If you’re a pet retailer, you know that it’s impossible to be a business owner without taking risks. Typically, the first risk that a business owner encounters is making the decision to open a business in the first place. As anyone will tell you, retailers know that they face competition in several directions, from other small retailers to big-box giants. However, if you talk to the most successful business people, they will tell you that their willingness to accept that risk made the difference between success and failure.
Amy Tihlarik says the ongoing joke in her family is that she starting loving animals the moment she entered the world as a newborn. As an adult, she knew she wanted to do something “crazy and different,” as she describes it. Her specialty pet shop, The Zany Pet Shop on Mille Lacs in Milaca, Minnesota, was the result.
While some retailers try to meet the needs of all pet parents by providing products for everything from fish to horses, Tihlarik wanted to do the exact opposite with her business. According to Tihlarik, the theme of everything about her business is “small.”
“I love small animals and knew others did also,” she added. “Though a risk, I knew it would pay off.”
Her shop specializes in harder-to-find breeds of guinea pigs, fish, hairless rats, hamsters and chinchillas.
“Through a lot of hard work and dedication, I am so humbled and honored to be so different, and to have a one-of-a-kind pet shop,” she continued. “My staff and I are so happy to be the only small animal pet shop in the area … well, or anywhere, really.”
Picking a narrow focus by specializing in small animals was not the only risk that Tihlarik made. She opened her business in the tiny town of Milaca, Minnesota with a population of about 3,000.
“Not knowing if a shop in this small town would be a ‘go’ was a definite risk,” she said. “But it has been blessing after blessing.”
Beyond focusing on “small,” Tihlarik has made other deliberate decisions to set her store apart from others, such as the décor and the “hands-on” way that customers get to interact with the animals she sells.
“Our shop is very small, just 180 square feet, and that does pose some issues, but people tell us all the time how homey and cute it is. The feel of it does not scream ‘pet shop,’ it screams ‘home’ decorated in Disney theme that kids and adults just love,” she said, adding that the store allows customers to play with and hold any animal they want. “We believe allowing the customers to be up close to the animals allows them to see if an animal is right for them.”
Tihlarik says she will continue to take risks to not only help her business grow, but to serve her customers as well. By opening a second shop sometime soon, she looks forward to sharing the love of small animals with more people.
Her advice to others about taking risks in their businesses?
“Go for it,” exclaimed Tihlarik. “Push through the fear, do what makes you happy and never give up your dreams. I am 37 and just figured mine out. You’re never too old to achieve all your dreams.”
Petagogy, a Pittsburgh-area, independently owned pet supply store, was founded in 2011 by two couples (and friends) Ben Huber, Elsie Lampl, Heather Blum and Cole Wolfson.
“I think the biggest risk for us at Petagogy was just starting,” said Huber, adding that none of the founders possessed any retail experience or extensive knowledge of pet nutrition. “We were young with no experience. Being young makes you feel invincible. We felt if our pet needs were not being met in the city, other pet owners must feel the same. The idea that we could not be the only ones drove us.”
Huber says they decided to take a risk, at least in part, because they were young. In fact, research backs up the fact that as we age, our interest in taking risks – especially those that are financial in nature – tends to go down.
Once business owners successfully tackle the risks of getting the business started and operating successfully, it’s easy to start to get comfortable and comfort can cause stagnation. During the 10 years that Petagogy has been in business, Huber says the founders have seen several pet stores in their area come and go, with even some well-established businesses fading away.
It’s interesting that he attributes the fact that Petagogy is still going strong to the group’s inexperience. Rather than coming across as know-it-alls who are better than their customers, Huber and his team were able to connect with customers who wanted to learn alongside them.
“We shared what we knew in a way that people felt like they could make their own decisions,” he continued. “Even today, I still get customers coming from other independent pet stores saying they were accosted by store owners for feeding big-box brands. I say to our customers, ‘We do the best we can with the knowledge we have. I hope I can help you learn something.’”
Over the years, the Petagogy team has tried many new things to keep customers engaged and with each attempt, taking a risk that the innovation would fail.
“We have done yoga, dog walks, Yappy Hours, anniversary events with raffles and manufacturer reps and ‘Ask the Trainer’ events,” noted Huber, adding that the founders are presently in discussions with local restaurant owners about hosting dog walks to food and beer tastings for later this year. “We are doing our best to reach out to different parts of the town like the cultural district, community development committees, restaurants any way we can be a part of town.”
Huber encourages other retailers to not be afraid of taking risks.
“I don’t know what’s going to pay off and you won’t know what’s going to work until you try. Get inspired by other pet stores and don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions to your favorite ones,” he said, adding it’s important to avoid pretending or thinking you have all the answers. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and I learn something new every day. Don’t be afraid to change your mind or your opinions with the more you learn.”
Amy P. Castro, MA, is a business, leadership and communication expert, author and speaker who helps organizations develop leaders and build amazing teams one person at a time. She works with pet industry professionals who want to grow their loyal customer base by building a “Best in Show” team that can deliver a 5-Star Customer Experience. Amy is also the president of Starlight Outreach and Rescue, a nonprofit rescue in the Houston, Texas, area, and she has personally fostered more than 1,000 shelter pets.