A chance encounter between her dog and a travel pillow was the spark that launched Elaine’s new business.
Tell us a little about you and what prompted a change of course in midlife…
I have always had this need to be busy, to have something other than my children to focus on. My hope was that when they left home, I would not have time to be as bereft as my mother was when her kids left. Also, I felt it was good for my children to see that I had lots of interests of my own; it fostered respect, forcing them to look at me in a different light and maybe value my words of wisdom more.
In my younger days, I had wanted to be a doctor and had attended 4 years at medical college in London; but life threw me several curveballs so I left college and started my own florist business while pregnant with my first child. I ran this business for over 10 years until I moved to Hong Kong with my husband and our three little boys. There, I started volunteering at the boys’ schools, which I continued to do in a big way after we moved to the US.
At 46, when my third son was a junior in high school, I took the giant step to try and reenter the workplace. I was happy to learn that employers highly valued all the volunteer work I’d been doing with the PTA, travel soccer, Adopt-A-Dog, teaching a drug-free program in schools, and more.
I got a job working for an environmental architect, keeping him organized and doing his accounting. It was during this time that I had my “aha” moment. It was Thanksgiving of 2003,11 years ago. My husband and I were at our son’s house in Florida, our new King Charles Cavalier pup in tow. With a mastiff, a lab-mix, and a baby in a noisy house full of activity, my 3-month old Cavalier, Chelsea, took refuge by curling up inside a neck travel pillow.
I took one look at her and casually suggested maybe I should make and sell a dog bed in that shape to mimic a pup’s favorite sleeping position. No one said “don’t be ridiculous” so I took that as a positive. I came home to Connecticut and sought out a like-minded creative friend who was prepared to give my idea a try. With an investment of $500, we made a few (in hindsight, laughable) prototypes and booked a booth at the big Backer International pet trade show in Atlantic City.
What is your next act?
I run Puppy Hugger™, a business which started with those first C-shaped dog beds and has expanded into many other products, including some for cats too.
I remember my partner and I were green and nervous when we showed up at that first trade show in Atlantic City 11 years ago. We had lots of colorful handmade beds in super-soft fabrics. We were flying by the seat of our pants but we had bags of enthusiasm and a belief in our product. We brought my dog, Chelsea, as a model; she was a huge asset, enticing people into our booth without effort while we learned the ropes. We pushed out of our comfort zone, introducing ourselves to everyone, dealing with rejection, and celebrating successful encounters, becoming bolder by the minute.
I don’t know how – probably due to our enthusiasm and willingness to adapt our design to suit buyers’ needs – but we made sales. People liked our product and believed in us, which encouraged us to keep at it, pounding the streets with our merchandise, picking up clients.
For our next big trade show, in Chicago this time, we rented a van and, with all our product on board and Chelsea in tow, we drove through the night to Illinois. Trade shows are not for the faint of heart; they are physically and mentally exhausting. We couldn’t afford fancy booth equipment or staff to help schlepp and set up. It was 100% us: the backdrop, the signs, the logo, the cards, the set-up, the display, and the product. We did it all ourselves, always with Chelsea as our model and muse. She was a superstar! Everyone knew her and was disappointed on the occasions we turned up without her.
After 5 years, my partner left town as well as the business. It was too time-consuming and becoming a burden for her: That’s when you know it’s time to get out. Owning your own business means it’s with you 24 hours a day, every day; there’s no escape. When she left, I toyed with throwing in the towel but by that time we had an established following and a line of products that was increasing based on client requests. As difficult as it is to have work hanging over your head all the time, the thought of not having the challenge was far more terrifying.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
It was hard, but it helped to have a partner-in-crime to spur me on when I needed it and to laugh with when we made mistakes or were rejected. I doubt I would have gotten far if I had had to start the business alone. Having a partner gives you the courage to try things you ordinarily would never do; it gives you the confidence to approach anyone and also acts as the brake when your ideas grow too big or you commit too much.
In the beginning, we were like sponges picking up every tidbit we could find from any source: online, books in the library, and people. Experts in the industry shared valuable tips on shipping, display, pricing, and more. One of the owners of Vineyard Vines, a new local store, gave us some great advice. He said before you do anything else, make some prototypes and take them to every dog store in New York City, and see what the response is. If the response is good, go to the next level and book a spot at one of the big international pet trade shows. So that’s pretty much what we did.
As for setting up the business, we had our husbands to turn to who helped us set everything up officially. My partner and I are both super-creative and were inclined to let the legalities take care of themselves, so our husbands kept us in focus. We did use a lawyer to finalize the terms of our LLC (Limited Liability Corporation) so that when it was time for my partner to bow out, we easily came to an amicable arrangement. My husband still does my taxes.
Our biggest plunge was that first trade show. We were terrified of putting ourselves out there and being pushy. We are both creative types, not fund-raiser types, but we learned to do it because, if you don’t, the opportunity will pass you buy. Our fellow vendors in the booths on either side of us were our teachers. Recognizing how green we were, they helped us practice our pitch and cheered every time we enticed a potential buyer into our booth. People were very generous in sharing their best tips for a successful show.
What challenges did you encounter?
In this business, the biggest challenge is proving that your USA-made product is worth the higher price ticket, making sure that you offer a level of service and customization your competitors don’t. At the same time, you need to keep the price competitive while earning a profit.
The biggest lesson I have learned is how to defuse the odd angry customer because it doesn’t matter how vigilant or on top of things you are, you WILL make mistakes: Send the order to the wrong person, forget to close a crate pad, leave a pin in, use the wrong fabric, or send the wrong size; the list is endless. But the power of “I’m sorry” or “you’re right, I made a mistake” gets you much further than being defensive or making excuses. Even an angry customer will turn on a dime if you treat them right. It’s a great lesson.
