Women and dogs has always been a winning emotional combination. Even better, is to wrap that emotional bond into a career path or a business that lets us celebrate our love for dogs while we make money! How exciting to get paid for doing something that you love! Wait. Create a business plan that lets you combine your love of dogs with something that you’re really good at? All it takes is coming up with the idea, putting a plan together, rolling up your sleeves and getting to work. I know because I did it. And, in the course of my blogging career, I’ve met quite a few women who have figured out how to build a business around their love for dogs. What, I wondered, would their stories be like?
And, so I came up with my Q&A interview series for women who love dogs and have developed pet-friendly businesses. In my first two interviews, you met a baker and a self-published author. Their respective businesses are literally “brand new” – each one is less than five years old.
The woman I’m about to introduce to you has been successfully running her business for 22 years. That in itself is a cause for celebration! She handles every aspect of her business from artistic creativity to product manufacture; shipping, customer service, marketing and in-house bookkeeping and a few other things that you’ll find out about. All this from the comfort of a studio that’s within easy walking distance of her home where she makes stunning, one-of-a-kind, dog-themed jewelry … and more.
Sue’s got a wealth of insight and valuable advice for all of you who have your own artistic dream but are still working on your business plan. Like many of us, she’s an animal lover who owes her inspiration for starting a business to “the love of a dog.” She and her husband, Gary, live in the Missouri Ozarks on 45 acres, which is a story all in itself and where I thought we’d start this interview.
Healing Rescue Dogs Interviews Susan Kottwitz, The Owner of For Love of a Dog.
HRD: Let’s go back to the very beginning and talk about your farm. I have to tell you that the phrase “Missouri Ozarks” sounds so romantic! Don’t leave anything out. And please, please, talk about the draft horses.
SUE: Well, there have been 3 farms, actually. “The Farm” as we called it, was in another area of Missouri and was 150 acres.
We farmed exclusively with draft horses and mules – put up about 60 acres of hay, had chickens, ducks, geese, horses, and beef cattle. In fact, I raised our cattle herd from day old bottle calves. When I wasn’t busy with farm chores, gardening, preserving our food, I was making jewelry.
Today, as you know, we live in the Missouri Ozarks on 45 acres. We still have the horses, dogs and one cat. It is a beautiful part of the country with rolling hills and hollers, mighty rivers and pretty creeks. In fact, my studio has windows all along the south that overlook a series of six spring ponds. They attract a lot of visitors: heron, hawks, Canadian geese, coyotes, bobcats and more! However, this is definitely living beyond the sidewalks and I often refer to it as the middle of nowhere. Consequently, I’ve become a good online shopper for the many things not available locally.
HRD: And, now for the dogs. I can tell from how you describe them that they’re all mixed breed pups. What would you like to share about them? Do they get along with the horses?
SUE: Currently, we have three dogs.
Jeffie, 6, is a Golden Retriever/Border Collie mix we adopted at an animal shelter. Rudy, 2, is a purebred yellow Labrador Retriever – the product of an oops pregnancy. Our puppy, Rosie, is three months old. Adopted from an animal shelter, we know her mother was a Golden Retriever and suspect her daddy was a black Lab.
All three dogs get along fine with the horses and frequently “visit” with them. Our fenced “back yard” is a little over 2 acres with the back boundary along the creek, so that makes a nice “chatting” spot.
When I took my business online with For Love of a Dog, we had two dogs: Tucker and Lucy B, both rescues. Lucy B was my heart dog and the name For Love of a Dog comes from my relationship with her. In fact, that is Lucy B in my business logo.
HRD: Before you started your jewelry business, you worked fulltime as a mental health administrator. Deciding to “quit your day job” is a huge decision. What brought you to this point in your life? Did you have a business plan in place or did you get started on a “wing and a prayer?”
SUE: This is complicated, but I’ll try to make it simple. I’m a suburban city girl who married a country boy. We were living in the city when we bought “the Farm” as a getaway and it was just that for a few years. I should have known my husband’s longing to be back in the country would only grow. However, the time came when, with all the budget cuts to programs for the mentally ill, that my job became heartbreaking, more than challenging or in any way joyful. I was ready for a change. Friends encouraged me to follow my avocation. I did not have a business plan because I never planned for this to become more than a hobby. So, I guess I’d say: I had a wing… but not even a prayer!
HRD: How has your business changed since you started in 1991? Can you talk about this in two parts: the creative, jewelry making side of the business and how you marketed yourself? How did you find customers in the early years? When did you take the business online?
