Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Yuri Sinitsa and I’m the founder and CEO of COLLAR LLC - the pet products manufacturer. The main mission of the company is making pets and people happy. Our customers are pet parents all over the world who are fond of innovative solutions for their four-legged loved ones.
Among the best sellers of the COLLAR company, there are AiryVest - the lightest reversible dog vest in the world that was awarded by Pet Business magazine as the best product in the USA in 2016, PULLER, the dog fitness tool that created a world sport and many many others.
For now, COLLAR LLC is a constant member of APPA and a constant visitor of GPE. Its presence in the USA is constantly growing, now there are 77 companies that are good and faithful partners of COLLAR, 5 of them are wholesale retailers.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
When I was a teenager, I adopted my first puppy. But in 1995 in my native city, there were no pet accessories manufacturers. My father and I, had to make the collar from a uniform belt by myself. Later, when I walked my dog, my friends came to ask where I got such a collar and ordered some similar for their pets. That’s how the story of COLLAR company started.
With the development of the company I understood that looking at the foreign ideas may work great for the Ukrainian market, but to conquer the international one I had to make something entirely new. Then the motto of the company - “Innovation only” - was born. Now every idea that is proposed in COLLAR company shall pass the simple test: is it really innovative? Is it better than anything that already exists in the market? Does it fill the still empty niche? If the answer is “yes” the idea turns into a project and then into a product.
Now COLLAR company has grown from a small flat in Chernihiv to an international manufacturer with more than 500 employees and offices all over the globe. The products we invent and produce are well-known in European, Asian and American pet stores, but we still do our best to fascinate the customers even more with new innovations.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
My first product was really simple - a leather collar made from a soldier’s uniform belt. There was no market analysis (because there was no pet products market in my city in 1995). But I was eager to make a durable and high-quality product from the best materials available. The uniform belt provided the leather and hardware reliable enough for my goal and also saved me lots of time because the leather was already cut and perforated and the buckle was installed.
I didn’t plan to advertise, but when I came out with my dog wearing a collar and people started asking where to buy the same one, I understood that there is a great demand. On the one hand, it was pure luck, but on the other - that people had dogs too and they were suffering from the same problem. I just happened to be the first to offer the solution.
Plan your time. Precisely. Eliminate your time killers. Look for the idle time in your schedule and squeeze something useful (rest and mindfulness are also useful!) in it.
Describe the process of launching the business.
At first, we were just me and my father making leather collars. When all the neighbors got theirs, I opened a small outlet in the city market. I started to buy pet vitamins and other pet stuff to sell with collars. In the same year I started, 1995, I decided to try myself in the capital.
When I came to Kyiv with the samples of collars, it was a huge disappointment. Unlike Chernihiv, Kyiv had a developed pet products market and there was seemingly no place for my goods. But what I saw in Kyiv pet stores also gave me an idea. All the Ukrainian pet accessories of that time were rather dull, while foreign ones had logos, tags, catalogs and looked more attractive. I returned home, drew a logo for my collars, assigned product codes to collar models and created a catalog as European companies did. It worked! My products were accepted in Kyiv, and my business started growing rapidly.
The company completely financed itself almost from the very start. For me it was one of the biggest markers of success on the market - the demand was high, the timing was right and our roadmap to success worked well.
I think that the biggest lesson I learned from it is: never take your loss as the loss only. There is a reason for it. Something that stands between you and victory. Your task is to figure out what is it and eliminate this obstacle. Never be afraid to make a bold move, never be afraid to shake the market with an unexpected decision. Be ready that you will not be welcomed at the very beginning and be ready to pave your own way.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
There were lots of steps that worked, but almost all of them followed the single paradigm: do something that no one didn’t do before. The first success was just pointing out a problem (the lack of collars in Chernihiv) and solving it instead of waiting for someone to do it.
The next step I remember was opening my first pet store in Chernihiv. The pet store isn’t a very popular place to walk in, but a pet store with a mini zoo is! Exotic animals - turtles, crocodiles and snakes - attracted visitors, they came to have a look, then returned with friends and kids and lots of them bought something.
A tough case was when we launched the new product in 2003 - SuperCat, the first wooden cat litter in Ukraine. To persuade the people to try the unknown product I decided to give a free sample of SuperCat to anyone who bought the more familiar mineral cat litter. This strategy worked and even now, after more than 20 years, SuperCat is considered as one of the most popular wooden cat litter on the Ukrainian market.
