Natalie Youn of Bark Potty: How To Take Your Company From Good To Great
An Interview With Jerome Knyszewski
Flexible leadership: Learning to pivot both as an entrepreneur and a team leader is essential. It’s one of the benefits of running a small business. Having a small business has its challenges, but it does allow you to respond to problems more efficiently. Large corporations are like oil tankers — it take a lot more moving parts to turn things around. Embrace your nimbleness when small.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalie Youn. She is a successful entrepreneur in the pet industry. After receiving her MBA, she channeled her commitment to pets and sustainability into the development of companies such as Bark Potty, DoggieLawn, and Greenwell Pet. Natalie is also the proud mom of two kids and one fur baby, Pancake.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
All of my companies are founded out of the belief that there is always room for a different business or service. Bark Potty was an idea that stemmed from the desire to take an idea and make it more sustainable and innovative. I previously founded a company with a similar offering. The product was successful but had some market limitations. Bark Potty was born out of a desire to make a product for the same market positioning but fixes the issues that held the previous product back. It was also a chance to focus on moving the product towards more environmental responsibility, which is important to me.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
One of the most important things I’ve learned as an entrepreneur is that things don’t get to decide whether they are “easy” or “hard.”You get to decide whether things are easy or hard. If you decide they’re hard, then they will be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and forget this fact.
Let me give you an example: When I first started one of my companies, we operated out of a residential garage that rented the attached house out to some questionable people. It’s all we could afford. Everyday, we ran into some kind of issue with our neighbors, like theft, drug usage, etc and it was challenging to say the least. In the stressful moments I would remind myself that the product I was selling had achieved market fit and therefore growing market share would just be a matter of time. In short order, we were able to afford a bigger space. We’re now in our fourth space!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I don’t have funny mistakes, but I’ve definitely made mistakes along the way. My biggest mistakes have generally been in the realm of management. You don’t learn very much about actual management realities when you’re getting an MBA and with so many different personalities on a team it’s been quite challenging.
Being the boss generally means you have to be a people person to some extent. I think it’s easy for driven self-staring people to assume that the people they hire are the same way. Employees may be so-called self-starters or organized workers to some extent, but their manager (me) needs to be comfortable to a degree that they may or may not be. I used to find this incredibly frustrating, but now I’ve learned to listen more and multiply the strengths of individuals by learning what they do best and moving past their weaknesses.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It’s all about the product! As I mentioned before, Bark Potty is an evolution of the traditional dog-potty solutions that ticks all the boxes in a novel and earth-friendly way.
It’s easy to train because it smells like a dog park in a box.
It’s good for the planet because it’s made of entirely recyclable or compostable material.
It’s good for your pocketbook because it costs no more than an equal amount of potty pads.
It’s good for your nose because the natural oils in the bark break down odors.
It’s good for your back because it’s multi use, you only have to put it down and pick it up once a month.
It’s patent pending, too!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I cannot stress enough how important it is to surround yourself with people that are talented. I didn’t focus on staffing early enough and it stunted growth because of a lack of manpower. Relatedly, I would suggest screening heavily for the right personality and to minimize having toxic people on your team. They end up diverting your focus to managing personalities and conflicts rather than focusing on growth; toxic behaviour tends to be contagious as well and can quickly stunt growth.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It might surprise my husband to hear me say that I’m grateful for his help. He’s also a serial entrepreneur and is quite brilliant, so it’s good to get his take on things. Early on, we disagreed countless times about product strategy, but his input was always valuable regardless of the outcome.
At this point, I know when I want his opinion on something and when I don’t. We’ve had heated discussions because we often approach things differently, but having a different experienced perspective is so important.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
A company can be “good” for a variety of reasons, but I believe a good company in my industry is one that is cognizant of the customers’ needs and delivers a product that meets those needs in a way that enhances their lives. A great company goes above and beyond in this regard.
For me, I’ve tried to accomplish this by ensuring we have outstanding customer service and practicing corporate responsibility. Our products are meant to make our customers’ lives easier, but this means we need to find ways to continue doing that for as long as possible. One way to ensure this is to commit to sustainability and create and sell products that rely on sustainably sourced materials. It’s important to recognize the toll our industry takes on the environment if we want to continue the work we do.
This brings me to my last point, which is that a company goes from good to great by having purpose. Growing a successful company is an exciting achievement, but it means so much more to both owners and customers when you know that part of the work you do is paying it forward.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- The importance of a solid team: You can’t take your company to the next level without the right people on your team.
- Knowing when a relationship has run its course: It’s one of the more difficult aspects of running a business, but you need to know when to let people go. The late Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, was onto something with incentivizing unhappy employees to leave. It doesn’t benefit either of you to remain in an incompatible relationship. On the other hand, the incentive demonstrates that you understand that sometimes it’s just a matter of fit; it shows that leaving a company doesn’t have to be personal, and despite the circumstances, you do have their best interests at heart.
- Having a purpose: Bark Potty came from not only learning about how the product could be improved. It also stemmed from trying to build a company that integrated sustainability more thoroughly into the manufacturing process. A genuine commitment to a purpose is readable to consumers as well.
- Flexible leadership: Learning to pivot both as an entrepreneur and a team leader is essential. It’s one of the benefits of running a small business. Having a small business has its challenges, but it does allow you to respond to problems more efficiently. Large corporations are like oil tankers — it take a lot more moving parts to turn things around. Embrace your nimbleness when small.