SUE: In the early years, I sold my jewelry at juried art fairs. Lots of travel and lots of direct, in-person, interaction with both customers and other artists. Like many artists, I took my business online in 1997 by selling on eBay. Luckily, during my years of being in business offline, I established a customer base (from art shows and eBay) with a mailing list, plus, I already had longstanding wholesale accounts.
In the beginning (going online), I relied heavily on email newsletters to those clients. In addition, uploading product feeds to Google and participating in link exchanges with other artists helped to get my name and brand visible online.
It was around that same time that I began creating dog lover jewelry. With time, my jeweler skills have improved – by that, I mean how I select and use tools and other resources. I know my “eye” has improved in terms of color and component combinations. I’ve experimented with materials: using vintage or what I like to call “odd” pieces.
These days, I have much more knowledge of gemstones, their properties as well as having more experience with using them in my own life. On the one hand, some creative methods have become my favorites and I indulge myself: wire wrapping for example. The more I learn, the more I want to know. I have a long list of techniques and ideas that I’d like to learn and try.
Today, my business is almost exclusively online only – on my own web sites since 2004. In addition to turning out quality pieces, my jewelry is much more varied: more dog breeds, more mediums. I’ve added rainbow bridge, rescue and other categories of dog-themed jewelry for dog lovers. Currently, I spend much more time with the business side of things than I do out in the studio creating. Unfortunately, I have more ideas than I have time to implement them.
HRD: Is there anything you miss about doing business offline?
SUE: I do miss the face-to-face interaction and collaboration with other artists that the art shows afforded. But I don’t miss the travel.
HRD: What was it like to move your business online?
SUE: Moving my business to my own web sites nine years ago was a major task. Even after about a year researching and studying, it felt like a fly by the seat of the pants venture! There are so many issues to consider in a business plan:
Web site design
Payments – credit card set-up
Data entry of products and photographs
Setting up a blog
And many more details …
HRD: What’s a typical day like for you? I know that you split your time between For Love of a Dog and Bittersweet Ridge Jewelry. You confessed that the Social Media part of your business isn’t your favorite thing. But, we both know that it’s a critical part of getting your brand and your message out there. Do you manage all of this yourself? Are you mult-versed enough to have built your online platforms in addition to everything else you do?
SUE: I’m not that tech-savvy. I hired web design work for the site templates for my online shops and, once in a while, I purchase their services for additional web site coding. I’ve tried out-sourcing some of my workload with poor results in the past. Here’s what I do:
Create jewelry components (charms, pendants, etc)
Shop/order supplies (jewelry, branding, shipping)
Create the jewelry
Photograph my products
Crop, edit and format those photographs
List product as inventory on my site(s)
Update product catalog feeds for submission to Google, Bing, TheFind
Taking care of orders: print receipts and shipping labels, pack product, deliver to post office or UPS, customer emails to confirm shipping.
Branding/marketing – including web graphics, advertisements, business cards, packaging
Keep my web site(s) updated – FAQs, articles, shipping information, featured items
Blog – usually daily for For Love of a Dog (Talking Dogs blog) – which often involves product and book reviews with associated photo and copywriting tasks.
Daily respond to emails and telephone calls from customers, charities requesting donations, and so on
My goal has always been to do computer work in the morning and work in my studio in the afternoons. I rarely accomplish that. Balancing my business and “real life” is a constant challenge for me. There are never enough hours in a day.
About 2:30 – 3:30 am you’ll find me in my office,
at the computer, responding to emails and doing social media tasks. Regardless of how the day goes, I’m “done with work” by no later than 5:30 pm. I also try hard to not work on weekends, other than the basic email and social media. (Let’s just say that’s a goal!) I should probably add that it helps to have a sense of humor, to be flexible and able to go with the flow.
HRD: Do you accept orders for custom pieces?
SUE: I do accept custom orders, although, generally, I don’t enjoy doing them. I do quite a bit of custom jewelry for weddings (flower jewelry via Bittersweet Ridge Jewelry). A lot of my work for my large wholesale accounts is custom work.
Unfortunately, what an individual client sees in his/her mind’s eye is hard to communicate to me, so that I can create it. It can be a frustrating process for me. It also takes a great deal of time to do custom work. At present I’m declining most custom work for that very reason. In addition, I’m not accepting new wholesale accounts at this time.
I do very little production work – repetition of pieces. I prefer one of a kind items mainly because it is simply more fun for me.
HRD: You don’t just offer jewelry to your customers. When did you expand into other products and do you also make these? ( ie- the dog feeders? What about that gorgeous red dog collar that’s on the home page of your site?)
