In a world of meme’s and tweets, I ask you to please read my story. You might learn something and I’ll unload what’s on my mind.
When I worked for the animal shelter, I photographed dogs on my lunch break. It was the beginning of living my life’s dream; to not only help animals live better, but to educate the public to do better. The dogs shown here are some of the first dogs I ever photographed with the intention of generating a cause business.
Cupid. I keep his photo on my desk. He is the essence of why I created Species Spectrum. His story is one of the reasons people who work in animal welfare become bitter. Cupid was an ‘owner surrender’. His owner called him ‘Stupid’. At the shelter we celebrated him as Cupid. Although the staff worked to help him get adopted, he was difficult to place because he could soar over an 8 foot fence. On the back of Cupid’s photo I wrote his story, “I Remember Cupid”.
Magnus. I ended up photographing him just an hour before he was put to sleep. He was a magical hound.
Bolivia. After being an overlooked ‘brown dog’ with multiple afternoons at satellite adoption locations, she was finally adopted. What a happy gal she was!
With intense subjects, how do you infuse feel good cause into business and make it a success? The Charismatic Organization by Shirley Sagawa & Deborah Jospin asks, “How do we make people’s contribution tangible?”. Often passionate organizations strike out to change the world and while driven with the best of intentions, the magnitude of a goal can seem so overwhelming it is difficult for people to see how they can make an individual impact. If people can see one animal and know her story, it puts a face on helping animals. Not a statistic, but this animal. Of course, ‘Ending world hunger’ and ‘Ending homeless animals’ are lofty goals, but if one can make progress measurable, people do want to help!
With one foot in non-profit, I studied retail distribution or what I like to call ‘gentle capitalism’. I read Stationery Trends and industry publications of paper products and greeting cards. Greeting cards alone are a $6 billion dollar a year business in the USA (not including the even stronger UK market). Twice I entered the GCA (Greeting Card Association) Louie Awards at a cost of $75.00 a year. The Louie Awards are the ‘Academy Awards’ for Greeting Cards. It was obvious there was a conflict of interest with American Greeting’s head honcho leading the judging. Who knew the greeting card industry could be so cut throat! After failing to place, I set my eyes on The Henries Awards (The UK’s Greeting Card Design Awards).
For Species Spectrum, all animals featured in my greeting card line feature rescue animals. I would go meet the animals, photograph them, learn their story and return to my desk to design a unique card that not only celebrated customers’ special occasions, but also the animal featured. One hand was driving cause for the non-profit world and on the other hand, I was designing for the retail market. Most importantly, my line was selling!
I wanted more than a promo product for an animal organization. Many non-profits have a variety of promo-products in an effort to offset their operational costs. But what non-profits didn’t have was a hand in the retail market and a dedicated designer to generate unique, memorable products dedicated to their cause. I sought for my business to be a bridge between good cause and retail, a combination that is quickly becoming a larger trend in consumer buying habits. Tom’s shoes being just one example.
In between marketing my business, I was in the mud one February with Louise the Pot-Bellied Pig. I was with Holly, the blind horse at The Horse Shelter, Dakota the wolf in Ramah, NM, Manny the iguana, Toots the tortoise, Brian the guinea pig, Koshari the bear, Moonshadow, the cougar, Forrest the fox, Spark the bobcat, Leilu the Macaw, Cleo the dog, Rachel the raccoon, Charm the goat, Crystal the javelina, Dewdrop the dove, Riley the cat, Wilbur & Ranger, foster dogs from Las Cruces NM, Dino the Yellow-billed kite, and Wallace the bush pig amongst others.
I had been told my product causes ‘too much thinking’ in what is an otherwise ‘gift-and-forget-it’ business. On the other hand, those who understood, those who ‘got it’ whole-heartedly supported and loved the line. These people are still enthusiastically supportive of my line and goals today.
Species Spectrum relates to so many people that even those who have never adopted a shelter pet, still appreciate the idea behind it. Those people have a birthday and those are the people I want to reach! If we can cause people to think while finding joy in the process/product, that is how we create change. Many of us would agree that sharing pictures of our own pets is an amazing icebreaker for connection. This is what Species Spectrum and greeting cards are about, sharing together.
Working at the animal shelter, was a balancing act of educating people without condemning them. One day all the employees got a letter in their box from the Operations Manager. The jest of the letter read, “We are to find homes for homeless animals, it may not be the best home in the world, but it may be a good enough home. We must consider this before writing off potential adopters”.
