Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I am Mike Leon, mechanical engineer, an avid bike rider, service dog trainer and inventor of the 1-Running-Dog Bike Tow LeashⓇ for safe bike, trike, scooter, and wheelchair dog-rides.
I am the owner of LEON Engineering, Inc. We design, build and sell the 1-Running-Dog Bike Tow Leash® to dog owners, walkers, trainers, military and law enforcement, search and rescue and those with special needs. Having sold less than 200 BTLs prior, My on-the-side hobby turned into a true business in 2009 with the launch of our first website. We went from shipping hundreds/year to thousands/year. Now, our business allows me to work comfortably from home, making 6 figures, while caring for my wife and enriching the lives of tens of thousands of dogs and their humans.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I am a mechanical engineer graduate from Georgia Tech. My wife Betsy, GA Tech EE graduate, and I met her first day at school. We married after graduation. We have two daughters Jessica and Sam. After GA Tech I developed airline products up until when the 9-11 terrorist attacks occurred.
After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Betsy and the girls, then 5 and 8, met Cindy at Publix getting groceries. She had a black Lab puppy in a light blue cape with her. From that encounter, my family and I volunteered raising service dog puppies for individuals with disabilities as a way of giving back to our community and country. In honor of those lost, we named our first puppy Tribute.
Raising service dog puppies is a wonderful volunteer opportunity, which ultimately provides companion animals to individuals who suffer from seizures, or who have mobility, vision or hearing impairments.
As trainers, we raise, train and socialize puppies until they are ready for graduate school. For socialization, we take the puppies, in a service cape, to work, stores, restaurants, schools, theme parks, etc.to expose them to a variety of situations. This prevents unpleasant surprises after they have been assigned to a client who is depending on them to do their job without being distracted.
At about 6 months of age our first dog Tribute, now a tall long-legged black Labrador, had more energy than I did when we went out walking or running. With all her puppy energy, we needed to make sure Tribute exercised strenuously before we went out to eat. Since bad behavior is often a result of a lack of exercise and dogs in training are supposed to lie down and sleep under the table, not stand and upset dinner I was looking for an answer.
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. As a result of Tribute's need for speed, and my more limited energy levels, I got the idea to combine the fun of biking (for me) with the fun of running (for Tribute).
Given my understanding of both physics and dog behavior, and concern for both my safety and the dog's safety, I knew better than to attempt riding Tribute with a regular leash. (Much later I did attempt riding with a regular leash, made it less than a mile, and still have the scars!)
As a product development engineer, I was accustomed to doing my homework when attempting something new. First, I checked on-line to determine whether there was a product available which made it safe to ride a bicycle with a dog.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
So when the raising organizations would not permit dog-biking with the products of the time, I compiled a list of shortcomings those current dog-biking attachments had: These included; bike tipping, pinching, poking or cutting dog or rider, running over your dog, no instant, direct or automatic communication between bike and dog. Ultimately, it had to be safe for both dog and rider.
I envisioned my initial idea with safety in mind and built a prototype in my garage. This was not my first prototype as I had been designing and building items for many years prior. Anyway the first prototype I carved up from old parts in my garage functioned safely but had much room for improvement. It was important to keep early prototypes from prying eyes so we mainly biked in the dark.
Early on it became apparent I wasn’t just making a leash for Tribute. I gave some to my sister Angie for their dogs to use with her kids, dog trainers, and neighbors. All came back with glowing reviews. I used a non-disclosure agreement for protection during this period. In the agreement, the prototype BTLs were to be returned at 6 months for a production model. I must say there was reluctance on the return part! All wound up with production units in the end.
