Kirby Holmes worried about the impact of wildfires on animals and began creating air-filtering masks for dogs. After launching his company K9 Mask, Kirby ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, which led to an appearance on Shark Tank. On this episode of Shopify Masters, Kirby shares his tips for creating content marketing, building an email list, and selecting tools for an ideal tech stack.
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The childhood experience that led to a business idea
Felix: Tell us where the idea behind the business came from?
Kirby: I grew up in Texas, but every summer my brother and I would travel to California to visit our grandparents, and they lived in a small town called Ojai. It's north of the Los Angeles area. They have a great patio and swimming pool in their backyard, and we'd spend most of our afternoons and evenings out by the pool. Behind their property there were these hills that are connected to a national forest. My grandparents would tell stories about how wildfires would come up over those hills, and they could stand there in the backyard looking at the fire crews trying to put the fires out before it got into the city and into their neighborhood.
I remember as a kid being terrified of the idea that these fires would get into my grandparent's home. I worried not for my grandparent's, but they had a black Lab named Sugar, that was always out there spending time with us, and we loved that dog so much. I would always have these fears growing up with the wildfires in California. Flash forward to 2017 when the wildfires in the Paradise and Camp area of California did massive destruction to people, property, and pets.
As I heard about the growing wildfires along the western coast, it reminded me of those childhood fears for my grandparents and their dog, Sugar. How can we better protect ourselves from these threats? I remember watching a baseball game–it was the San Francisco Giants–and they were playing in their home stadium in San Francisco. There were people sitting in the stands wearing air filter masks, because the wildfires in the area were creating such toxic smoke that people had to watch the game wearing an air filter mask.
As I watched that, I thought, “Oh my gosh, something's happening, where people do need to protect themselves from this threat. People can do that, but what about pets? Do pets have a way to protect themselves from the threat of toxic smoke like wildfire smoke?” I thought about Sugar, I thought about her needs, and it hit me that there's got to be a solution. I began searching through Google searches, web browsing, “Can I find an air filter mask to protect the dog?” As I did those searches, I couldn't come up with anything. I searched all over the world, but I could not find a single example of somebody creating this solution. That's where I came up with the idea for the first air filter mask for dogs. We call it the K9 Mask.
Felix: What is your professional background? What made you go from “this is a problem” to “there’s an opportunity here.”
Kirby: My background is in nonprofit work, that's what I've done most of my career. There was a time several years ago where I did work for a small manufacturing company. I was building up a sales team of representatives throughout the country, but most of my work has been in nonprofit. Because of that it hasn't always been profitable enough, I have four children and my wife is a stay at home mom. To provide additional income, I've always tried to have an extra small business.
One of the things that I learned along the way was building ecommerce websites, and those were for my small businesses, but eventually, I started consulting other small businesses in ecommerce design and website building. I became used to software as a service solutions for ecommerce websites.
Felix: I think a lot of listeners can relate to having side hustles to boost income. What made you take this to the next level, where it's no longer a side hustle, but a main gig?
Kirby: It's like the story I told you about my grandparents, and visiting them and starting to learn of the fears. Then eventually understanding the potential consequences of wildfire smoke, and with climate change these seem to be happening more and more often. We've always been a dog owner, we've always had a dog in our family, I love to run with my dog and work out with my dog and snuggle my dogs. It hit me that we need to find ways to protect these pets from air pollution.
I was the first one to come up with the idea, I couldn't find it anywhere else in the world, and I thought I needed to be the one to provide a solution. I talked to my cousin Evan, who works for a large technology company here in Austin, who is a tinkerer. He's got a 3D printer and a lathe in his garage. He's always working to build something. I approached him with the idea of, “Could we work together to come up with a solution for an air filter mask that would fit on the muzzle of a dog?” He said, “That is a great idea.” He was as surprised as I was to discover that nobody else had thought of this or had done anything to bring it to market. The two of us together, decided, “You know what? Maybe it's our responsibility to come up with a solution.”