There is the old adage, “I love animals, it’s people I can’t stand”. But if we can’t learn to love people, how do we get them to help animals? The front desk of the animal shelter is an excellent place to find out if you can maintain a shroud of compassion for people that you wish knew or cared more.
The phone rang non-stop. “I’ve lost my dog, do you have any brown dogs?” “I can’t keep my cat”. The worst call, a new adopter: “The dog we adopted yesterday isn’t house broken and we want to return her”. At the same time someone was standing in front of me surrendering a litter of puppies they were unable to place.
People suggested, ‘How about selling your cards to/in shelters?’ The immediate problem there is that the shelters are the one’s needing money. They are not retailers looking for product and the people walking through the door, are already on the animal rescue bandwagon. I want to reach people in airports and grocery stores, places where animal rescue may not be at the forefront of their mind, but a cute greeting card can be bought. It’s the same reason rescue groups conduct ‘mobile adoptions’.
I was certain that cold-calling retailers would make it happen for Species Spectrum. Cold calling is one of those things people hate more than going to the dentist. My elevator speech is polished. Being someone that typically does things the hard way, I picked up the phone. I wrote pitches. The pitches always ended on the strong point, “I believe Species Spectrum (name of my product) will resonate with your customers (your benefit) in your shop (Widgets R’ Us) because you have (relates to me and you) organic stuff. This was a confident proposal versus a weak, “Will you carry my line?” Never ever end a pitch or letter or intent with “I look forward to hearing from you”. Hearing what? You want those people to place an order, you don’t care if you ‘hear from them’. Ask for it! So I did.
I spent a month riding a bicycle around Denver pitching people in person. I wrote and called Wholefoods Rocky Mountain Region. I needed that ONE big launch account, so I could relax about no longer having a day job and spending my savings. Sometimes when I got scared I even applied for day jobs. I wrote heartfelt letters of intent to potential employers. Sometimes I even got an interview. Interviewing is always something I excel in. While I might break down in private, in person, I always nail public speaking. Usually, I seem too comfortable or too much like a leader, not a paper pushing gopher. (No offense, sometimes I dream about being a paper-pushing gopher looking forward to Friday. Isn’t that easier?)
Other times, I was kicking myself for not working at a global advertising agency where I could work on a fast food campaign and climb the corporate ladder. Ogilvy could heal me. Why was I doing ‘this’ hard entrepreneurial thing?
When I got the call that I had not gotten the job, I did the right thing. Instead of saying, “Thanks” and hanging up to cry, I asked, “ What do you feel I was missing in landing this job?” It was usually a vague ‘lack-of-office-experience’ answer; or the even more vague something about a ‘salad mix’. This always thwarted me because here I was using Quickbooks, making invoices, experience with PO’s, maintaining financial records, B2B, B2C, maintaining wholesale accounts, PR, social media, all without supervision, so what the heck was I missing not to get the marketing assistant gig?
People who knew me, celebrated my line. They told me to calm down (strident is my middle name). But how could they understand? They had day jobs. They said, “How hard can it be? Your line is original, people look at it and love it!” If only it was that easy I would have the 6000 accounts I want by now.
I started out approaching small local retailers. “Hey, we have something in common, we’re local and we all care about animals! Species Spectrum is perfect for your store! “ Whenever a buyer took a moment to show me a picture of their own cat or dog, I knew I had an order. “This is Joseph my Persian Cat”. It was an immediate bond; I felt life flow through me with goodness and do-gooder success. Other times, I got an email reply saying, “No thank you, but good on you helping animals!” This left me on a crying jag explaining to my computer, that I could not help animals if people did not place orders! Where’s that box of tissues?
What the heck is ‘The Secret’ talking about? I want to talk to Rhonda Byrne about that whole ‘intention philosophy’!
People said, “You should sell in zoo gift shops! What about the aquarium?” Once again I got on the phone with KM Concessions who (at the time) turned me down. I learned about the retail (drool) world of ‘concessions’. Concessions are the companies behind the scenes that operate ALL the stores in the airport and ALL the Zoo (Aquarium, science museum) gift stores in a region. They run ALL the Art Museum shops. They run ALL the National Park and ‘Attraction’ stores. Concessions are the gate-keepers of distribution. They are the lobbyists of retail and the next best thing to selling in a national chain.
I got my line into the airport and a friend’s line by saying I was the acquaintance of someone who told me to approach them.
