My wife and I started our business, HeroDogBox, last fall after a bad experience with the leading company that provides monthly boxes of goodies for dogs. We had subscribed to its service, but when our box arrived, it contained stale dog treats and a toy that quickly broke. We called the customer service line, and nobody answered. We sent an email, and it took more than 10 days to get a response. We knew we could do better. So we created a basic website, began taking orders, and sent out our first boxes. Customers loved them and started promoting us on social media. Our orders skyrocketed. Now that same leading company has started to engage our customers on Twitter and adopt some of our ideas. The company has a lot more money than we do, which worries me. Advice?
-Rob Connolly, co-owner, HeroDogBox, San Diego
When you start a business--especially your first business--one of your main concerns is having enough money to succeed. That's probably why first-time entrepreneurs worry about competitors who have more money than they do. But it's a waste of time and energy. More important, it's a distraction from what you should be doing: focusing relentlessly on attracting customers and making profitable sales.
That said, Rob Connolly and his wife have done a lot right. I like that they've found a niche, identified a company making money in it, and figured out how to do it better. That's essentially how I started my messenger and records-storage businesses. They've also come up with methods of distinguishing their company from competitors. Not only do they offer better quality and service, but they use profits to help dogs in need and put a photo of the dog being helped in each box.
In addition, Rob has started sending a personal email to each new customer, including an invitation to contact him directly if the customer ever has a problem with the service. All good stuff.
Rob's worries about his competitor's money are misplaced, however. The competitor is helping him by letting people with dogs know that such businesses exist. There are more than 55 million households with at least one dog. I'm sure only a small percentage has heard of monthly dog-goodie boxes. Increasing the number of owners who know about the service will benefit all dog-box providers. So what if competitors interact online with his customers? He can interact with theirs as well, but he mustn't lose focus. The goal is to build his customer base, not respond to competitors.
I'm not suggesting that Rob ignore what competitors are doing. On the contrary, he should pay close attention. He may see something he can adopt and improve on. Meanwhile, he can test other methods of expanding his customer base. He told me he first heard about this service from a friend. Maybe he should offer incentives for customers to refer friends. He's active on Twitter and Facebook, but what about doing something with the dozens of dog-lover blogs, websites, and newsletters? Or with the multitude of dog magazines, such as The Bark and Modern Dog, as well as hyperspecialized ones, such as Gun Dog and Just Labs? The PR possibilities are endless.
And instead of worrying about competitors' finances--which don't matter--he should be thinking about what to do as his company grows. Right now, suppliers give him heavy discounts on dog goodies to promote their products. Will they feel the same when he has 20,000 subscribers? I suggested he deal with the issue now, before it becomes a problem. He said he would.