interest about your company. And another thing that interested me was the fact that you guys are focused on the small retailers. In this day and age you see very few companies that actually do that, most of them don't care how they sell the product and how they make a profit as long as it gets out to people. So the fact that you stand behind your smaller retailers and the independent retailers, that's a big draw for me as well

Barton: Yeah I think there's… Nowadays you kind of have to be one or the other as a new company. It's tough to do both. If you're a premium name in the industry, then you can do that, as a new company we're not. So we decided that we're better off going with independent stores and so far we're in several hundred stores already. I think when we created our pricing structure we tried to create enough margin in there to accommodate distributors as well. So our real focus is on finding the right distributors and the right sales reps to get the brand out there, because we know when store owners see it, touch it, feel it and look at the price point that they're going to want to carry our line.

Samantha: Do you think that being a veteran gives you any advantages in the business world. Do you think some of the things that you learned in the military you carry over with you into your business strategy?

Barton: Well I think everything. I mean, for me personally my experience, I spent eight years as a marine, but then I went to graduate school, then I worked on Wall Street and in the business world a little bit. So I think bringing all of those experiences together kind of guided my thought process when I think through BAYDOG. But, here's the thing about our business, you know, I make the joke it's not Airbnb. We're not disrupting anything. This is never going to be a skyrocket in terms of growth, just because these are me too products. I mean we launched a dog harness that I think is a really excellent dog harness, but there's a lot of dog harnesses out there. Our leashes are really well made and they've got a couple little twists that differentiate them, but they're still dog leashes.

So if we're going to compete in this industry, we have to do something that other people don't. So it's not just going to be provided quality product at a good price, in a timely manner. It's got to be being dedicated specifically to retailers and having the best customer service and understanding that the customer's always right and doing the little things right. And then being creative about our product line. You know, it's gonna be a lot of work.

Samantha: Yeah, absolutely. And I know BAYDOGS so you have started putting out the harnesses and things like that. But it sounds like you have some plans already for the future as well, to expand your product line?

Barton: Yeah, so I just spent a week overseas, working with our manufacturers and our designers, to expand the line. And they get the products absolutely right. We're very particular, as to who we partner with for production. So we're coming out with a dog backpack that I think will… So it'll be a two piece backpack, it will have a harness, which will be similar to our current Chesapeake harness, only it will be a bigger and padded on both sides to accommodate a clip on backpack, which has a bunch of little extras in it as well. We're looking to launch that in at least two colors to start and we may expand that in probably four sizes. Then along with that we'll have a dog life jacket, we're just finalizing the design this week and we'll start our production run. So hopefully by the end of the summer we can have dog life jackets out on the market. Then we're working really hard with a couple designers on our own line of like fall dog apparel. Words I never thought I'd say. [laughter]

But, you know, we live in the Chesapeake Bay and it got really cold this past year and my dog who's a lab who loves the snow, there were some days where we'd be walking down the street and the ice and the salt really bothered his paws and you just tell he was freezing. And he stop and start to lick his paws. So we're looking at possibly some dog boots for them just to keep this ice and the salt out of their paws and keep the dogs warm. So we're looking at launching that this fall work. And if you look at our line and you look at our brand, The Chesapeake Bay Dog Company, we're very mindful to keep everything consistent in the same kind of style. I think you can get in trouble if you try to do too much and try to get all over the place.

Samantha: Yeah, absolutely. I agree with that.

Barton: Yeah those are the things we're focused on. We constantly have people come up to us saying — hey, you could make collars with this design on them and that design on them. The other thing is you got to be careful how many SKUs you have. We have a 109 SKUs at the moment and I think when it's all said and done, we could be closer to probably 300. But if you start getting a collection that's much bigger than that, then really it becomes overwhelming for store owners.

Samantha: I think it becomes overwhelming for pet owners as well. You know, that's one of the things that I often hear from people is that, they hear bigger companies, they hear good things about the company, but then when you look and they offer fifteen different harnesses or 15 different colors it's, like you've narrowed it down to a good high quality company, but how do you choose between the 15 different options that they offer that are all fairly similar, but have just a few differences. So I think that's important to focus on as well.

Barton: Yeah you know you brought up earlier that we want a second harness and the concept is still the same. So all of our products are basically designed for my dog Walter. But my dog you know he's kind of a chunky 100 pound Lab. I'll give you an example. Our treat pouch, which was really our first product, I was walking home from the dog park just after I gotten him, he was probably 12 weeks old and we'd been playing fetch with a tennis ball and it was all slobbery and I didn't want to put it in my pocket because it's disgusting. I had one of the little plastic poop bag dispensers on my leash and it broke and the poop bags unraveled and went all over the sidewalk. And I had a pocketful of dog treats because I was training him at the time and I would inevitably forget the dog treats were in there and I would put them through the laundry and that was just a mess. I thought, well I can solve all three of these products in one.