We applied for a utility patent, for protection, then approached manufacturers to make production parts. It is important to analyze the cost of each process involved to control cost while maximizing quality. Something as simple as a 45-degree chamfer versus a radiused corner can eliminate the need for costly special tooling. We started ordering part quantities for 500 leashes. Now the typical order is for 20 times that amount to find the sweet spot between part cost and the issues large inventories bring.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We launched LEON Engineering, Inc. by going to the bank and opening a business checking account. We opened with $20K left over from my post 9-11 severance package earned from 17 years designing and marketing airline products. We finished paying off the house with those funds. Fortunately, Betsy was still working. Her income provided us some financial flexibility. We needed additional capital for business development and patents. I stumbled into product forensics from my dad’s side involvement in a few cases. He suggested that I give product forensics as an expert witness a try. I’m uniquely qualified for this type of work as a mechanical engineer with a Professional Engineer’s license, extensive product development, field failure analysis, and repair experience. As an expert witness, I investigate, solve and testify in litigation cases involving injuries or losses. This type of work pays well but is very demanding mentally and physically. Not for everybody, and are not usually solved as quickly as in 60 minute TV shows. Some are good stories though if you have time for a couple of beers I could share a few. Anyway, those earnings were from cases ranging from chairs, ladders, fire, and flooding to cranes, were not earmarked for our living expenses. Thankfully we had help from Leon Enterprises, my Dad’s Patent Agent firm to keep patent expenses to a minimum. So, forensic earnings covered our early startup costs. These included applying for patents on the Bike Tow Leash and other products, prototype parts, tooling, marketing and paying our accountant. So many months of long hours, sleepless nights and careful spending paid off. We, Betsy and I, own LEON Engineering, Inc. and all the patents out right!
Patents are expensive but necessary. You can have a great idea, concept, etc. but if someone learns of it and builds it before you patent it, you will have done it all for nothing or have a huge legal battle you likely cannot afford. There has to be enough money in a lawsuit to interest good attorneys in your case. The threshold is about $2 million of provable losses.
Here are my intellectual property tips to save you tens of thousands of dollars in start-up costs alone:
- First, do your own patent search at www.uspto.gov to quickly see if your idea is truly new.
- Try to use a patent agent who has background knowledge in the field or areas concerning your invention over a patent attorney if you can find one. This will save you the higher hourly costs and the “educational cost” of bringing a non-versed attorney up to speed in your field.
- If you determine you have a novel idea, a provisional patent is a great way to protect your patent rights for a more affordable price. I prefer this over non-disclosure agreements as there can be claims that the company you are trying to strike a deal with could claim they had already come up with your idea before you arrived. Provisional patents have a downside however, they only last a year. You have to file before it expires. You have to show your idea fast to see if it has a market but do it safely!
I continued to refine the BTL riding with my girls to school with subsequent dogs we raised. It was while being rapidly propelled down the beach after seagulls by Molly our third dog a Golden Retriever, that the name went from Bike Leash to Bike Tow Leash.
Early prototypes had more parts and assembly required. When I showed it to pet product companies, manufacturers and buyers, they felt the customers wouldn’t understand it and the manufacturing costs were too high as well.
We launched our website selling the Bike Tow Leash in 2009 with fewer parts and no customer required assembly. That is when I started paying myself instead of just the accountant and attorney. We are currently just 8 months in with our new Shopify website after having the first custom-built website for 10 years.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Attracting customers we have been fortunate in many areas. Attending trade shows provided an early benefit with complimentary ad placement in Pet Business Magazine. From that ad, our first reseller found us and started selling our Bike Tow Leash on their website. That seemed to legitimize us as there was a steady stream of reselling followers afterward.
My daughter Sam helped by setting up our Bike Tow Leash Facebook page which we try to post regularly. Facebook has turned out to provide more than half of all social media traffic to our website with Instagram a distant second. Our customer demographic appears most comfortable using Facebook. Join Facebook groups that may involve your product's use. We participate in urban mushing and won our two dog category in the Iron Paws Stage Race last year all on Facebook. Our Bike Tow Leash was a great advantage.
Amazon is absolutely necessary. Particularly for their reviews. It is where most internet buyers search first for items. Beware of having too many resellers on these sites. It will make it hard to protect your pricing. Definitely take control of your brand by selling as well. Monitor your customer ratings, comment, and reply to questions. Your product’s Amazon rating is crucial to your success. We are currently Amazon Choice 4.5 stars!
