Chewed wedding album led to smart dog toy that's making owners sit up
A designer has sold 50,000 of his innovative playthings in his first year in business
It was the frustrations of the modern dog's life - as experienced by his young Labrador, Sandy - that led James McIlvenna to set up in business designing and making an award-winning brand of dog toys.
He and his wife Lauren had just returned to Ireland - following two years of living and working in China - when Sandy entered the couple's lives.
"We came home, we got married, and we got a dog," says McIlvenna. "I'd wanted a dog all my life, but we never had one before. Getting one was an education for me because they are completely and utterly dependent on you."
The couple walked Sandy every day as much as they possibly could, but it became clear that their dog had a lot of energy to burn. It was then that it dawned on McIlvenna, who has a wide-ranging background in industrial design, that many other dog owners living in urban areas would have similar problems.
"Our dog was just tearing everything apart in the house," says McIlvenna. "It's an old story by now, but one day she chewed up our entire wedding album. Half of it was the enthusiasm of being a puppy and half of it was the need to get her out and mentally stimulate her. A lot of country dogs in the past were for a purpose, and they would be lucky if they ever set foot inside the house. People are now bringing their dogs in and treating them much more like humans, which can be a problem in itself but it's a huge, huge trend."
This trend prompted McIlvenna to do a bit of research into the pet toys market, and in doing so, he saw a gap for a clever product that would make dogs work for treats.
"Dog toys have an important role to play in a modern dog's life because a dog that lives in the country gets out a bit and has land to roam and is very happy and active," says McIlvenna. "However, a dog that is in a back garden is not as happy like that. It's confining and restricting for the dog - and they often can't see out."
McIlvenna's solution to this problem is a series of colourful, interlocking shapes that a dog has to work through to get at a treat inside. The interactive dog toys are designed to challenge and stimulate dogs for hours, helping to satisfy their natural instincts to hunt and work for food by challenging them to unlock the treats.
The range comprises three separate toys that all connect together, marketed under the brand name K9 Connectables. While the design of the products naturally evolved through a number of prototypes, McIlvenna's first effort was enough to create that magic eureka moment.
"I put cheese in the very first prototype and gave it to the dog," says McIlvenna. "I felt that was a major moment because the dog just started tearing at it and trying to get the cheese out. It wasn't a great design and it wasn't a great prototype, but the fact that the dog still went and played with it was a major motivation, to say to myself, 'I can do this'."
He certainly had the professional background to make a go of it. After graduating with a degree in industrial design from the National College of Art and Design, the Sutton native eventually found his first design job in retail display firm Kleerex in Baldoyle. That proved a great learning experience. He worked with all kinds of materials to make point-of-sale displays and to do shop interior fit-outs. He also gained crucial exposure to people management, tendering processes, and working with manufacturers and clients, which included Vodafone and the National Lottery.
In 2008, he left to do a Masters course in bioengineering - focusing on medical device design - with Trinity College Dublin. That course led to work for US healthcare firm Hollister in Ballina, Co Mayo in designing and patenting a intermittent male urinary catheter device for people with disabilities. It was a subsequent job in LED lighting design that brought McIlvenna and his then girlfriend Lauren to China.
Back home and after making his first K9 Connectable prototype in 2013, McIlvenna worked on and off on the design for three years. He built more prototypes and the process of doing so was made easier and cheaper with 3D printing.
Another crucial boost came in 2015 through a €50,000 grant from the Enterprise Ireland Competitive Start Fund for 'high potential' startups.
After making the obligatory patent application, McIlvenna used contacts forged during his time in China to produce the steel tools that would manufacture the toys. He explored approaching an Irish manufacturer - but it would have cost about €25,000 for one product. "That would have been half our budget gone in one day," says McIlvenna.
By contrast, he was able to get three product toolings made in China for just €10,000. Most of 2016 was spent getting a trademark, sorting out packaging, shipping the stock by sea from China and then officially launching in August, including at Crufts in Britain.
The dog treats made specifically for the toys are produced by well-known animal feed maker Connollys Red Mills in Kilkenny.
"By October/November 2016, we had products, packaging, a website, and we started knocking on doors with the real products," says McIlvenna. He and his wife starting ringing all the pet shops all over the country finding out who the buyers were, and how to get to them - although not before working out their pricing structure.
Many shops were happy to work with Irish producers. However, with some of the shops, the couple had to work on a sale-and-return basis in order to get them on board, and often on 30-day or 60-day terms. This caused problems with cash flow. "We were on the back foot starting out, but after a while, we started to get a bit of traction, people started to notice us and started talking about us, we got a bit of press and radio, and we got a PR firm to help make a bit of a buzz," says McIlvenna.
Building a strong social media presence was another marketing no-brainer given how videos and pictures of cute dogs and cats are incredibly popular on Facebook and other platforms.
By Christmas 2016, the business was selling online too, and McIlvenna was able to see the firm's revenue in a better light.
K9 Connectables is clearly on a strong footing today. "We are not in every store in the country but we're now in over 110 stores in Ireland," says McIlvenna. The business has also sold 50,000 toys in its first year - an impressive achievement, and stockists include Petworld, PetStop, Petmania and Equipet.
Along the way, McIlvenna picked up the Public Choice award at the 2017 Irish Design Awards, and came third out of 20 startups in Google's Adopt A Startup programme.
Work is also underway to expand the product range, which will include a dried food dispenser for dog kibbles and toys designed specifically for small dogs under 9kg as well as for big dogs over 25kg. So far, McIlvenna has worked with his wife and three part-timers, but hopes to employ a couple more people in the near future.
So what has he enjoyed most about his startup journey so far? "Penetrating the industry, going and talking to the big players, drawing their attention, and then going into a big shop and seeing our product on the shelf is an incredible feeling," he says.
Sunday Indo Business