Capturing Lightning
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Eric Shannon

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“The biggest issue is the feeling of uncertainty.”

Eric Shannon, founder and owner of Big Barker

Eric Shannon is the founder and owner of Big Barker, a company that makes high-quality, therapeutic dog beds for big breeds. Here, he discusses his childhood fear of dogs, and how he came to love them through starting his pet business while raising a pup of his own.

What was your initial vision for Big Barker?
The initial vision was a lot smaller than it has become. Before Big Barker, I had another business that was an online retail business. We didn’t manufacture the products but would go to pet shows around the country, find cool stuff you couldn’t find at local pet stores and then sell it online. We ended up selling a lot of high-end dog beds from a lot of high-end retailers, and one thing I noticed was that in looking through repeat customer history, people were buying $200+ dog beds every year. I thought that was interesting — why would somebody buy a new dog bed every year? I called a few on the phone and they’d tell me that their last one fell apart, flattened out, or had a big crater in the middle. I’ve noticed that with my own dog, too, and I realized that big dogs aren’t really being served by normal beds in stores. After some investigating, I found out the reason why is most dog beds are usually made of cheap materials and often come from China. They’re just not meant to hold a 90-pound Labrador or 200-pound Great Dane. So, my initial vision was to make high-quality dog beds using American-made foam, and materials meant for human furniture.

What I didn’t realize at the time was how prevalent joint disease was for dogs — if you look at the stats, almost 80 percent of dogs get arthritis by the time they’re adults. My original idea went from solving the practical problem of supporting big dog into something bigger, and that’s substantially improving the lives of dogs as they get older.

Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur?
Not with Big Barker, but with my first business I did. By the time I had to actually quit my day job — I was an e-commerce director for a catalogue company — and I’d just met my partner and started this dog business on the side. Within a year, we did so well on search engines and were ranking high, then we realized, oh wow, we’re now making more money at this than we are at our jobs. After a year working on the website, I quit my job. And right before my last day, sales on the website dropped to 20 percent of what they used to be. I thought, I’m not going to be able to pay my rent if this doesn’t pick back up. So, I took a consulting gig in the meantime, and everything with the website popped back into place and we were fine.

Have you always been a dog lover?
I was scared to death of dogs growing up. If I saw one coming I would cross the street, or if I went to a friend’s house their mom would have to quarantine the family dog. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I got over that. In 2004, I got Hank, who was a pretty fearsome, big Brindle — he even had a leather collar with studs. Ever since, I guess you could call me a dog person.

What has been your biggest sacrifice?
Definitely free time, but I never saw that as a sacrifice. As an entrepreneur, you’re solving problems, and that really keeps my brain engaged. I was approaching thirty when I quit my day job initially. I’d always had more fun staying in and hacking HTML than going out at night. I find it more enjoyable. The biggest issue is the feeling of uncertainty. Down times can be pretty stressful. And it can be taxing on the people around you, too. It is different than a regular job; sometimes collapse feels like it’s imminent and you obsess over it.

What has been your biggest failure?
I’ve made so many mistakes. With my first business, my mistake was putting too many eggs in the Google basket. We were very good at SEO, and that’s where most of our sales came from. In 2012, Google started changing things. In about 2 years, our results dropped by 75 percent. That was our biggest mistake with the first business.

Other than that, I usually operate on verbal or handshake agreements. As a result, I got into a recent situation where because of that type of agreement, we could have gone belly up.

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There’s really no dog bed with brand recognition. I want to be that brand name, and feel like we’re actually doing something good for dogs.”

Eric Shannon, founder and owner of Big Barker

Did anyone in your life try to dissuade you from becoming an entrepreneur?
My mom was the most nervous in the beginning. She’d worked for Merck, and my Dad was the CEO of a hospital. So, the idea of being an entrepreneur was risky to them.

Did you ever come close to giving up?
No — that would be my biggest fear. I was never good at having a job. I was a Finance major at Temple University. My first real job out of college, not that long after 9/11 was tough — I got job at Bank of America. It didn’t work out because I had no interest. Then, in 2004, I got into the internet stuff and stumbled into Google AdWords. I would just start buying traffic on AdWords, and I fell in love with it; it’s really like a game almost. I liked the e-commerce job, but I still can’t imagine going back. That would be my biggest failure if that had to happen. It’s been eleven years of being an entrepreneur and it’s been going well so far.

Tell me about your work/life balance.
I’m always “on.” Valerie, my girlfriend, and I live together, and she’ll just see me staring off into space and ask me: Are you in dog bed land? It is what I think about most of the day. I’m not in front of my computer all day and night. Some days it’s ten hours, some days only two. I try to make it a habit to do things on weekdays that aren’t related to the business. For example, every Friday, my old dog Hank and I would do a “wilderness day” and hike a trail around Philly.

What would make you feel as though you accomplished what you set out to do with Big Barker? Does such a moment or goal exist for you?
I don’t know. In the beginning, I would have said if we got to one million in sales. And we hit that in the second full year, which was cool, but it wasn’t the be all, end all.

What makes me feel like we did our job is if people with dogs — of any size or breed — knew that a dog needs a real bed. Many people pay $100 for a dog bed and think it’s good quality. I want to make it a widely known thing that dogs need a real bed that will support them. The second thing is, there’s really no dog bed with brand recognition. I want to be that brand name, and feel like we’re actually doing something good for dogs.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
On a more global level, to have faith that things will work out — if I didn’t have that faith, I wouldn’t have quit my job in first place. On a tactical level, I think it’s always important to invest in your brand.

What advice to you have to others embarking on their own entrepreneurial journeys?
I know I just said have faith that “all will work out,” but the advice I would give is, put yourself in a position where if it doesn’t work out, you’re not toast. Have some savings. If it’s the kind of business you can work on before you quit your day job, do it. Make sure you have some signals of potential success. Nowadays you can start most businesses without a lot of money upfront. Even with Big Barker, I started with less than $10,000, and in my case, didn’t have to buy a warehouse or office space. The original money went towards inventory, a photographer, and a little for ads to get off the ground. We did $5.5 million in revenue last year, after starting with less than $10,000.

This interview has been lightly edited from an in-person conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.