An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Take it one thing at a time. As an entrepreneur, you have to multitask, but I’ve had the most success when I’ve tackled one big project at a time.
As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Willen.
Alex Willen is the founder of Cooper’s Treats, a premium dog treat business he launched at the height of the pandemic. He left a decade-long career working as a Product Manager at enterprise software companies in Silicon Valley to start a business focused on his one true passion — dogs. Alex lives in San Diego, CA with his wife Maggie and their dogs, Cooper and Maple.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, and I’ve been a Californian my whole life — I moved north to attend Stanford for college, lived in San Francisco for several years and have now come back south to San Diego. I was always thought of as the smart kid when I was young, and I leaned into that. Lots of reading, computer games and the like. We never had dogs at my house, but my aunt and uncle always had two Golden Retrievers that I absolutely loved.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” -Bill Gates
It can’t be said enough — learning from your failures is everything. Entrepreneurship is failure after failure after failure, but if you look at them as lessons instead of failures, it’s a whole lot more palatable. I’ve failed more times than I can count since I started this business (and it hasn’t been that long), but each failure helped me to understand the business better and improve fundamental parts of it that will outlast my memory of the failures.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’m a huge fan of Odd Lots, a Bloomberg podcast by Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal. It started as a nerdy economics podcast, but through the pandemic they’ve really focused on the global logistics industry and how it’s been disrupted. They’ve interviewed owners of trucking companies, the head of the port of LA, and a host of other people who are deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the logistics industry. As someone who started an ecommerce company right as major disruptions started, I really appreciate how educational it’s been about the inner workings of an industry that affects everyone, but especially small business owners.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?
This was the single biggest obstacle for me when it came to starting a business. I had ideas, but none of them were good enough. I spent a decade working in Silicon Valley at startups, so I was watching many of my peers go and start their own companies. Somehow it just seemed like there was something different between them and me.
Ultimately, I started a business by joining a franchise. The idea of using an established system helped relieve the fears that my business idea wouldn’t work. That ultimately didn’t end up working out (I was just about to start construction in March of 2020… poor timing to say the least), but just going through the process of starting the business helped me to come to a realization that starting a business isn’t about having a perfect idea — it’s just about actually taking the first step, and the second, and so on, until you’ve started a business. If you don’t know what to do, just do something — anything that gets you moving in the right direction is a good start.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
Before you start researching whether someone has thought of your idea before, ask yourself: “who cares?” Seriously — think about all the businesses that have started by people who weren’t the first to have an idea. There’s probably more than one burger joint in your town; that means someone decided to open a burger joint even though it was clear that someone else had already had the idea (and executed it). There are plenty of car companies — Soichiro Honda didn’t think about starting a car company, realize Toyota already existed, and then give up. Things still turned out okay for him.
Having a unique idea isn’t a requirement for success in business. If you can take an existing idea and do it better, that’s plenty. There are endless ways to do it better — you can add features that improve a product, you can have more efficient operations that allow you to have lower costs, you can have better customer service, you can target a new market or you can just be better at selling to customers. Instead of fixating on a unique idea, figure out what your strengths are and figure out how you can apply those to whatever business you start in a way that gives you an advantage over your competition.
For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
In my case, I started as simple and small scale as I could. My first product was a mix that’s used to make frozen dog treats at home — it’s a powder you mix with water, and it only contains a few ingredients. That meant that I could make it in my kitchen in small batches.
In terms of specifics, there were a few things that had to happen before I sent it to customers. First, I developed the recipe — this was just researching ingredients that are good for dogs, ordering them off of Amazon, combining them and giving the results to my dog to taste test. I also kept some spreadsheets of what the treats would cost with the different ingredients, but frankly I was more focused on giving my dog treats than doing the math at that point.
Once I’d settled on two flavors, I had a logo as well as packaging designed. To make that happen, I ran a logo design contest on 99designs and then had the winner do my packaging as well. When that was ready, I had a small number of boxes and jar labels printed.
At that point I had a product, so I needed a website. I put up a quick Shopify site, took some photos of my products (thank goodness for portrait mode), and we were off to the races. When the first order came in (it was from a friend of a friend), I packed it, printed a label and shipped it.
