When you’ve been friends since you were in sixth grade, what is the natural progression once you graduate college? You start a business together!
I interviewed co-founders of PrideBites, Steven Blustein (CEO), based in Texas and Sean Knecht (VP of Business Development), based in California. They started the company in 2012.
Q:Why did you start a dog toy company?
A: (Steven) Initially, we wanted to create a dog toy better than the ones on the market. We saw dog toys that represented college mascots and we both loved the University of Kansas mascot and created a PrideBites toy in the shape of their dog.
A: (Sean) We designed a toy that looked like their mascot and mass-produced 500 of them. All of these boxes were delivered to us and we had boxes in our apartment, in our cars, anywhere we could find space for them.
_Author’s Note:_Both Steven and Sean shared the same memory of packing their backpacks full of that first toy, going to football games and going from tailgate to tailgate selling the toys for $20 each. The first week they sold one hundred. They kept going back until they sold out. “We realized we were on to something, but the collegiate market was too small,” said Stephen. “Buying the licenses for the logos for the colleges that got to be pricey.” They agreed their toy was great and needed to be delivered to a larger dog-toy buying demographic. Finding high quality toys for their own dogs was another impetus behind the creation of PrideBites. Sean said he and Steven had entrepreneurial spirits from when they were in sixth grade: “For every thousand ideas we had we threw them away until we found one that stuck—PrideBites.”
Q:What was the next market you explored after the collegiate market?
A: (Sean) We developed dog toys in shapes dogs loved—a mailman, a steak, a fire hydrant and a slice of pizza. We wanted to have a toy dogs either loved to play with, eat or pee on! We picked up the phone and started cold calling to get the stores to carry our toys.
A: (Steven) Very quickly, our toys were in more than 2,000 stores nationwide.
Q:What was your big break?
A: (Sean) We both attended SuperZoo—one of the largest pet-centric tradeshows in the country. We walked around handing the toys out and asking people for feedback. One of the people we handed the toy to—without knowing who he was—was Glenn Polyn, editor of Pet Age magazine.
A: (Steven) Winning the “Best Dog Toy Of The Year” award from Pet Age helped us to scale at a very fast pace. In the past, pet products like Kong and big-name products were the winners. It was such an honor to have won since our company was still in its start-up phase and we weren’t anywhere near as big as past winners.
Q:Tell me about being on television’s Shark Tank.
A: (Steven) We had applied twice and didn’t get on, but the third time we did. The producers of Shark Tank loved our story and our items, but told us we needed to make our videos more interesting. They were interested in working with us. It was a lot of work and going through the process. It was such an incredible experience. Awesome. We were so appreciative of the time we had on the show.
A: (Sean) Being on Shark Tank was successful, but not necessarily profitable. We realized after the show that we needed to focus on the wholesale market and start working with large companies that may not be in the pet space. Companies want to connect with the pet parent demographic. A way to connect with pet parents is to give them something they can give to their dog. So many companies will give a magnet, or a bag chip clip, t-shirt or a plastic flying disc—these are items, that don’t usually get used. A dog toy, leash, collar or dog bed, is something the consumer will be happy to give to his or her dog. Pet parents want to have the feeling of, ‘wow, this company knows what I love…my dog’ and they love giving their dog a toy that carries the brand name of a brand they support.
Q:What makes your dog toys and dog products different from the competition?
A: (Steven) We do things faster, at a better cost, with lower minimum orders and with much more customization options than many other companies. We collaborate with the brands to help them achieve their vision.
A: (Sean) Connecting with the pet parent and the demographic who buy toys and other products for their dogs is wise marketing by big brands. What we do is work with these brands because they know their consumers have an emotional connection with their dogs and giving them a high-quality toy, leash or collar is something the pet parent appreciates and will use. Pet parents are very loyal and spend a lot of money on their dogs. We tap into the emotional connection and a pet parent wants to be associated with a brand that understands that. Don’t give me a t-shirt with your brand name on it—give me a dog toy or collar. I will choose a gift for my dog over a gift for myself every time.
Q:What was the biggest challenge when you started out?
A: (Sean) We quit our jobs a bit prematurely! In the beginning, we worked full time jobs then worked on PrideBites on nights and weekends. We made some big sales, quit our jobs and focused on the business full time.
A: (Steven) Finding out what works and course correcting midstream was something we did in the beginning. Being laser-focused is one of the hardest traits, as an entrepreneur, to develop. We were one or two years out of college; we had no experience. Everything we learned we learned through trial and error. We knew we couldn’t be too egotistical, and we asked for help and input.
Q:What’s next for PrideBites?
A: (Steven) We are looking to create a platform so brands can connect directly to dog owners. We know the brands want to connect directly with the dog owner and have a product that helps them achieve their vision. We know our products will be leveraged by brands to help them get happier customers and more supporters.
Q:What advice could you offer someone looking to start a pet-centric business?
A: (Steven)Be consistent. Create a great product and do that day in and day out. That is what will separate you from the competition.
A: (Sean) To be successful, you need to believe in yourself and your product.
Q:What dogs do you share your lives with?
A: (Steven) A ten-year-old dog named Mona and a sixteen-week-old named Minnie.
A: (Sean) has Sadie whom he adopted when the company was a fledgling. Names of dogs, Mona is 10 years old and Minnie 16-week old, English Staffordshire terriers.
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.