SUE: The up cycled dog feeders I offer on my site, are created by my husband. We decided to offer them because we use them for our dogs and we like being “green” and re-purposing vintage items. We had plans to add some hand crafted dog collars and tags last year, but life knocked us to our knees. My mom, began a series of hospitalizations. She’d been diagnosed with inoperable cancer in 2004. Our goal to keep her as independent as possible for as long as we could was changing as she needed more attentive medical care. Her hospitalizations began in February of 2012.
Quite unexpectedly, Gary had a heart attack four months later. Mom died in February of 2013; Gary’s medication was changed in early March because he’d had an adverse reaction to the stent he’d received after the heart attack – his body rejected it. Slowly but surely, he now is having more good days than bad.
You know? I was thinking about all of this just the other day. As hard as this has been for us as family, I think it’s a good example of how … well, life happens and you just have to deal with it. A small business has to have an emergency plan. It doesn’t have to be health/family problems that crash the world down around your ears. It can be weather related events, such as Hurricane Katrina or Sandy. When life throws a curve ball, you just have to keep on going.
HRD: I’ve been sneaking over to your World Peace Jewelry site and love the copper sea opal anklet. You have quite an extensive line of jewelry on this site. Truly, I’m blown away by the diversity of what you make. I’ve always been attracted to crystals and stones. In fact, I have quite the collection – all shapes and sizes. I’m drawn to their energy which I suspect is also true for you. Would you share your thoughts about this part of your creativity?
SUE: It is the metaphysical and spiritual qualities of gemstones that led me to working in jewelry. As a textile artist, the colors and textures of stones were very appealing, but it was the healing properties and energy of gemstones that came first. I’ve used them in my own life for many years.
HRD: I believe that artiistic creation starts somewhere deep inside of us where something that won’t be denied pushes through until it reaches the surface and demands that we give it form and shape – or whatever it is that our respective muses do or say to grab our attention. When did this begin for you? How long did it take before you acted on that first creative impulse – and – are you still listening to your muse after all this time?
SUE: The easiest question of all to answer. When I was just 3 years old, I spent a lot of time on my grandma’s knee while she pieces quilts, some by hand and some on her ancient treadle sewing machine. By the time I was 5, I was pushing the fabric while she rocked the treadle. At 10 I was doing my own quilting and making some of my own clothes. I was absolutely hooked on color and texture. I still am. I’ve also always loved creating something from “nothing.” However, it is the creative process of the composition that takes me to another realm. I’d have to say I’ve always acted upon the messages from my muses in one way or another. I don’t think they can be ignored; sort of like an itch that must be scratched. The hard part is finding the time to do all I feel compelled to do/learn.
HRD: Given what you know now, what advice would you give to someone who has a passion for animals who might be thinking about starting a pet-friendly business around that passion? For yourself, would you have done some things differently if you could go back in time?
SUE: No matter how much research you do for your business plan (and you should do lots), there will still be surprises. Don’t beat yourself up about that, rather be prepared to roll with the flow. Make sure you understand that beginning a new business takes more time and energy than you plan. Make sure you have the support of your family, because you will need it. (Especially when those household tasks don’t get accomplished!)
Perhaps, most important is to realize that “If you build it, they will come” is a myth. Behind every successful small artisan business web site/shop is a tremendous amount of work.
As a businesswoman, I think I should have begun (and continued) with a more narrow focus: chosen either “general” jewelry OR pet themed jewelry. However, my heart and muse never has agreed with that.
HRD: I love that you’ve built philanthropy into your business. Was this always the plan?
SUE: Yes. I am a believer in volunteerism and philanthropy. Currently, I receive 2-5 requests for donations per day. Since I’m such a small business, I can’t respond affirmatively to all of them. A few years ago I established a donation policy and that has helped me manage my charitable efforts. Unfortunately, I still receive requests just a week or two before an event and I cannot even consider the request. (I often create custom jewelry pieces for charity events.) I know that I should publicize my contributions as part of my own business marketing, but I rarely seem to get around to that.
HRD: As much as I hate to say this, Sue, I believe we’ve come to the end of our interview. I can’t thank you enough for candidly sharing so much about your life – everything about you is so inspirational – how you grabbed hold of your own dream 22 years ago and didn’t ever let go. The only thing we haven’t done is to show my readers what you look like! The photo you sent to me brings us back full circle to the farm because it’s of you and two of your draft horses.
We can use it as “incentive” for all of the dog lovers who read my blog to forward this post to their family and friends who love horses – so that they can check out the horse-themed jewelry you make.
Please visit Sue’s wonderful web site and then stop by her Facebook page to say hello. And remember to share this blog post with your family and friends who need to read an inspirational “tail.” Better than that, celebrate that dog (or horse) that you love and pick out one of Sue’s unique pieces of jewelry to wear “for the love of your dog.”