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Social Impact Heroes: How NFL Referee John Hussey & CUDDLY are helping to rescue animals in desperate need

I have found that you must be vulnerable. It is ok to say I don’t know the answer to the question — so I will then ask to hear from others on the team or I will let them know that I will get back to them as soon as I find out the right answer.

I had the pleasure of interviewing John Hussey a National Football League referee. For the past 19 years, he has enjoyed an exciting career calling penalties, calculating down and distance numbers, and officially controlling a game played by some of the fastest, meanest, strongest, and most physically intimidating men on the planet.

John Hussey has worked on several playoff assignments including 3 Championship Games, 5 Wild Card games, 3 Divisional games and a Pro Bowl. In 2011, he was a Linejudge in the highest-level game of his NFL career at Super Bowl XLV (Green Green Bay Packers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers in Dallas, TX). Most recently, he served as the Alternate Referee in this year’s 2020 Super Bowl LIV in Miami.

Off the field, John spends his time rescuing animals in desperate need — a pet project that has turned into an unexpected yet rewarding second career.

As the Founder and CEO of CUDDLY, John launched a purpose-driven company that helps animal rescue organizations create their own fundraisers, organize wish lists, and gain support for initiatives that save animals in the most critical of conditions. With over 2,000 animal welfare partnerships worldwide, CUDDLY helps these nonprofit organizations raise funds, awareness and assistance by providing them with essential online marketing and financing tools, including online fundraisers tied to the sale of pet products or through monetary donations.

John has been married to his wife Paula for 23 years. The couple have three wonderful children and a dog named Benji.

Thank you for joining us John! Can you tell us your backstory and what brought you to this specific career path.

I have always been a serial entrepreneur, having founded three companies since leaving college at 21 years old. CUDDLY (formerly poundWISHES) was presented to me as an angel investment proposal to build a website to promote pet adoption, along with adding a crowdfunding component. Having invested personal money, plus raising friends and family round, required me to step in and run the business when my co-founder had to depart the company for personal reasons. I had no idea my investment would turn into a job and we would become such a great company serving our animal welfare partners and the animals in their care.

Can you share an interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I did not enter this business with a deep knowledge or understanding about the animal rescue community. I used to crate our dogs downstairs at night, having been raised that animals were meant to be outside. But after founding CUDDLY, our terrier Benji now sleeps on our bed. Candidly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. CUDDLY has made me a more sensitive, caring human being-most especially when it comes to animals.

Tell us about a funny mistake you made when you were first starting — Can you tell us what lesson you learned from it?

I was invited to pitch our company onstage at the Launch Start-Up Festival in San Francisco. What I did not realize was how nervous I would be trying to tell our story in 3 minutes in front of a panel of judges and over 3,000 investors in the audience. Having officiated the Super Bowl in front of millions and millions of people was far less intimidating than pitching your company in this setting.

I learned you need to really practice your pitch, make your plan solid and really have a tight pitch so when the time comes you can nail it. That experience makes pitching today in any environment far less intimidating.

How is your organization making a significant social impact?

CUDDLY is an innovative platform built specifically for non-profit animal welfare organizations. We provide them with a suite of fundraising tools so they can raise the necessary funds and products to support the animals in their care.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We have so many individuals that have been impacted it’s hard to pick one, but a recent case would be Elaine from At-Choo Foundation.

Elaine runs a small non-profit animal rescue and was in debt because of the medical cases she took in. With no time to focus on getting out this troubling financial situation, this put her animal rescue efforts at a standstill. Our team was able to jump in and offer the support she needed and today she is out of debt and able to save lives because of her newly found resources via her partnership with CUDDLY.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The animal rescue world has seen some amazing changes during COVID-19, so our plea would be to hold onto these transformative lessons.

  1. Continue fostering. It saves lives and makes animal rescue possible. This change to a “new normal” may end up changing the model for animals contained in shelter facilities moving forward-this would be an amazing adjustment for the animals.
  2. Continue donating. The world has seen an increase in charitable donations and that is putting some real power into the hands of the best kinds of people. Our partners rely on the support of our wonderful donors who have given graciously during this crisis.
  3. Continue practicing kindness. We’ve all had to make some serious adjustments during this time and as troubling as it’s been, it’s emboldened so many people to do heroic things, be grateful, and add light wherever you can.