The process of inventing a product category
Felix: Tell us about the development process for creating this product.
Kirby: In 2018, we thought it would become something. We didn’t know what, we didn’t know how, at that point in our life, it was a side project, like all my other side projects in the past. We went ahead and we set up an LLC, we set up our company, it's called Good Air Team, and then we opened up a bank account, we said, “Okay, let's start working on the design ideas.”
Since Evan is really good at design, he started crafting different materials and making different prototypes. We went through six months of a process of going, “How is this going to function on a dog? There's many different muzzles, snout sizes and face shapes. How do we solve this problem, and what materials are going to be durable, breathable, and effective for a dog, making sure it can filter out air but still be breathable enough to keep the dog cool, knowing a dog needs to pant to cool itself?”
There's a number of obstacles to overcome in the design process. It took us six months of tinkering and using paper and materials to come up with the right shapes, the right materials. But we came up with a solution and a solution that works.
Felix: How many iterations did you go through before you came up with a solution that was functional?
Kirby: We had four, maybe five, design ideas we brought to the sewing companies here in town that sold more apparel ideas, because we needed somebody that had experience in the manufacturing side of a product like this. We could maybe try to build it and make paper models, or roughly sewn products, but it would have to go into production at some time and somebody with experience cutting and sewing production would have to give me input. We worked with two different companies here in Austin to help with consulting, design ideas, and how to put this together. They were so helpful and gave so much input from the design and manufacturing side to help us come up with a product that we still use today.
Felix: What was involved in testing the product? How did you go about making sure it was viable?
Kirby: My cousin Evan and I both have a dog. My dog's name is Subaqua and his dog's name is Ginger. Subaqua and Ginger were our test subjects for all these prototypes, to make sure that the neck strap would fit around their head, that it would stay on the dog if they started to paw at the material, with the material, withstand their pawing at it. If they stuck their nose in the dirt of the grass and started poking around the grass, would this product be able to withstand it? Our best tough subjects are our very own dogs, and they were very patient with us in the process.
Felix: What challenges did you face when trying to manufacture a product that hadn’t previously existed?
Kirby: That was a problem. Because most of these cutting and sewing businesses here in Austin were doing primarily apparel, to create something that's more three dimensional like this, for the snout of a dog, wasn't something that they typically did. Although they had ideas of the way stitching would come together, and the way materials need to be cut, the tolerances and allowances for putting the product together weren't specialized in this 3D product. They sent us to Dallas and gave us a couple of names of people in Dallas who were sewing things like backpacks, and other things that had more dimension to them than apparel.
We were able to find a great partner in Dallas who was willing to take on our project, who created the best prototype that we had ever seen of our product. We've been working with them ever since.
Felix: When creating a product that doesn’t exist yet, what should you be contributing to make sure that you optimize as much as possible on the relationship?
Kirby: They have expertise in areas that I didn't have expertise in. I've been doing nonprofit work. My cousin is in technology with a big computer company. When it comes down to materials, sewing and cutting allowances, we just don't understand it. We don't know what to account for. We had to trust the expertise of those who understood that industry, and had experience working with these materials. It's good to trust other people and build partnerships with people that can help you come up with a better solution for your product.
I also have a business mentor here in Austin that was helping me through the process of building our business. He said, “Kirby, you need to rely on your partners, there's going to be things that you don't 100% know if it's the best solution.” He said, “Go with a solution that's 80 or 90%. I’m sure you don't have every question answered about if it's perfect, but go ahead and get it to market, get it out there and see if people want it, if people use it, and then start getting feedback about the product from your customers. You can continue to innovate along the way, but trust partners and trust feedback from your customers.
Go-to-market strategy for a product no one's ever bought
Felix: I think a lot of entrepreneurs understand this principle, but it’s hard to put into practice. You see a lot of people striving toward perfection. How do you ensure you’re not waiting too long to launch or bring to market?
