Clint Howitz believes dogs deserve the very best. Howitz is the director, or as he calls himself, pack leader, of dogIDs.com, a dog-centric online boutique based in Fargo, ND. Howitz and his wife Lori, both born and raised in the Red River Valley, were inspired by their own canine companions to produce and supply the best personalized pet ID tags and collars available for dogs.
The Howitzes are as passionate about dog products as they are proud of their home state, and take great pride in knowing they contribute to regional growth – 2011 was dogIDs first year of accomplishing over $1 million in sales.
While dogIDs’ specialty is still personalized pet ID tags and collars, they recently began offering an expanded line of high quality dog products like leashes, safety clothing, harnesses, bowls, and health products. Howitz took a break from his top dog duties to share with us his experience starting and growing a very successful online business based in the upper Midwest.
EP: When did your business start and how did you come up with the idea for your business?
CH: Prior to dogIDs.com, I was building another eCommerce business in the sporting dog industry. During that process, I realized the opportunities for personalized pet products and how perfect the Internet was for selling personalized products directly to consumers. In 2005, my wife and I launched dogIDs.com by just starting out with engraved dog ID tags. It was a hobby business at that point, which was easily managed by my wife Lori from a corner of our basement while I was traveling every week for my day job. Meanwhile, I worked as hard as I could, building the website, learning search engine marketing tactics, and building our organic traffic in the evenings and on weekends. When we had the opportunity to move home to Fargo in 2008, we started getting more serious about marketing dogIDs, enhancing the web store capabilities, and growing the product offering. By 2010, we had proven the market potential and the business had steady revenue growth to the point where I was able to join Lori full time. Once I was able to give dogIDs my full attention without the distraction of a day job, it began growing at a much faster rate. Within a few months, we were hiring employees and moving out of the basement to an office. Yes, we had been building dogIDs since 2005, but 2010 was when the startup of dogIDs became a reality in my eyes.
CH: dogIDs.com has been bootstrapped from the beginning and as we began growing at a faster rate, debt financing from Bell Banks backed by the North Dakota Development Fund has helped support our growth. Sales and reinvesting profit is definitely the main source of our growth funds and over the last couple of years we’ve been fortunate in having our products exposed on national television events several times to help with this. I can’t stress enough how important sales and healthy profit margins are to a small bootstrapped business like ours. The other main contributor to our growth was steady organic traffic built by SEO. This was a very important initial step.
EP: How many employees do you have and how have you found the process of hiring in the FM area to be?
CH: We currently have 10 employees plus Lori and I working at our office in South Fargo. We plan to add 4-5 additional employees by the end of the year. Finding local technical people with eCommerce experience has been a challenge but we have been fortunate in finding some great team members who are willing and able to learn along with the whole team the ins and outs of eCommerce. I’ve been amazed at how much they have accomplished and feel very proud to have them on board. I’ve lived in several different regions of the country and because of this, I greatly appreciate the strong work ethic and pride most people in our region have for the work they do. I’ve heard many people say this over the years but now that we are employing people, I realize how truly important this really is to the success of a small business.
Since we are still a small company, competing with larger software development companies for talent is very difficult, and recruiting people to move to Fargo and work for us isn’t an option yet. But we are definitely beginning to build our in-house development team and we hope to learn how to find more local talent with eCommerce experience. We also look forward to the day when we are able to recruit those eCommerce-experienced people we need from other parts of the country to Fargo.
EP: Who are your main competitors?
CH: Orvis, Amazon, Etsy, In the Company of Dogs, and several other high-end dog supply eCommerce businesses and catalogs. Over the last couple of years we have seen some of the “marts” also start aggressively competing in the personalized pet product space. We do watch them as well but there is a significant difference in product quality and our customers know that.
CH: Our customer base is largely female and that hasn’t changed much since we started dogIDs.com. Our target customer is someone who considers their dog a family member and is very passionate about the relationship they have with their dog. They want to buy products for their dog that are high quality, innovative, and unique, and most of them do quite a bit of online research before making purchases. Top-notch customer service and user experience is also very important to them and they love the fact that they can interact and buy directly from us. Our customers also love the fact that our dogIDs branded products are personalized and made to order…just for them and their dog(s).
