Startup Fever: Student Entrepreneurs Go to the Dogs

Last Updated Aug 17, 2010 8:35 PM EDT

As seniors at University of California Santa Barbara, Raad Mobrem , Chase McElroy, and Jonathan Luna Rivera had every intention of getting "real" jobs after graduating last May. Then the economy went to the dogs and so did they, in a manner of speaking. They turned Durable Ideas, a "side gig" dog toy company that they had developed in an entrepreneurship class, into a viable and growing concern. How did they do it?

Look for the pain. "We went to a bunch of pet stores," says Mobrem, "and we asked the owners 'what's the biggest problem with pet toys in general?'" Hands down, the answer was "durability." Most tough, plastic dog toys had rough edges that could harm pets, and soft toys were chewed up and de-stuffed within a matter of days. Their solution: a Frisbee-like fetch toy made from soft rubber with nylon mesh in the center.
Find a point of differentiation. The co-founders knew that their toy needed to be different from other products in the market. Mobrem had read that the original idea for the Frisbee was born when friends began tossing around a baking pan. And at his part-time job as a waiter, he saw dog owners frequently ask for water bowls for their pups. It was an "aha" moment. If the toy was shaped like a shallow bowl, it would have a dual purpose and a key differentiating factor in the marketplace. Mobrem, an engineering major, designed it and the team sent the specs to a friend's factory in China to have samples made. Then they kept their fingers crossed that their invention, called the Dura Doggie Disc, would actually fly.

Get early feedback. "It flew and it was awesome," recalls Mobrem. So the partners took their samples back to the pet stores where they had done market research. "We showed them the product and then we did an interview at the end, and said 'if we started a company, would you be interested in buying this?'" The response was overwhelmingly positive, so the three friends incorporated Durable Ideas in the beginning of 2009. Their professor and classmates were equally impressed when, at the last class of the semester, the partners surprised everyone by tossing out dog toys after their final presentation. "Our professor told us we had to start a company," recalls Mobrem.

Adopt a bootstrapping mentality. The partners, who were joined by Mobrem's friend Frank Jones in the summer of 2009, tapped the talents of everyone in the group to keep costs down. Mobrem tackled design, engineering, and sales; Luna Rivera took on the legal issues and some of the accounting; McElroy handled finance and taxes, and Jones played the role of technical wizard and web designer. "It's an unbelievably diverse team," says Mobrem. "We saved hundreds of thousands of dollars because we had four guys who knew how to do things." They also used the tough economy to their advantage when negotiating with suppliers. "We asked for discounts on everything, from the display materials we used at our first trade show to clothing with logos, and printed material. We negotiated with everyone."
Keep talking to customers. At a pet industry trade show in Las Vegas in Sept. of 2009, the Dura Doggie disc was such a hit that the company landed orders from 100 independent pet stores. Their first deal with a chain, Pet Supplies Plus, followed shortly thereafter. But the partners know that relationships with retailers can be fragile, so they keep in close contact with the stores. It's paid off. "We found out from stores that our packaging was falling apart because it was too heavy and bulky," says Mobrem. A quick redesign of the packaging solved the problem and probably salvaged some relationships as well.

Mobrem is anticipating sales of approximately $450,000 this year, and says the company will introduce a "new totally different and cool" dog toy this September. In the meantime, isn't he afraid of copycats? "Who cares," he says, "We'll just come up with more products. We're young and we have a lot of creativity."

How about you? What new and totally cool recession-inspired product or service have you come up with? Tell us about your startup!

Image courtesy of Durable Ideas