J. Nichole Smith is bright—it’s something that becomes apparent almost as soon as she begins to speak. Her voice is clear and cheerful, confident and gracious at the same time. There’s no hint of exhaustion in her speech, though she’s sitting in an airport in Atlanta, Georgia—in between phone meetings and quite far from her current home in London—when she speaks to Pet Age.
“Today I have a one-on-one consultation with a ‘petpreneur’ (pet entrepreneur) who wants some help with their business, so I’ll be meeting her in person, which is a real treat because a lot of what I do is over Skype,” said Smith, noting that she’d been in Palm Springs, California, that past weekend to host a retreat for pet photographers, a profession she holds dear because that’s how she got her start in the industry. “Living in the UK, most of my clients are in the U.S. and Canada. And then I have a call with a client at 3 p.m. and we’re going over some new branding material.”
The retreat, called P4/Luxe, was held in a five-star hotel over several days in early January. Hosted by Smith’s company, Working with Dog, the gathering brought together pet photographers and experts in the field for coaching, constructing a performance plan, brand building and more. And while Smith has worn many hats during her career, she’s sure to remember where she started—all while figuring out new ways to help petpreneurs reach their full potential.
“A lot of stuff I do I start with pet photographers because that’s how I started my career, that’s how I started my audience, so I like to do a lot of special stuff for them,” she said. “But most of my audience is petpreneurs in general.”
It seems as though what makes Smith’s expertise so valuable is the fact that she’s explored so many facets of the pet industry. According to the Working with Dog website, Smith has experience as a designer, dog retail store owner, staff journalist, advertising salesperson for a dog magazine, and even as the co-founder of multi-million dollar dog brand Dog is Good, all before founding her strategic marketing firm, Working with Dog.
And through that journey, Smith has been able to pinpoint what she calls her “genius,” and now hopes to help pet business owners do the same.
“I did a lot of work and realized that the highest level of contribution is as a strategist,” she said. “I throw around the word ‘genius’ a lot in my membership group and with my clients because I think of it in the way [author] Elizabeth Gilbert described it, which is that genius is like this creative little elf that comes to you when you need it. It’s not a quality you have—it’s a quality that comes to you and you borrow this spirit that lives through you. So I’d say my ‘genius’ is in the ideas and the strategy—helping people find their best route to their genius.
“So I decided I had to make the hard decision to stop doing everything else and focus on that,” Smith said. “My belief and experience is in helping [pet entrepreneurs] build a brand instead of just a business so that they have more profit more buzz and more influence.”
Pet Age chatted with Smith about her experience, what makes her an expert in the pet industry and her first time speaking at upcoming educational seminars at Global Pet Expo that will take place on Thursday, March 23: “10 Fast Marketing Hacks for Pet Brands,” “Popularity, Profitability and Influence: The Secret Formula to Having it All” and “The Pet Parent Revolution.”
Q Tell us a little about Working with Dog. What exactly does your company do?
A When most people start a pet business, they think of it as a lifestyle upgrade, especially if they are leaving a corporate gig—the allure of spending all your time with your pets is powerful, right? But what often happens is that self-employment swallows us whole, we lose sight of this great lifestyle we wanted and we become a slave to our business.
I experienced this myself early on in my career, but I came out the other side with one very important nugget of wisdom: the route for entrepreneurs to find that great lifestyle they desire (which I simply call “freedom”) is by building a brand instead of just a business.
Effective brands earn more demand, influence and buzz—all of which lead to greater revenue, higher profits and, for those who built them, greater satisfaction, and ultimately, that illusive freedom. So, to answer your question, I help build brands. Working with Dog is a platform I launched last year to make it easier, more effective and as affordable as possible for petpreneurs to get help building their own brands.
Q You’ve accomplished a lot in the pet industry and played many roles. How did you finally arrive at Working with Dog?
A When I officially became self-employed, I was a 22-year-old student who had just adopted a great dane puppy. I was broke and naïve, but I was creative and determined to build a great life for my girl. In 2005, I launched dane + dane studios, a photo studio and creative agency for pet owners and businesses. Shortly thereafter, I met Jon and Gila Kurtz, and together we created Dog is Good, a lifestyle brand for dog lovers. Then began the crazy non-stop-work years where I did everything the hard way—which seems to be the default for many entrepreneurs, sadly! In 2011, I met my dashing British husband and I moved to London in 2012 where I completed a master’s in marketing with distinction at one of London’s top business schools.
My experience and education has been formal and casual, meandering and holistic. From product manufacturing, to shooting covers for pet publications and publishing books, to designing pet branding and products sold worldwide, to creating marketing strategies that you see in action online and at events like Global, I genuinely have had my paws on just about every corner of the pet industry in the U.S. and the UK.
