“You’re Not Going To Be Able To Pay Yourself For A While” 5 Startup Strategies With Stephanie Wiggins

I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Wiggins, the Founder of dog gear company DJANGO . Steph is also the mom and voice of adorable, witty, and occasionally inappropriate celebrity dog @djangothegent. Steph launched DJANGO in late 2016 and has since grown the company exponentially. After seeing tremendous growth in the second half of 2017, Steph is focusing on new product development and wholesale expansion in the US and Canada.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

If you told me 5 years ago that I would be scaling a pet-related e-commerce company, I would have laughed and said you were crazy.

I graduated from Boston College in 2007 with an economics degree and went straight into finance. For 7 years I worked in Interest Rate Derivative Sales, helping large corporate America manage and hedge interest rate exposure. While I admired the people I worked with and made a good living, I knew something was missing. I am a smart woman, but towards the end of my 7 year run in financial sales I was no longer driven to succeed the way other coworkers seemed to be.

I loved following the markets and building relationships with clients, the most experienced and intelligent CFOs and Treasurers in the US, but I had very little passion for my day to day responsibilities. The only thing holding me to my job were my coworkers and paycheck.

A good friend and colleague once asked me “What do you want to do in life, Steph? You can go far here, but corporate derivatives isn’t YOU.” I was playing the role of a smart girl in finance without ever pouring my heart and personality into the job. And it showed.

I left finance and enrolled in Columbia University’s MBA program. Unlike other classmates who were already applying for summer internships, my first priority as an MBA candidate was to get a dog. So one morning in early November I skipped class, drove a few hours north of NYC, and came home with my new best buddy, Django.

My next priority was to get experience outside of finance. In early 2015, I began working as a part-time consultant for Managed by Q, a fast-growing startup that is reinventing how offices are managed and operated. For the first time, I saw how my skill set and penchant for numbers easily translated to a new industry and job role. I also witnessed how two young and very motivated founders were growing a meaningful business and inspiring hundreds of employees along the way. I left my role at Managed by Q with a new mindset and drive to build my own company.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One of the funnier things that I can never get over… our long-haired dachshund and social media star, Django, will sometimes get recognized when we’re out. Django and I were walking down the sidewalk in New York City’s East Village a few weeks ago when a black SUV slowly drove by then skidded to a stop 20 feet ahead of us. The front seat passenger recognized Django from Instagram and made her partner stop the car so she could say hello and take a photo. We also met a wire-haired dachshund and his owner while honeymooning in Lake Como, Italy last summer — Django was with us. When my husband told the dog dad our little guy’s name, he opened Instagram on his phone and showed us that he was already following him.

I also spotted my first DJANGO product out ‘in the wild’ last fall. I crossed the street in Philadelphia’s Old City and stalked this adorable pug for a block to confirm that the winter dog coat she was wearing was indeed by DJANGO. That was one of the most flattering, rewarding and motivating things to happen since launching the business.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Everything about DJANGO — the brand, the collection, our popular dog blog — is a reflection of my life, adventures and travels with my husband Mike and our little guy Django. There is a story behind each product. I think DJANGO fans appreciate this genuineness and consistency.

DJANGO’s Reversible Puffer Winter Dog Coat and City Slicker Rain Jacket, for instance, were inspired by our life in the Pacific Northwest. I designed each jacket from our downtown Portland apartment with Oregon’s rainy and cold winters in mind.

Our recently launched dog carry bag was inspired by life in New York City. Mike and I got Django while we were living in Brooklyn. I took Django everywhere as soon as he was fully vaccinated — on the subway, to friends’ apartments, to retail shops and outdoor cafes. I would tote him around in a huge, shapeless beach bag. It was actually pretty hideous, but I didn’t care for the existing pet carry bags available. They were either cheaply made and unstylish, or simple yet grossly overpriced. So I designed my ideal dog carry bag.

The quality and construction of DJANGO dog gear also stands out tremendously.

My husband loves to tell me that I am the worst consumer in the world — and he’s absolutely right. I am incredibly skeptical of product quality, prices and discounts, and marketing campaigns that try to lure me to buy. I won’t spend my money on something unless I know it’s made to last.