Kirby: There are different product categories, ours is in the pet health industry. We wanted to make sure that our product would promote pet health, that we'd empower dog owners to help protect the health of their pet in an air pollution crisis. We want to make sure we're not going to hurt a dog in the process of helping the dog.
Obviously that was an area of concern. Now we've been addressing that concern because we're talking to professors at Texas A&M University and University of Missouri who are in the small canine department, some of the leading experts on respiratory health and pets and especially in canines. We've done some of the due diligence to go, “Can this be a safe product? Can we release it knowing that we'll help pets and not hurt them?”
The most important thing was having a community of people around me saying, “Kirby, every entrepreneur feels like they want to get it 100% right on their first version of their product.” My mentor said that's too late to get it to the market, you need to take your innovation, especially if it's a new product or a new product category, take it to the market realizing it's not going to be perfect, because you need the feedback of users. You want to develop the product and innovate it beyond its first version. You're only going to be able to do that as people use it and tell you about their experience.
You need some mentorship, someone in your business community that has more experience, that can say, “Go ahead and start getting it out there and get the feedback that you need, and you can update it and revise it later.”
Felix: Were there any iterations you chose not to include when launching, to see what kind of feedback you’d get?
Kirby: One of the things that is unique to our product is that nobody is very comfortable wearing an air filter mask. We've all been wearing air filter masks for the last year in light of the pandemic we're in, but it's not that comfortable for us as people and we knew it wouldn't be that comfortable for pets as well to put a mask on a dog. We were encouraged to know that muzzles have been used on dogs for decades, and dogs can be trained to wear muzzles. We knew that there was an existing product that gave us confidence that our product would work in the marketplace.
We did have to make a decision around how much filtration we wanted to use in this product, because the dog has to be able to breathe through it, but they also have to be able to pant. The actual strength of the filter became a point of concern. We don't want to suffocate a dog, we're trying to empower pet owners to provide health for their dogs, so we can't suffocate a dog, we can't eliminate oxygen. It has to be breathable.
At the same time, the best way to help a dog in terms of health is to filter out the smallest particles that can get into the lungs. If it gets embedded into the deeper parts of the lungs, it gets into the bloodstream, and can be circulated throughout the entire body. We had to make sure to filter out those smallest particles. It's got to work for the intended purpose of health, but it also has to function with the warning and safety concerns around the dog wearing this. We had to go back and forth testing materials and finding out what a dog is comfortable with, and how long it can be worn before it becomes dangerous.
How could it be effective because dogs have to go outside to use the restroom, they have to go on walks, no matter what the environment is outside. Those were some of the things that we had tensions with as we're building the product of how much air filtration is effective, but would also be safe for the dog to wear.
Felix: What feedback were able to get once the product was out in the market that you had not foreseen?
Kirby: When we designed our first air filter, we decided we wanted maximum air filtration. If you're taking your dog for a walk in an environment with intense wildfire smoke, with many toxins that are burning, not from vegetation and trees, but there's whole buildings, chemicals and stuff that are in cities that are burning. It's not wood burning or grass burning smoke. There's toxins and chemicals in there as well. Our real purpose was to help protect that animal from those types of toxins.
We decided that it had a really short wear time. We were recommending to pet owners that the dog only wear the mask for 10 minutes. We started getting feedback from early customers saying, “We love the product, it is helping to protect our dogs, we see the benefit, but we need to be able to wear it longer. We take walks, we need to get out for longer walks.” As we thought about the needs of our customers, we decided to come up with a second air filter version that would fit into the same mask. It's an air filter refill that you can take in and out of the same mask because we know dogs make a big slobbery mess when they're wearing something on their face. We need the mask to be able to be washed.
