By Gary Tashjian, CEO and Founder of Darwin’s Natural Pet Products
What do Hewlett-Packard, Hyatt Hotels, and AirBNB have in common? They were all started during recessions.
In the wake of the economic upheaval of 2020, entrepreneurship may be on your mind. And I can relate. After the dot-com bubble burst, the pull to start up my own venture became undeniable. Back in 2004, I quit my corporate marketing job and started one of the first home-delivery raw pet food companies in the country.
Today, Darwin’s Natural Pet Products is a thriving business with a passionate customer base in an expanding market segment. More importantly, we’ve served 50-plus million nutritious meals to dogs and cats across the United States.
Getting here has not been easy. We’ve made it through a couple of recessions and the emergence of new competitors; plus, we’re still dealing with the pandemic. But if I could go back in time, I would do it all over again.
If you’re looking for a fresh beginning in 2021 and considering starting your own business, here are seven tips that worked well for Darwin’s.
- Find a business that nourishes your soul. If you can find that business that touches your core and presents a profitable business opportunity, it stops being work. I won’t say it’s play, but it’s not a chore. For me, Darwin’s mission is deeply personal. Back in the early aughts, I found myself making raw dog food for my senior dog Max, who had crippling arthritis. At first, I saw it as a last resort after I’d exhausted all other options. But within a month on a raw diet, Max was romping around again. And he lived happily for several more years. Still the best part of my day or week is receiving the occasional email or phone call from a customer telling me that our food saved their dog or cat’s life. It keeps me motivated and gives me perspective.
2. Prove the concept before taking on debt. That old adage “you have to spend money to make money” doesn’t mean you have to risk it all without initial testing. Try to find a way to fund your proof of concept before taking on debt – whether through savings, something like Kickstarter, or a friends-and-family funding round. I invested my own funds in the business to start it. Once I successfully defined my market, established early manufacturing and operations, and was able to attract and retain customers, then I was more comfortable borrowing money to pay for growth.
- Don’t get stuck working for the business. There’s a difference between working on the business and working for it. At first, like many founders, I was a “Chief Everything Officer.” I did it all, from making the food to delivering it. That’s OK early on. But once you begin to scale up, it’s essential to trust other people to do the “doing” so you can focus on the strategy and growth plan.
- Be open to partnerships and collaboration – even with competitors. Early on, I partnered with the only other company in the Pacific Northwest making raw pet food. We shared a production facility. The other company focused on retail customers, while Darwin’s has always been set up for home delivery. Sharing our facility and staff early on allowed both of us to grow our businesses while reducing overhead. When Darwin’s was big enough, we set up our own production sites.
- Recognize that profitability takes time. The first year, I fed the business; the second year, the business fed itself. It wasn’t until year three that the business started feeding me. Those early investments were essential to create the platform for sustainable growth. Every business is different, but it is important to have a realistic view of when you will make money and plan for that. And even further down the line, if you really want the business to grow, you must plan to reinvest in it.
- Plan for your exit from day one. The goal of any founder should be to make something that lives beyond them. My customers and my team need Darwin’s to continue to fulfill its mission for many years to come. It’s important to develop your management team so that you’re not required to be there for the business to operate.
- Make it a great place to work. Finding people who are committed to your mission and dedicated to your business is important – and it’s even more important to keep them on board. Work doesn’t always have to be fun, but it can always be meaningful. Creating an environment where people feel proud of what they do and appreciated for their contribution is good for your employees and your business.
It’s hard to overstate how personally and professionally satisfying it has been to build a company that has helped so many people and animals. Starting a new business may be one of the hardest things you ever do. But it may also be the most rewarding.