7 min read • By Leena Chitnis, Founder, Timberdog®
In 2017, I set out to build the world’s first multifunctional pet bed, RuffRest. I had just adopted four-month-old Kashi - now Timberdog’s official mascot - from the pound. She immediately became like a daughter to me, and I didn’t want to go anywhere without her, especially since she’d spent her young life caged up. For a while, I lugged around her orthopedic foam bed, blanket, and a knapsack full of toys, treats, chews, and waste bags. The whole process of gathering her things and packing them separately soon became choresome, and ultimately, I got tired of schlepping her things around in a piecemeal manner. I just wanted everything to be in one place, always ready to go.
I searched for a pet bed that would operate as a sort of diaper bag-meets-Pack ‘n’ Play. Surely there had to be something like this for pet parents out there, as hundreds of millions of pets are brought home around the world each year. I found a few pet beds that had some of the features I wanted, but none of them did them perfectly, and not a single bed contained all the attributes I sought. Additionally, not one bed out there was suited to encompass the varied contexts of my life: home, office, hotels, air travel, camping, and road trips. The perfect travel dog bed had to do it all.
I set out to make what I wanted. To say this process was daunting is an understatement. I can’t draw to save my life, and somehow, I had to find a manufacturing partner across several oceans who would be willing to decipher my scrawl and prototype what one designer called, “a kitchen sink bed,” before he laughed and hung up on me.
Though I was hurt, his words struck me. He was an industrial designer with over twenty years of experience, after all. I couldn’t dismiss his opinion out of hand. Even I, with no engineering or design background, knew that if I was going to do something like this, every single feature had to be airtight, or I’d risk making a mere novelty which disappointed my customers in one way or another. This added another level of intimidation for me.
Did I really want a kitchen sink pet bed?
Yes. Yes I did. I never again wanted to have to scrounge around my apartment to find my dog’s things and pack them in an unorganized, time-consuming manner, only to have to dump everything out at my destination. It was time to build the pet bed to end all pet beds.
Project Kitchen Sink was born. I posted on Nextdoor and soon hired a retired lady from my neighborhood, and over the next couple of weeks, she sewed a crude prototype. Though it was crooked and the seams were off and it was a patchwork of different colors, I was in love. It was a kitchen sink bed no more. All of the features were neatly tucked away as I had envisioned, only to be used when needed. And from the outside, it looked like an unassuming – but beautiful to me! – pet bed.
I immediately took the prototype to my local park to show it off to some friends, who were dog parents themselves. That day, a man who rarely frequented the park happened to be standing in our circle of friends. We got to talking, and he said he’d introduce me to a group of people who had created a toiletry bag that had raised a substantial sum on Kickstarter. One thing led to another and the toiletry bag guys introduced me to my first partner - an American broker who had a team of designers and was connected to Chinese factories.
I worked with that broker for over a year, moving at a snail’s pace. He set me up with an industrial designer who would take weeks, sometimes months, to answer emails. Eventually, a technical pack (a “book” of CAD renderings that is handed to the manufacturer) was eked out, and shopped around without much enthusiasm to several manufacturers in China, all of whom rejected it. Disappointed by the lack of momentum, and a tech pack that wasn’t inspiring anyone, I cut ties with the broker, but not without thanking him and his team for all of the knowledge they gave me on the process, which turned out to be invaluable.
Alone, but armed with enough knowledge to speak conversational “manufacturing,” I shopped my tech pack around to manufacturers from San Francisco to Vietnam, getting rejected one after the other due to the complicated and “first time” nature of the design. It turns out that manufacturers don’t like working on untested and unique designs. I finally landed on one manufacturer daring enough to give it a try, but they didn’t follow the tech pack at all and continued to produce basic designs that can be found on the market today. When I pressed them to improve the design, they couldn’t, and I had to let them go. Several months and dollars had been wasted by this time.
