How Adam Baker is using SodaPup.com to design, develop, market and sell American-made dog toys for power chewers.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Adam Baker: We’re all doing well. We have taken a very cautious approach to managing COVID risks. We have all stayed healthy and just got our first round of vaccine. We’re not letting down our guard – staying cautious for a while longer.
We have family members and non-family members working for our business, so we have led by example and required certain common-sense practices in our warehouse to keep everyone safe so that we can keep shipping orders. It’s the right thing to do for the well-being of our staff and the enterprise.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded SodaPup.
Adam Baker: I started my professional life as an Officer in the US Coast Guard. After serving for 5 years, I left the service and received an MBA. From there, I joined Nike, first in Human Resources and then in Product Management. After a decade with Nike, I went to work for Under Armour when they were still a small(ish) private company. I spent 4 years as a part of the management team that culminated in an IPO. After an amazing ride with UnderArmour, we moved to Colorado, where I ran product management for Crocs footwear for 4 years. By this time, I was tired of corporate life, so I started my own business, SodaPup, which designs, develops, markets and sells American-made dog toys for power chewers.
How does SodaPup innovate?
Adam Baker: Innovation can take many forms. At SodaPup, we innovate in three ways. Our first innovation is that we make dog toys for people, not for dogs, which is to say that not all dog owners are alike. We have segmented dog owners and then designed toys that would appeal to each of these different consumer types. For instance, we make a hand grenade treat dispenser and chew toy for one consumer type and a diamond ring teething ring for another consumer type. Our second type of innovation is to look at existing products and find ways to make them 10% better or 10% more interesting. For instance, there is a dog enrichment product called a lick mat. You spread soft foods into the mat, and dogs lick the food out of the mat. We evaluated existing products and found that they were thin, floppy, easily destroyed and didn’t take dogs very long to lick all the food out. Plus, the designs were unimaginative. When we designed our first lick mat, we made it 50% heavier, more rigid, harder to destroy and create a jigsaw puzzle design that was both fun and more difficult for dogs to clean! It has quickly become a best-selling design. The third area of innovation is around “blurring the lines.” That is, we search for ways to think outside the traditional dog toy boundaries. Can we give toys greater functionality by designing them to do more than one thing? Can a dog chew toy also be an enrichment toy? Can a frisbee also be a water bowl? Can a treat dispenser also become a tug toy?
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Adam Baker: Back in 2012, when I decided to start this business, I chose the dog toy category for several reasons but primarily because the pet industry grew 4% in 2008 during the deepest part of the last recession. I was intrigued that the pet industry seemed recession-proof.
I could never have anticipated a global pandemic, but the events of the past year have confirmed my convictions about why the pet industry was a good recession-proof industry to be a part of. Over the last year, as people have worked from home, they have spent more time with their dogs or gone out and adopted a dog! This is to say that the pandemic has been great for the pet industry in general and SodaPup in particular.
So many other good people and good businesses have been decimated by this pandemic. We’re the lucky ones, and we feel so much gratitude every day.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Adam Baker: Our choices were not as difficult as the choices that other businesses had to make. Primarily, our choices were around how to keep the doors open while keeping everyone safe. Luckily, we have a lot of family involved in our business, so it was easier for us to implement mask-wearing and high levels of safe behaviour. We were all in it together. We had as much faith in each other outside of work as at work.
Our business grew throughout the pandemic, and we made a choice not to hire extra help until we had gotten our first vaccine shots. Everyone put in a superhuman effort to keep up with the growth without extra hands. Now, we are playing catch up in terms of building the team.
Perhaps the biggest lesson is that strong company culture and mutual respect for one another can go a long way toward maintaining a safe environment during an unprecedented crisis.
What specific tools, software and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Adam Baker: The pandemic has created seismic shifts for traditional retail and digital selling. Our reliance on technology has accelerated dramatically in the last year. We have focused heavily on all things digital to include improving our selling ability on Amazon and our own website, learning how to sell to wholesale accounts via the internet, how to sell to accounts through platforms like Zoom and Google Meetings, how to raise our game with digital advertising, as well as attending digital trade shows and more!
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Adam Baker: We compete against a wide range of dog toy brands. We plan to stay in the game by building the brand on four pillars that are meaningful to our consumers by;
1. Producing premium quality products exclusively in the USA
2. Create compelling designs that are fresh, exciting, and meaningful to consumers
3. Use exclusively FDA compliant materials that are safe for dogs
4. Give back to dog-related charities.
Your final thoughts?
Adam Baker: While the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for people and businesses, and societies all around the globe, it has also created unprecedented opportunities. The ability to adapt to a changing environment is critical for success in business, and the pandemic has magnified and accelerated this truth. We are working hard to adapt to an increasingly digital environment, whether it be collaborating digitally on new product development, learning new social media skills, learning to be better digital marketers and eCommerce merchants, and how to work with wholesale partners around the globe with a host of digital communication tools.
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