We caught up with Alex, the founder of Animals in Charge based on the Gold Coast.
Alex carefully creates items for your dog right here in Australia. This is a unique story about considered and patient design going from a side project to a full-time gig.
Alex, what's your backstory?
All my life, I have loved animals and the outdoors. At university, I studied design and somehow ended up as a software engineer for many years. My career wasn’t creatively fulfilling me, so I would design all sorts of things in my spare time.
I designed and built furniture and clothing, and when my English Cocker Spaniel, 'Pixel', joined me, I focused my energy on designing and making pieces for him. I was (and still am!) passionate about it, and when you combine passion and knowledge, you can create something wonderful.
Tell us what your company does?
Our purpose is ‘To make beautiful, durable products that are kind to the environment.’ I'm a designer, so naturally I want to see and use visually pleasing things, and I want that for my dog too.
The pet industry is saturated with cheap, poorly designed products. We create pieces that are classically beautiful, well made, and compliment the dog or person that uses them and the home.
A large part of considered design is material selection. We often receive feedback that our focus on environmentally friendly materials is as important to our customers as it is to us.
How did you come up with the idea & the name of the business?
Put simply; we do it because we are passionate about it. We put effort into our design process to create things that are beautiful and gentle on the environment. It’s not groundbreaking; it’s quality, honest goods for dogs and their people.
When I created Animals in Charge, my dog was (and still is) one of the most important parts of my life. In some ways, my life was shaped around him. The name Animals in Charge seemed to fit our brand values and the people we want to create great products for.
How did you go about creating your products?
Designing a physical product is great fun. A big challenge for us is material selection, as it's always a balance between function, form, and environmental impact.
It can be a tricky balance. We often prototype a single product for over six months to ensure it meets our criteria before putting it out to the public.
The materials must be fit for purpose first. Then we can explore things like durability, recycled content, natural versus synthetic, end of life, energy to create, chemical usage and waste, place of origin and other variables resulting in an end product that we are proud of.
For anyone looking to build a product, ensure it’s something you’re proud of; it will make selling it a lot easier.
How did you go about launching and building the business?
Our business began because people wanted to buy the things we were making for pleasure, so we already had demand ahead of our launch. We started selling on marketplaces like Etsy and our website. We drove traffic mainly through social media and customer referrals.
It began as a side hustle, so the growth felt fast while working full-time in another role. Once we picked up our first few wholesale accounts, it became clear that the side hustle needed the full-time focus.
How have you grown the business?
Supplying retail stores made a big impact on our business growth. We were lucky to be selected early on by a franchise with 12 stores, which helped with cash flow and brand awareness.
People saw our brand in stores, which helped us to be noticed by other stores, which then grew our wholesale channel.
What have been some of your biggest failures along the way?
A trap that many small business owners fall into is thinking you can do everything yourself, and to some extent, you need to do that at the beginning.
I was doing all the financial planning and forecasting myself, something that I’m not trained for. When I eventually hired a finance manager, it became evident that while some parts of the business were profitable, others were operating at a loss due to my erroneous financial analysis.
Hiring an expert in this area was a good lesson that if you don’t properly understand what you’re doing, it can be damaging to the business.
Letting go of the idea that I can do everything enabled me to focus more time on the things I’m good at and on the parts of the business that needed me.
What’s your biggest selling product?
Our All-Weather Dog Collars.
What day to day digital tools do you use?
What books have been a great inspiration to you as a founder?
Little Red Book of Selling by Jeffrey Gitomer.
This book is largely about customer service and how to give your customers a genuinely great experience with you. It has been very helpful.
How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie.
This is an excellent book about how to be a good likeable human. Coincidently there’s a chapter that talks about dogs being an excellent example of mastering this centuries ago.
What quotes do you live by?
“Small things make perfection, but perfection is no small thing.” - Henry Royce
This is not something I live by, but it is something that has stayed with me since first hearing my high school English teacher say it. When something seems too hard, or I notice myself taking the easy option, this often pops into my head to remind me to seek the best in everything I do.
What do you do to look after your mental health as a founder?
"No matter how busy I am, I always take a mid-morning walk with my dog, Pixel. Getting some fresh air and exercise (with your best friend) is a lovely daily ritual for clearing your mind and also just helps you to feel good."
In a few words what does it mean to be the founder of a business?
"Hard work, big reward."
What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to other founders?
"Get a comfy chair. You’ll need it when you’re sleeping at your desk."