Aspart of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Baker, Founder and CEO of SodaPup which specializes in creative, American-made dog toys for power chewers. SodaPup is veteran-owned and manufactured in the USA to ensure the integrity of the materials, process and quality. The company stands behind its products which are durable, safe, sustainable and give back to the community.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thank you so much for having me here. It is great to share my story with so many like-minded leaders. My background is in the sporting goods industry as an executive with brands such as Nike, Under Armour and Crocs, and that industry is fueled by people’s passion for sports and athletic heroes. I saw a similar passion in dog owners but didn’t see pet brands doing a good job of understanding consumers and making products that resonated with them. In short, I saw a lot of opportunity to focus on consumers and make innovative products that speak to them in new and creative ways.
Creating SodaPup was a personal test for me. Could I enter a new industry where I knew no one and had no prior experience and apply the principals I learned in my sporting goods career to create something from nothing? Could I build a company based on my VALUES and create a brand that people really care about?
My goal is to position SodaPup as a leader in the molded toy category in all channels of distribution by employing a segmentation strategy that doesn’t exist in the market today. Our toys have performed well in the market and consumers have sent us great feedback on the durability of our products. We have also been recognized by the industry, winning awards including two 2019 Editor’s Choice awards for nylon toys, 2020 Best Treat Dispensing Toy by Pet Business Magazine and 2020 Best Chew Toy for Dogs by People Magazine. Our strategy has worked well to date, giving us some early wins, but we have a lot of work ahead of us to realize our potential as a brand.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Entrepreneurship is rarely a straight path. In my case, I started the business as a lifestyle brand for dog lovers. I entered into a licensing deal with Cloud Star which owned the slogan “Wag More Bark Less.” My goal was to create a lifestyle brand for people and dogs. We made Wag More Bark Less products for people — coffee mugs, hats and tees — as well as products for dogs — toys, collars, leashes, bowls and more.
Shortly after we went to market Cloud Star was acquired by a large private equity firm that did not want to move forward with the license. I had spent quite a bit of money developing the product line and had just gone to market when the rug was pulled out from under us. This was my first major “test” as an entrepreneur. Should I fold up my tent and get a “real job” or should I find a way forward?
I learned four things from this experience:
First, Don’t license others’ intellectual property. I needed to create my own brand and control my own destiny. SodaPup was created as a result of the licensing experience.
Second, Listen to your customers. What we heard over and over again from our brief time in market was “We love your dog toys!” Based on this feedback I did a pivot and focused exclusively on toys.
Third, Maintain a network of friends and professionals. As luck would have it, I was having lunch with a friend in the midst of the Wag More Bark Less situation, and they mentioned that they had just met with a local rubber manufacturer who knew a lot about dog toys. This friend facilitated an introduction which turned out to be instrumental in our development as a young brand.
Fourth: Don’t take it personally. The private equity firm that acquired Cloud Star and terminated our license was incredibly professional throughout the process. I harbor no ill will. They were simply doing what was best for their business. More importantly, dark clouds often have silver linings. I am so grateful that we did not build the Wag More Bark Less business and instead built our own SodaPup business! I don’t know if “everything happens for a reason” but in this case, everything worked out for the best.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I agree with this 1000 percent. We are all born with DNA that shapes us to a degree and then the rest of who we become is an accumulation of our experiences and relationships. Parents, teachers, friends and professional colleagues all have had an impact on me. Some, in particular, took an interest in me and gave me opportunities that really made a difference in my life. I could fill up several pages telling you about George Buckley, my high school biology teacher; Sue Schneider and Gordon McFadden, both of whom took chances on me at Nike; Claudius Jaeger, who introduced me to rubber manufacturing.
The list goes on, but someone who had an enormous impact on me was Kevin Plank, the founder of Under Armour. Kevin and Raphael Peck hired me to be the director and then VP of apparel at Under Armour when they were still a “small” ($200M) company. In my four-year tenure at Under Armour, we built an organization, developed business processes, advanced the product offering and became a publicly traded company. It was an incredibly rich environment for professional development because we were growing so quickly and doing so many things for the first time. More importantly, I learned first hand about world-class entrepreneurship. It is not for the faint of heart. I work hard to instill that “hustle” at SodaPup. Suffice it to say, we are not waiting around hoping good things will happen for us. We bring a sense of urgency to work every day.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I love the Guy Roz Podcast “How I Built This.” In this podcast Guy interviews well-known business founders to learn their stories and how their businesses got to where they are today. What you learn is that there are really no “overnight success stories.” More often than not, businesses that are viewed as overnight successes actually toiled away in obscurity and on the verge of bankruptcy for years before they finally “made it.” It resonates with me because I understand first-hand the level of commitment and perseverance it takes to succeed. Most entrepreneurs who eventually become successful have been at a crossroads more than once where they have to ask themselves whether they should press ahead or throw in the towel. Almost always, the practical answer is to throw in the towel … but you don’t. I find these stories uplifting. They feed my confidence and commitment to keep pushing.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
At SodaPup, we put our values first and have faith that profits will come if we stick to our principals and stand for something beyond the dollar. Now more than ever, consumers don’t just want to buy things. They want to support businesses that align with their own values.
