Buddy on Soggy Doggy Doormat

Joanna Rein is a longtime dog lover. But when her family’s new puppy, Buddy, tracked mud and moisture all over her Westchester, N.Y., home, she was not pleased. Little did she know that his enthusiastic, sloppy antics would one day inspire a flourishing business: Soggy Doggy Doormat.

Boning Up on Business

Rein, a former college basketball player at Princeton University, got her MBA at Northwestern University’s lauded Kellogg School of Management with a career as an athletic director in mind. But when she graduated, her now-husband was living in New York City, so instead she wound up in marketing at hair color giant Clairol and eventually freelancing for beauty companies like Revlon and Helen of Troy.

That turn of events proved fateful.

Barking Up the Right Tree

In 2009, Rein was living in Westchester, caring for her four small children and loosely toying with product ideas as they popped into her mind. That’s when three important things happened.

First, her husband was in commercial banking, an industry that felt suddenly unstable. She was concerned that he could lose his job and felt she needed to find a way to contribute — no easy feat after five years out of the job market.

Next, Rein and her family had recently rescued a loyal and lovable doga suspected Labrador and Border Collie mix they named Buddy. Every day, she watched as her delighted kids let him inside after he romped around in the backyard; he would leave dirty paw prints all over the family room. “I kept thinking I wanted [to make] a dog-specific doormat myself!” she says with a laugh. “But I’d thought up so many harebrained product concepts throughout the years, I figured I wouldn’t actually do it.”

The final straw was when Rein spotted one of her old product ideas brought to life: a wipe designed specifically to clean the inside of windshields. She realized that she needed to take her ideas seriously — and to the next level.

Her beauty industry experience paid off: Thanks to those years, Rein knew just enough to take a product from inception to launch with the right approach. “Working at Clairol, I learned that you’re not only selling beauty products; you’re selling an image: how consumers perceive themselves and want to be perceived,” she explains. “That was very helpful in starting a business.” That meant, for instance, that the company’s name should allude to the product’s function, but not make the dog sound grubby or dirty — rather, more charmingly messy. Hence, Soggy Doggy was born.

Laying the Groundwork

Once Rein committed, the development process began. But it wasn’t always a smooth ride. The first task was finding the right material. She wasn’t sure where to start, until one day at the children’s swim meet, she noticed a young diver toweling off with just this little piece of chamois. It was clearly very absorbent, so she went out and bought a bright orange ShamWow and had it cut, constructed and tufted with no-slip backing, according to her specifications. When it was finished, she was excited to bring it home and test it. “I put it by the door, and Buddy took one look at it and refused to walk on it,” she says. “He walked around it, jumped over it. Maybe because it was bright orange?”

Frustrated, she stuffed the thing in her basement until January 2012, when she read a New York Times article about how, despite the recession, the pet market had grown by 5 percent. She was newly invigorated. Around that time, at a car wash, she happened upon car mitts made with “this noodly, chenille material.” The fabric was soft, removed debris and clearly soaked up moisture. She began looking for a manufacturer.

Eventually, she was informed that no such manufacturer exists in the United States. China had to be the place, which presented many problems: She’d never even been there. How would she get from A to B? That’s when the go-getter discovered Alibaba.com, a business-to-business manufacturing website. Most of the companies she talked to insisted that she order a minimum of 10,000 pieces to start — way too many for her small scale. But, finally, she found someone willing to work within her parameters.

Another local mother had previously worked in graphic design for Ralph Lauren, and together, the two women developed a logo and other branding elements, including the original beige and cranberry color scheme. Rein went back and forth with the manufacturer until they got the product right, but when it came time to actually commit and send money, she felt uneasy about dealing blindly with a company overseas. Luckily, a colleague of her husband’s agreed to go to China and check out the factory. “I needed to know it was aboveboard without children working or anything like that,” she explains.

The factory turned out to be fine, and she had 500 pieces of beige doormat produced. Later, when the shipping agent called the house, because Rein didn’t yet have an office, her kids were in the middle of a piano lesson, a play date and a meltdown. It was bedlam.

“Do you have a loading dock?” he asked. Far from it.

“Forty-two boxes arrived in November of 2012, and I put them all in the basement," Rein says. And with the help of her college-age baby sitter, she set up a website. “That was Soggy Doggy’s humble beginning.”

A Growing Brand

Rein visited nearby pet stores and shops while her youngest was at preschool. Luckily, the local merchants were supportive, and eventually she got the attention of a small, premium chain store, Pet Pantry Warehouse. The chain was proactive about selling the product and, luckily, it was a particularly snowy winter. Dogs all over were tracking ice and dirt inside! Rein sold out of her doormats before Christmas and couldn’t get more stock to sell until February 2011.

In August of that next year, she attended her first trade show, NY NOW. The response was great. She also created the Super Shammy, a new product for drying a dog’s body. “The beauty of starting small is that you can change and adapt and take consumer feedback,” she says. “People were saying, ‘I love the doormat, but my dog’s back and belly are still wet.’ We put in hand pockets because I knew part of the battle was catching the dog and getting him to let me rub him down.” Most important, the mat and sham worked, and customers appreciated that.

Soggy Doggy Today

To Buddy’s chagrin (as he used to receive daily treats from the FedEx guy), Rein no longer does fulfillment out of her house. She trusts a family-owned company in New Jersey. She also has a small staff and two distributors.

The product options have grown as well: Soggy Doggy now offers doormats in beige, blue, dark chocolate and caramel and in sizes large, extra large and a small slopmat version that customers requested to use under water bowls as a place mat. The doormats come with or without a bone design. The Super Shammys come in blue, beige and dark chocolate.

Rein also just soft-launched new Super Snoozers dog nests in beige and dark chocolate. “Buddy is the lucky product tester for all of this,” Rein says, smiling. “We know dogs love sleeping on them, and the beauty of the material is that it never gets that doggy smell.”

The products are now in hundreds of shops nationwide — largely independent pet boutiques and only carefully vetted online stores to maintain premium quality. It’s working: During the first year in business, the company made $10,000 in sales. In 2013, it passed the million-dollar mark!

One surprising realization for Rein has been how many other women are working within the pet industry and how supportive and amazing people have been in general. “I guess dog people are just good people,” the Soggy Doggy founder muses. “But also, starting small and growing slowly has allowed me to adjust to what I’m doing and learn along the way. It’s been great!”