How do you define “Leadership”? Please provide an example.

I believe you must lead by example, be willing to jump in and solve an issue for an individual or your team if needed. I subscribe to the theory that if we both have a shovel and we are digging together, I will always welcome your opinion — no matter where you stand on the org chart.

Additionally, I have found that you must be vulnerable. It is ok to say I don’t know the answer to the question — so I will then ask to hear from others on the team or I will let them know that I will get back to them as soon as I find out the right answer.

Based on your experience, what are “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” my company. Please share an example for each:

a. You can’t buy a product-market fit. Some 10 years ago, I launched a sleep technology that lets you take a nap in 26-minutes. Our product worked great, my circle of friends still enjoy it today. I took it to market by selling CDs and preloaded digital players. Yet, I did not see the use of apps coming my way. Product experience was great, but the product distribution method failed.

b. You can’t spend your way into the consumers' heart. Brand trust is hard to build, it must be genuine and authentic. At CUDDLY, we approach our rescue partners with an attitude of “how can I help you”. Our partners have so much on their plate running their non-profits, they do not want to be sold anything. Actually, based on what most of our partners have experienced over the years with seeing animals abused or neglected, we must authentically bring them a solution that will help their organizations thrive so they come to trust us. When that happens, the story is continually amazing to hear them say how much we become a part of their team.

c. You can’t run a start-up by proxy. After our co-founder left the business, I did not feel I had the right alignment to the animal welfare sector to run CUDDLY. So, I hired a very bright, genuinely authentic person to help me run the company. An individual who was very aligned with the animal welfare cause.

What I did not realize is that if the executive team does not have the same skin in the game like a founder or investors (where they have something to lose if this doesn’t work out), they tend to not have the same sense of urgency to make the business successful.

As a founder, you put everything you have into making the business achieve great things. By stepping in and running the day to day business here at CUDDLY in early 2019, we have grown over 250% year over year. We are breaking records and milestones every month.

And, I have discovered that I do have a passion for animals and an alignment to the organizations we serve!

d. Raising investor money is hard. Having raised over $2.5M in capital to date for CUDDLY has been one of the hardest things I have attempted to navigate. You meet with VC’s and Angel investors who tell you no over 98.6% of the time. You are “not far enough along”, “not a big enough idea”, or “not connected” to the right network to get a warm introduction.

Sometimes they respond, most of the time they ghost you. I have the utmost respect for the VC’s who take the time to tell you no directly. Understanding that not everything is a fit for a multitude of reasons, if you review someone’s deal, at least tell them where you stand so we can learn and improve for their next pitch.

I have seen horrible ideas get funding and I just scratch my head. I saw a deal a few years back in San Francisco where a firm received $1M in capital so they could deliver warm chocolate chip cookies + milk to workers at various tech companies.

Here we are working diligently to help our partners save animals worldwide and scaling the business at a pace of 250% plus and we are not a “big enough idea” compared to warm chocolate chip cookies.

e. How amazing it feels when you finally figure out your model and start scaling the business. At CUDDLY, we spent several years ideating and creating the right model to support our sheltering partners. We even danced around with building a consumer-facing “baby or wedding” registry for millennial pet owners. I have come to realize what a big distraction that was to building our core business.

Now that we have product-market fit, trust within the sheltering community, and over 200,000 donors supporting our partners, we are just getting started in building this great company.

CUDDLY is poised to do amazing things to support our partners and the animals in their care.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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).

To be respectful to our first responders (police and fire), front line medical personnel, as well as our military. As we are now experiencing during this Covid crisis, these folks have stepped up at great peril to themselves and their families to serve humankind. My movement would be for us to say “thank you” or stop and buy them coffee or lunch, just a small gesture of appreciation for the work they do on our behalf each and every day.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and how has this been relevant in your life?

Luck is where preparation meets opportunity. My Dad used to say this all of the time to us kids. It is true, I truly believe that hard work creates opportunities or helps open doors for you. Once that moment comes, you must be ready. I strongly believe in visualizing your success!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I would like to chat with Ellen DeGeneres. She has such a huge heart for animals, as well, she loves to give gifts to make people feel happy. I believe once she finds out she could give gifts to animals in the care of our rescue partners, she would fall in love with CUDDLY.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

We would love to share what we’re up to at CUDDLY! Follow us on social at @welovecuddly



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