We used a system where you can change the air filter between washings as the mask gets washed and you could put a fresh one in. We built a second version that is much more breathable. It doesn't filter out as many of the micro particles in the air. But it does filter out some of the larger particles, even some of the ash. It's got an active carbon filter in it to filter out some of the ozone that's in the air. We felt like we solved some of our customers' needs who wanted to be able to put this on their dog, go for longer walks with their dog. They needed a different solution, and they're willing to trade off having really good filtration for the ability to take their dog on a longer walk while still having some protection.
Using feedback loops to optimize a product
Felix: How did you ensure that you were receiving as much feedback as possible to make enhancements?
Kirby: We did get emails and phone calls, but I would say one of the best things about using the Shopify ecommerce platform is the ability to create a feedback loop. We use the Yotpo review system, which emails customers after they buy a product and asks them to give us feedback about the product. We're able to set how many days out to send that email and when to send a second reminder email to get feedback from the product. A lot of customers would give us feedback through the reviews, and that would help us to understand what their needs were. We've got over 100 reviews on our website that are posted, that give us that feedback about the product.
Felix: How do you prioritize feedback to make sure you’re not missing an opportunity to improve?
Kirby: We're dog owners. I have an active, shepherding dog. She needs to go out and run and be on longer walks. That's a part of what helps keep her a healthy dog throughout her day and throughout her week. I understand when a customer of ours says, “I need my dog to be out longer, but I'm in an air pollution crisis where I wouldn't want to go out at all, but I have to get my dog out. There's that tension of, I want to keep your dog safe, but I understand the need to get your dog out. Otherwise, it's going to chew the corner off your table or start biting up your leather couch, because it needs to expend energy.
We understand as dog owners ourselves the unique aspects of dogs and what their needs are, it resonated with us. One of the things that we haven't been able to solve yet is the fact that there are some breeds of dogs that have a flat face with no snout at all, and we don't currently have a product designed for that breed of dog. We've gotten a lot of requests from customers saying, “Hey, do you have a solution for my dog? I have a pug, it has a flat face, and I need a solution.”
A lot of those breeds of dogs have respiratory issues where they don't breath as well, and we'd have a tension of, if we build a product that's for a flat face dog that already has respiratory problems, are we going to contribute more to that problem by trying to put a face mask on it? Or are we going to help it by protecting it, by breathing better air in that toxic environment. We have design ideas, but we haven't brought it to market. Again, we've heard feedback from customers where there’s potential to move forward in a new product design and category, but we haven't done it yet because we're still stuck in that stage of, “Will it be safe for the dog if we come out with that product?” We haven't answered it yet.
Felix: What’s the product development process like when you’re trying to integrate these feedback iterations?
Kirby: Dog muzzles and those have been in use for a long time, and we're able to go grab different dog muzzles and see the shape and the materials. We can see that for flat face dogs, they do have some muzzle protection whether it's for biting prevention, or barking prevention. Some of those products are out there and do exist. We've looked at those as possible design solutions for us. Now the one thing about an air filter mask is when you and I, as people try to put an air filter on, the shape of our face has many different twists and turns. We have a nose, cheeks, a chin, and it's not a great shape to put an air filter on.
If you think about a dog's snout, it's a cylinder, and that's actually a pretty easy shape to provide a solution on how to secure an air filter to the backside of that shape. It's a cylinder, and you need to pull tight the air filter on the back of that cylinder. If you think about a face that's completely flat, with very little surface area to control, how would toxic air be flowing towards this little dog's face to get in and out. It's really hard to come up with a solution to try to secure an air filter around where it wouldn't leak air into the dog that's breathing through its mouth or its nose.
A muzzle is not trying to accomplish that. It might have a shape that's similar to what we need, but its function is very different. Although we're trying to learn from muzzles, it doesn't actually answer all the questions we're trying to answer with an air filter mask for all these different breeds of dogs.
Felix: When it came time to start marketing the product, was there a lot of customer education that needed to be done?
