Huffington Post: Women in Business Q & A
Joanna Rein is the President, Founder and “Top Dog” of Soggy Doggy Productions, LLC.Like many entrepreneurs, Rein was initially inspired by a simple problem: how to prevent the wet family dog from tracking mud and water into the house. When she couldn’t find a solution for the mucky paw mess, she set out to make her own. Countless trials, fabrics and prototypes later, the Soggy Doggy Doormat launched in 2010. With the large success of Rein’s first product, the Soggy Doggy Doormat, she was able to expand her product line and now offers distinctive Soggy Doggy solutions in a variety of different sizes and colors including the Soggy Doggy Super Shammy, the Soggy Doggy Super Snoozer, the Soggy Doggy Slopmat, Soggy Doggy Slobber Swabber and the Soggy Doggy Crate Mate. Rein has influenced the pet industry today through creating an entirely new category of pet products with her original soggy doggy solutions. And, like many female entrepreneurs, Rein is a mother (of four) and wife, constantly balancing work and home and life, and proving that it can be done successfully.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I’m a former division 1 college basketball player and now the mother of 4 kids. I was admitted to Princeton as a basketball recruit and went quaking in my boots that I wasn’t academic enough to handle the work load. Even in 1990, the time commitment for college athletics was huge. And one thing I learned then, and have found to be even more true today as I try to run my business and my household of 6, is that work expands to fill time. My experience managing multiple serious commitments simultaneously has made me a decisive and efficient manager of my business. The self-motivation and discipline I acquired as a college athlete has also served me well.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Soggy Doggy?
Out of college I worked in public relations at the National Football League. I managed the community relations work. Our mission was to present the “softer,” “human side” of the players to the public. After attending business school, I went to work as a brand manager, working in packaged goods marketing for Clairol, Revlon and Helen of Troy. We sold shampoo, hair color, body wash and other personal care items, but really we were selling an image and a “feeling” to women. The sports and beauty care industries may seem wildly different, but I learned from both how to understand what the consumer wants and how to present a product to the consumer (and really to women, who make the vast majority of purchasing decisions) in a way that is appealing and motivating. I’m embarrassed to say that I never did write a formal business or marketing plan when I started Soggy Doggy Productions. My old bosses would be horrified. But I was lucky to have enough background in selling consumer products to know the basics of how to develop, position, package, price and promote a brand both to consumers and retailers. And truly, what I’ve found in running a small business is that you can have all the plans in the world – but things often go left just when you expect them to go right, and it’s your ability to adjust that makes all the difference. I’ve also found that the operational hiccups – the “making it happen” challenges or failures can squash the best laid out plans and destroy a business. I’ve learned more about production lead time, UPC codes, order fulfillment and shipping, cloud computing, bookkeeping and software integrations than I EVER wanted to….but these are the things that have to get done well and efficiently, otherwise marketing plans are useless.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Soggy Doggy?
I will never forget the day in November 2010, 2 days after my very first shipment of doormats was delivered to my basement “warehouse”, that I had my first sales coup. I sold 4 doormats to a pet store in Rye, NY. It was pouring rain and by the time I got home, the store owner called to say they were already sold out and could I please come back with a full case of 12 doormats. That was the day when I first thought – wow – maybe I’m really on to something. Maybe I can really make a go of this crazy business idea. More recently, the triumphs have been on a different scale. After 4 ½ years of slowly, steadily building a retail client base, the Soggy Doggy line was finally picked up by the largest pet product distributor in the country in October 2015. This broad distribution has allowed the Soggy Doggy brand to become the household name and perceived leader in the dog-doormat category. It has been a whirlwind and adjustment to be working with the “big boys”, but it does feel like the next step in the evolution of the business. The greatest challenge in running the Soggy Doggy business has been the constant and relentless threat of knock-offs. There are no barriers to entry with such a simple product idea, so branding, product quality and customer service are the greatest differentiators. I had only been in business for 6 months when I got a call from the owner of a large dog product company based in a neighboring town. We agreed to meet. He offered me a (lousy) licensing deal and threated that if I didn’t take it he would knock me off and put me out of business. I was devastated. I never considered taking the deal, but I did consider shutting down the business. I was working so hard at both my jobs – mom & entrepreneur - and felt it was hopeless for me, working from home with 4 young kids to care for, to compete with a “real” organization. During this difficult time, my dad gave me the kick to keep going. He listened to my story and his only response was, “It’s a big country. Just get out there and sell.” In hindsight, the knock-off brand has forced me to innovate, come up with new products, and be very focused about what I do. Soggy Doggy delivers simple solutions for dog mess. By sticking to this mission and slowly, carefully growing the line I’ve managed to maintain a profitable business and a good reputation in the industry and the business continues to thrive.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
