Having a dog can be life defining and it certainly has been for the owners of Ruffwear, the “Performance Gear for Dogs on the Go.” They enhance and inspire the outdoor experience between canines and their humans. With $7 million in sales, Ruffwear is a worldwide brand with distribution in 29 countries and 2,339 retailers. Headquartered in Bend, I recently met the “leader of the pack” (yes that is his title on his business card) Patrick Kruse. Kruse and his partners Will Blount and Mary Ann Kruse have taken their passion for sharing the outdoors with their dogs to create a thriving business. I recently sat down with Kruse, who shared the company’s history and business model. If you have ever had an idea you thought worth building a business around you want to read this interview. Kruse is not a “big business” entrepreneur; he’s the idea guy who executes with precision and dedication thereby creating a successful business.
CBN: How did Ruffwear begin?
Kruse: Ruffwear began with $33 and the need for a product based on actual use. We were mountain biking and a friend brought a plastic bag and bottle of water for hydrating her dog. It wasn’t very effective and she asked me if I had any ideas. My thoughts led me to tent fabric; if fabric could keep water out why couldn’t the fabric keep water in? Sixteen months later after developing prototypes and coming up with a brand name and tag line, the business began in 1994 with the first product, Oasis, a collapsible bowl.
CBN: How did you begin your sales and marketing efforts?
Kruse: We attended our first trade show with the product at the Summer Market Outdoor Retailer Tradeshow in 1994. The Oasis bowl was an immediate success with retailers, buyers and the media. L.L. Bean placed an order for 96,000 bowls over the next 12 months. Outside Magazine included the Oasis bowl in their holiday gift buying guide as one of the twelve perfect presents and Ruffwear was off and running.
We were the only product that was focusing on dog products in the outdoor retailer show. It was interesting because we brought pet products into an outdoor industry and then five to six years later we brought outdoor products to the pet industry. It allowed us to be unique and creative in what we had to offer. If you look at the demographics, a large percentage of people who are recreating outdoors do so with their dogs. Oftentimes it may be hard to wrangle up some friends to go for a run or a ride but our dogs are always eager to accompany.
CBN: How do you get your ideas for your products?
Kruse: Most of our gear comes from our own experiences or solving problems for our customers. The flotation device, K9 FloatCoat, came directly from my experience kayaking with my Australian Cattle dog, Otis. I had him in a highly reputable doggie flotation devise and safe, or so I thought. When he was in harm’s way I lifted him on to my Kayak and he slipped out of his flotation device. The product design was flawed and created a false sense of security. I designed our K9 FloatCoat after that experience and it’s one of our best selling products. The activities our customers and Ruffwear pack members engage in, inform us in the need and opportunity for new product design.
CBN: How did the economy affect your business?
Kruse: It hasn’t changed. We have always run a tight operation. We don’t build product based on marketing plan that we present to the bank, we build product to meet customer needs and demand. We have always been self-funded from day one so we don’t have to answer to anyone but ourselves and that gives us an immense amount of freedom as well as responsibility.
There was a slight decline in sales from a 20 percent growth to an eight percent growth. We are currently back to a growth rate of 17 percent. What is important is we are asking our customers not to buy as much. We want our retail partners to operate a sustainable business and buy less quantity with more turns. We don’t sell to the Pet Smart or Petco or distributors that do not add value to our customer’s experience. We sell directly to our valued retailers who are in the best position to communicate our product features with end users.
CBN: Why not Pet Smart and Petco, two of the largest chains in the industry?
Kruse: They tend to dictate to their vendors on what they are willing to pay for product. Ruffwear does not want to limit our product performance by cutting quality. All of us at Ruffwear take pride in what we are able to build and provide for our customers, enhanced experiences with our canine companions.
CBN: So customer service is important?
Kruse: It’s not really customer service. We call it “customer centric.” When a customer calls us we answer that phones and address their questions. Many times it’s a matter of product fit or question of which product is best for a particular use. These days companies claim their customers are the most important and then put you into a phone system that tells me they don’t value my time.
CBN: If someone would want to get into the pet industry do you have any words of advice?
Kruse: This is the third business I have created and there is a Thomas Edison quote that continues to ring true for all of them. “Opportunity is missed by most folks because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Many people think they can start a business and they can step back with money rolling in. That has never been my experience. That is not the reason I come to work. I have been developing product with Ruffwear for over 16 years. I spend a lot of time on weekends and when I’m out and about I am thinking about new products and ways to solve current problems. For me it’s about enjoying what you are doing and being engaged.
The take away I had in speaking with Kruse is in sync with my own experience in business. Ideas are great, execution is everything. Kruse and his partners had an idea and worked on it for 16 months in terms of product development and branding before introducing it to market. They differentiated themselves by not taking it first to a traditional pet market. That made them unique. Deciding the channel of distribution defined their business model. Ruffwear decided not to court the big volume users and be a niche supplier in both the outdoor and pet industries. Bigger is not necessarily better when the retailer defines your pricing business model. There are a lot of creative entrepreneurial minds in this town, don’t forget to wear your overalls.
If you have an interesting success story that may inspire our community of entrepreneurs please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Elizabeth Ueland, International Sourcing Agent.