Tell us about your childhood and where you grew up?
I had an ordinary suburban American childhood. I was introverted, a little shy, actually, but I really connected with animals. I spent half my childhood playing with my pets and the other half begging my very resistant parents to allow more animals in the house. We had gerbils and hamsters, birds and rabbits, and one cat that I brought home without permission. I rode horses but was unsuccessful in lobbying my parents for a pony of my own. But I saved all of my babysitting money to use on riding lessons. I started designing things for my pets when I was very young. I worried that my gerbils were not living a very fulfilling life in their small glass aquarium, so I built a little “warren” for them by connecting a series of tissue and cereal boxes with toilet-paper tubes. I preceded the invention of the Habitrail.
How did you get started as an entrepreneur?
When I started Cat in the Box, I’d been a stay-at-home mom. I hadn’t held a traditional job in nearly a quarter of a century. But before the kids had come along, I’d been the big earner in the family. In the intervening years, I watched my husband grow in his career from the sidelines. When my last kid finally left for college I actually applied for a couple of part-time positions I was wildly overqualified. I didn’t get either one. It made me very aware that I was going to have to take control of my own working future. I’m a lifelong animal lover and I’d always designed things for my own pets when I couldn’t find what I was looking for on store shelves. The idea for the business came to me during a trip with my mother to her cat sitter. The sitter clearly cared about home decor. But on this day, her carefully-styled living room looked like the inside of a UPS truck: cardboard boxes everywhere. I already knew that cats like boxes. There’s some pretty serious science that explains why. But it got me thinking, why do their guardians put up with dirty, ugly Amazon boxes in their homes? My products are a little bit of pop art and conversation pieces. They’re made in the USA using cat-safe inks, and eco-friendly cardboard. And they’ve made thousands of cats and their guardians happy. Not bad for a stay-at-home mom.
What is one business lesson you would tell a startup founder?
Just start. Don’t think you have to know everything first. Don’t think you have to have all the steps laid out ahead of time. Don’t think you have to have the perfect product or idea or know your market inside and out. This is an agile, ever-changing world, and the longer you wait, the more things shift around you. You’ll figure things out as you go. You’ll attract mentors and colleagues who will help you along the way. You’ll change direction, and then you’ll change again. But you’ll never be able to see mile 26 of the marathon from the starting gate, so don’t try. Whatever you eventually undertake will be the most thrilling, exhausting, and satisfying experience you’ll ever involve yourself in. But the only way to discover that for yourself is to just start.