EP: What are some of the advantages you’ve experience with operating in the Red River Valley?
CH: Lori and I both grew up in Wahpeton so the Red River Valley is home to us. Because of this, it’s been much easier for us to connect with people who share the same values as us and get things done. We have a much greater sense of pride knowing that we are contributing to the growth of our home state. This sense of pride drives us that much more as business owners and I also believe our team members have more pride in our business because of our local ties.
Most of our customers are not from North Dakota. In fact less than 1% of our sales come from here. Hence, almost all of our sales have no sales tax. As you may be aware, this is a popular topic right now and tax laws may be changing in the near future but so far that has also been a competitive advantage for us when competing online.
EP: Can you share any metrics about your business, including trends over time (e.g., yearly sales, units sold, etc.)?
CH: In 2010, we saw 159% growth and 83% growth in 2011. In 2012, we had growth as well and came very close to having our first year of 1 million unique visitors to our website but we had to shift more of our energy to infrastructure, web development, HR, team building, etc. An awful lot was learned and improved last year. We still have a lot of work to do but our foundation is much more solid at this point and ready for scaling. We’re confident that we’ll have another 100%+ growth year in 2013.
EP: What are your plans for the next year or two? Any expansion in product lines, market, customer base?
CH: This year we are greatly improving the user experience at dogIDs.com with a tremendous amount of new functionality including a responsive design for our growing mobile traffic and new preview capabilities so customers can see exactly what they will be getting before purchasing our personalized products. We will also begin building a few more complimentary websites to create more traffic funnels.
Our dogIDs branded product lines will be enhanced tremendously this year by adding new personalized product categories and we plan to bring some of our production in-house that we are currently outsourcing. This will allow us to reduce our finished product inventory while offering more product variations at the same time since more of our products will be made to order. This will also allow us to shorten turnaround times and increase profit margins for the affected product lines. We recently partnered with DropShip.com and plan to have that integration completed soon. This will greatly increase our capabilities to bring on new drop ship product lines while decreasing our labor, improve cost reporting, and give us better control so we can improve the fulfillment process for our customers.
On the marketing side, we are currently working on building our new holistic analytics program. This will assist us with getting to know our customer demographics more precisely and start segmenting our messages to them in a better way. This will improve our conversion rate and help us spend our marketing dollars more efficiently. We’re hoping to have this project done in May. We are also planning to increase our new customer acquisition efforts by building our affiliate network more aggressively and continuing to present our products on Good Morning America and a few new high traffic online channels like Fab.com. SEO will continue to be a focus for us but things have changed so drastically in that arena. We’ll be putting what we’ve learned over the years into practice and working harder than we ever have on our online marketing and content generation. Now that we have removed the restrictions we were dealing with before with a much better website foundation, the marketing opportunities are endless.
CH: In the pet industry, I would like us to be the first place most serious dog families think of when bringing that new dog into their family – the pioneer and trend-setter in our industry with a brand recognized by all consumers in our market as the leader in personalized pet products. Our customers will expect to see us turn their made-to-order products around and ship the same business day and have no doubts about what their finished product will look like when they receive it. I would like to see our loyal customer opt-in list of 50,000 grow to more than 500,000.
In the Fargo-Moorhead community, I would like dogIDs to be viewed as an outstanding supporter of the local workforce and community. I would like the dogIDs team to be at about 30 people strong and for the community to see us as one of the companies in our region that job seekers aspire to be part of.
EP: What would you like to see happen in the startup community in the Red River Valley in the future?
CH: What I would like to see is exactly what you folks are just starting to make happen with EmergingPrairie, Startup Weekend, etc., creating that much needed central hub for our entrepreneurial community. An easy-access community for entrepreneurial people to gather, dream, encourage, and help each other turn ideas into realities – quickly. Once that is in place, going strong, and getting recognition, it’s exciting to think about how that could help us attract more high-tech, big-thinking, risk-taking people to our community and what that could do to create new startups and support new businesses already in building mode.