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Believe it or not, the South East of England is the UK's sunniest region, and it produces some of the finest wines in the world.
We sat down with Caroline Stronkhorst, dog lover and founder of the hugely successful startup, Fetch Club Shop, to discuss why you should just go for it when starting a business and why you shouldn't think too much about the challenges you might face.
We have rescue dog Monty, a Jack Russell crossed with goodness knows, to thank (or blame!) for the business. It became clear quite quickly that working with a dog trainer would be a good idea for Monty…and us!
A friendship formed with the trainer and discussions regularly turned to working together in some capacity. Training clients would often ask Jen, the dog trainer, where to get this lead or that toy but there wasn’t a quality, reliable one-stop shop that stocked the recommended products.
“Use what the trainers use” was a slogan that kept coming up and the idea of Fetch Club Shop was born. The plan was to stock the best-of-the-best toys, treats and essentials as well as manufacture our own leads and collars.
I worked in retail at the time and my partner has a background in marketing so it wasn’t a completely outrageous idea that we could start a very small online shop front.
We had a lot to learn!
Securing a reliable supply chain has been an ongoing roadblock that can, at times, feel like it is only ever being temporarily moved aside rather than removed. This is a story that will be only too common for physical product businesses.
One of the products used in our dog leads is a patented product from the USA. There is only one UK distributor so when they face import delays, we do too. This was incredibly frustrating in the early days when we didn’t hold much stock and relied on smaller, more regular orders of material.
Not being able to expand as quickly as we’d like due to cash flow constraints is not unique but that doesn’t make it less frustrating. We are self-funded so every pound spent on stock, marketing, customer experience and the like has come from our own pocket.
We’d have loved to have added more SKUs sooner but careful growth has (hopefully) set the foundations for a sustainable business.
We are a team of four co-founders with varying levels of input and equity, each bringing something different: sector expertise for product selection, manufacturing oversight, marketing, and retail operations.
It’s an accidental team but one that worked in our favour in the early years!
Motivation so far has been led by a commitment to each other and a desire to bring the shop to life rather than a financial one. This will, of course, change as the team grows and the initial motivations become one step removed.
We are committed to sharing the upside with whoever comes on this journey with us.
It isn’t purely altruistic as we’re looking for colleagues who care nearly as much about the business as us!
In a way, the shop side of the business is an iteration of the training/walking sister business. If we isolate the shop then the key adaptation has been the product mix.
What we expected to focus on has been different to our current product/sales split. This impacts the allocation of resources (stock + marketing + content) and has been dictated by customer feedback in the form of purchase behaviour and direct communication that we try so hard to have.
Being a founder means that you end up wearing ten different hats each day. There is so much content and advice out there that it can be a wall of noise with a constant nagging feeling that you’re underperforming.
I’ve found it helpful to choose which growth levers I’m focusing on in X period and seek out advice in those specialisms.
When seeking mentorship, however formal an arrangement, make sure that the mentor has relevant experience.
Financial guidance from an experienced and well-respected startup mentor has much more limited value if they don’t have e-commerce-specific experience, for example.
In the words of Dan Wielden, “Just do it”.
If you stop to think about all of the barriers to your new venture then you will never launch. When you get going you’ll realise that the challenges you face are most likely different to the ones you envisaged anyway. Entrepreneurial spirit will carry you through!
One huge caveat to that is that you really need to have a vision for what you are building.
“Vision” sounds particularly grandiose but for Fetch Club Shop, it is simply a passion to build the shop that dog owners who care about their dogs go to.
The passion to create that shop has helped to wipe aside the literal blood, sweat and tears shed in the journey!
We don’t have an employee share scheme at the moment but it is something in the pipeline when we develop an in-house team outside of, already incentivised, founders.
Our key differentiator is product knowledge. Having a dog trainer on the founding team has meant that we have unrivalled knowledge and care and that we’re supporting owners to give their dogs the happiest and healthiest life possible.
We lean into this heavily with content creation which enables us to provide (written and video) guidance on how to safely and successfully use the products we sell. Deep product knowledge comes from the fact that everything we sell has been tested on our own dogs before it goes anywhere near the shopfront.
I don’t think she’d appreciate being labelled under, “historical business figure” but I have immense respect for Deborah Meaden of Dragons’ Den fame.
An animal lover with a passion for environmental impact, she is a powerful woman with a voice in balancing business success with strongly held beliefs.
I’d start by asking, “What practical steps can a business leader take to balance social, moral and environmental impact concerns when striving for high growth and profitability?” I imagine the hour will seem far too short a time to cover the answer!