Kirby: There was really no information available about dog air filters. We decided early on, if there was going to be a market for this, we need to understand that there'll be a market. We put up a website promoting the idea of an air filter mask for dogs, and began populating with articles about air pollution and the threat of wildfire smoke. We asked people when they found our website if they'd be interested in buying an air filter mask for dogs. Sure enough, we got about 1000 email addresses of people saying, “Yes, I would love to have protection for my dog. I'm from California, and this would be helpful for us during our wildfire season.”
Once we got those 1000 email addresses in the first couple of months, we thought, “Okay, yeah, there is a market for this. Nobody's executed the idea, but it is something that's in demand.”
How content marketing can grow a profitable email list
Felix: What was the process behind creating the site and the kind of content that would attract your target audience?
Kirby: I think it's because I had experienced as a kid with my fear of wildfires, and my concern for my grandparents and their dog. We've been hearing so much about climate change, and because we've seen this rise of wildfires on the west coast, there's been a whole lot more emphasis on why is the climate changing, and what effects is it having? Then when you start looking at the air pollution side, what is in the air, how dangerous is it for us to be breathing in this toxic smoke?
We started writing articles about air pollution, smoke, toxicity levels, how bad is it for our health, how does it impact pet health? We started becoming researchers about this topic, and posting articles on our blog about it. That content creation was great, because we're researching for ourselves, but then we're able to put it out there for others to begin to connect the dots between toxicity, air pollution, air quality and the pet world. That's where we started to get traction, people finding that website and beginning to give us their information saying, “Yeah, that's a product that would solve some of this problem for my pet, I'd like to know more about it.”
Felix: How much intention were you assuming from these signups? Was it sort of like a wait list for the product?
Kirby: Yes, we very much pitched the idea of, if you want to be one of the first people to get the world's first air filter mask for dogs, give us your email address. We would take pictures of our prototypes as they were coming out and available and put them on the website so that people could see something they've never seen before, which was an air filter that was shaped and designed specifically for a dog snout. They saw pictures as they read content, and we specifically said, “Are you interested in this product?” That's when they gave us their email address.
Felix: So you launched the site and started creating educational content. In those first few months you were able to collect over 1000 emails?
Kirby: From those 1000 emails, we said, “Well, let's do a crowd sourcing from this list. Let's crowdsource for our first production run of our mask.” We created a crowd sourcing campaign, we used Kickstarter as a platform, and we put all the information about, “Hey, do you want to help us create the first K9 Masks?” We put it out there, and we emailed all 1000 people who gave us their email address to point them towards our Kickstarter campaign. Sure enough, in those 30 days, we were able to fund the first production for K9 Mask, and we raised $10,000.
Felix: How many articles did you create in those first few months?
Kirby: It was somewhere in the range of 30-40 articles. I would even think within the first three, four or five articles, we were already starting to get visitors to our website, because people were trying to figure out, “I've got to protect myself from air pollution in these wildfires, what about my dog? I'm taking my dog out in the same environment.” People were trying to find it, but they couldn't. It wasn't till our website went up with all the SEO search words of air filter mask, dog, wildfire smoke. Once the website was built with that SEO optimization in mind, people were finding our site very quickly. They probably had already been searching and not finding anything. Now there was a way for them to find us.
Felix: Were these people coming specifically because they wanted to learn more about how they can protect their dogs, or were they concerned about themselves and all of a sudden now there's also articles about how to protect your dog?
Kirby: People are more often now in these large urban environments of California up in the Bay Area of California. Now I would say even people up in the Seattle/Portland area, who have been through these massive wildfires where the smoke has been in their city, not for a day or two, but for several weeks. Some people remember the orange skies in the Bay Area from last year during the wildfire smoke, that you have to take your dog out for a walk. People had their air filter mask on and they're watching their dog walk out into the ash, in the smoke. It's a natural thing to want to protect your dog. We captured what people were searching for, but couldn't find.
Building a successful kickstarter campaign with 1,000 emails
Felix: What else was involved in setting up and running that kickstarter campaign?