This mindset makes me perfect for product design. I am tremendously picky and refuse to launch a product that doesn’t meet my ridiculously high standards. We invest in quality materials and fabrics that will last season after season. We also partner with the most reputable manufacturers — ones that will allow us to grow without ever compromising quality.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Yes! We’re excited to be growing DJANGO’s wholesale presence in the US and Canada. We officially launched DJANGO’s Retail Partner program in Q4 2017 and have been busy growing this new sales channel ever since. It’s fun and educational to meet and partner with owners of brick-and-mortar pet stores — to learn their side of pet retail and what products perform best in an offline storefront. Wholesale is also an incredible opportunity for DJANGO to reach new customers from a completely different angle; it’s a crucial part of our near- and long-term growth strategy.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their businesses thrive?

Network and partner with businesses within and outside of your industry. Every business has its own unique audience and reach. By working together, either cross-promoting each other or co-branding a product together, you can both reach new audiences, boost brand awareness, and engage new potential customers. For DJANGO, this means pursuing partnerships with similarly sized pet-related startups, retail outlets, animal shelters, animal welfare nonprofits, and other businesses that reach passionate dog owners.

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?

I owe a lot to my husband, Mike. He’s been incredibly supportive over the past two years as I’ve stumbled, made incredible progress, and stumbled some more. He’s also very well versed in product research, paid marketing, and e-commerce strategy. Mike has been both a patient listener and thoughtful mentor since I first launched DJANGO.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

This year we started to partner with no-kill dog shelters and animal welfare nonprofits. Our next charitable event is coming up in early June — a trunk show where a significant chunk of proceeds will go directly to PupStarz Rescue, a no-kill dog rescue serving New York City and the Tri-State area. We’ve also used the influence and reach of @djangothegent for good, partnering with nonprofits to raise awareness and funds for dog rescue and adoption. We are always looking for new philanthropic partners, so please reach out if you read this!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started My Own Business” and why. (Please share a story or example for each)

  1. Pour your passion and personality into everything you do.

You’re the only person like you in the world, and no competitor or copycat can replicate your unique personality or passion.

2. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Building a business is new, scary and uncomfortable. To make progress, you absolutely need to step outside your comfort zone. Start a task that is overwhelming and complicated, and don’t procrastinate because you’re in unfamiliar territory. Remind yourself that the first step is always the most uncomfortable. You’ll reach a goal, look back, and realize the unknown wasn’t so bad at all.

3. You’re going to experience a new type of stress.

I am naturally an very easy going and relaxed person. For the first time, however, I’m experiencing a low level of stress. It’s this odd, incredibly motivating kind of stress that makes me happy to work on weekends and late into the evening.

I have this constant feeling that I’m onto something big — that I have the potential to scale DJANGO into a valuable and honest business that promotes animal welfare, reaches an incredible number of dog lovers, and gives back to the world. But I also have this fear that I can lose out or fall behind if I don’t work hard enough, or make progress more quickly.

I don’t love the saying “move fast and break things” since I’m incredibly Type A and want things to be perfect. At the same time, I absolutely realize that speed of creation and progress is key, especially if you want to leave competitors in the dust. This is the motivating stress that stays with me every day now.

4. You’re not going to be able to pay yourself for a while.

E-commerce in particular is a very cash-unfriendly business. The proceeds that come in from sales are immediately put back to work: investing in more inventory, new product development, paid marketing campaigns. Until you reach a certain level of sales — or until you are sufficiently funded — personal compensation isn’t a given.

5. If you build it, they will *not* come.

Putting a valuable and unique product out into the world no longer guarantees customers and sales. A good idea with zero promotion is worth nothing.

The online marketplace is incredibly crowded and noisy. E-commerce stores and service-oriented websites are a dime a dozen, and most get little to no traffic. Growing a business through organic search results alone is not an option in today’s day and age.

Build an audience before you launch your business, and learn about the marketing channels that will help you reach your target customer from every angle.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

“There is no passion to be found playing small — in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” — Nelson Mandela

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)

I’d love to sit down with Cynthia Williams, the General Manager and VP of Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA).

Amazon is changing the way consumers research and buy products, and FBA is changing the way retailers sell. FBA allows third-party sellers to list products on their massive search engine, find new customers and grow sales. FBA is an incredible opportunity for businesses small and large.

At the same time, FBA gives Amazon unparalleled access to e-commerce data. Amazon has the ability to identify top selling items and analyze each item’s core demographic. Amazon can then source and private label these best sellers, use its insight to optimize targeted marketing, and eventually take over these sales listings. Amazon’s private label business is a threat to third-party sellers right now and over the long-term.

Given this trend, what is going to happen to third-party sellers? Will even the most successful ones eventually be pushed out by Amazon’s own private label push? Amazon FBA is a must for almost all retailers, but we’re incredibly susceptible to and threatened by the behemoth’s market power.