- Excellent customer service: There is a reason why people say “the customer is always right.” Of course, this doesn’t mean they are actually always right. What it does mean is that you should take your customers’ concerns seriously.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Businesses need to reprioritize their commitments to make space for doing good instead of just thinking about the bottom line. This doesn’t mean that generating a profit shouldn’t be a concern. Instead, companies should actively problem solve in order to figure out how to maximize profit while utilizing their platform to effect change. Both are possible! All our brands have a component of giving back, and as you mention, it does have a financial upside. There’s no reason to not consider having a purpose driven business given that it’s been shown to boost, rather than harm, profitability.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Every product has a life cycle. Even the best selling products will reach a standstill. Many companies are astutely aware of this and proactively work with this in mind — think cell phone manufacturers and the fashion industry, where there is alway something new in the works. If you sense a lull is coming (or even when it’s not), continue putting products into the sales funnel. Continue innovating because all products/companies will inevitably have its ups and downs. If an entirely new brand is unfeasible, consider creating an extension of your product or developing additional items under the same brand.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Even though COVID has meant a lot of growth for us, our profits are down because the growth happened at such a rapid pace. I strongly recommend having a thorough understanding of financials and knowing how much runway you have so that should any urgent situations pop up, it doesn’t automatically mean the end of your company. The pandemic has really driven this point home. We saw so many businesses close just weeks into the shutdowns and it’s tragic to see all your hard work go down the drain. Having a keen awareness of the financials means that if a risk doesn’t pan out, you won’t be paying the price by having to forfeit your business.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Managing employees, hands down. HR takes up a substantial amount of resources, and a good chunk of my time is spent dealing with some HR-related issue. Spending time to find the right people to join your team minimizes this, but conflicts will inevitably occur. It’s unlikely, but even if there are absolutely no interpersonal issues with the staff, things like medical insurance, training, scheduling and PTO, etc., will need to be tended to regularly. And of course, if your company does well, this will continue to be a growing component of your day to day business.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
I’m always touting the importance of the sales funnel. At the top of the funnel is garnering enough interest for people to visit your website. Of that group, some will drop off because they’re not interested for one reason or another. But of those that are interested, you’ll want to segment those and work on targeting them. That’s where ad retargeting and getting them in your email/sms funnel is key. That is where you’ll be able to hone in individual needs. Then it becomes a matter of convincing them to click that purchase button. So, really make sure you have a robust email/sms strategy in place. SMS is relatively new for our team but we’ve been finding it to be really effective in fighting through the email clutter and getting their attention.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
10–15 years ago, it was all about brand advocates touting your product. Then it became all about influencers. Of all the trends, the one that has stuck has been consumer reviews. Nowadays, consumers have the Amazon experience ingrained in their minds and one of the ways that has affected a brand’s reputation is in the way of reviews — how many reviews does your product have, what are people saying about it, etc. Reviews have become the standard for how people research a product to see if it’s trusted, because it’s more relatable than the word of an influencer. The cat’s been let out of the bag, and customers now know those are sponsored.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
This is true for any industry, but especially the pet industry: customers want to know you care as much about their pets’ experience as theirs. People consider pets as members of the family, so it’s important that you can communicate empathy to any issues that come up. For us, we offer complimentary training not just to make sure our customers are able to successfully utilize our products, but because we believe that building those relationships are what take customer service beyond just another voice on the phone.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Yes, there are concerns with social media as there is with anything that affects your company’s reputation. However, coming from a marketing background, I see even negative responses as an opportunity to rethink your product and the brand and how they might be improved. Social media can be tricky, but it’s a great way to get a pulse on your product. You want to be mindful of what feedback you take to heart, but there’s a lot to learn if you do take your customers seriously.
If you have a purpose driven business, social media has further benefits. Use the platform to make an impact. Appeal to Gen Z consumers and take advantage of their ability to utilize social platforms to effect change and spread your message.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
People in high places are quick to think that they know better. I’ve seen others stifle ideas that employees come up with, which can be demoralizing for the team. It discourages employees from being involved and that can cause them to become less committed over time. When people bring up suggestions, listen. They can offer different avenues for solving a problem that you didn’t see. They are in their various roles for a reason. Whenever we get stuck on a decision, I always tell my team, “Take it to the people.” The operations manager might see something that your marketing team doesn’t. And the customer service team will lend insight about consumer experience that operations might not be aware of, and so on. Always ask others to test your ideas. After all, you won’t be the only one consuming your product.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
This is already underway and the tides seem to gradually turning, but more could be done in regards to sustainability in the pet industry. It’s a bit surprising that it’s not an inherent part of the pet industry — you’d think animal lovers would naturally be inclined to practice corporate environmental responsibility. While there are, of course, numerous eco-conscious organizations, they focus on awareness and aren’t the ones producing consumable goods that have incredible consequences for our planet. The pet industry can have a significant impact because we manufacture goods that heavily utilize and shape resource consumption. If we aren’t the ones to push for increased sustainability in the lives we share daily with our beloved pets, who will?
How can our readers further follow you online?
We can be found at barkpotty.com as well as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Youtube.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
You’re very welcome!
About the interviewer: Jerome Knyszewski (Kenchefski) is the CEO of HeavyShift. Jerome serves as an advisor to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies as well as entrepreneurs who disrupt their industries and therefore tend to be targets of malicious online attacks. His company builds, protects, and repairs the online presence & reputation of many celebrities, products and beloved brands.