This Designer Cat Furniture Brand Does Over $300K/Month In Sales

Jackson Cunningham
Founder, Tuft & Paw
$300K
revenue/mo
1
Founders
3
Employees
Tuft & Paw
from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
started October 2016
$300,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
3
Employees
289K
alexa rank
82
followers
220
followers
999
subs
market size
$208B
avg revenue (monthly)
$300K
starting costs
$13.7K
gross margin
40%
time to build
210 days
growth channels
SEO
business model
E-Commerce
best tools
Instagram, Tiktok, Ecommerce Fuel
time investment
Side project
pros & cons
35 Pros & Cons
tips
1 Tips
Discover what tools Jackson reccommends to grow your business!
email
social media
productivity
freelance
education
Discover what books Jackson reccommends to grow your business!
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Jackson Cunningham and I’m the founder of tuft + paw. We’re a modern brand for cat people.

In 2016, I rescued my cat and realized there are no nice cat products. Everything is super tacky and cheesy, and I didn’t want to bring any cat products into my small apartment. We started by importing beautiful cat furniture from mom-and-pop stores and reselling it in the USA but knew we’d eventually need to manufacture our products to survive.

We did a Kickstarter for a modern litter box and raised over 150k which helped me hire our first designer. Since then, we’ve been doubling every year and now doing over 300k/mo in sales.

This year, we raised 2M dollars from some very well-known investors including Alexis Ohanian (founder of Reddit).

tuft-paw

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

A decade ago, I was in the real estate industry. I wasn’t good at schmoozing, so I got most of my leads online from ads and SEO.

I realized that I enjoyed that part of the job more than the actual real estate. I decided to start a store selling Venetian masks imported from Italy. Within a few months, it was making 30k/mo in revenue. Since then, I’ve started several other eCommerce businesses.

Originally when I was starting tuft + paw, I wanted to help my partner start her own eCommerce business. She’s obsessed with cats, and given we had just rescued our cat - we thought it could be a fun idea. I knew we were onto something because we were solving our problem.

I used the google keyword tool, and saw that other people had the same problem - there were tons of searches for ‘designer’ cat furniture.

For the first 2 years of the business, I worked another full-time job and paid contractors $2000/month to help do some basic marketing and content development. In 2018, I quit my job to focus on the business full-time.

tuft-paw

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

When I started tuft + paw, I knew nothing about design. I used the website Clarity.fm to talk to some product experts, who told me I needed to find an industrial designer. I contacted a few local designers and met with them for coffee and found one designer who was willing to work on product designs for commission only.

The tricky part about designing a product, is that there are a lot of designers who can make beautiful drawings of products, but which aren’t feasible to actually manufacture. We found a designer who had a lot of experience with manufacturing products - and we worked purely on an equity basis.

The product design process took significantly longer than I expected, even for simple products. Finding the right factory, and waiting for physical prototypes took us over a year. In hindsight, I wish we had focused on fewer, more impactful products. Sometimes “simple” products take as long as more complicated products.

tuft-paw

tuft-paw

The first product we made was our Cove modern litter box. We went through several variations. First via design sketches, and then we would make models out of cardboard.

Once we were happy with the cardboard model, we worked with a contract engineer to do the DFM (design for manufacturing) which is basically taking your design and making sure it’s manufacturable. This is a very detail-oriented process, and what you’re left with is a blueprint/instructions to give to a factory.

In hindsight, we took a big risk - because eventually, we needed to pay a factory over $50,000 to make design molds to produce the product. But we had confidence there was demand because of the successful Kickstarter.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Because I was working a full-time job when I launched tuft + paw, I focused on tactics that didn’t take a lot of ongoing maintenance (i.e. ads) and instead focused on things that I could do once that would grow over time (i.e. content development).

We spent a lot of time sourcing the best possible products from around the world and ordered minimum quantities to store in a third-party warehouse.

I’m not a big believer in big “launches”, so we just quietly published the website without any fanfare. Over time, it started to get more organic traffic and we were able to determine which types of products were more popular than others.

