Jackson Cunningham of Tuft & Paw on the concept of validation in entrepreneurship, putting cats’ needs first, and investing in the customer experience
At my core, I’m an entrepreneur.
Before founding tuft & paw, the company that now has my heart (and all my time), I dabbled in several “real jobs” as well as founding two other DTC brands. Since I can remember, my passion has always had to do with creating. I like to bring ideas to life.
With tuft & paw, these ideas have had everything to do with breathing new life into the industry of cat care. We are a team of cat-lovers (with a certified Cat Behaviorist), and we put all our efforts into creating high-quality cat products that also beautify whatever space they’re in.
Since our founding, we’ve grown quite fast, but our focus has remained the same: putting cats’ needs first.
The first step: proving the product
The most important advice I can give to fellow entrepreneurs is to test that product first.
The biggest skill or experience that I’ve leveraged while building tuft & paw, and something that I see entrepreneurs struggle with, is the concept of validation. This concept, which has to do with proving that an idea has merit using your limited time and effort before moving forward, is a make or break when it comes to building a successful business. Entrepreneurs often waste too much time on creating a business plan and setting up their business before actually making sure people want the product they’re selling.
So my number one rule is to always make sure there is demand for your product first. If there isn’t, it’s time to rethink the product. Personally, I like to test a wide variety of tactics on the smallest scale possible. Once I see things are working, I double down on the initiative.
Product development: tuft & paw’s checkpoints
Throughout our product development process, we have checkpoints to make sure that we are creating the best possible product that meets the needs of the cats that will be using it and the humans who will be buying it.
The role of our Cat Behaviorist
All of our designers are briefed with our Guide To Cats, which is an exhaustive guide on cat behavior and how it relates to product design. We created it with our Cat Behaviorist.
Our Guide To Cats helps ensure that all our products are created with the same needs and principles in mind. At the later stages of concept iteration, we discuss the product directly with our Cat Behaviorist to make sure we catch any possible red flags.
As an example of the value of having a Cat Behaviorist on our team, I’ll talk briefly about our top-selling item, which is our hero product, the Cove Litter Box. It’s our first-ever original design and what we launched with our Kickstarter campaign.
Through our Cat Behaviorist, we learned that there was a big learning curve in terms of cat litter box needs. There’s a general misconception that cats want privacy when they use the litter box, when in fact, because cats are in their most vulnerable state when using their litter box, they want a full view of everything around them so they know they won’t be attacked.
This is why, with our Cove Litter Box, we designed the Shelter partition that gives the option of privacy while still giving cats visibility of their surroundings.
Testing durability and usability
Once our products have passed through our cat behaviorist’s inspection, we make sure they meet the needs of durability. One of the most effective ways of doing this is by bringing early material prototypes to local cat cafes. One week at a cat cafe is about a year’s worth of "wear and tear" in a one-cat household, so it's a true test of whether our products will stand the test of time for our customers.
When we get a final prototype, we leave it at the cat cafe to observe for several weeks to ensure 1) cats use it and 2) there are no surprises we weren't aware of in the design phase.
We are lucky to have a very active cat community, so sometimes we’ll send out early samples to a group of cat parents to test out themselves. Our team does so as well, including me with my cat Jiggity. In this way, we immerse ourselves in the same experience our customers have when using our products and are better able to understand what they need.
Cementing customer relationships
Our customers are everything to us–they’re why we’ve seen any amount of success at all. We are nothing without our customers, and because of that, they will continue to be our number one priority.
As we grow and develop new products we are constantly reiterating what customer experience looks like, from discovery to receiving product, to repurchasing. To do this effectively, our communication with our customers is continuous. Being in regular contact with them helps us understand their experience with our product. From there, we revisit the design critically to figure out how we can make our products even better.
We’re big believers that truly great design never stops evolving.
Tips on how to build a successful, well-loved company
Fast growth is a “good problem,” but it does come with its particular challenges.
Specifically, fast growth requires constant observation and attention. When things are moving fast, you have to be on top of everything all the time. We make it a point to regularly revisit existing structures and shift priorities to show up to our customers in the best way at any given time on our growth journey.
Here are five pieces of advice for you from me on how to build a successful company from the ground up:
- First, prove that people want the product
I see way too many entrepreneurs wasting all their time on creating a business plan before knowing if people want to buy the product.
The lesson is: if you don’t see initial signs of traction, you need to go back to the drawing board before moving forward. I’ve continued to test tuft & paw’s products throughout the product development stage before putting them on sale. One of my favorite ways to do so is by giving tester products to local cat cafes to test both usability and durability.
- Don’t underestimate the power of media coverage (hint: if you can’t afford a PR team that’s okay, you can do it yourself!)
When I was first starting out with tuft & paw, I didn’t even have a PR team. I was working a full-time job just so I could pay my freelancers. I spent my evenings staying up late emailing editors in an attempt to get coverage. I got a lucky break when a Washington Post reporter responded, wanting to do a feature story on us. That story had a massive impact on our reach.
- When it comes to product, jump on the gaps you see in the industry you want to break into
For tuft & paw, this meant turning the stigma of tacky cat products on its head. Before founding tuft & paw I noticed the dissonance between peoples’ love for cats and the scarcity of quality cat care products. I started tuft & paw to ensure that these loveable, unique animals are comfortable and respected. We create high-quality products that are based on cat needs and are beautiful compliments to home décor, a combination that is quite hard to find in the pet industry.
- When assembling your team, choose people who are intelligent, responsible, passionate, and self-motivated
I’ve made it my mission to assemble a group of intelligent and responsible people who are passionate about their craft. In a remote-flex environment, I believe it’s extremely important to look for people who are self-motivated and enjoy working autonomously. I’m constantly impressed by every single person on our team.
- Don’t neglect your first customers
When building a company, especially a fast-growing one, it can be easy to neglect your first customers in favor of the future customer, or in favor of a new demographic. I’m here to tell you not to forget about those first customers because they’re often your brand’s biggest ambassadors. You want to make sure to invest in their experience of your company, and in turn, they’ll likely continue to invest in you.
Looking ahead: the future of tuft & paw
Since founding tuft & paw in 2018, our sales have consistently tripled each year. Managing a fast-growing company is a challenge, but something I’m so lucky to be able to do. As a company, our goal is to share new ways to approach cohabitating with and caring for our cats. That, in combination with knowing that there are so many cat parents who love our products and believe in our mission, keeps us going.
Without a doubt, I am so excited for the future of tuft & paw. I’m immensely proud of my team and our commitment to creating products that put cats’ needs first. We love cats and we love cat parents and we want to ensure that there are high-quality products out there that will serve them well.
I can’t give away too much, but we do have a lot in store for this next year. In fact, at the end of the year, we’ll be releasing a new product line. This product line will revisit a cat product that has stayed stagnant for decades. We’re looking forward to putting our unique take on it out into the world and hearing our customers’ feedback.