For an online pet supply store run by a solo entrepreneur, Dog & Co.'s branding punches well above its weight.
A quick glance at the company’s presence on Instagram reveals a stream of highly stylized “lookbooks”—sets of photographs that feature canines expertly modeling Dog & Co.’s latest products.
The quirky and original nature of the resulting images, which often feature internet-famous dogs in equally famous locations, makes every photo perfect social media fodder; when a new lookbook is released, tens of thousands of fans who follow Dog & Co. are quick to like and share the images online.
Driving the brand is first-time entrepreneur Mindy Montney. With over 10 years of experience in “human” fashion, and a lifelong love of dogs, applying her skills in the contemporary dog niche was a natural career progression.
Mindy spoke with Entrepreneurial Life to share her thoughts on creating memorable marketing initiatives when time and resources are scarce, and the lessons she's learned from pioneering the world of canine fashion as a solo entrepreneur.
How do people react when you mention you’re a "dog fashion" entrepreneur?
It’s funny. I’ve found overall that people either get it or they don’t. I’m glad to say most of them get it. One of my favourite reactions from other people in the fashion and design world is when they say “That’s genius!” They understand that it’s unique, new, and something very few others have attempted before.
It’s also really satisfying for me when people who appreciate design on the human side also get what we’re doing. More than numbers, more than sales, that really validates what I do.
Highly stylized lookbooks and professional photo shoots contribute to Dog & Co.’s distinct visual aesthetic. What motivates you to invest so much time and energy into branding?
From the beginning I had this vision of building a site that was clean, well-curated, and really focused.
Because "contemporary dog product" is still a new, growing niche, the range of designers that are out there are all across the board. They’re not just necessarily one style or another. So in terms of the brand aesthetic, I knew I needed a backdrop for the shop that was clean, simple, modern… something that could stand up to whatever style of product we put up there.
When you try and mix a combination of product styles together, it’s important to have a clean, simple backdrop. It helps your customers have a better experience while they browse through a varied range of products. It helps them get a clear understanding of how each item we sell will mesh into their own lives.
Dog owners tend to share a strong emotional connection with their pet. Do you try and tap into this bond in your marketing?
For sure. In dog fashion, it’s generally an emotional purchase. Every dog needs a collar. But we’re not necessarily the site you're going to visit if you’re interested in buying your dog a single collar that they’re going to have forever. When it comes to buying something stylish for your pet, you’re purchasing it because it’s beautiful, you love it, and it connects with your own personal aesthetic.
So it’s definitely an emotional purchase. And you have to work really hard to try and make that emotional connection for your customer so that as well as finding the product aesthetically beautiful, they also feel something inside that makes them want it. That’s the emotional part of it. And it’s the same kind of connection we were striving to make with consumers when I worked in human fashion.
Even just talking about the idea was daunting at first. But the more I talked about it, the less scary it became.
How much work goes on behind the scenes to produce the Dog & Co. brand?
The workload is really heavy. Especially because we’re still small. I went from an office where we had a tech person, an art director, a production person, and an accounting team, to a reality where I’m basically all of those things. So if the internet goes down, I’m the one who has to fix it. Or if the website crashes, then I have to deal with that as well. That’s the really daunting part of taking on a small business—learning how to wear all those hats and play all of those roles.
I’m very lucky that my partner is a photographer. He shoots all of the product images, as well as the look books and the style campaigns that we do. There’s no way I could put this together without having him in our corner.
But there is also lots of fun dog stuff, too. I can’t play that down. I think that’s what keeps me sane most of the time. That, in any given week, there’s at least a day where we’re out shooting photos or doing some event, or we work with the local rescue to photograph their dogs. And I think that’s a great outlet; it’s not work at that point, it’s fun.
What fears have you had to overcome in your journey as an entrepreneur?
When I just started out, some people thought the idea for Dog & Co. was crazy. So even just talking about the idea, telling people “Yeah I have an online shop of dog products,” was sort of daunting to me at first. But the more I talked about it, the less scary it became.
Setting up the back end of the business was also pretty challenging. But again I looked at all of the experience that I had in human fashion. I’d probably worked with fifty designers over the last ten years. So I thought: “If they can all do it, I can do this.”
And right now, the biggest fear I’m facing is around how to grow. How do I find help? How do I get comfortable delegating projects to other people? I think the fears and the challenges I’m dealing with now have evolved to be more focused on the “Hows?” than the “What ifs?”
I have to turn myself off at night and go to sleep, because I could really work 24 hours a day. I’m learning that you can’t do that.