We are currently trying an ad approach on Facebook with a third party service. The jury is still out on this additional spending. Half of your marketing dollars are wasted. The key is to eliminate that half and move on. So keep track of the numbers as best you can.
Companies come out of the woodwork claiming large followings, readership, views, etc. Remember, at this point in history everyone is inundated with ads, can choose to fast forward, flip hundreds of channels, etc. So, it is actually seen is not the same as the following numbers or homes piped into.
Another option is professional and celebrity endorsements. Celebrity endorsements are usually very expensive. I’ve been approached by such and opted out of those 5 figure deals with stars like Cesar Millan. Good things happen when you least expect them sometimes.
I remember reading a pet magazine article about Brandon McMillan, his CBS Lucky Dog show and commenting to Betsy, “I need to meet Brandon”. A couple of months later after the first night of the Global Pet Expo, Betsy, Ray her service dog, and I gave up on the after-show gathering in the main lobby. There were hordes of people, surrounding too few foods and beverage tables to comfortably maneuver her wheelchair and keep Ray from being trampled. It was fate. We decided to leave but since the show floor was closed we took a different path toward the van and wound up in Brandon’s Press gathering. All of a sudden, people were waiting for us with our choice of food and drink. Then up walks Brandon. He looks down at Betsy’s chair with Ray attached with his Bike Tow Leash and says “ I’ve used one of those on my Show”! It hadn’t aired yet so I captured it on our DVR. Wow, what I was hoping to convince him to do had already happened!
We’ve had several dog behaviorists, trainers and bloggers provide reviews and videos. These are great to link in social media posts to help grow your audience through shares. More importantly, as with our happy customers, they recommend the BTL directly to others.
Customer service and satisfaction can never take a back seat in your efforts toward promoting your brand. Always participate if you can in their grand openings etc.
Videos are more important than ever and YouTube leads the way! Here is the best overall usage video on our Bike Tow Leash channel;
The best way to show off a dynamic product is with usage videos. Some people are much more willing to watch videos with compelling thumbnails than reviews. Everyone is different.
If you are selling to active lifestyle people, don’t force them into activities where they can’t multitask for instance. In our case, we are looking for customers who want to ride a bike, trike, mobility scooter or chair while walking their dog. That is two tasks at once unless they are running errands as well.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Americans are currently spending over $70 Billion/yr on their pets. This spending amount increases every year! So today we are profitable and growing. We have a new website with less purchase friction, more product offerings and information for attaching to bikes, etc. making transactions larger and quicker.
We’ve added new attaching options including our new branded collar designed to optimize dog-biking and dog-walking, Quick Mount for attaching either side and rapid height adjustment flexibility. Chain-Stay Clamp for attaching either side of newer aluminum and carbon fiber bikes additionally wheelchairs.
The annual APPA, (American Pet Products Association) pet owners survey indicates each year that the average dog owner has 1.43 dogs. So, we just added our newly patented Dog Coupler for safely attaching a second dog on a single Bike Tow Leash. So now, we can also add “No Dog Left Behind” to our promises.
We are continually tweaking the website adding more tooling fixtures etc. to gain higher efficiencies for cost control and rewarding employee innovation towards those goals. We are looking toward expanding international distribution in particular Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.
Special needs are currently a small portion of our sales but I see it as another large market. I truly love to help others enjoy their dog's company. It makes my day to hear how we have made a difference. My favorite such story always gives me goosebumps to tell; An 86 year old lady was moved to assisted living the year before and had to give up her beloved dog because she couldn’t walk her. Well, she got a Bike Tow Leash for her mobility scooter and got her dog back after a year! I wish I could have been there for that reunion. Well, no goosebumps this time, tears.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Your brain is a muscle that fatigues as you interact during the day. So make your most important decisions and do your more cranial work first thing in the morning. If that doesn’t work, late nights like mine. Learn from your mistakes. Better yet, learn from the mistakes of others.
