Leila, a 9-year-old beautiful black Labrador, is one lucky dog.
Her owner, Sarah Hassenger, a 4th-grade schoolteacher in St. Joseph, MI, went in search of the perfect collar and accessories for her four-legged child shortly after she adopted Leila. In particular, Sarah wanted a way to let well-intended strangers know that Leila is a “she,” not the “he” people frequently presumed the dog to be.
When Sarah couldn’t find the right canine apparel at a reasonable price, she decided to make it herself.
Sarah comes from a big dog-owning, dog-loving family, and soon family members, friends, and neighbors took note of Sarah’s doggie bow ties and collars and asked her to make some for their pets as well.
After a while, Sarah recalls, those who adored her canine accessories urged her to make her creations available online.
What emerged in 2010 is Four Black Paws, named for Leila, and Sarah has diligently – and intelligently – grown her business working nights, weekends and holidays. She continues to teach by day, and has no intention of letting go of her first calling – education.
Sarah’s success, which includes attracting some A-List Hollywood celebrities as customers, offers numerous lessons for other small business owners and would-be entrepreneurs.
The most important lesson, says Sarah, is perseverance.
“I have to say, there were months I would go without sales, or there were months where I wasn’t sure why I am even doing this,” she recalls of her early days. But, like she always teaches her students, Sarah stuck with Four Black Paws despite the temptation to just quit.
Sarah had no formal business training, other than adolescent lemonade stands and lawn mowing services. “A lot of it is trial and error,” she says of the entrepreneurial journey.
Along the way, she got important help from a variety of sources, including her customers, who provide her both feedback and photos of their pets wearing Sarah’s designs.
Four Black Paws got a big boost from The Artisan Group, an entertainment marketing organization that helped Sarah place her doggie bow ties and collars in the swag gift bags distributed at the Primetime Emmys and MTV Movie Awards.
Celebs who now proudly own Sarah’s products include Ryan Gosling (and George), Amanda Seyfried (and Finn), Rachel Ray (and Isaboo), and Alison Sweeney (and Jorge and Winky).
Later this year, Sarah plans to expand her product line to include engraved dog-collar buckles, which her husband will machine and oversee. For energetic dogs, such as Leila, who have a tendency to run free and shake off their dog tags, collar buckles offer a far greater likelihood or remaining attached to the dogs’ collars.
Sarah hasn’t (yet) gotten rich from Four Paws, but she has been able to use her extra income to make home improvements and purchase a new car.
“It’s just incredible that my customers trust me enough to purchase my products every time,” she says.
Ten percent of all sales from Four Black Paws are donated to the company’s Rescue of the Month program, which selects a dog rescue operation from around the country to support financially. Since April 2015, Four Black Paws has contributed well over $4,000 to the program.
For more insights on how Sarah built Four Black Paws and what her success formula consists of, be sure to listen to the full audio interview with Monday Morning Radio host and reputation coach Dean Rotbart.
Dean describes Sarah as a role model for other small business owners and entrepreneurs, amply demonstrating that there is a market for original, playful, and useful products. Moreover, Dean notes, “Sarah’s success as a part-time entrepreneur reminds us that being in business for yourself need not be an all-consuming undertaking.”
Sarah’s Success Formula:
- She finds inspiration wherever she’s at
- Being on Instagram is one of the best decisions she has made
- Selling on Etsy helps propel her retail business
- She makes attractive packaging a priority
- She includes a hand-written note to every customer
Takeaways for Other Entrepreneurs:
- Sarah only works on her business part-time, allowing her to pursue her career as a teacher
- She has effectively tapped into a strong niche community: individuals who pamper their pets (including Hollywood celebrities)
- She has kept her overhead very low, working from home and (thus far) relying on family members for extra labor
- She has joined a community of similar, non-competitive artisan entrepreneurs
- She is growing a wholesale business and introducing new products, even as her existing retail sales remain strong
- She has made ‘giving back’ a central component of her business. Ten percent of all sales are donated to dog rescue charities
The full Monday Morning Radio interview with Heather is available to stream or download for free at: