Interview with Barton O’Brien of The Chesapeake Bay Dog Company
Barton O’Brien, founder of The Chesapeake Bay Dog Company—a veteran-run pet product business, shares the journey from finance to business owner and new pet product concepts on the horizon.
Barton (Bart) O’Brien started the Chesapeake Bay Dog Company for his dog, Walter. The Chesapeake Bay Dog Company is a veteran-run business: O’Brien spent eight years as a pilot in the Marines and served three combat tours in Iraq.
After he left the service, he went to graduate school, spent seven years working in the financial markets in both London and New York. O’Brien refers to himself a “reformed Wall Streeter,” having left his job at a large hedge fund to start his own dog-centric business. He said, “I woke up one day and thought, ‘I don’t want [finance] to be my entire life.’”
Q: Tell us how your love of a dog changed your life.
A: I wanted a dog. It was that simple. Every year, for close to thirty years when I was growing up, on my Christmas list I wrote ‘puppy.’ I never got one until fifteen months ago. My former New York City life and the travel I did wasn’t conducive to having a dog. Prior to leaving my hedge fund job I toyed around with various business ideas. After finishing [my] last day of work, I boarded a plane at 4 o’clock in the morning, flew to Georgia to get Walter and flew back with him the next day. I brought Walter back and spent a couple of months at home with him, thinking through various business models.
Q;When did you come up with the idea for your dog products?
A: I spent time at the dog park with Walter and was training him to walk on a leash. I had to juggle his tennis ball, poop bags and his treats. One day, we were walking back home and the poop bags in the dispenser on the leash opened and poop bags unraveled all over the ground. There I was: holding a spitty tennis ball that I didn’t want to put into my pocket with treats in one hand, and poop bags in my other hand. I put the bag of treats in my pocket, forgot about it and the treats went through the washing machine—it was a mess!
Q: That experience lead to the development of your first product?
A: Yes, I developed the Frisco Bay Treat Pouch because it solved my three problems:
1. Not having anywhere to put a spitty tennis ball.
2. Not having anywhere to carry treats other than my pocket.
3. Not having a secure place to carry poop bags.
There were products on the market that might solve one or two of those issues, but nothing that wasn’t bulky and awkward. The Frisco Bay Treat Pouch solved all three.
I made a prototype and went to a trade show because I wondered if anyone would buy a product like this. Turned out, people would! The pouch has a mesh pocket for a tennis ball, a poop bag dispenser that won’t break and a place to put your dog’s treats.
Q: Why an all-in-one treat pouch?
A:Our product goes onto the leash handle and makes it much easier to carry everything you need when you’re enjoying time with your dog. If you’re training a puppy to walk on a leash, or just walking your dog, you don’t want to have to have a checklist of items you need before you walk out the door; ours is just a grab-and-go product. It even has a velcro pocket that you could use for money, a credit card or a house key!
Q: Were there any setbacks along the way?
A: As in any business, yes. The leash and harness were a great idea, but the execution wasn’t ideal. The manufacturing wasn’t up to par, and I felt the packaging was substandard. I took a step back and reworked the product.
In the meantime, Walter and I moved out of New York City to Annapolis, Maryland. Once we were in Maryland, I attended the Maryland Waterfowl Festival and learned Chesapeake Bay is the best duck hunting area in the world and has more than twenty species of duck. Duck hunters from all over the world come here.
I took some of our Bay Dog harnesses there and sold more than $3,000 worth in three days. That was my ‘a-ha’ moment. I realized that there are items that have a cultural and geographic affiliation—like Vineyard Vines products are associated with Martha’s Vineyard—but you don’t have to be in Martha’s Vineyard to wear the products.
So, I became more familiar with the sporting culture of the Chesapeake Bay area and created our dog products around the Chesapeake Bay and that’s how Bay Dog came to be. I developed Bay Dog, had a logo designed and we were in business.
Q: How long have you and Walter had this business?
A: We launched about fifteen months ago. We have amazing prices, great packaging, and our marketing and branding has morphed. Every product we carry is named after a different bay in the US, with the exception of the Saranac Pack. (The Saranac Pack is for hiking and you can’t hike on a bay.)
Q: You’re so niched in your dog products, what do you do to set yourself apart from the other harness and leash companies?
A:I think what differentiates Bay Dog are three things:
1. We offer a 100% guarantee and we don’t make returns difficult. We also have less than a 1% return rate—that speaks volumes to our quality.
2. We focus solely on brick and mortar retailers. We aren’t on Amazon or Chewy. So many businesses are zigging toward online sales, but we are zagging toward brick-and-mortar stores, supporting the more than 500 retailers we work with. Our retail partners also know a customer won’t be able to go to our site and buy a product at a lower price than they get from their stores. (We also appreciate the retailers we work with and we make that known by sending them thank you gifts and welcome packets when they become a retail partner.)
3. We have better products than our competition. There is another business that sells harnesses, too and is known as an industry leader. Our products are less expensive, and we think, higher quality. Our products have better, and thicker padded handles, and better padding on the front for the dog’s comfort.
Q: Are there any charities Bay Dog supports?
A: Yes. We are a veteran-owned business and the two charities we support work with dogs and veterans. We donate to SaveAVet.org and the Warrior Dog Foundation. Because I am a veteran and because our entire team are passionate dog lovers, we identified two charities that work to make a difference in the lives of veterans and dogs—and in some cases, veteran dogs! A portion of our profits benefit these two groups.
Q: Is there advice you could offer a pet entrepreneur, or any observations you’ve gleaned from your fifteen months in business?
A:I’m in such a specific niche and it’s a crowded segment. If you type “dog leash” into Amazon.com, there are more than 100,000 hits. That’s both a good and bad news scenario: It’s a crowded market, but it’s also highly-fragmented which means no one business is dominating the dog leash or dog harness market. If you build a solid company and do the right things you can grab your portion of the market.
Another observation I’d make is that everyone I have met in the pet industry has been nice. I haven’t met a single person, from sales reps to store owners to distributors to other entrepreneurs, who hasn’t been well-intentioned and helpful. I think the pet industry attracts great people who are willing to be helpful to one another.
Q: What’s on the horizon for Bay Dog?
A: We have a bunch of things in the pipeline. We will be launching the Monterey Bay life jacket. (It’s taken us two years to develop into what we believe will be the best dog life jacket in the market.) We will have two models: the life jacket and the offshore life jacket. The offshore model will have extra flotation to keep your dog’s chin out of the water and to help right him if, for example, he falls off a boat. It will also have two extra handles to make it easier to grab your dog if he falls into the water.
This fall we will be launching our Galveston Bay harnesses and leashes in blaze orange -- we think this will be a popular product with hunters this fall.
Robbi Hess, award-winning author, is multi-petual: She shares her home with two Devon Rex kittens, three adult rescue cats, a mini poodle, a Goldendoodle, three lizards and two ferrets. When not caring for her pets, she is an editor, speaker, time management and productivity guru, content creator, social media manager and blogger. She writes at All Words Matter, My Divas Dish, and is the story editor and chief cat herder at Positively Woof.