My most costly mistake to date was agreeing to a TV commercial like “As Seen on TV”. It took up a tremendous amount of time getting the commercial shot and edited properly.
The company was to answer the phone lines while the commercial only aired 150 times. After most of almost a year, and $17,000 spent they only sold 36 BTLs. Lesson learned; our customer demographic is active enough to hit, fast forward, on their remote. That is if they sit till to watch any commercial TV at all!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We recently launched a new site using Shopify. Shopify has greatly helped us with managing and shipping all of our orders.
Since launching, our time spent on shipping products has been greatly reduced. Shopify allows us to easily compare shipping prices and create labels in just one click.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I enjoy podcasts from people in our same pet products and services area. Particularly ones covering lessons learned in advertising social media and managing today’s workforce.
I enjoyed Leslie Johnson’s book “Bike With Your Dog” How to Stay Safe and Have Fun. I particularly like our prominence in chapter 3 and having our Bike Tow Leash displayed on both the front and back covers!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Keep your overhead low as you start out to prevent outpacing your sales. I still work from home which allows me to deduct a portion of my home off my taxes and care for my ailing wife. It also saves me a lot of time commuting and money on caregivers. Having caregivers for her around 24-7 is what we are happy to avoid.
Take advantage of tax credits such as manufactured in the USA, solar power and charitable causes. It is also beneficial to show customers you care about them, our planet and their animals in our case. Donate as you can afford toward their causes. In our case to animal adoptions.
I’ve learned, for us, the power of donation is greater than expensive ads and commercials. We give Bike Tow Leashes, even some on bikes, to adoption facilities. I like marketing this way as it is a win-win for everyone involved. Especially the dogs!
We are currently shipping out donations for Get Your Licks on Route 66 adoption tour. They have helped place over 13,000 animals in the last 10 years! The Tour starts in Los Angeles and has 13 stops along the way. This is our 5th year to be a spinning wheel sponsor.
We are trying something new this year by contacting the shelters ahead to ask if they would use a donated Bike Tow Leash to walk more dogs further. In return, they send back a donation letter and agree to hand out our brochures with each adoption. The bonus we hope for is for their volunteers to demonstrate the Bike Tow Leash during the adoption events. So far, we have 4 of the 13 stops agreeing to our plan! I can’t wait to see how the tour turns out next month.
Provide exceptional personal service to ensure each customer becomes an advocate is by far the best way to grow.
There is no better marketing tool than satisfied customers. With our Bike Tow Leash attached, our customers are often asked about it. We call it instant celebrity status as people want to stop them on the street. We send 4 brochures with each order just for that purpose.
I try to ask each customer how they first learned of the Bike Tow Leash and “Googled it” is usually first, trainer, neighbor, YouTube and family member, on Lucky Dog TV Show then magazine ad in about that order. Mind you I talk to less than 1% of our customers so that may be a bit skewed toward people needing or looking for extra assistance.
Don’t commit to huge volumes of inventory early as you may need the capital elsewhere and/or need to make changes to the product. Watch inventory volumes and lead times carefully. A single part will prevent shipping products. Too many of a part can become expensive scrap.
Take help when offered.
Especially in areas outside your core capabilities like accounting and legal. Find ways to offload or delegate the tasks that keep you from working on your growth goals. Don’t offload tasks that require your core knowledge until you have that knowledge base in place. Find ways to assist your customers in their purchasing process to know they are ordering the correct item and completing the transaction with as little “purchase friction” as possible.
Believe in your product, if you don’t, no one else will.
Commit yourself to your success and it will rub off on your employees and customers. Have your “elevator speech” ready and carry a brochure or business card with you as you never know when you will find your next partner, celebrity or huge customer.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I am always looking for more help as the to-do list is longer than our days. We have a somewhat seasonal product that benefits from part-time student interns particularly in the summer. I find the students see the latest social media trends to market and operate on websites etc. without the hesitation I tend to have. The downside is continually training and looking for the next superstar; We need; Marketing, engineering, manufacturing, web design, business and finance interns, etc.. Full and part-time paid positions are available.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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