What I consider the ultimate victory is PULLER and Dog Puller sport. Created as a set of exercises with dog fitness tool PULLER, Dog Puller (thanks to the successful marketing strategy and constant work with local dog training groups) grew into a world sport. In 2019 the Second World Dog Puller Championship was held in Sopron, Hungary and teams from 11 countries participated in it.
The Dog Puller - a sport where every dog and every pet parents, disregarding of their age and physical shape, can become a world star - gave people a purpose to buy PULLER, to train with it and to share their experiences, creating self-supporting communities for example in the US, Canada and everywhere in the world.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Now COLLAR company has more than 500 employees and produces hundreds of different products for pets and their parents. It has offices in Ukraine, USA, Spain, Poland, China, and Russia. The COLLAR team attends exhibitions all over the world. Of course, the sky is not the limit and we are planning to expand and open offices in other countries. We are always open to cooperation and collaboration. For example, recently, the COLLAR company became the first company in the world that makes genuine leather products with designs approved by NASA.
Every year COLLAR LLC takes part in the Global Pet Expo, one of the world's biggest pet industry exhibitions in Orlando, Florida. More than 1000 of the manufacturers and 6000 visitors participated in it. So hundreds of clients visited and were inspired by products COLLAR company.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The first thing I learned, was, as I said before, the ability to make conclusions after my fails. I dreamed about conquering the capital, but realized that the market was already full. If I simply accepted my loss, I would have stayed in own city instead of building an international company.
I had to re-learn this lesson when COLLAR company entered the international market that was much fuller than the Ukrainian one. Everything I learned in Ukraine didn’t work in the US. Even the highest quality of products did not guarantee the recognition of the international market with its extremely intense competition.
Don’t be afraid to be unconventional. Don’t be afraid to look weird or funny, to do something that no one else did before.
When I realized this, I had to turn around my development strategy completely. From then on I focused on creating the innovations only - the products that didn’t exist on the world pet market. At the same time, I ceased to resell the products of other brands, fully focusing on creating my own ones. This decision saved the COLLAR company during the harsh economic crisis in 2008. The company wasn’t depending on any other suppliers and brands and so it continued to grow. We didn’t fire a single employee that year, no matter how hard it was in such dire conditions.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
All of our main brands: WAUDOG, PULLER, Aqualighter and SuperCat have their own sites and social network profiles. Every day they are getting more and more traffic. After some threshold of expansion the online presence becomes essential.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Mostly I learned from my own practice. It was the hard way, but there were not so many books about business when I started. So my best teachers were the other manufacturers I met at the exhibitions. I learned from those who did better than me, they generously shared their experience and I interpreted it in my own way to make something completely different and better.
But later I’ve discovered the books that had a major influence on the company and my own life. One of them is Good to Great by Jim Collins. It helped me understand that the best job is doing what you really like and what you are doing professionally. When I started that book, the company was doing everything: manufacturing, distributing, selling and many other things. I decided that we are best at innovating, so if we focused on them we would get a great boost.
We shifted to manufacturing only. It was 2007, the time of a great economic crisis, but this decision helped the company survive through it. It was a really bold move: at first, we had lost more than half of our sales, but after a year and a half, this strategy paid back fully.
Another great book is Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt. The main message of it is: you need to find your weakest point to growth. Your speed, your effectiveness is always equal to your weakest point: you can’t pass through it. You have to find it and strengthen it, only after that you (and your company) will grow.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Don’t be afraid to be unconventional. Don’t be afraid to look weird or funny, to do something that no one else did before. The lack of solution on the market doesn’t mean that there is no need for such a solution. Maybe no one was bold enough to present one.
Remember that when you are growing, every next step will expose you to the new, unknown and possibly hostile environment. The market in your city isn’t the same as in the capital, the capital’s one is different from foreign’s and the world market doesn’t resemble them all. It’s fine to change your approach when you grow.
Be ready that the existing players aren’t happy to share their place in the market. Be ready that others may copy you if you invent something really cool. It’s natural. Just follow your mission and your strategy and treat these cases as obstacles, not as tragedies.
PLAN your time. Precisely. When your business grows you will realize that 24 hours is just not enough. Eliminate your time killers. Look for the idle time in your schedule and squeeze something useful (rest and mindfulness are also useful!) in it. Limit your social networks. Start developing these habits right now and when you find yourself ruling a big business, you won’t be frustrated with total lack of time.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Unfortunately, we don’t have vacancies in our USA office for now. But if you are interested in working with us, we will be glad to have your CV on this email.
Where can we go to learn more?
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