After a decade of this work, most of my clients had become medium- to large-size companies. Although I have absolutely adored working with brands like Petco, Purina, Company of Animals and Victoria Stilwell, I realized that I am extremely passionate about helping small businesses and my services had become out of reach for most “little guys.”
Last year, I built and launched www.workingwithdog.com, a super affordable membership platform that offers consulting, education, community and unmitigated access to valuable experts, where pet business owners can come to get support building their brand and finding their competitive edge, no matter their actual business, location or resources. Currently, we have dog walkers, trainers, groomers, pet photographers, product manufacturers, retailers and more with businesses of all sizes and from all over the world.
Interestingly, the biggest bonus that has come from Working with Dog that I didn’t expect is the remarkable community. We have a private Facebook group that is a part of our platform, and I cannot believe how quickly that has evolved into a huge part of the value for members. The people in our community are like-minded, engaged, supportive, funny, kind and smart, so now I am just one of the many voices contributing to the value of the space. I hear over and over from members how nice it is to have a “safe place” to connect, how comforting it is to realize that so many of us have the same fears, struggles and stresses, and just how amazing it is to have people who fully get it to cheer for you when you push through and succeed. It means so much more coming from people who know what it’s like!
Q You’re speaking at Global Pet Expo for the first time. How did you come to be a speaker at the 2017 trade show and conference?
A When I created Working with Dog, I wanted to immediately run and scream from the mountain tops that it existed. It really is such a unique and valuable resource and I just can’t say enough nice stuff about our experts and the community that’s formed there.
But more than just the website, I am really passionate about spreading the message that the way for a small business to find focus, freedom and financial success is to build a brand. So I immediately began work on my book, “The Million Dollar Dog Brand,” and identified and applied to a short list of events I really wanted to speak at—Global was one of them. Also on the list was the Women in the Pet Industry Conference and PATS, which is the big pet trade show in the UK.
I was lucky enough to get picked for both and had great sessions at both last September. Global feels like the pinnacle of pet trade gatherings, though, so when I got word that they had also picked me, I quite literally jumped up and down and took my husband out for dinner to celebrate. Although I am American, I will be flying in from Europe to attend, so I am sort of officially/unofficially the first “international” speaker Global has ever selected. It’s a huge honor that I don’t take lightly; I am kid-waiting-for-vacation-level excited!
Q Your three presentations revolve mostly around how retailers can best position themselves for success. What about your experience best equips you as an expert in this field? Why would it be a good idea for retailers and other industry players to attend your seminars?
A My Thursday sessions are specifically aimed at the Global audience, which is primarily retailers, but I believe the presentations will be hugely valuable to anyone who attends. The topics are universally valuable whether you own a shop, make a product or offer services, so all are certainly welcome to attend. I do have some insider secrets to share about marketing and brand-building as it relates to retail. In addition to having worked one on one with retailers, my authority comes from having personally owned and operated two premium pet retail locations, one in the U.S. and one in the UK.
Running a retail business, whether brick and mortar or online, is a very uniquely challenging model and I can’t wait to share some tricks, tools and insights that can hopefully help. Plus, as a bonus for “The Pet Parent Revolution” presentation, I am bringing along my friend, Phil Chang, from www.hubba.com, whose resume includes impressive roles at Target, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Unilever and more. He is retail obsessed and I am thrilled to add his unique perspective to our conversation.
Q What is your ultimate goal as a speaker at GPE? That is, what is one thing you hope those attending your seminars will take away?
A If attendees walk away with a general sense of “I can do this” and at least one action they are going to take to start, I would be thrilled. It’s hard at these events when you’re on your feet for days, with so much to see and so much to take in, but I am hoping that in my 45 minutes, we can have an interesting conversation about some strategies to really move the needle on building a retail brand that can compete but also thrive in a space with growing competition and dwindling margin. I am very results-oriented, so I want those who invest their valuable time in listening to me to walk away with something that will get them real, tangible results.
I am also hoping that I will be able to get some advanced copies of my book, “Million Dollar Dog Brand” (more info at www.workingwithdog.com) for Global as well, so that could be a very tangible thing I would love for attendees to walk away with.
Q What are you most looking forward to about attending Global Pet Expo?
A Oh, man, I am so looking forward to the people! Catching up with fellow brand owners who have been pioneering at shows like Global for years, new friends I don’t yet know but can’t wait to meet, online friends who I feel like I know well but I can’t wait to meet in real life—I love seeing everyone’s booths and hearing everyone’s stories. Since I live abroad now, I don’t get as many opportunities to commune with my “pet people,” so I can’t wait to be in the mix with everyone for a few days in Orlando.
I will also be co-hosting a party one evening, so if anyone reading this would like to be one of the new friends I meet, I’d like to invite them to visit www.workingwithdog.com/global2017 to get details about the party. Please come say “hello” and tell me all about your biz!