In January of 2018, I stopped by LaVilla Dog Works to talk to owners, Regina Papa and Fred Henry, about their business. Before I knew it, two hours had passed. Fred and Gina are so passionate about their business, so open, friendly and talkative, that I probably could have stayed longer! This was not my first visit to LaVilla Dog Works, located in a small Market Street store front just off of Main Street in Johnstown. I have had the pleasure of stopping by for both business and pleasure. Since I don’t own a dog, I have even brought dog-owning friends and family by to check out their unique stock of collars.
On this particular trip, my purpose was this interview. I plan to conduct more and more as the months go on. I love talking to people about their businesses, especially when the interview is this much fun! While Gina was the one who answered most of my questions, Fred was present, adding to the conversation as he worked on cutting and sewing some leashes. I have also tried to edit this interview down to the pertinent points. I have a feeling that my two hour visit would be less fun only in print. So here it is:
(Photos: sample of collars, Gina with a quilt made by a beloved friend that contains fabrics from the collars that they have made)
B: What did you do before LaVilla Dog Works?
F: I worked as a trainer in the telecommunications industry.
G: And I worked as a manager for Workforce Development.
B: This is quite a departure for you! Why collars and leashes?
G: This business is more fun! It started as a hobby. We had each adopted dogs in the past and I started to tinker with making collars. Through word of mouth, my hobby became a side business. I originally made collars and leashes from my home. Eventually, from the additional responses we received from some events we did, it seemed like we could actually turn it into a business.
B: People do love their animals. They are like their children in most cases.
G: That’s true. I did some research and found that the pet industry is a $56 billion dollar a year industry. It seemed like a good fit for us and we enjoy it.
B: So when did you go from a hobby to a business?
G: We started doing events in 2011 and officially became a certified business in 2012. That’s when I got the DBA.
B: And what is your current employee count?
G: Two; Fred and me.
B: Do you have plans to add more employees?
G: Yes, that would be great. But we want to grow the business slowly to keep expenses manageable. If we were to obtain more wholesale accounts we might be able to add people.
B: So when did you know that it was time to relocate to the store front?
G: We weren’t expecting to leave the house! Then the store front opened up and since we know the owner (Gina’s parents own the building), we were able to negotiate a good rate. (laughs)
B: That worked out well! I want to ask you about some of the challenges you have faced growing the business.
G: We have done everything that we can to avoid debt. That can be a challenge when starting out, which is why we are keeping our pace slow. While I knew how to make collars and leashes that appealed to people, I had to learn about the business side to owning your own business. There is so much to it; marketing, operating cash registers, creating our website, credit card processing, and how to keep up with changes in production. We even had to change our plans regarding who would sew our product and who would manage the business.
B: What? How did that come about?
G: Well, I had thought that I would stay behind the scenes doing all of the sewing. It was something that I enjoyed doing and it was what I had been doing. But over the course of our first couple of years, we realized that we would need to invest in commercial sewing machines. I kept wearing out even good quality home sewing machines! (more laughter)
F: Then she saw the industrial machines at work.
G: They are like power tools! When I saw how fast they were and how intimidating they looked, I was terrified of using them!
B: Power tools, huh. (to Fred) Is that what you thought when you saw them in action?
F: When I saw them, I was excited! They are so fast and easy to work with.
G: That’s when he became the designated sewer and I had to learn all of the things that go with running a business.
Click here for the video: Sewing Video IMG_1623
(Photo: Fred with his friend! 🙂 the special sewing machine that makes finishing work quick and easy – check out the video!)
B: It seems to be working well. You both seem happy.
G: It’s a fun job. The best part is interacting with the customers. We have people bring their dogs into the store or we meet them at craft fairs and other events. And we love learning about their life with their pets. We hear all of the stories, which as dog owners, we enjoy! We even grieve with them when their dogs die, which isn’t fun, but for the most part, it’s a great job.
B: Speaking of your customers, how do they find you? What do you do for marketing?
G: We have a website and we’re on facebook. We are on instagram. People find us at events, which is a huge boost for customer service. That face-to-face connection develops trust between us and the customer. And of course, word of mouth is still a big way that people hear about us, or “word of tail”, as we call it.
B: How does your website do for you?
G: We do well! A lady in Florida was one of our first customers! She found us here at an event and then re-ordered online when she went back to Florida. We have had orders from almost all of the States, plus Canada and the Virgin Islands. I don’t know how some people have found us, which would be interesting to know, but they do!
B: The two of you went through the first Microenterprise Program that the County received. How did the grant help you out?
G: The grant funds made it possible for us to afford the industrial machines. We also used some of that money to pay for our website construction and to increase our stock. It has made it possible for us to try new production and finishing techniques. It has made job planning easier and the time savings on finishing work has increased production.
B: We met when you came to CRG’s office for the Microenterprise Grant Training Classes. Did you learn anything new?
G: The classes were awesome. We enjoyed them very much. Sam Russo, from SCORE, was fabulous in helping us to not only build our business plan, but to understand what that plan means to our business. I still think about his advice as we continue to grow. Overall, the camaraderie of being in the class with other micro businesses was wonderful. We continually learned from each other during the class and still keep in touch with many of them.
In fact, our relationship with one business led to a new business relationship with a company that we purchase interfacing from. We used to purchase the interfacing material in large sheets that we would have to size ourselves. This company does that work for us. Now we buy a spool of interfacing and we cut off the length we need. It saves so much time! We never would have made that connection without the class.
B: That’s terrific! You know, so often we hear about the negative challenges of running your own business. But I want to ask you about your best moments. What are some of the highs that you have had?
G: Our first big wholesale order was great. Knowing that our collars are being worn by dogs across the country is cool. It is flattering when we apply for juried shows and are approved, especially when it was our first wholesale buyers show that promoted Adirondack made goods. The best thing though, is definitely the relationships we have built with our customers. We can help people with special issues.
At our very first event, we met Bobbi Jo Haverly. She has an English Mastiff names Ross. She told us that she had a problem finding collars large enough to fit around his neck. At the time, he was about a year old and already weighed 180 pounds! He’s a giant dog! Our XL collar fit him, but it looked so tiny at one inch wide around such a large neck, but she bought it and asked us to custom make one for him with a larger width, which we were glad to do.
B: That’s a great story.
G: It is! But here’s why what we do feels so good to us. Bobbi Jo mentioned that big dogs look intimidating. Ross now weighs 210 pounds and his collars are 34″ around and 2″ wide. He is a certified therapy dog at elementary schools and Bobbi Jo says that having a fun collar helps him to look friendlier and more approachable. We have since gone on to make collars for show cows, goats and pigs. We are always willing to work with our customers to make collars that they feel good about putting on their pets. We also love making collars and leashes for the local rescue groups, like the Regional Animal Shelter.
(photos: Ross with this original collar and with a new, wider collar)
B: I love it! That is gratifying. And I have totally enjoyed spending time with you and learning more about your business. Thanks so much.
G: Stop back anytime! We enjoy being part of CRG.
For more information, check out the LaVilla Dog Works website: www.lavilladogworks.com
video, photos and interview by Becky Hatcher