After a few months, we were getting a few orders per week, and a few months later we were getting a few orders per day and it continued to grow from there.

tuft-paw

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Things have changed a lot since 2016. Now more than ever it’s extremely important to figure out ways to get and keep customers without relying on ads. For us, the most effective strategies have been:

Create an amazing, unique product that’s hard to find anywhere else. This is your best possible moat and keeps you from needing to compete on price

Many folks will try to shortcut this phase by finding the easiest possible product to re-sell off AliExpress. You will make your marketing job so much easier down the road if you have a unique product that’s hard to find anywhere else (especially if it’s on Amazon). Open a google sheet and start brainstorming. What are some existing products that you could make minor (or major) improvements on? It’s never been a better time in history to have a great product - distribution is easier than ever - and the best product usually wins. One trick I like to use for brainstorming - search “best souvenirs from {country} Reddit” and you can find some great niche ideas. For example, “best souvenirs from Japan” might lead you down the path of producing high-quality kimonos. Usually, you can find some options of quality product categories that are difficult to find in the USA.

Manufacturing a product is “easy” in the same sense that getting physically fit is “easy”. It’s straightforward and if you put in the work, you will get results. But it takes a lot of time and persistence. Typically, you find a manufacturer on Alibaba that creates a similar type of product. You ask them to send you a sample, you make some tweaks, and then repeat until you have something unique.

Offer exceptional customer service. Aim to keep a customer for life instead of thinking of it like a single transaction. Customers will be your best word of mouth

Don’t think of purchases as transactional. Instead, think of purchases as the beginning of a long-term relationship. For us, this meant sometimes losing money on a sale in order to keep a happy customer over the long term (i.e. refunding a product after the return period, but keeping someone happy). We’re playing the long game. We tell all of our care team to focus on making people happy instead of rigidly following rules - we can always make exceptions.

Utilize your owned audiences like email and SMS.

Set up an email capture on your site as soon as you possibly can. This list will be your most valuable asset and takes a lot of time to build. You’re losing money by not collecting emails. In 2022, this is one of the only ways to reach customers for free. We use Klaviyo and JustUno.

Focus on unpaid channels like SEO. They can take a long time but always pay off.

We use a keyword tool called Ahrefs to figure out what people are searching for. Then I build a list of topics with high search volumes (5k+ searches monthly). Then we try to figure out how to make an article that’s at least twice as good as the top-ranking article for that keyword. We take a similar approach as we do with product - i.e. focusing on super high-quality content over quantity. We find writers on Upwork with expertise on the given topic and advise them that we want this to be the best resource on X topic, and then hire an illustrator to make images that add to the article.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We’re currently running at breakeven but recently raised 2M from some well-known investors including Guy Raz, Andrew Wilkinson (Tiny Capital), Blue Capital, and Alexis Ohanian (founder of Reddit). We’re using the funds to develop even more innovative products. Our goal is to be a major leader in the pet space, and change the image people have about “cat furniture” and “cat products”.

Our most important metric is contribution margin, which is basically your profit before fixed expenses (i.e. revenue - CC fees - adspend - cogs - postage). We’re doing everything we possibly can to get our contribution margin optimized so that we can scale profitably.

Given the economic environment, we’ve been focusing more heavily now on profit rather than revenue growth to ensure we’re in a good financial position in the next 2 years. This means more sustainable channels, and less of a ‘growth at any cost’ mindset. We’re thinking long-term and don’t want to be in a position where we need to fundraise to survive.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

It’s really important to just start. You’ll learn 10 times as much by starting a business rather than trying to figure out everything upfront.

Sell the best version of the product you can while you develop a better option.

The other thing I’ve learned is how important it is to have an amazing, unique product. Ecommerce has gotten insanely competitive over the last decade, and you’re making your job so much harder if you are just dropshipping or selling some generic product.

It’s also really important to build a brand that appeals to a group of people (i.e. cat people) instead of building a brand around a product. If you build a business around a group of people, it will be so much more valuable because you can continue to launch products that will appeal to those people.

Finally, designing and manufacturing products are hard and take a lot of time. Ecommerce is not a get-rich-quick scheme, but it pays off if you do it right.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Shopify 100%. Other apps we couldn’t live without - Slack, Klaviyo, Inventory Planner, Asana, Upwork.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I love Ecommerce Fuel Forums (and podcast). It’s a great community that can help on a variety of topics. I also love the Foxwell Founders membership which is a great resource for media buying.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Just get started! Use a google keyword tool to do a brainstorming session, try to find a product category that doesn’t have great options, and launch your website. You can do all of this in a week. Sell the best version of the product you can while you develop a better option.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We’ve actually frozen hiring for the time being until things are a bit clear on where the economy is heading. But we’re always interested to hear from potential candidates so that we can reach out when the time is right (must love cats!).

Where can we go to learn more?

You can visit us or find us on tiktok or Instagram @tuftandpaw.

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Jackson Cunningham, Founder of Tuft & Paw
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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