On the one hand you might think we are just making dog toys, but when you look a little closer you see something more. SodaPup is a mechanism to bring our values to life. For instance, we are committed to 100 percent American manufacturing. Consumers love us for it. Not only are we building terrific products that are durable and safe, we are also creating jobs in communities across the United States where we manufacture our products.
At SodaPup, giving back to the communities we serve is a pillar of our brand. We give to a wide range of dog-related charities but as a veteran-owned business we have predominantly focused our charitable giving on working dog organizations. For the past several years we have partnered with Actor Justin Melnick and his working dog Dita (from CBS SEAL Team TV program) to donate toys to military working dogs via the Military Working Dog Team Support Association. The association supports military K9s and their handlers in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard via quarterly care packages. Last year we donated more than 2,500 toys, and every USA military working dog and the handler got a care package with a SodaPup dog toy. We are proud to be able to assist these fine organizations and others like them. While many of us understand firsthand the benefits of having dogs as pets, the benefits are magnified in a working dog relationship. This is why we have chosen to support organizations like these.
Yes, we make dog toys, but SodaPup is a means to an end. To build honest, well-made products, to create jobs in our communities and to give back. We hope that when consumers buy our products they know they are buying into these intangibles that make our company different.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I am perhaps the worst person to ask this question as my work life knows few boundaries. But here are a few thoughts on the topic of burnout. I don’t know if these things will have relevance for others.
First, daily exercise is key. Running at lunch works best for me. It keeps me healthy, relieves stress and gives me focus in the afternoons. I am not my best self if I am not running regularly.
Second, you have to know what you want and then find the best work environment given what you want. Many years ago when I worked at Nike I attended a “brown bag” lunch where employees had an opportunity to ask Nike leaders questions in an informal setting. A young woman asked this particular business leader about achieving “work-life balance” and his answer was very direct, but also very true. He said, “I’ve never met an Olympic athlete who leads a balanced life.” His point was that if you want to perform and compete at an elite level, then it takes sacrifice. You can’t be great at everything. So figure out what it is you want out of your professional life and your personal life and then work toward a situation that matches it. But, being brutally honest, “balance” and “greatness” are rarely found together. Greatness is more commonly associated with “obsession” and “singlemindedness.”
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?
Making molded dog toys is expensive due to the high cost of molds and labor costs. To make molded products in the USA you need to make massive molds that are very expensive. Historically, you couldn’t justify the cost of a mold unless you could land that product in a big box store. Big box stores are risk averse — as a result they all carry the same old heritage brands, and the assortments are stagnant. In this way, Petco and PetSmart have been “market makers” for years. But, as the economy shifts toward digital selling (Amazon, direct ecommerce stores, Chewy.com, Walmart marketplace, subscription boxes, etc.) it is getting easier to achieve volume without big box stores. We are focused on this and leveraging new sources of volume to bring fresh new products to market at an incredible pace — about one-two products every month. Think of these key areas when you look at today’s retail landscape.
In the future, I think consumers will have more choices of what and how to buy products. We are positioning ourselves to be a go-to source for fresh, new, fun toys that target many different types of consumers. Everyone is not the same so create products that cater to them. We want to create more targeted products that give people an emotional reaction — “That’s so cool!” “I can’t believe they did that!” “OMG, I ‘gotta have it!” …
Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
I disliked the prevailing business model which presumes that things need to be made in Asia in order to be affordable. I spent my career making athletic apparel and footwear in Asia, and I have seen the good and the bad. When I created SodaPup, I wanted to turn the business model on its head, and I wanted to bring manufacturing back to America and create jobs in my community and the communities where we manufacture. You can build a higher quality product from premium materials and still compete with products from China. Build a company that is a reflection of your values and is a force for good, which is a lot more than just making a profit.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
A lot of business owners are not understanding the marketplace and filling in a consumer’s needs the best way possible. I broke into the pet industry by taking people’s passion for pets and creating innovative and creative products the marketplace was not offering at the time. I broke down these diverse consumers into segmented groups and built unique products for them. This included a USA-K9 brand inspired by military objects such as grenades, and the Industrial Dog brand inspired by objects found in a hardware store such as wrenches. I marketed them to self-described “tough dudes with tough dogs,” and that grenade is one of our top-selling products. We also created a coffee cup treat dispenser, a product that was specifically developed for this consumer who loves her Starbucks, which is also one of our best sellers. So, look at the market and see what consumers need.