When it came time to scale up, I found a manufacturer by Googling, making a spreadsheet of anyone who looked like they might work, and calling all of them. Out of dozens of possibilities, I found two that were willing to work with me. I asked a whole lot of questions, picked the one that felt like a better fit and had my first production run made. My only recommendation here is to start with the ones that seem less likely to be a good fit — that way you can ask all the dumb questions and get a basic understanding of the jargon from your early conversations.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Think through the plan just a little bit more. I tend towards just trying things and figuring them out along the way, but there were certainly issues that I could have foreseen if I’d put a little more thought into them up front. The best example of this is shipping costs — I really did not think much about how much it would cost to ship my products, and I eventually realized that I could save a lot of money by shrinking my best-selling product down a few ounces to get it under a pound, which saves about 40% on shipping costs. If I had done a bit more research, I could’ve figured that out without wasting time and money doing it the wrong way.
- Just because things work now, don’t assume they’ll stay that way. I was having excellent success with Facebook ads until the iOS update that everyone familiar with digital advertising will be familiar with. Apple made a change that was totally out of my control, and suddenly my cost of acquiring new customers shot way up. I had been building my plans on the assumption that things would continue as they were, so that really threw a wrench in things.
- Prepare for crazy customers. Thankfully most of my customers are amazing, but I’ve had a few get very upset with me because the instructions for my frozen dog treats didn’t mention that they had to be stored in the freezer or they’d melt.
- Take it one thing at a time. As an entrepreneur, you have to multitask, but I’ve had the most success when I’ve tackled one big project at a time.
- Make sure your partner’s on board. Thankfully, my wife has been endlessly supportive, but our garage and our extra room are currently stacked to the ceiling with boxes of extra inventory. I didn’t really prepare her for that before I got started, so I’m particularly thankful it hasn’t become an issue (and I certainly wouldn’t blame her for it if she told me to get everything out of the house).
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Make a prototype! I don’t care if it’s made of sticks, twine and gum and it looks like it was done by a second grader. Anything to get your idea in the world will help you refine it and begin to understand the challenges behind it.
After that, test it on your prospective customers. Luckily this was pretty easy for me — I had a willing tester of dog treats in the house — but no matter how complex your idea is, there’s some way you can communicate it to the people who you’d want to use it. Make a PowerPoint deck about it, draw up a diagram or just interview people. The earlier you start to get feedback, the more likely you are to avoid mistakes that will need to be corrected down the line.
Once you’ve got a decent feel for the product, do the basic financial analysis. Understand what it’ll cost you to make your product and operate your business. It doesn’t have to be perfect — the goal is just to make sure that you have a financially viable concept — but if there are any big questions you can’t answer, get those answered before you start investing lots of time and money.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I’ve hired a few agencies and consultants, and I regret each and every one. I’m now a firm believer that when you’re starting a business, you need to do everything yourself until you have a good handle on it. Once you’ve mastered something, you can bring someone in to help you execute and save you time, but you shouldn’t be bringing people in early to solve the problems that are core to your business.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
I bootstrapped my business, and I recommend it if you’re able to do it. Either way, though, it’s a question worth thinking about early on. Do you want to raise capital, have investors and try to create a really big company, or would you rather start something smaller but self-sufficient and profitable. If the latter, then focus on ideas you can bootstrap. In my case, I was able to start the business with a limited amount of money because I could manufacture it myself in small batches. If I had needed $100,000 to do my first production run, I probably would’ve looked for another idea rather than try to go raise that money. That’s a personal preference, of course, but there are lots of folks who get suckered into the idea that the only way to start a business is with VC money — don’t be one of them.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
One thing I love about this business is that we can incorporate giving back into our marketing. Over the holidays, we launched a limited-edition holiday box with two special flavors of our Pupsicle Mix, and we gave 5% of the revenue from that to local shelters. The holiday box was a great success, and I look forward to doing it for a few more holidays this year, while giving back to a different rescue for each one.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It’s tough for me to answer a question like this about anything but climate change. Given that we’re in the process of destroying the only planet we have, there is nothing that would do more good than mitigating the damage we’ve done as much as humanly possible.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to have lunch with Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal from Odd Lots. They’re just total economics nerds and my kind of people.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Making Something From Nothing: Alex Willen Of Cooper’s Treats On How To Go From Idea To Launch was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.