I’ve worked in the pet industry for six years now, and I’ve found that it is a great industry for women. Most of those who work in the industry are “dog people” and I’ve found that anyone who can love and care for an animal is generally unique and honest. In addition, so many of the retail store owners and buyers are women and they are very supportive of other women business owners. It’s a very welcoming industry to women. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date? From watching other small businesses flounder I’ve learned that honesty and reliability are key: do what you say you will do and only say what you know you can do. This is the motto by which Soggy Doggy is run. So many in business bluster – they over-promise and under deliver and eventually just disappoint their customers and their partners. We strive daily to do the opposite- and this honesty has earned us a good reputation in the industry and strong relationships with our customers and suppliers.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
The best part of running your own business is that you are in charge and can set your own hours. The worst part of running your own business is that you are always in charge and there is no one else to do your job. When I’m not on the road, I work from home. This enables me to be around for my children before and after school, but I will fully admit that learning to “turn off” is more challenging when your office is always with you. I will be curious to hear what my children have to say about these years and my presence (or lack of presence) when they are launched into the world and working with families of their own.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think one of the biggest issues for women in the workplace remains “the second shift.” No matter how enlightened the men in our lives are, the responsibility for home and children still rests predominantly on women. And by responsibility I do not mean just the physical “doing” of everything that needs to get done but the thinking and planning and organizing that goes into running a household with children. I have a very helpful and supportive husband who has done all he can to enable the growth and success of my business, but I can tell you that organizing the logistics, general care and feeding of 4 busy children is a part-time job that is generally mine from start to finish, and I see this happening with all of the women I know who work outside the home.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life? I have been so lucky to find valuable mentors along the way in my life –and they have not always been women. Although I went to business school, I learned the most about running a business from my very first boss at Clairol. He was tenaciously analytical and insisted on looking at and considering every angle of a situation before setting a strategy and making any business decisions (and I was generally the monkey who did all the analysis). But this discipline and thoroughness was such an important skill for me to learn and has served me so well as I’ve embarked on my own business. This boss championed me through the organization and as a result, I earned opportunities that were beyond my years of service and experience. Working in the pet industry, I’ve been very lucky to find a mentor in one of the buyers from a large retail chain. This woman has a tremendous amount of industry experience and has always been willing to share insights and information with me. She has supported my business despite the constant onslaught of knock-off brands, but also offered me opinions and industry intelligence about people I’ve been looking to hire or do business with. When working as a small business owner it is invaluable to have this mentorship. I always try to “pay-it-forward” and make time for anyone starting a new business who wants to pick my brain or seek my advice.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
In this strange year in which it seemed that a woman would finally break through the ultimate glass ceiling…and then didn’t, I think it’s important to acknowledge the legions of women who’ve found a second path - another way to achieve career satisfaction when the initial door closed. I know so many women who are now in their second act – they may have set out on one course out of college or graduate school, but they hit a wall or a ceiling and instead of giving up, they found a way around. They figured out a way to combine meaningful professional work with the demands of raising a family (and often caring for elderly parents), and they’ve done it differently than they ever planned, and differently than the generation ahead of us. But they’re doing it. And they’re happy. And it is all of these women that have found a second path and made the adjustment that I admire.
What do you want Soggy Doggy to accomplish in the next year?
I would like to see substantial growth for Soggy Doggy in 2017. We’re off to a very strong and early sales start to the year with demand from new and existing customers on the rise. We’re also exploring new problem-solving products, targeted at our core female market and hope to bring them to market later this year.