When the Rocky Mountain Wholefoods guy turned me down, I drove to Boulder, CO and went to the Headquarters like a stalker. The buyer was in a meeting, but I spoke to the front desk girl and hand delivered samples of rescue guinea pig greeting cards, adding how I knew ‘Species Spectrum resonated with Wholefoods customers’ as if it were a done deal. To the buyer’s credit, he at least always replied to my eager emails about my intense desire to sell my line in WholeFoods. My product was barcoded and I was ready to get liability insurance required for selling in larger grocery stores.
The buyer put it to me bluntly. Wholefoods now had shareholders. They were no longer interested in working with smaller companies and non-food items were the least of their concerns. Now they carried Papyrus (cards). Which is now owned by American Greetings.
I walked through Wholefoods looking at the number of candles, sandals and the plethora of ‘non-food’ items. I was mad.
After cold-calling, my skin became thick like a vacuum cleaner salesperson. I learned to never accept the first NO. Was it a “No”, as in “I’ll see you in hell No?” Or was it a softer, “Not this season No?”
Newbie sales people are sometimes conflicted about ‘bothering someone’. I learned to turn this around by re-framing (like they do in therapy). You are bringing awareness to something they need. You are the messenger of new, cool retail products! That is where I learned about being my own sale rep.
I looked at other people’s businesses with madness as to how they could have SO many retailers and here I was working SO hard and still treading water. A tsunami was definitely going to swallow me. But every time I’m about to drown myself metaphorically, I get mad enough to try something else.
Who are these ‘Manufacturer Rep Groups people keep talking about? Once again, I name-dropped some acquaintance who had put me in touch with a certain rep group company. I was grocery shopping when I got the call back (in fact my line was already carried in this particular grocery store). It was summer and the rep guy obviously no longer had his heart in the industry. I stared at the macaroni and cheese options, holding the phone close to my ear, asking to be represented while he rattled on about Trade Show season being over and the demise of life in general. Besides, there was Leanin’ Tree on the greeting card battlefield. Was my line ready for full frontal retail battle? Yes!
I hung up disenchanted and made more calls. Because I already had success with a small organic grocery store chain (Thank you La Montanita Co-op!), I confidently phoned HEB’s Central Market wellness buyer. They are the Texas upscale grocer competitor to Wholefoods. Before calling, I always researched the buyer’s name online so that when I called, it sounded as if I was already ‘in the network’ of grocer suppliers. Instead of asking for someone known as ‘the buyer’, I could say “Is Stacy in?” She was also in a meeting.
I learned more about Manufacturer Rep Groups and last summer almost nailed it. The owner of the company called me. So did one of the reps, based on my shot in the dark email pitch. The owner was scattered but enthusiastic. “This is great! Here’s how we work, I want to bring you onboard”. I called my mother and was in awe that Species Spectrum was about to be launched full throttle in hundreds of retailers!
A week later the deal was off the table when the head buyer called me ‘by accident’. “Who did I call? Oh yea, I was meaning to call you back, but we’ve talked it over. None of us can get behind Species Spectrum.” His fickle change of pace caught me off guard. He offered that perhaps what I needed was a day job with an $80,000 a year salary and to return to this project in a couple years. “Plus people don’t want all animals, they just want dogs and cats”.
I was devastated and ran out of the housing screaming ready to burn my inventory and call it quits. The post office woman was delivering the mail and said “Sweetie, just calm down, it will all be okay”. I guess it is ironic that my business does rely on post office workers and here was one offering kind support in my state of unassuaged turmoil. All because of my greeting card business people buy postage stamps! Maybe this was a sign to keep going, but it took a few crying jags to reach this conclusion. All those ‘Universe-meets-me-half-way’ ideas, seemed like a load of rubbish, but I pressed on. I wondered if I should have called the head buyer guy back and ask if he could offer me an $80,000 a year job since he implied they were a dime a dozen. There was a small part of me that thought if I could butt heads with this guy and prove myself in the field of retail battle, we might actually get along.
Right now at this very moment, I have another incredible opportunity to push Species Spectrum forward with much wider distribution. A lot of people talk about the road less traveled. I can say from experience the entrepreneurial road is often a lonely route. On this road, I have learned everything there is to know about retail, product design and non-profit. I have met many incredible animals along the way. They are my shareholders. Every time I’ve thought of quitting I see a crowd of animals standing behind me saying, ‘You can do this’. Yes, I can. So I hope that this time, the answer will be ‘yes!’.