What services or apps have helped reduce your workload?
My mom is a retired accountant, so she was like: “You need a good bookkeeper! If there’s one thing that you need, that’s what you need.” So Bench has been tremendously helpful.
Squarespace is the platform that we use for the website, and I really can’t say enough good things about them. They’ve been the key to creating a really modern, on-trend, visually pleasing website.
And we’ve already seen that Instagram is probably more influential on a day-to-day basis than any other platform. We can see how our actual customers interact with our Instagram content. We can see when our followers convert to customers. And we have a lot of direct interaction with our audience via the app.
Instagram is one of those things that so many business owners strive to get right, because the return on investment can be explosive. How did you position Dog & Co. amongst influencers and fans on the platform?
There’s a whole insta-famous dog community out there. I was aware of it before launching Dog & Co., but I didn’t realize how important it would be to us.
The community of dog people in the Instagram world is small and very supportive. We were lucky to tap into the community pretty early on after starting the business. In terms of making the connections, some of it came from reaching out. Some of it was through making connections with Instagram dog influencers at events in New York.
Nowadays Instagram is the one thing I use multiple times a day, because I see it as a branding and marketing tool. From distributing the content we work so hard to create, to connecting with our audience, if I can’t touch anything else, Instagram is the one thing I’ll use. That’s how important it has been for us.
The really daunting part of taking on a small business is learning how to wear several hats and play multiple roles.
Speaking of content, the difference between publishing something “good” and delivering something “great” has a big impact on the response you get from any given audience. How does that come into play in Dog & Co.’s marketing?
Absolutely. There will always be times when you put something out and you think “I wish I tweaked that at the last moment,” or “I wish I had used this phrasing or a different page image.”
I’ve found that, with anything, there’s always a point at which it feels right. And we do work really hard to put in that extra hour or two it might take to only ship things that feel right.
Do you feel a greater sense of freedom in your life as a solo entrepreneur?
The freedom thing I think is funny, because I used to think “Oh, it would be so great to work for myself and have such a flexible schedule.” And in some cases, I do have a flexible schedule. But on the other hand, I didn’t regularly work until three o’clock in the morning when I worked for someone else. So it’s kind of a catch-22.
Now days I’m able to do things like travel away for a week, work remotely, send emails from the beach, and stick to my own schedule. But at the same time there’s a different level of pressure to keep up with things, because there’s nobody back in the home office taking care of it if I’m not. So the freedom is “Yes, I make my own schedule,” but you’re more chained to the business than you are when you’re working for somebody else.
I’ve also had to train myself to be disciplined. If I don’t get up and get ready before I sit down at the computer, it will be two o’clock, I’ll look down, and I’m still wearing the sweat pants I wore to the dog park early morning.
What keeps me going is knowing that we’re a new player in a relatively new category. I’m driven to be an influencer in this niche.
Your dog, Cheeky, features in much of Dog & Co’s marketing. It's as though she’s your business partner of sorts.
Cheeky is the real inspiration for the store, and really the entire business. And after working with so many dogs, some of which are really challenging, I’ve learned to appreciate how good Cheeky is. I can put clothes on her, I can put sunglasses on her, and tell her to sit and stay, and she will. She’s an amazingly patient, cooperative model, and she’s a very social little dog. We couldn’t do it without her.
Having her around makes running the business fun, too. There are often moments where things get stressful, I’m working late, and yet she’s always there by my side. She’s not only my business partner, but my best friend.
If I don’t get up and get ready before I sit down at the computer, it will be two o’clock, and I’m still wearing the sweat pants I wore to the dog park that morning.
Several of the entrepreneurs we've featured in Entrepreneurial Life admit that they often have moments of thinking “Where to now? What's my next step?” Do you relate to that?
Very much so. I’m having one of those moments this month, where I’m thinking: “This is great, we’re growing, but… what now?” It’s a little scary at times.
It’s funny to see the business come together and feel like “Okay, it’s going somewhere, but where is it going?” And that’s the question with a new market or industry like this, the question is “What is this going to be?”
I’m excited to see where the contemporary dog niche goes in a couple of years, because I think once that switch flips and you see that there’s better pet stuff out there than the Made in China products we’re used to seeing, you don’t go back. I know it’s not going to go away. It will continue to grow. So it’s exciting to feel like you’re at the beginning of something. It’s scary sometimes. But it’s exciting.
Dog & Co. will open their first pop-up retail location at TurnStyle in Columbus Circle, New York, in April 2016. Follow Dog & Co. on Instagram, and browse their range of contemporary dog products at www.shopdogandco.com.