From hobby to business: Pets into a successful e-commerce venture
Dog Dad Hats makes custom hats and apparel. In other words, the perfect gifts for passionate pet parents (dog moms, dog dads — they’re lookin’ at you!). Imagine you’ve just adopted a new pup, or maybe you’re already neck-deep in managing an Instagram account for your dog, or even if you want to immortalize the memory of a loved pup that’s crossed the rainbow bridge. Just send Dog Dad Hats a photo of your four-legged friend when you place your order, and they’ll work their design magic to send you a hat with your pup’s face embroidered on it. It’s the perfect, uniquely personalized way to express your love for your pet.
Alt: “Dog Dad Hats banner with the khaki, pink, and maroon custom dog dad hats in a row on a wooden shelf.”
Founder’s/Owner’s story and what motivated them to start the business
Dog Dad Hats was started during the pandemic by Paolo Villacarlos, a self-proclaimed dog dad. He and his partner had adopted their first shared dog early in the pandemic as a way to help cope with a loss. Their new dog filled the hole in their hearts. The new addition to the family immediately became a source of joy at a time when it seemed there wasn’t much to feel happy about.
As Christmas came around, Paolo was looking for a gift for his partner—something he could gift that had the newest addition to their family designed on it somehow. He hoped to find something for himself as well. All he found in the market were t-shirts and crewneck sweaters where the picture of the dog was cut out of a vinyl laminate and ironed onto the fabric.
This wasn’t bad, but Paolo knew from experience that this wasn’t what he wanted. Having worked in the e-commerce apparel space for over 7 years, he knew that if he wanted a quality gift that would last, the products in the market wouldn’t cut it. Embroidery, on the other hand, would last much longer.
He also wanted a gift that could be worn all the time—something that could match different outfits and fit different occasions. Drawing inspiration from the flexibility of baseball caps, he thought that a hat fit the bill more than a shirt or a sweater. Having worn hats all his life, he knew the power of a good hat to tie an outfit together.
Alt: “Paolo Villacarlos, founder and owner of Dog Dad Hats, poses with his dog, Buffy, in front of the ocean while wearing a Custom Dog Dad Beanie.”
So it was this combination of love for his dog, the need for a gift that would last, and something that could be used on many occasions that led to the creation of the first Custom Dog Dad Hat.
The only problem was that he couldn’t find this perfect combination anywhere. But the idea lived in his head rent-free, so he used his industry connections to make a prototype of his idea. The first hat slowly turned into a few hats for friends and family, and before long, Dog Dad Hats was born.
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The challenges the business/market is facing
Earning the customer’s business during trying economic times.
Custom-made products like Dog Dad Hats are not cheap to produce, during an economy that has seen better times. Dog Dad Hats has to convince prospective customers that custom hats are worth their hard-earned dollars.
Dog Dad Hats does this by communicating the unique story of how each hat is crafted for the customer. There is a lot of care and attention that goes into the design phase. For each hat ordered, a designer hand illustrates the dog’s photo, which is then converted into a design that can be embroidered by a machine. The hats are inspected one by one to review their quality before shipping.
Dog Dad Hats embroiders all of their hats in America, with fair wages paid to all of the staff.
Custom products take time to produce in an era when customers expect items immediately.
Getting a custom order right takes time.
Every single order goes through an extensive design process, with illustration, feedback, and tweaks cycling through as many times as necessary to ensure the essence of the animal is captured. On the embroidery machine, the threads are set by hand before the machine can work its magic. Such is the nature of textile manufacturing.
The entire process can take a few weeks to complete, and Dog Dad Hats manages customer expectations throughout this process with updates via email to keep their customers up to date on the latest developments with their orders.
Sourcing quality materials in a global economy create unavoidable dependencies.
Dog Dad Hats operates in a global world. Even when the team does everything in their power to keep the trains humming smoothly, there always exists a risk that inventory may run out of stock, especially during the holiday season. While every effort is made to forecast to avoid situations like this, all it takes is one ship blocking a key canal halfway around the world to send ripple effects through the rest of the supply chain.
Dog Dad Hats aims to source the best quality hats and apparel, prioritizing responsibly-sourced materials produced in fair labor practice facilities.
Rising advertising costs.
Unlike large brands, Dog Dad Hats doesn’t pump money into advertising on social media channels like Facebook and Instagram. The costs of advertising are too high.