This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?
As the old adage goes, “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Customer service is an extension of our brand. Being prompt and attentive and kind and helpful are all critical to the overall brand experience and will keep customers coming back for more. Beyond customers, we treat all of our vendor partners the same way. We rely on one another for success so treating vendor partners with respect is absolutely essential. This becomes even more true when you’re not the biggest kid on the block. A good old fashion personal relationship can go a long way when you are in need of manufacturing capacity and your purchase orders aren’t the biggest at a factory.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
I think in most cases the issue isn’t that companies don’t make it a priority, rather the issue is with implementation.
- The size of an organization can have an impact on how well customer service is implemented at the store level. If a company doesn’t have a very strong culture of customer service and a very strong implementation and training program, then how does the high school student, part time employee at a big box pet store get trained on customer service? Values start in the corner office and only companies with a strong culture and great implementation programs have figured out how to roll out these values to every employee in the company. The bigger the company, the harder it becomes.
- Most larger companies focus on policies and procedures. They create a rigid box and expect employees to offer customer service within the constraints of the policies and procedures. By contrast, companies like Zappos empower employees to operate outside of a script. They are empowered to make decisions on their own to help the customer. It results in happier employees and more satisfied customers
- I also think that some companies are too focused on dollars and cents vs the customer experience. We take the long view. By doing the right thing by customers in the short run, our long-term prospects will be better. For example, we offer a 30-day replacement guarantee if a dog destroys one of our toys. We make it easy for people and don’t ask a lot of questions. There are some people that take advantage of the policy but for the most part it is rarely used. By offering a no questions asked replacement policy our customers can buy with confidence and the fact that we even offer a policy like this has people coming back for more.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
Our goal is to make our entire brand experience a “wow” experience. It starts with understanding who our consumers are. More than 40 million households have a dog so we know that dog owning consumers are quite diverse. We have segmented these consumers and we build different types of products for each of them. In other words we build dog toys for people. For example, our SodaPup brand targets suburban moms with kids and a family pet. The products in this line are cute and colorful and largely based on food items. Our Soda Can Toy is the most popular design. Our USA-K9 product line targets younger men who identify with “toughness.” This product line is inspired primarily by military objects and the grenade treat dispenser is the most popular item. The Industrial Dog product line is based primarily on things you would find in a hardware store and the leading product is the Pipe Wrench chew toy.
In short, the first “wow” experience we try to create is with the product itself. We want to create “objects of desire” that will in some way resonate with the consumer. That’s why we focus on novelty designs rather than traditional designs like dog bone shapes.
The next part of the wow experience is with packaging. More and more we have moved to novelty packaging designs to help tell the product story. For example, we have treat dispenser in the shape of a retro surfer’s van. It’s a mashup of the old VW microbus and the Scooby Doo van! The packaging design is inspired by 60’s psychedelic posters.
We further create a wow experience with our sourcing strategy which is 100 percent American made.
We work hard to create a wow “user experience” as well. We use the best proprietary materials in the industry which provide unparalleled durability. People are thrilled that our toys hold up so well to their power chewer dogs when compared to the competition. In addition to being the most durable materials, they are also all FDA compliant to ensure the safety of their dogs
Our customer service is highly personalized — not standardized. When you call SodaPup you get a real person sitting in the United States on the other end of the line. We don’t use a call center that has been outsourced to India, for instance. Our employees are empowered to “do the right thing” to solve a customer’s problem. Our goal is to learn more about their dog and then recommend the best products to meet their needs.
We offer a no questions asked 30-day replacement guarantee that gives consumers the confidence to try our products and no hassles if their dogs are able to destroy a toy.
Finally, we work hard to give back to dog related charities. We focus on humane societies and shelters and also on working dog organizations like MWDTSA — Military Working Dog Team Support Association.
