One of my favourite stories about perseverance and how to get backing for and engagement in an idea, is from the founder of the Kong dog toy, Joe Markam. (For those that don’t have a dog – the Kong is a rubber dog toy that can be filled with treats. Markham came up with the idea for the Kong in the 1970s to stop his pet dog, Fritz, from chewing on rocks. Today the Kong is “the word’s best known dog toy”). When Joe first came up with the product, he couldn’t get any pet shops to stock it. He could have given up, but what he did next was truly innovative and gutsy and ultimately life-changing. Below is an excerpt of his Startup Studio interview with Betsy Flanagan where he tells the story…
JM: …But we were in a phase of our business where we needed to try this on a larger scale and see if this is a viable product. And so we put it out with friends and relatives and a few dog experts, some of the Denver Police Canine Team, and [they] came back with just glowing reports. Everybody liked the product.
BF: That’s great. How do you get from getting this feedback to actually distributing it and selling it?
JM: The glowing reports were fine for the people that tried the product but when I tried to market the product I ran into some pretty serious barriers. I mean, the first thing I did was take it out to a pet shop to ask them what they thought of it and ‘what’s this?’. And it was not well received to be very blunt about it and even one distributor threw me out. He said ‘hey, don’t quit your day job, this thing will never fly’. And the marketing to the stores and the distributors was very very difficult at first. We just didn’t get any audience that was receptive to the product at all. Not one. You know, I made a whole lot of tries and the cold calls came back empty.
BF: How did you finally change that?
JM: Well we knew that we had the product. We had tried it. We knew it was right. So eventually I came up with the idea that we should produce a tv commercial that says ‘available at your favourite pet shop’. And I knew that when people would see how much fun dogs were having with this product and the durability of it, it would sell itself. So we put out a nice direct mail piece to all the stores in the region where we were going to run the tv commercial and we did it three times. And we said ‘we’ll run this commercial on the third week after you’ve received this direct mail’. We had one customer that took our advice and stocked up a few kongs. So then the commercial aired and we bought remnants of time that was really really inexpensive at that time. I think we spent $3000 and got 15 or 20 spots at way late at night and things like that, but people were literally waiting at stores for the product. And that same distributor that threw me out and told me not to quit my day job, called me back and said ‘maybe you have something there’.
BF: That is fantastic. But it seems like you had to have a lot of confidence in yourself to be able to push through all that negativity. What do you attribute that to?
JM: Well I think the determination really came because I was reminded every time that dog put that toy on my foot – this thing is for real. You know, this is a great toy. Fritz’s teeth now look good, he hasn’t been chewing on rocks anymore. And I got reinforcement from the people that I’d given them to. And so it kept me fired up. When you have that kind of response from people and you get the inner feeling that you’re really really right, then you just have to persevere and continue to go out and do what you have to do to make that product work or abandon it and you have to get to the point where you’re either going to make it work or abandon it and determine your course from there then take it.
I love this story and use it all the time when I hear people telling me about how they can’t put their idea out to users/staff until they have approval or permission… For me, this story has a great message that sometimes, when you feel what you are doing is right, you need to go and build the momentum and generate the interest first, before you can get permission and buy-in from others.