I finally had to come face to face with the expensive mistake I had been holding onto. It turned out that the tech pack was the problem, for two big reasons. First, the design was impossible to translate into a real-world, physical item. Second, I never really liked the designer’s interpretation of my dream pet bed. The only reason I shopped it around was because I erroneously believed his vision to be the more sound one, and because I had paid him $2500 to produce it. Worse was the time that had gone into this whole process: 18 months I’d never get back.
I had to let it go and start over from scratch.
I finally found a designer on Upwork who said he’d help me out. I chucked my tech pack in the garbage and conveyed to him - through extensive conversations, drawings on napkins, and hand gestures - what I wanted. And then…radio silence. Two weeks later, I opened my door to find a box on my doorstep, stuffed to the point of needing a ton of packing tape to barely hold it shut. Ripping it open, I discovered that he had shipped a completed prototype to me. To this day, it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
It was beautiful because I now knew my idea was not only possible, but entirely probable. I was holding Timberdog’s first proof of concept in my hands. Tears rolled down my cheeks.
I was off to the races. Conveying my design was now infinitely easier on Zoom meetings with potential manufacturers. Respectable product demonstrations replaced pantomiming and badly-drawn sketches, and earned me appreciative nods. But I still had a hard time convincing anyone to join forces with me.
After months of unsuccessfully shopping the RuffRest around, I let myself despair for a good week. I was stumped, but then remembered that good things happen when I let go. I made up my mind to go for a long walk, and decided to listen, for the first time, to a podcast. I chose Guy Raz’s How I Built This (NPR), and the stories of struggles from other successful entrepreneurs fed my soul over the next two hours. I was definitely not alone, and heard tales far worse than mine. The common thread among these founders was persistence, and I resolved, with a quickened pace on my way home, to think differently on how I’d find a competent manufacturing partner.
First, I sat myself down and stopped being desperate for a partner. I asked myself some critical questions. What did I really want out of the next team who would stitch together the elements of my invention, my dream? I knew, above all, that RuffRest needed the very best quality and attention to detail, since it had over 16 features that needed to work together in perfect harmony.
I looked up complex items that won design awards and landed on Peak Design’s (PD) camera gear. Like RuffRest, their products were groundbreaking, patented, and took years to develop. I just had to have access to their manufacturer, but PD was understandably coy about giving that information out, listing only the city where their partners were located. I set out to find their Vietnam connection (since I heard from a few designers that that was where their main manufacturer was located). I scoured Peak Design’s site, watching every single video they had on there, until I heard a narrator on one video say the names of the Vietnam factory principals.
Hours into a Google search that paired these names (no last names, mind you!) with “Vietnam factory,” I found, on the 30th page of Google, a picture of two guys with the same first names cutting a ribbon in front of a new factory. A quick zoom into the photo revealed the name of their company on the factory wall, and another search yielded the coveted email address. Bingo. I found them.
The Vietnamese factory became my second partners, and they produced some quality pet beds for me. But their pet bed ultimately proved heavy and clunky, had an enormous price tag, and was met with waning enthusiasm with every request to tweak it. Eventually I burned them out, and they let me go. But I was closer than ever to perfection.
Around that time, I had been a member of a Facebook fan page dedicated to the NPR podcast I had been listening to, How I Built This. I saw that the admins of the fan page decided to pilot a mentor/mentee program, allowing folks that wanted to be a mentee to comment so. I put my name up on that list and forgot about it. Four months later, I got a message request from a man in Australia who asked if I still needed a mentor. I said yes, and in exchange for mentoring me, all I had to do was beta test his software, which continues to remain an indispensable part of Timberdog’s operations.
From him, I was introduced to my third manufacturing partner, and the rest is history. They produced a sleek, technically-tight bed, dealing with hundreds of requests to improve everything from the thread and stitching, to denier of nylon and eco-friendly polyurethane coatings. They were also able to cut the bill of materials and labor costs to half of what my former Vietnamese partners were charging me, allowing me to pass the savings on to my customers.
It’s been a long, rewarding, five-year journey, and I have just arrived at the starting line. I have a long way to go, and will continue to consider my customers’ happiness as my north star and the very peak of my success.
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Photos by Marc Prefontaine