Our hope is that consumers feel the “wow” in every aspect of their interaction with us.
As an aside, we frequently receive “oh wow!” responses verbatim! People are pleasantly surprised when they contact us.
Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
Every interaction is an opportunity to build a reputation. A reputation is built one interaction at a time. Especially in the world of social media and online shopping where consumers can leave reviews, every consumer has the potential to be a brand advocate (or a brand detractor). How consumers talk about you can have a dramatic impact on your success. Giving people good things to talk about has a large ripple effect.
For instance, we had a customer buy one of our orange “Bottle Top Flyer” frisbees which is a heavy-duty rubber frisbee that is safe for dogs (won’t damage teeth and gums like hard plastic frisbees). Her dog was crazy about the frisbee and she often posted on IG (@rebelbearkimball) pics of her dog with the frisbee. This dog always has the frisbee in his mouth. He sleeps with the frisbee. He only puts it down to eat. After about a year we noticed in the pics that the frisbee was starting to look worse for wear so we sent her several new frisbees out of the blue (free of charge). She was so surprised and delighted that she wrote about it on IG and posted a lot of pics. We made a friend for life and she was thrilled to talk about her experience with us.
For the last two years we have donated more than 2,000 toys to Military Working Dog Team Support Association so that all military working dogs and handlers in the US Armed Forces get a toy from us for Christmas. They are so grateful and they talk about us.
Often times when a customer requests a replacement toy for a damaged toy we will send them two new toys to try. They are so shocked by the unexpected act of generosity that they inevitably tell others about us. Every replacement toy is an opportunity to create a brand advocate. If one of our products has not met their expectations, this is a cost effective and fun way to give them a positive and memorable experience with our brand. Dog toys are the type of product that people buy repeatedly so we are willing to take a loss on a replacement in order to keep that consumer engaged with us for the long term.
A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?
My previous response outlines what makes for a great “brand experience”
In terms of a fantastic retail experience I think many elements come together to create the perfect environment. Back in the early 2000’s I think Abercrombie and Fitch were leading the way, creating an environment that was perfect for their teen-age and early-20’s consumers. The store windows were shuttered so you couldn’t see inside. The lighting was dark. The music was “thumping” and relevant for their consumer, the imagery was hyper-sexualized, and they even circulated a scent in their stores. It’s as if they were recreating a night club environment to shop in. They understood their consumers beautifully and created an environment that was incredibly attractive for them. Even their staff was carefully selected … Only cool kids worked there, and if you wanted to be a cool kid you needed to shop there.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
Assortment: Perhaps the most important thing a retailer can do is have a compelling assortment. Brick and mortar is now competing with online retail so they have to provide value in terms of a unique assortment otherwise people will choose to purchase online vs. in store. For instance, over the holidays I bought stocking stuffers at World Market. Their assortment is very unique, and I bought gifts that I didn’t know I wanted to buy until I saw it in the store. I could not have replicated that shopping experience online because I bought things only because I saw them on the shelf. I wouldn’t have thought to search for those things in an online shopping experience.
Retail Experience: As I mentioned earlier about Abercrombie and Fitch, retailers should pay attention to all of the senses when creating the retail environment. When you shop online you only have a 2D visual experience. In store you can control the light, the temperature, the product presentation, the smell, the imagery, the background music etc… Use all of these things to create a unique experience so that people come back again and again. If people shop for entertainment, then you need to provide an entertaining experience.
Customer Service: The online shopping experience cannot provide interaction and expertise. It can’t deliver a nice greeting or recommendations base on consumer input. Spend the time to train your staff on how to interact with customers. Provide them with the training necessary to be experts on the sales floor.
Empowerment: Don’t turn your employees into robots that can only operate within strict policy and procedural guidelines. Give them credit for having the intelligence to think for themselves and do what is best for the customer in the moment. Less hierarchy leads to more individual empowerment and engagement.
Generous Return Policy: Don’t sweat the small stuff. The easier it is for people to return items, the more confidence they will have to buy in the first place. Just because your policy is generous doesn’t mean that you will have more returns. We offer a generous 30-day replacement guarantee and yet, it is rarely used — which makes it that much easier to offer!
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The best way to get what you want in life is to help others get what they want. The less we think about ourselves the more things will come back to us. So, be kind and helpful and generous. It’s a much more pleasant way to live. You will build bonds of friendship and community along the way. You will make the world a kinder and more loving place.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Yes — You can follow our work at www.SodaPup.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!