From a physical angle, starting this business made our house into a fabric jungle: fibers, threads, and filling everywhere! I’d sew in the dining room, cut fabric in the TV room, and do my marketing and administrative work in the kitchen. It was years before a good friend suggested confining my mess to one room only and dedicating that room to all things Puppy Hugger. No idea why I didn’t think of it myself but sometimes it takes an outsider to see the obvious. So my living room, which we kept pristine for special occasions, and rarely used, is now my work studio and my mess is contained (most of the time). My bolts of fabric, boxes of stuffing, batting, and trade show fixtures are all in the basement.
The first prototypes were made through trial and error. I knew how to sew but had to learn a lot in the past 11 years from others and from online websites to help me fine-tune my techniques. I am always looking for ways to improve and streamline the manufacturing process and still make most of my products myself, although I also have the help of a few assistants. Still, nothing goes out without my inspection first.
When hiring, look for someone who is willing to learn and has a personality you can work with. We are working in close proximity every day, so we have to like each other. Also, there is a huge learning curve at the beginning and I demand high standards, so I look for people who I think will meet those standards and won’t mind being called out for sloppy work. I hire mainly high school students or high school graduates who work every day after school for 4 hours. I also give out piecework to a seamstress; I bought her a sewing machine because you can’t use just any old sewing machine for this kind of work.
Don’t sugarcoat your job when you are hiring. Lay your expectations on the table in order to start your relationship off on the right foot. I tell my employees upfront that I am demanding but fair and actually quite fun, but if they are only going to be there for 4 hours, I expect them to work hard (no texting, etc.).
Were there times when you thought about giving up? What/who kept you going?
Oh yes – especially when my partner quit. I was terrified of going it alone, of making every decision by myself, without consulting with her first. But my friends convinced me that there were many plusses to being on my own and assured me I could do it. My husband and my kids were all for it too.
My husband, Charles, is a saint and would support whatever I decided to do. It really didn’t affect my kids because they were all out the house, but they were proud that I’d taken an idea and run with it.
In the end, I could see there was no downside to continuing on my own – the worst that could happen was that I would fail. And if I did, so what? As it turned out, I have enjoyed being the single “decision-maker,” having no one to answer to, being free to take chances without consultation. It has worked out well, but I could never have done it alone without the 5 years of valuable partnership that preceded it.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
Go for it. You have absolutely nothing to lose. Everybody gets rejected or encounters bumps in the road before finding their right path. Some people never find that path but make the best of the path they are on. Never be scared of trying: If you don’t try, you will never know what really works for you or inspires you. Reinvention is empowering. It takes the edge off of aging and revalidates you as a powerful individual with something to offer.
If you’re looking for a job, and you haven’t been in the traditional workplace for a while, remember that volunteering in itself is an education in organization as well as people and communication skills. Just because you’re not getting paid doesn’t mean you’re not developing new skills that can carry you forward with confidence into your Next Act.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
Do your research. The Internet has everything you need, so use it and learn all that you can. Search for discussion forums in your area of interest. Compare websites and see what does and doesn’t work. Ask everyone you know to share their knowledge and advice, and then cherry-pick the most valuable bits for you. Always read the most up-to-date books on your topic and take notes. Even if you get just one valuable piece of information or idea from each book, you are still doing well. Always be respectful when asking for advice. You get the best information that way.
To be a manufacturer in a market where there are competitors around every corner eager to copy your designs and sell them cheaper, you have to love the process and you have to do it well, like a couturier. You have to do work that stands out from the mainstream and realize that it will be hard to turn a profit.
Stores will try to nickel and dime you. Be careful about the terms you accept from big stores and make a decision on whether you want to stick with your guns and continue to manufacture at greater cost within the USA, or take the leap and manufacture at a fraction of the cost abroad for an inferior product.
Make sure you are current with the latest technology trends – if not proficient, at least knowledgeable. I was lucky in that my volunteer jobs required me to develop my tech skills, in my case, in graphic design. I taught myself Photoshop and use it all the time in my business, preparing photos for my website.
You have to network, network, network. When we first started the business, we promoted it by sending out press releases, hoping for someone to write about us. Free press was the way to go back then, and we did get a lot of it in newspapers and magazines as well as trade magazines for the pet industry. We were also on a local CBS morning show and did a couple of other TV appearances. It was all very low key and very different from today.
Now social media is your friend; I use it but not as much as I should. I am currently working on improving my social media interaction. I’m always moving with the times, keeping an eye on the competition, and making sure I’m offering value for the money with my product and customer service.
What resources do you recommend?
The Internet is an amazing resource, as well as your local chamber of commerce and trade magazines and experts in your industry. Some of my favorites:
SCORE for free small business advice
Business Network International
Pet Age Magazine
Pet Product News Magazine
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Probably. I’m not sure how many more years I have left in me with my business. When it’s time to back out, I will finish off my bolts of fabric and donate my last dog beds to as many shelters and animal rescue centers as possible. I already regularly donate to my chosen few.
Life is full of surprises and while I try to always go with the flow, I also like to retain some control. Right now, I have 5 grandkids in different parts of the country and I want my Next Act to include the flexibility to fly wherever and whenever I want to visit family and friends.
I have trained 3 of my dogs to be therapy dogs; I visit the Bendheim Cancer Center in Greenwich, CT weekly with my Havanese, Zoey. I also am a Make-a-Wish granter, working to help kids with life-threatening illnesses put together their wishes and inject them with special magic. I see both those fields as featuring prominently in my next act but am open to anything that inspires me, though not ready to give up on Puppy Hugger™ yet!
Contact Elaine Doran at firstname.lastname@example.org
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