Kirby: We were still working with our manufacturing consultants on the prototypes, and trying to come up with a solution for how we do our production. We were still working it out in Austin, trying to find a solution. We commissioned somebody to create a video for us, and we thought the video had a great story. Mine and Evan's dog are the models in this video. It told the story throughout the month-long campaign, and we began to put updates in the campaign about, “Hey, we have a great new prototype sewn from this company. Hey, we got some contacts in Dallas for new potential manufacturing.”
We were updating people throughout the campaign of our progress about how much it cost, if they were able to help fund this, that we were dedicated to finding a solution that would help them care for their pet better. People jumped on board, they wanted to be a part of the process, and they loved feeling like they were contributing to a product that wasn't completed, that needed help, input, consultants and mentorship. It felt very organic and out of control often, wanting it to be perfect for everybody, but that’s impossible.
We wanted to be vulnerable and say, “Here's where we are in the process. Thanks for giving your $25 pledge or $50 pledge or $100 pledge to this project, because we want to find a solution that works.” People enjoyed being a part of that process and communicating on the platform with us.
Felix: You end up raising a little bit over $10,000, from 175 backers. Do you know the breakdown? How many of those 175 came from the email list with 1000 that you initially built up?
Kirby: I don't know the answer to that question. I don't know how many people from that list signed on. But how many of them told family members and friends about it, how many people loved to pick through Kickstarter to find interesting projects?
A deal and a surprise ending on Shark Tank
Felix: You had additional attraction on top of the Kickstarter campaign. Tell us about your Shark Tank experience.
Kirby: We launched our Kickstarter campaign March 2019, and then it was fully funded while moving into April. At the end of April I got a fascinating email from Shark Tank, saying, “Hey, we saw your product, the K9 Mask on Kickstarter. We think it's really interesting and really innovative. We would love for you to apply to be on the show. Evan and I had always heard from friends and family that this product was a breakthrough idea, that people needed this, we needed to immediately take it to Shark Tank. Evan and I would chuckle like, “Yeah, that would be amazing if we could but let's focus on getting it off the ground.”
It was actually intimidating to get that email because we felt like we're just starting. We didn’t have sales, the business wasn’t built out, we didn’t have this tremendous marketing–all the things that the Sharks really question you about in Shark Tank. We didn’t know if we had what it takes to get in there. But there was also this thrill and excitement for the opportunity. What an amazing opportunity for a new business with a new innovation to be able to put it in front of the Sharks and all the people that would watch the show? I'm a big fan of the show, and I've watched it for years with my family. We started going through the process with them.
Felix: Once you made it on the show, what were you asking for? What was the result from that show?
Kirby: We were going through the process, and we finally finished our first year of sales in 2019. We did $45,000 in revenue. As we're kicking off 2020, it's like, “Okay, this pandemic hits, and dog owners are concerned about their pets, then getting the coronavirus and getting ill with the COVID infection.” We sold a lot of masks really quickly, early on in the pandemic, which gave us a little bit of confidence going, “Okay, if we do go on Shark Tank, we have some sales.”
Thankfully for pet owners, very few dogs actually contracted the virus and caused an illness. Thankfully the pet industry as well as the health industry was able to communicate pretty clearly to pet owners, “Hey, don't be too scared about your pets contracting the virus, it's not a big fear.” We were glad, because our goal is pet health. Our goal is not sales for sales sake, it's actually pet health.
At least that bump in sales gave us confidence, “Wow, we can actually get on Shark Tank and tell a decent story now that we're getting feedback from customers about the usefulness of this product for them.” In 2020, we were ramping up towards the summer, but it's in the middle of a pandemic and even Shark Tank didn't know if we would be able to film this season? There were a lot of starts and stops of knowing, are we going to be on or not be on? Eventually we were able to find a place where they could film the season. We filmed our episode.