So that's when I created what is now our Frisco Bay Treat Pouch and there's a lot of treat pouches out there. This is the only one I know of that attaches directly to your leash handle and so it's kind of always ready at your fingertips when you're walking your dog and it's got a little mesh pocket that you can put a slobbery tennis ball in and it's got a little poop bag dispenser on the side, so it kind of solves all three of those problems. But it's also got a big metal belt clip on the back. So if you don't want to use it when you're walking your dog, if you want to use it for off-leash these training sessions, you've got that optionality. And it's got a velcro pocket on the outside so you can put like a credit card or ID or some money in there. So basically it's got everything you need while you're walking your dog.

So I created that for my dog, Walter. Then I creative a harness for him. I wanted a harness with a handle of the back so I could use it to pull him out of the water or pull him off another dog if he's feeling kind of amorous or, you know you always have a reason…

Samantha: Absolutely.

Barton: — to be to get control of your dog. So we created a really nice padded harness, but it's really not made for smaller dogs and so we launched it with a size extra small but we didn't sell a lot of them. So we realized that it's just not a good harness for a 10 pound dog. So what we did is we created a whole new line of harnesses, all four sizes exist below our current small and I believe that's one of the ones we sent you. It's made to be the same concept, it still has a handle on the back, it's still padded and it still has all the benefits of the bigger harness, but it's made for a 10 pound dog. And we softened the colors up a little bit and this comes in a different range of colors, you know, slightly more feminine softer colors like teal and pink and violet.

Then we realized that our leashes are also just big beefy leashes made for a 100 pound dog. So what we did then is we created a new leash and we matched that to the small harness. So now we have products that aren't just made for my dog, but are made for everybody's dog.

Samantha: And coming from someone who has tested those products and has two dogs that are very different in size, we have our chocolate lab Sadie who weighs about 75 pounds and then we have a little beagle mix, Molly and she weighs about 28 pounds. So when I tested the Your Perfect Puppy products that is one of the things that I noticed, particularly with the leash it was wider and beefier like you said. It worked for her fine, but it was definitely a little bit too big for the smaller dog. So I'm excited to try the BAYDOG harness with her and check that out and see.

We live in Maine, so we're kind of the same climate that you are, seasons change, we get some severe weather in the winter time and we're very active with our dogs, we do a lot of hiking, a lot of walking, a lot of things with them. My parents live on the river so they're swimming almost every day in the summer time. And like you said, things like having just a harness to lift your dog up out of the water, if you're very active with your dog you know how important a little detail like that can be. Just having that harness to grab if you're on a hiking trail and another hiker comes by or somebody comes with a dog that might come near your dog, just having that control. It's simple things like that I think that you've put a lot of thought into that will really benefit the pet owners that are looking at BAYDOG products.

Barton: Yeah and then we had to upgrade the packaging, so they display properly. It didn't retail and so we designed these really nice hangar tags that have the size chart on the back and all of that. And then the last thing is we we have to guarantee our products. Any time you have a product like a dog harness that's going to get chewed on and that is sewn by human hands, you're going to have an issue eventually, you're going to have a harness come undone or a dog's going to chew his way through a harness.

Samantha: Of course. Yeah, absolutely.

Barton: Yeah, it's gonna happen. So we have to stand by our products. So we offer 100% money back guarantee with everything that we make.

Samantha: That's fantastic. Again, something that I hear a lot of pet owners complain about is and even with the products from the higher price points, if you're spending money on a quality products, but the customer service after you buy it is not very good that can be very frustrating for pet owners that I spent $60 on this harness and now I have a problem with it but they're not going to help you. It would have been a lot better to buy a twenty or thirty dollar harness, but the company will stand behind it if something does happen. So I think that's definitely something important that pet parents need to remember as well.

Barton: Yeah and I don't know the anecdote but there's something along the lines of if you have a bad experience you'll tell 10 people and if you have a good experience you'll tell five people.

Samantha: Yeah, how true is that.

Barton: Yeah, so you definitely want to avoid those bad experiences for consumers.

Samantha: Oh certainly.

Barton: But as far as being a veteran and business goes, I think some people when they… And we just designed some signage along those lines and put it in the stores, when they see that we're a veteran owned company, that oftentimes will affect the buy decision because people like to support veteran owned businesses.

Samantha: Yeah, certainly, absolutely.

Barton: And we support a few veterans charities that are veteran dog charities actually, if you will. Like saveavet.org and The Warrior Dog Foundation that help transitioning service dogs.

Samantha: Oh, that's fantastic.

Barton: Yeah.

Samantha: Again, I have to thank Barton for speaking with me, taking time out of his day to do this interview. Again, I learned a lot while I was talking to Barton about the branding process and what goes into the rebranding. I also, as I said have done an extensive review on the BAYDOG harnesses and leashes as well as their treat pouch, so if you guys want to see that, that is on our sister site — Topdogtips.com I can share a link to that as well underneath this podcast.

PREVIOUS PODCAST: What Are Dog DNA Tests and Are They Reliable?

Samantha’s biggest passion in life is spending time with her Boxer dogs. After she rescued her first Boxer in 2004, Samantha fell in love with the breed and has continued to rescue three other Boxers since then. She enjoys hiking and swimming with her Boxers, Maddie and Chloe.