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Natural Pet Product Entrepreneur

In recent years, consumer interest in all types of natural products has increased dramatically, from food to shampoo to lawn care products. Given how much people love their pets, it makes sense that natural pet products are gaining popularity too.

From natural flea and tick remedies, to hemp toys and collars, to all-natural food and treats, there's a natural option for pretty much every pet-related product.

Kathleen Neuheardt wanted to feed her puppy natural foods, but she didn't have time to hunt down a specialty pet food store. She knew other pet owners who were in the same situation, so she started researching what went into pet food and how it was made. She then decided to start selling high-quality, all-natural pet foods online.

Neuheardt's online store ships supplements, grooming supplies, eco-friendly toys, bedding, collars and leashes, safety gear and natural pest control products to consumers across the country.

Mindy MacAulay's shop specializes in hormone- and antibiotic-free raw foods for pets. Essentially, it's a butcher shop catering to dogs and cats.

"We have a complete line of protein -- beef, bison, chicken -- and will cut, grind, freeze and package according to the needs of the customer," says MacAulay. By "customer" she means dog or cat. MacAulay also incorporates fresh vegetables into her products.

"Feeding raw brings up so many questions, concerns, finger pointing and safety issues," MacAulay says. That's why education is a big part of her company's customer service.

"[Customers] need to be educated and informed about what we have, and why we believe in our mission and our product."

Jack Zambelli founded an online company that carries all-natural pet foods and products made from organic, human-grade ingredients. "Our product line is mostly limited to products that promote wellness rather than curative or medicinal type products," says Zambelli.

With more than 30 years of experience working in retail and direct marketing -- much of it as an upper-level executive -- Zambelli knew what it would take to launch a successful business. He says one of the first things retailers need to decide is what types of products they want to carry.

"We strive to appeal to the dog owner who likes to get out and about with their dog," Neuheardt says. "We don't carry tiaras or tutus, but gear that's suited for a naturally active lifestyle."

Zambelli says choosing a channel of distribution is another key decision. For Zambelli and Neuheardt, web-based virtual stores were the best option. Because MacAulay's raw pet food is perishable, she markets locally and operates out of a former butcher's shop.

"Location is everything," MacAulay says. "I needed a visual storefront presence, and managed to lease a spot with OK parking in a commercial area with heavy traffic, and a horse shop nearby. Dogs and horses go hand in hand."

When MacAulay's store first opened, she had 25 regular customers. About a year later, she had a customer base of approximately 300 -- a solid number for a local specialty store.

Meanwhile, "e-tailing" made the most sense for Neuheardt. "The benefit of an online business is that you can reach millions of people simultaneously around the globe," she says.

"The downside is that there are also millions of other businesses with which you are competing. So you have to figure out how to get found in the sea of competitors. Marketing is extremely important or you'll be floating around cyberspace without much activity."

Zambelli would agree. "Marketing and advertising are crucial," he says. "This is not Field of Dreams. You don't just build a website or retail store and customers just come. You have to give them a compelling reason to come, and the only way to do that is by a comprehensive marketing approach. For us, the best vehicles are direct e-mail campaigns to our proprietary opt-in e-mail list, and buying keywords on Google and Yahoo."

MacAulay is also focused on her reputation. Because she runs a local shop, her business could live or die based on word-of-mouth. "If people like you, they will tell one friend and be back. If they don't like you, they will tell 100 people and you'll never see them again."

That's why MacAulay encourages positive word-of-mouth by focusing on her customer service and by promoting the store at local events -- especially dog and cat shows. She also offers in-store promotions and has a loyalty program where customers who have spent $100 can get a discount on their next purchase.

Besides a strong business sense, pet product retailers need one thing if they expect to succeed. "First and foremost, you need to love animals and care about their well-being," Zambelli says. "You also need to be a people person and be willing to deal with the difficult situations customers can pose."

"Our customers expect quality products that are durable, unique and environmentally friendly," Neuheardt says. "They also expect competitive pricing, quick shipping, good communication and information about raising your dog with a natural focus. We work hard to meet or exceed their expectations."

In the natural pet product business especially, it's important for retailers to be well educated on their products. They can then better inform customers about why they should choose their products.

"Be a focused hard worker and know your product," MacAulay advises. "Learn about health issues, nutrition and wellness."

Zambelli adds, "Be willing to work long hours and don't expect big financial returns in the short run."

"Growth is not smooth," Neuheardt says. "I've learned that the business is continually evolving, so you have to tweak ideas and strategies based on the forever-changing atmosphere -- new products, new developments, new competition, new resources -- you name it."

It can be tempting for small business owners to want to take a hands-on approach in every area of the company. But it's important they don't spread themselves too thin.

"As an entrepreneur, you have to be very careful about how many hats you wear," MacAulay says. "Learn to delegate and lean on friends for help. To be successful, you can't do it all. Learn to ask for help if you don't know what to do."

Some of the most important questions for retailers concern legalities.

"Let's face it, we don't know everything." MacAulay says. "So don't be afraid to ask. The raw pet food industry is very strange, with very few laws and regulations. When you get into cooking, processing and cross-border shipping, there are a ton of regulations to follow. [That's why] I'm sticking to a clean plant, safe human-grade food, and selling locally. The rules I follow are standard to that of a butcher shop."

Retailers also need to be aware of issues like zoning laws, labor laws, sales tax and whether or not it's beneficial to incorporate. These issues vary depending on where a business is located, so retailers must do their research.

"Have business sense with money, cash flow and time spent on tasks," MacAulay says. "Have priorities set, and goals. When you reach them, make more goals."

Be sure to make those goals manageable. Big goals can seem impossible to meet, but accomplishing one smaller goal after another will help build positive momentum.

"I suppose like all business ventures, you learn that success does not come easy," Zambelli says. "You have to have a vision for the business, love what you do, and work hard."


A resource for pet owners and veterinarians interested in natural pet care

Whole Dog Journal
A monthly guide to natural dog care and training

American Pet Products Association
A not-for-profit trade association for pet product manufacturers and importers

Vet Technicians
An extensive digital library of learning resources for veterinary professionals and people with an interest in animal welfare

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