At the end of our episode we were able to make a deal with Daymond John, for 40% equity of our company. We had gone in asking for $500,000 for 40% of our company. He came back and said, “No, it's too high of an evaluation.” He wanted to drop it down to $200,000 for 40% of our company and we tried to battle back with him. At the end of the show, he decided, “Yeah, as a pet lover, and somebody who cares about the health of pets, he wanted to be on our team with us.” We made that deal with him on air, which was exciting when all the other sharks had gone out.
Felix: A lot of people see what happens on Shark Tank during the episodes, but what was your experience after the episode was finished filming?
Kirby: Then we began working with Daymond and his team, talking about us as a business, then doing due diligence to understand the financials of our business. What are the possibilities in terms of future business and marketing plan? We've had dialogue for months, six months of back and forth. He's trying to determine with his team about the benefits he could bring. We're trying to bring a potential future to him that would allow him as an ambassador to get the profitable investment that he wants in the future.
We're about six months in, and we're still trying to work out the details of finalizing the deal. When you're talking to the sharks on air, it's an investor pitch. They don't know all the background details of your business and all the numbers. It takes time for somebody that wants to invest in your business to do their due diligence before making a final investment.
After that six months–on both sides–we're at this place of wondering, “Is this going to be the right deal or not?” We both had valid reasons. On Daymond's side, he's looking “Hey, am I really going to get my profitability and return on investing in this business? Do I want to wait five years, 10 years, 20 years before I get my investment back, or a multiplier of 3, 5, 10 times my investment?” At the same time, we're looking at it going, “Do we want to give up 40% of our company, knowing that some of the ideas he has for how to build our business aren't the kinds of ideas that we think are the best or most strategic?”
We worked with Daymond and his team for seven or eight months, and they were wonderful. We love all those guys. They're fabulous to work with and talk with along the way. At the end, we decided not to finalize this deal. It doesn't sound like you're that comfortable with the future profitability, and we're not comfortable with the ideas and strategies you're bringing about how to move forward. Why don't we agree not to make this deal happen. You'll be happy to eliminate some of your risk, and we'll be happy because it eliminates the risk of us having to give up that much of our company.
We ended it amicably. We love him and his team and he loves us and what we're doing because he's a big pet guy. He's got a whole farm and ranch full of animals, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, dogs and donkeys. He's a great animal lover. We had a great time working with him.
Felix: That’s good it ended on a positive note. Talk to us about the publicity that came out of this experience of being on the show.
Kirby: On the business side, when you get a national audience, and you're telling the story, I would say at the beginning of the story, one of the pitches people heard most was, “Hey, this is a mask for coronavirus, and that's why you created it.” That's not true. We created it before the pandemic. We don't know anything about coronavirus. We created it for environments where there was first wildfire smoke.
One of the things we found out is that there's tons of reasons why people need a product like this. It wasn't until the end of our episode, when people were hearing more of the reasons why they need to protect their pet from air pollution because they heard things like, “Yeah, okay, wildfire smoke, but then because of blowing winder in dryer environments, there's a whole lot more dust in the air. If you're in the southwest, there's a bacteria that gets picked up in the sand, and it causes respiratory health problems in people and pets, and there's a health concern in the desert areas.
There's volcanic eruptions in Hawaii, and there's chemicals from those eruptions. In Hong Kong, they were having riots and people were using tear gas. A lot of the people in Hong Kong wanted to walk their dogs, but there was so much tear gas that it was almost impossible to get outside. We were selling masks to people in Hong Kong to protect their pets that needed to go out for walks. People along the coasts, especially in Florida, when there's red tide events, toxins and algae bloom come up along the coast, and that bacteria from these algae blooms kill fish and those fish all washed up onto the beach, and then those toxins become aerosol in the air and blow in off the coasts into residences and business districts and cause respiratory issues.
There's all these reasons why people watching our episode go, “That actually makes sense to protect my dog from various forms of air pollution. It's not just wildfire smoke, but all these other reasons that I could benefit from this.” We did see a bump in sales as a result of our airing, which was season 12, episode six. It originally aired in November of 2020, and we did see a bump in sales as a result of being on the show.