Instead, Dog Dad Hats relies on customer referrals and organic discovery. In other words, from folks hearing about the business from friends and family that have had a great experience and love their hats. Dog Dad Hats word-of-mouth saves folks from having to search for great gifts for dog moms or the perfect gift for dog dads.
Even in a niche like gifts for pet parents, there is competition. Some are legitimate, and others are fast followers that have stooped to using photos of Dog Dad Hats customers to try and fast-follow into the market. The worst offenders have tried to use the exact photos and descriptions from the Dog Dad Hats website and pawn them off as their own work.
What sets Dog Dad Hats apart is their eye for the details, top-notch design talent, and commitment to customer satisfaction. It’s not uncommon to see the founder, Paolo, rolling his sleeves up to speak directly with customers to help resolve any issues that may arise. This obsession with detail and passion for the customer is just a few of the reasons that Dog Dad Hats can be imitated, but not duplicated.
So even with competition around, the team at Dog Dad Hats is proud to say that they are the only sellers of the original dog dad hat!
Alt: “A young woman wears a Custom Dog Dad Beanie with her dog embroidered on the front.”
The opportunities the business/market is facing
Market that supports personalization
Dog Dad Hats is fortunate to operate in a world with modern manufacturing processes, more efficient technology, and the ability to reach billions of people.
A customer sitting in their living room can type some words into their computer or just scroll the infinite feed, find a beanie for sale, send a photo of them from their phone, pay with a card or cryptocurrency or split the payment into multiple installments. A few weeks later they’ll receive a beanie with their dog stitched into the fabric as a truly unique 1-of-1 production run.
A business like this could not have existed 20 years ago.
Personalized products like Dog Dad Hats are the answer to a steadily rising trend of preference for custom gifts, especially custom pet gifts.
Whether it’s a hat that has the face of a person’s pupper on it, or a hat that simply says “Stella’s Mom”, Dog Dad Hats has built a way for customers to customize their products on-demand for a truly unique gift.
Preference for small businesses
Since the pandemic hit, small businesses have seen a resurgence of support from consumers.
Dog Dad Hats could have just as easily been an Etsy business, but chose to make a store of its own to be able to better showcase the brand’s story while creating a smoother shopping experience for customers.
Connection to the brand
Small businesses are easier to connect with on social media. Founders, like Paolo Villacarlos, are visible behind the scenes, sharing what’s happening with the daily activities in the journey to deliver a great product to the customer.
These behind-the-scenes snapshots help bridge the gap between ordering a gift that a customer is stoked to receive, and the days till that order arrives.
As Zig Ziglar has said, “If people like you they’ll listen to you, but if they trust you they’ll do business with you.”
WFH and a post-pandemic world with more pets
According to the ASPCA, about 1 in 5 households in America adopted a new dog or cat during the pandemic.
Some folks are adding another pet to their home, but many are bringing a furry friend into their home for the first time.
Dog Dad Hats was born from the founder’s experience adopting their dog during the pandemic and are here to give other pet parents a way to express their love for their animals as well.
Growing beyond hats
In the coming years, Dog Dad Hats is looking to grow beyond hats. Hats will always be available, but the company is looking to expand into apparel and art prints as well. There is no end to the way a loving pet parent can show their passion for their pets.
Alt: “A man wearing a black dog dad hat backwards holds his dog over his shoulder as the dog licks the hat with the dog’s face embroidered on it.”
Advice to others about business
Don’t get hung up on having the perfect website, the right packaging, or a custom email—just find ways to validate your idea before committing too much money to the pot. Dog Dad Hats was an idea that started on a post-it note on a wall of over 50 other business ideas. The branding or the logo and the website design can all come later. Just focus on getting an MVP of your idea together and in front of customers as quickly as possible and iterate on the process along the way. As Reid Hoffman is quoted saying, — “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
Test early, test often.
Test something new each week. Testing doesn’t have to be a massive change. Even creating content for social media is a test of how to communicate with customers. If you can’t test weekly, then test biweekly, and if you can’t do it biweekly, shoot for once a month. The important thing is to keep trying things. Stagnation is the enemy of innovation. Testing different ways to generate an incremental lift in the business is how you slowly bridge the gap between where the business started out and where it ends up. Overnight successes are few and far between.
Listen to customer feedback.
Talking to customers is one of the most important things a business can do. Customers are on the front lines with all aspects of the product and brand journey. They’ll let you know what messages resonate with them, what content they like, and whether your product is living up to their expectations, and most importantly, where your product can be doing better.
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