This article is first in a series of interviews with some of the pet industry’s most powerful and influential women.  Today I am very excited to present my recent interview with Stephanie Volo, co-founder and CEO of Planet Dog.

Stephanie is the Top Dog and co-owner of Planet Dog, the socially responsible and award-winning dog products company.  As their fearless leader and company ambassador, Stephanie oversees Planet Dog Wholesale and the Planet Dog Company Store and leads her team through strategic planning, budgeting, daily operations and management, marketing and sales, product design and development, and overall team evolution.  In addition, she is responsible for establishing and growing Planet Dog’s Premium partnerships.

Under her leadership, Stephanie has grown the company from three pack members and five canine product testers to 34 pack members and almost 40 product testers.  In 1999, Planet Dog offered 76 product varieties that were sold in 82 stores and to 244 retail customers nationally. Today, they offer 350+ products in over 8,000 stores worldwide and have more than 30,000 retail customers. She has led her team to such high honors as the Maine Governor’s Award for Business Excellence, Outside Magazine’s Best Places to Work Award, and countless product design and innovation awards throughout the pet industry.

She currently lives in Kennebunk, Maine with her husband Jeff, her son
Wade, her 14 year old chocolate lab, Chauncy and the 2 ½ year old Great Pyrenees, Maximo they rescued in November, 2010.

1.     When, why, and how did you join Planet Dog?

In 1997 I got a call from a former colleague, Alex Fisher, asking me to help him develop a multi-channel, socially responsible, innovative company for dog products.  He said there were already great companies like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s doing it for people, but there wasn’t anyone doing it for dogs.  Our plan was to be mission and value driven, and I am proud to say that we have stayed the course throughout these 15 years.

Since Day One, we have been giving back to areas that inspire us through our Planet Dog Foundation. Originally, our spectrum of grantees was too broad, so in 2006 we honed our mission to focus on working-dog organizations.  We fund exemplary non-profits that train and support working dogs (i.e. search and rescue dogs, police dogs,  guide dogs and therapy dogs). Dogs are amazing!  They are so intuitive, and offer so much to people who truly need them.

100% of the sales of our Glow-For-Good ball go to PDF and 2% of every other sale goes to PDF.  Since 2006 we have contributed nearly $800,000 to working dog organizations throughout the country.

2.     How do you differentiate your product from your competition?

 This has definitely evolved over the years.  We introduced Planet Dog to the pet industry at Backer in 1999.  I think we were a little ahead of our time.  The whole “eco-friendly” thing hadn’t really caught on yet,so it was more difficult then we anticipated.  But “being green” has now become all the rage, which makes me happy.

Our main differentiator is our philanthropic mission; we are very community oriented. Planet Dog Foundation is our heart and soul and why we joyfully come to work every day.  Also, we are highly innovative – we don’t launch products just for the sake of having a new product.  We have a product development architecture and R&D plan which is a good two-year time frame.  In addition, we manufacture about 75% of our products in the U.S.  Our best selling products are made here.

We ask ourselves“Will this product enhance the lifestyle that people share with their dogs?”  We have a long list of criteria – it must be durable, it must be eco-friendly, it must be top quality.  Can it be functional?  Can it be beautiful?  If the product isn’t successful, then the Foundation cannot be successful.  In other words, we create bandwagons, we don’t jump on them.

We haven’t swayed from our mission one bit since we started.

Our sales channel is also unique.  We have a dedicated inside sales team.  We don’t use distributors in the U.S.  We don’t use outside sales reps.   Our sales team will go to your store and train you and your employees on how to sell Planet Dog products at no charge.  We are committed to educating the retailers that are dedicated to carrying our products.  We provide free signage and POP displays that convey the fact that Planet Dog represents a brand and a lifestyle.

3.     What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned while leading your business?

 That you can’t demand respect.   I thought my team would automatically respect me and read my mind…but that didn’t happen.

I thought I was managing people differently then I actually was.  I believed I was empowering them and being a team player and offering support when in fact I wasn’t communicating well at all.  I was micro managing and people lost respect for me.  When you are a small company, it happens really quickly and drastically.  People were afraid to tell me!  I finally learned that we are only as good as the people around us– trust them, listen to them, be clear about their expectations.  Walk the walk and talk the talk.  Things have now totally turned around.

Also, be sure to listen to your instinct.  It’s a good, good thing.  In the past I have often not listened to my instinct and it ended up hurting us.  I have since learned to trust my instincts.

4.     What advice would you give a new entrepreneur in the pet industry?

I firmly believe there is room for everybody, especially in the pet industry.   I really feel that way.  You have to be innovative!  Don’t just do what everyone else is doing.  Thing about your thoughts and ideas; gather focus group of friends to help evaluate and validate your ideas.

5.     Do you think that being a woman has made a difference – either positive or negative – in the growth/operation of your company? 

 I do.  I have to say there have been times I have thought it wasn’t good for Planet Dog that I was a woman.  At one point I had 3 (male) partners and I was the only woman.  It was hard.  But it made me the woman I am today.  Now I love the female energy of the company – about 80% of our employees are women.  Women feel more than men.  That’s what has been so great as we have been marketing and selling our brand; we feel and speak the brand so much.  Brands are an emotional appeal, and women are more emotional than men.  Alex and I have always said that if Planet Dog was a gender, it would be a woman!

6.     What’s next for Planet Dog?

One of our biggest goals has been to create Planet Dog campus, which I’m happy to say we have just completed.  Everyone is now under one big roof.  It’s much more efficient!

Our focus this year and into 2013 is to continue to spread the word to consumers about our brand.  We are creating some major marketing and brand awareness programs to reach them so they will go into stores and ask for Planet Dog.  We are taking advantage of our multiple sales channels to spread the word about Planet Dog.  We grew in 2011 and are planning to grow about 10% in 2012…that way we can give more back to the Foundation.

7.     Congratulations on being named Small Business of the Year in Portland, Maine.  That is such an honor!  What are some of your accomplishments, philosophies and business practices that led you to receive this honor? 

 I have this amazing team of people that are passionate about what we do.  To us, it’s all about the foundation.  PDF is what is inspiring us to continue to grow.   But we want to grow in a controlled way.  We don’t plan to become a $100 million company overnight, but we’d like to get there eventually.  We have very strict policies about Suggested Retail Price.  For example, I had to give up a $100,000/year customer because they refused to sell the product at SRP.  At the end of the day, it’s all about integrity, authenticity, and giving back.

We have been deeply engaged in our community since the beginning, collaborating on a number of vital projects. We were active members of a task-force that fought to bring an animal welfare license plate to Maine, we were major donors and planners for the Bayside Trail project which reclaimed an industrial waste site and converted it to a recreational multi-use trail, and we have been generous supporters of numerous additional local causes. Our team engages in an Earth Day clean-up every year, as well as a volunteer day with Habitat for Humanity. And, of course, we are an employer of choice here in Maine that contributes to the State’s economic success and our national reputation. I guess all of this together – our local philanthropic efforts, coupled with the work of our Foundation, our employees and the educational efforts of our Company Store must have impressed the Portland Development Council. We are deeply honored to have received the award and hope to continue to make Portland proud of being the home of Planet Dog!

APPA Professional Women’s Network

February, 2012