The tech stack that runs K9 Mask
Felix: What are some of the apps and tools that you rely on to help run the business?
Kirby: We love our Shopify website, we use the theme by Style Hatch called District. Style Hatch is a company that's actually based here in Central Texas. I talked to the owner as we've developed our website, and I've had questions along the way, I would ping their developers for help. They would help with aspects of the theme to make our website look really good, and the coding for the website works really quickly to be able to display our products as effectively as possible. Then we use a couple of the apps that have been really helpful for us. One of them is called Bold Upsell, because we sell the mask with three air filters included in the package, but we also sell a five pack of replacement air filters that go into the mask. Bold Upsell allows us to make that initial sale to somebody wanting to buy the mask with three air filters.
As they're checking out in the cart, there's a pop up that comes up on their computer screen that says, “Hey, if you're going to buy this mask with three air filters, it's great, it's a great way to start to protect your pet, but if you add these five extra filters right now, you'll save some time later, not having to come back to the store and make this purchase.” We're seeing a great attachment rate of people using that as they're making that checkout decision of adding that extra five pack of air filters in. We found that to be really helpful to bundle products together at checkout.
We also use an app called GTranslate. This translates our website to over 25 languages, and allows us to create sub domains for various languages around the world that we've chosen. When somebody in Germany is searching for an air filter mask for a dog in the German language, they'll find our German translated version of our website in their search engine. Say, for instance, they're using Google and they type air filter masks for dogs in German, they'll find our website in the German language, all translated. We've sold to almost every European country. We attribute that to the translation services.
I know Shopify is now adding that into their services. You don't have to use an extra app for it. But I find that to grow your business globally, that there's some great tools for being able to do that. Keeping up with the administrative side and the bookkeeping side, we use TaxJar to help understand what are the tax liabilities for places where we're selling domestically here in the United States. We need a way to keep track of what taxes are being collected, and how we need to then pay those tax authorities. TaxJar is a great solution for us to understand and fulfill those obligations. Those are some of the tools.
I've already mentioned Yotpo reviews as a way for us to get feedback. We continually get feedback, especially early on as a new business with a new product, to get feedback from customers. One of the things we learned from some of our customers using Yotpo was that people wanted different colors of our mask. We originally said, “Well, let's make a mask in blue, blue is the color of the sky, it's a color of purity. It's a clean color, let's make them all blue.”
We had customers saying, “Hey, can we get different colors? I would love to have one in pink, I'd love to have one in red or black.” We decided, “Okay, well, it doesn't make any difference to us, we just want your dog to be healthy. If you want a pink or black, we'll start to make some in those colors.” That's one of the things we got feedback from through the app to learn about customer's needs along the way, and we do make some custom colors for people.
Felix: What are some of the biggest challenges that you're focused on overcoming for the business in the near future?
Kirby: Part of it is awareness. It's a brand new, innovative product. Nobody's really thought about it or heard of it. Of course, being on Shark Tank is significant to spreading the message that this is a possibility that you can now protect your dog in these various environments. There's a sense of, “we've got to get the word out.”
We do use social media advertising. We have tried to ping various dog trainers and support dog therapists–people who are influencers in the dog health space, and search and rescue dogs that are in those environments. We'll ping them on their YouTube channels, try to get their email address and shoot a quick email. Try to find influential people using social media and YouTube to say, “Hey, would you share about our product and help us protect more pets' health?” We have many people who are willing to do that, and have helped us out.
We're paying for advertising, but that's minimal. To us, it's about how do we get the word out to people about protecting their pet? Last year was a really bad year with a lot of air quality challenges around the country, especially related to the pandemic as a big one, and the Australian brush fires was another. It's a product that's based on a crisis, and we hate that. We prefer that there'll be less crisis and less need for our product. If those crises do exist, we need to make sure and put it in front of customers in a targeted way so that they know they have a solution if they want to use it.