After 20 years of successfully navigating corporate America, Suzanne Cole had enough. The former vice president of national brand marketing for the Washington Redskins and former managing editor of Flying magazine, Cole had traveled the world attending meetings and events. Now she was ready to leave it all behind and do something closer to home.
"It wasn't a slow burn and there wasn't a precipitating event, but I knew it was time," says Cole. "Life is short and I wanted to get in a place where I was in control of the quality of my life. I asked myself, 'If I could have things my way, what would I do?'"
The answer lay in dog biscuits. A lifelong dog owner, Cole had always been interested in pet care products; over the previous ten years, she had watched the business boom, and was convinced that there was considerable room for growth. Pet supplies, she determined, "seemed to be recession-proof."
Building a Biscuit Business in the Sunflower State
In 2009, Cole used her personal savings to build a business selling the dog biscuits that she had made years earlier for her dog Rudy, an Irish Setter with unrelenting dietary issues. The dog couldn't stomach store-bought treats so, after months of trial-and-error, Cole had developed her own biscuits. The result was a collection of snacks that were healthy, tasty, and easy on Rudy's stomach.
Recipes in hand, Cole left New York and moved back to her hometown of Kansas City, where her dog biscuit company Sunflower Seven was born. Not only was she now near her family, but the relocation greatly slashed her overhead: "In New York, the cost of living was always on my mind. I was renting a 450-square foot apartment for $2,500 per month. In Kansas City, $2,500 per month could buy a large home on a decent-sized piece of land."
Kansas City's bureaucracy was also much easier to navigate than New York's: "It's easy to get hold of my councilman or someone in my state government. It's more accessible, and its easier to find out what the rules are for small businesses. I didn't have to hire an arsenal of lawyers and bankers," she says.
One of the biggest benefits of Kansas City, though, lay in its human capital. Historically a major livestock center, the city is near two veterinary schools and, Cole notes, "A lot of animal sciences people end up in the city. So many people are conversant in the pet industry."
A Minimalist Approach to Marketing
Cole's corporate experience had given her a strong basis in marketing; now she is using those skills to brand her product and get the word out about her fledgling business. As she worked on product development, she began thinking about what she wanted to convey about the dog biscuits and her own values: "I wanted to create a product that was a reflection of me, that I would feel comfortable buying," she says. Working with Rudy, Cole had learned that the more ingredients a biscuit had, the better the chance that it would upset a dog's stomach, so she decided that all of her recipes would use seven ingredients or fewer. And, having dealt with confusing labels, she determined that her ingredients would be easily-recognizable.
Cole also applied that theory of simplicity to her packaging and product design. The Sunflower Seven logo -- a black dog carrying a sunflower, frisbee-style -- is almost as understated as the company's ingredients and its motto: Seriously simple dog treats. "The dog snacks in the store seemed cartoon-ish. I wanted products that were more respectful of the relationship between owners and dogs," says Cole.
Racing Against the Clock
From the beginning, Cole faced anxiety about her decision: "I had to ask myself 'Am I willing to sell my house to finance this dream?' I had to make sure I was comfortable with doing whatever it took to make this business work." Realizing that she would have to commit all of her resources to the business, Cole prepared herself for the likelihood that she was going to run through the savings that she had spent years accumulating. "I was probably mentally ready to start my own business years earlier," she says. "But it took me years to become comfortable with this."
It's still a struggle. While her savings has afforded Cole the time and resources to get Sunflower Seven off the ground, she only has a limited amount of time to make her business work: "Sometimes, I feel like I'm racing against a clock. It's very motivating, but can also become counterproductive." At times, those concerns began to get in the way of her business decisions. Looking back on Sunflower Seven's early days, she notes "I used to worry about every expense, but I had to stop it. If you're sweating every printer cartridge purchase and every vendor invoice, it gets very negative very quickly. Every expenditure was a decrease in my savings balance. At some point, the expenses and the revenue are going to look positive, but not now."
Cole also wasn't prepared for the loneliness she felt running her own business. "My marketing career was extremely collaborative and I really miss that. Working by myself in a home office can be isolating." To combat the feeling of isolation, Cole often does much of her work at local cafes: "To the extent that I can get out of the house, I'm always going to some place with WiFi."
Web Sales and Beyond
Sunflower Seven has been in business for a year and is still very much in start-up mode: "I'm still developing my products and trying to find the techniques that will get a positive reaction from customers and retailers," says Cole.
But Cole is working on expanding. At first, she focused on Internet sales, but this spring she began approaching stores about carrying her products. "Getting a new retailer is so validating. The enthusiasm that a new account shows for the product, something that I've created entirely, gives me a charge for days and days." Despite a few bumps along the way, she remains optimistic about the future. "For me, having the opportunity to own my own business is my reward for the costs of corporate life. It's my reward for working nights and weekends and living my life on the road," she says.
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