It’s Paws-ible: How a UMKC Student Is Building a Pet Tech Startup from Scratch in KCDavid Cawthon
Inspiration can strike at any time. Just ask Jonaie Johnson.
In elementary school, she made handmade bracelets for family and friends. Then in middle school, she noticed that many of her classmates were hungry between classes. So she started a lucrative fruit snack business. And in high school, Jonaie noticed that her aunt often left family gatherings before anyone else.
“She was always leaving early to go home and care for her dog,” Jonaie says. “And I thought, ‘What if she could do that with her phone?’”
What could have been a passing thought stuck with Jonaie. And it became the basis of Interplay, her KC-based startup. The business centers around a crate attachment designed to allow dog owners to feed, water and engage with their pets from anywhere.
Making the most of educational opportunities
Jonaie didn’t grow up with a dog. And she didn’t set out to found a canine-centric startup. But she did know from an early age that she wanted to be an entrepreneur.
“People always said they wanted to be a doctor or a police officer, but I said I wanted to own my own business,” she says. “That was my path.”
Her mom has been a powerful influence. As a child, Jonaie saw her mother’s success within Mary Kay. The pink Cadillac her mom earned set an example that hard work pays off.
So when Jonaie had the idea for an interactive dog crate, she was already wired for entrepreneurship. And she happened to be taking college business classes during her senior year of high school in Chicago. She used her idea as the basis for class projects, creating a business plan and fine-tuning her idea.
“I wanted it to be something innovative and creative,” Jonaie says. “I wanted the latest, greatest, best product to build a business around.”
Jonaie also happened to be a basketball star. She was recruited by several schools, including the University of Missouri – Kansas City.
“When I first heard of UMKC, I thought, ‘I’m not so sure about Kansas. Is Dorothy there?’” Jonaie laughs. “But when I got here, I found out it was a city with things to do and not the average college campus. And then I found out I could major in entrepreneurship and there was a program targeted to startups. I was sold.”
Jonaie received a full-ride scholarship to play basketball for the Roos. And at UMKC, she continued to work on her crate concept. She became a UMKC E-Scholar and participated in the program twice, taking her concept to the next level and ensuring it was feasible and scalable. She also scaled her education, graduating in three years instead of four. And Jonaie was recognized as the Bloch Student Entrepreneur of the Year.
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Working full time and working on a startup
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 2021, Jonaie began work on her MBA. She also took on a full-time job as a program manager at LaunchCode, a nonprofit that offers free tech education and job placement to bring people from all backgrounds into the tech field. The organization’s tech focus and supportive environment were big selling points.
“The reason why I wanted to accept this job is the flexibility within the role,” she says. “If I need to do something, I can adjust my schedule. They are aware of my entrepreneurial endeavors and they’re supportive. In Slack, they’re always celebrating my achievements. When I was on a reality TV show, they hosted a watch party.”
Reality TV? Yes.
Hold on to your hats. In the last few years, Jonaie:
- Was the only Kansas City entrepreneur selected for The Blox, a reality show that was part accelerator, part live-in pitch competition.
- Made her first official pitch at the Regnier Venture Creation Challenge at UMKC. At a later pitch, she placed second.
- Placed second in the UMKC E-Scholars Pitch Program.
- Pitched and placed first at both the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization (CEO) and AfroTech Young Founder Pitch Competition.
- Participated in the six-month startup program at the Center for Black Innovation.
- Took advantage of programs within Kansas City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, including InnovateHER KC, Black Excellence KC (BXKC), Opportunity Hub (OHUB) and KC Collective.
- Pitched Digital Sandbox KC and received funding.
- Started Pipeline Pathfinder, which supports founders who aren’t yet full-time entrepreneurs.
Needless to say, Jonaie has been busy. And dedicated. But not all has gone according to plan.
Pivoting her entrepreneurial direction
Interplay started out as a response to a problem.
“It started out as me solving a problem. That’s what entrepreneurs do in my eyes,” Jonaie says. “We see problems and set out to fix them.”
Jonaie had envisioned an interactive dog crate. But classes, input from mentors and analyzing the numbers have led to a shift in direction.
“We started out with a unique crate design, but after going through the process and looking at manufacturing estimates, it’s too expensive for what we want to do,” Jonaie says. “So in December 2021, we pivoted to a crate attachment.”
Jonaie’s team is wrapping up product development, and the funding from Digital Sandbox KC is paying for app development. She hopes to finish beta testing in April. And once the supply chain is established, a Kickstarter presale campaign will begin.
“This journey has been full of surprises. You don’t know what you don’t know,” Jonaie says. “Thankfully, I have a very patient and hardworking board of advisers and mentors who’ve worked with me and guided me.
“One major challenge was being a nontech founder working on a tech product. I’ve had to overcome that skill gap. Thankfully, the dev teams I’ve worked with have taken me under their wings, explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing and walking me through, behind the scenes.”
This kind of support has come from all directions in the KC ecosystem.
“I’m so thankful to have started my business in Kansas City because I can’t think of a better city to get your start,” Jonaie says. “Decision makers are readily available and point you in the right direction. If they can’t help you, they point you to people who can. I’m loving it every bit of the way.”
Jonaie is currently acting as a mentor for the Henry W. Bloch Scholars Program at UMKC. She’s not sure what her future involvement in the KC ecosystem will look like, but Jonaie often thinks about paying her entrepreneurial knowledge forward.
Advice for young entrepreneurs
There’s so much information out there and many great resources. But Jonaie has some specific words of wisdom for young entrepreneurs.
“As a young founder, my advice would be to start now and don’t be afraid to fail fast,” she says. “There are going to be times you learn – there’s definitely a learning curve. But don’t be afraid to fail and take advantage of being young. Learn all you can.”
She also points out that young founders are the future.
“Don’t be afraid to solve problems and be the face of the change you want to see,” Jonaie says.
Resources for founders of all ages
Whether you’re a young founder or a second-stage entrepreneur, there are people and programs that can help you meet your business goals.
KCSourceLink’s Resource Navigator lists the KC-area programs that can give you the knowledge and know-how to launch and grow your business. And our calendar of Classes & Events will keep you up-to-date on the entrepreneurial happenings around the metro and online.
Need a little extra guidance? Get a free Personal Action Plan. Answer a few questions and our Network Navigators will create a personalized to-do list to help your business move forward. And did we mention it’s free?