Image Cover Article Jed Crystal: Starting, Running and Selling a Successful Pet Brand

Jed speaks openly about the continuing struggles with marketing, running and selling a successful pet brand, and how that ‘big break’ that we so often hear about, isn’t that common in reality.

🎤 MarketingAlec

Running and selling a successful pet brand

After successfully starting, running and then selling a cat furniture brand, Hepper, we wanted to pick Jed’s brain about all things startup, marketing and selling.

Let’s see what Jed had to say

MA: So thank-you so much for chatting with me about Hepper! It’s really interesting for me because I own a pet brand myself in Australia. Well, it’s predominantly a dog brand.

JC: Oh no way.

MA: Yeah. And I feel like it’s crazy that you’re like, the first person I’m interviewing, too, because I had a look at HEPPER and I want to know more about HEPPER, too.

JC: Yeah, well when I had Hepper, I did distribute in Australia and a couple other countries, but yeah, almost all the D2C marketing was within the US.

MA: Do you miss it? Running Hepper?

JC: I miss running a business for sure, but running that business, no. Not really. It was a lot of hard work and not a lot of reward to be honest.

MA: What made you get into it in the first place?

JC: Original goal was not business oriented, which kind of bit me in the ass all along the way. The original goal is just to make something cool and to start a business, but design wise, it was to create furniture for pets that was equal or better than the furniture for your humans. So I had, like, a nice furniture, modern design collection. I couldn’t find anything nice for my cats. It was all garbage. So I wanted to solve the problem of having something nice in the house.

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MA: I feel like that’s definitely going to resonate with our subscribers and a lot of business people themselves, the brands that do well so often come about because they see this gap in the market which they found from looking for something themselves.

JC: Yeah. I’ve always been entrepreneurially minded and had little small ventures, and I think at the time I was just not having a great time working for other people and building other people’s brands with my time and wanted to see if it was possible to do on my own at a larger scale than I had done before and had some connections that made it a little more feasible. And I don’t know, it was just a good timing to make it happen.

MA: Okay, and in starting out, were you building the brand with anybody, or was it just you?

JC: It literally was always just me, it’s always been solo.

MA: I see. And do you recall a particular sticking point for you in starting HEPPER or something that was difficult in any aspect of the business?

JC: Well, design is my background, so that wasn’t the difficult part. I did have a great connection with a manufacturing agent in Taiwan through a friend of mine, so that was surprisingly easy in the grand scheme.

Marketing and sales have always been the hard part, I guess in terms of all of the parts that are hard. I had a lot of luck in the early stages. I aligned with a modern cat blog that was just launching and she launched my brand right after she launched hers through all of her, so that I got a lot. And that was at the time, it was a pretty unique proposition having modern design stuff, but once the products were made, and again, that was kind of my wheelhouse, so it wasn’t that difficult.

But once the products were made, the continued marketing effort and sales effort was always kind of a sticky point and never felt like I got over the hump to get the volume up enough to actually make it really work.

MA: With this other blog, it was luck that you had this connection. I mean so often it’s about timing, right? She was starting up at the same time, and what, that blog became really big. Is that kind of how you started with your marketing efforts with the brand?

JC: That was definitely the launching points. I don’t know what the next stages were. I think it was building out the website. I think I did a trade show early on to experiment with wholesale, and then I worked with Alec a lot, on and off through display ads and used Amazon platform as kind of a marketing sales partner. But at the end of the day, the best result I found in anything was email marketing. That was what I was able to control on my own, cheap and direct to the customers and felt pretty successful.

MA: Okay. Did you do the email marketing yourself? Self taught?

JC: Self taught? Yeah. Everything I did I taught myself. I wasn’t at the stage where I could pay someone else to do it.

MA: I see. And do you recall how you taught yourself? Or did you just kind of go, I’m going to test it and I’m just going to do it?

JC: I mean, I just was part of a ton of forums and blogs, so just a lot of self research. There’s one guy that used to write a whole series about email launch series, John somebody might be called like the email launch formula. So like, I did a ton of e-learning and courses and being involved in forums and asking questions and things like that.

MA: Okay wow. So completely we would say like, DIY model started from the ground up. And this pretty much got you through marketing your brand and to the point where you could sell it.

JC: Absolutely. Yeah, everything I did, I started the ground up.

MA: Marketing wise, do you recall a turning point for the brand? Was there a pivotal moment?

JC: In 14 years, there was never a ‘big win’ with the brand. It was always those little wins along the way that got me through.

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MA: Really?

JC: So sales wise, working with distributors were big hits, like big income drivers. But in terms of direct sales, I never quite felt like I got over the hump. Website traffic never really grew dramatically. Sales never grew dramatically. In terms of small turning points, there was definite, like the launch series launching new products and warming up the customers and selling them. There was a lot of smaller big wins in that way.

MA: Okay. Are you talking about hyping up the products before launching?

JC: That’s how my email marketing series worked. There’s like a whole formula that I read about and copied. I sent emails weekly. But also the biggest kind of noticeable traffic hits and sales hits was getting not even other blogs, but in print publications. So like being in Wall Street Journal or New York Times made a really big hit with being one of those airline magazines. It’s weird, right?

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MA: Airline magazine? Who reads those?

JC: I don’t know…

MA: People, obviously.

JC: Haha yeah, so those are kind of the biggest spikes that I remember. Email launches and print media.

MA: That’s so interesting and so not what I would have expected. I know, that’s really weird. How did you get into those print media? Did they just reach out to you?

JC: Just totally random. I’ve never done outreach. The brand has been in a number of books about pets, like a ton of great magazines. I got a whole stack of stuff from the years, but they just found me. Great photography. I think honestly, a unique looking item, and great photography is probably the most important thing online.

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MA: So your number one point of difference from others was it looks good in your home. It’s not just like, I mean, of course they’re functional, but was there like a massive price difference?

JC: They were the two that were the selling pitch. They look great, they’re different, and everything is considered and functions with your cat in mind, not just like a fluff piece.

MA: Did you ever plug yourself as the owner that you’re a designer, that you designed it? Like as a PR strategy?

JC: Yeah, I did. I had a lot of transparency with the brand and in my marketing and tried to be really direct to the customers and always sign my emails who I was, and the products have my name on them. So that was partly out of the goal of just kind of like that, trying to make a personal connection with a small brand like that to people thinking that it would help their trust factor.

MA: So you did email marketing and then you had the print marketing. You were dabbling in ads, and then you weren’t actively doing PR outreach either. What about socials?

JC: Well, we had Facebook and Instagram and it was pre TikTok, believe it or not. And I think there was a Twitter account, but I found that really exhausting and never bothered with social media.

MA: It’s a whole other thing isn’t it? Like as a business owner, I feel like there’s so many things to do that are all over the place that to really do socials well, it’s almost like you need another person for it. Pretty much.

JC Oh, for sure. And someone that actually cares. I think if you yourself aren’t really into social media, how can you market your brand well on it?

💡 Discover whether social media could be your own marketing ‘superpower’.

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