How This Kansas City Underdog Business Came Out on Top Despite the Odds
People tried to steal her idea. Half of the first shipment of her product malfunctioned. She was scammed and lost products. Her warehouse flooded—twice—costing her tens of thousands of dollars.
But through all that, Katie Petty was still determined to grow her business.
You might have heard about Katie’s journey: Sixteen years ago, the seeds of her current product line took shape. The native Kansan was in 6th grade at the time and created a tubular device that cleans dogs’ paws: just insert the dirty paw into the Paw Wash, as it’s called, and move the device back and forth as it scrubs those puppy paws clean. Fast-forward to today, and the 28-year-old has taken that idea and turned it into an international product. But, as you might have guessed, the journey was rocky. As she’s rebranded her company and prepares to debut a new line of collars and leashes, she recalls the lessons she learned along the way and what got her where she is today.
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Like many entrepreneurs who make things (and have a killer idea), getting a patent is a big hurdle. Katie says the process was a long one: two and a half years of shipping a product back and forth overseas, carefully inserting clauses in the legalese to make sure, or so she thought, no one would copy her idea, even being careful to note that adding a handle or any alterations to the inside of the Paw Wash would be infringement. But even after she tried to shore up her design, copycat products still made their way onto the market.
“If your idea is good enough, people will steal it—they don’t care if you’re 12,” she says.
Aside from a pricey patent process, there’s also the legal costs linked to defending a patent. She won her case against one such copycat product, but says the company never paid her royalties—she realized it would cost more money to take them back to court just to get those royalties. So Katie took another course.
“We decided not to do that because we didn’t have the money,” she says. “So we just decided to put the money into the product. I decided I’m going to make the better product.”
Her struggles haven’t ended since those patent days. Up until a year or so ago, she says she and her father were doing everything. Her Leawood, Kansas, warehouse flooded in 2017, and she lost $90,000 worth of products that her insurance didn’t cover. It was at that point, she had to decide to quit or continue. There was a demand for the Paw Wash, but she couldn’t deliver. What could she do?
As it turns out, the ScaleUP! Kansas City program she was enrolled in would set her on a new path … a blessing in disguise.
A Clean Slate for a Transformation
For years, Katie had her Paw Wash and the Paw Wash Mitt, but the flood and her ScaleUP! KC coaches and peers convinced her to make some changes, first with the structure of her business. The Paw Wash LLC became Wild Heart LLC. Why? Aside from a name she says is more adventurous and outdoorsy, the move makes way for more products than just the Paw Wash. She says collars and leashes will be some of her newest offerings. That rebranding also meant reworking the logo and packaging.
She toned down the colors of the Paw Wash box. And, speaking of boxes, instead of offering cases of dozens of Paw Washes, she pared down a case from dozens to just six, a move, she says, makes it an easier commit for retailers. She says this also positions her to expand to the big pets stores, which usually want a line of products, not just a single offering.
And she got some of these ideas by getting out into the wild … well, her industry, anyway. She recommends browsing stores for ideas on how to tweak or expand a product or talking to retailers and customers to see what trends are in or what they like or don’t like. Attending expos, she says, is also a good way to get a feel for the pulse of the industry and potential clients.
One thing she learned by doing all that was that her product had a potentially wider applications than she thought. For example, she learned veterinarians would put a solution or epsom salt in the device and use it to clean wounded paws. (More potential clients.)
She also realized trying to do everything herself was nearly impossible and that her time was worth money. She says she spent a lot of time boxing Paw Wash products—but that was time she could’ve spent selling. She had to get over the pain point of shelling out cash for a warehouse because she says it saved her a lot of time in the end.
“Learning my duties and learning to let things go was huge for me during ScaleUP! KC—learning that my time was actually worth money,” she says.
But she was reticent about joining the program. “Am I going to fit in?” she thought. “Am I too young? How will I mesh with people who are so much more successful than I am?”
Connections That Opened Doors
Despite her initial concerns, she says she made friends and that the connections through ScaleUP! KC also broadened her view of the types of problems businesses face.
“I learned how my company could relate to a food company or how we could have some of the same problems,” she says. “I could meet with anybody, and I realized we had the same issues.”
Not only did she gel with her peers, but she also found news business partners through the program.
“The information and assistance you get is invaluable,” she says. “They go over and beyond. They want to meet with you; they want to push you.”
She says business coach Jill Hathaway, who’s also with the UMKC Small Business Technology and Development Center, was one of her favorite mentors with the program. Katie says as an entrepreneur, she could set her own goals, but having a mentor was invaluable because people like Jill could point out her blind spots.
Plus, she found new partners in the program who offered to help fund her business and right the ship after the 2017 floods.
“They helped invest a little bit, and it allowed me to bring in another shipment and expand and give it another wack,” Katie says.
Homegrown Goes International
In the early days, Katie was pounding the pavement, going from local store to store, offering samples in the hopes a retailer would carry her Paw Wash. She also says back then, the push to buy local wasn’t as strong and not a huge selling point like it is for makers today.
She says her mission to expand her product beyond U.S. borders eventually caught steam. Advice, research and traveling to trade shows and expos helped increase exposure to international sellers.
Even though she’s in over 150 stores nationally and in Japan and Canada, she says she still does local events at shelters to pair her product with a good cause and donates some of the sales.
“I saw myself getting to this point, but I thought it’d be here quicker,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d have as many struggles as I had. But it was worth it.”
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