The last time Regine Raab had a 9to5, she was overseeing sales and merchandising at Marc Jacobs. For the past six years though, she’s been working to create a life on her own terms while simultaneously building a brand of her own, this time designed with dogs in mind.
“I think that when you’re ready for a change, you just know,” she tells me, about leaving fashion to start Waggo. “I had been working so many hours for so many years and I knew that I only wanted to continue doing that it was for myself.”
When I talk to people about why they haven’t gone full steam ahead with their business ideas, the same fears come up again and again. There’s this preconceived notion that you need to have an extensive network of contacts in the industry you’re launching into and have investment at the start. The reality is – you don’t. You don’t need contacts at all – you can build them on your own – and especially if you’re creating a ‘lifestyle’ business, you often don’t need capital to start.
Regine’s entrepreneurial journey is the perfect example of that. She didn’t know anyone in the pet industry before she started. Up to today, she hasn’t received outside investment, yet she’s managed to create a business that’s a forerunner in her industry.
The success of her business has been hard-won. And, by that, I mean that it’s the result of her own trial and error, constantly testing new things and making the feedback loop faster and faster. In this conversation, she breaks down what some of those lessons have been. She also broke down how she tested whether her idea was viable before she got started – “start small” and “refine as much as possible” – and why starting a business means getting comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. If you’re thinking about starting your own business and don’t know where to start, think of this as your guide.
I moved to New York just after college because I had a friend who had worked with Adam Lippes before. She set me up with an interview with him. I started there as his assistant, and loved it so much that I knew I wanted to continue. I later moved into the sales team. When he was ready to open his first retail location, I showed some interest in helping him get it up and running and so by the time I left there, I was helping oversee the retail leg of the business. It was an incredible experience to be so young and to be put in charge of a part of the business they were so excited to grow. I was involved in everything from the build out to merchandising, buying and setting up all the new systems. At Marc Jacobs, I was a department store and specialty account manager where I oversaw our relationships with wholesalers including store merchandising, product assortments, sales projections, advertising, etc.
ON HER TRANSITION FROM FASHION TO PET PRODUCTS
While I was working at Marc Jacobs, I had been volunteering regularly with Barc Shelter in Brooklyn. I knew that at some point I wanted to start my own business. At the time I was looking for a business that inspired me. I had an inkling that eventually I wanted to work with animals but I wanted to use my background in merchandising and somehow interweave them. Waggo came organically, like when I started shopping for my new dog – that I’d adopted after walking him at Barc – and realized I couldn’t find products that both suited him and my home. My wholesale background really helped me when starting Waggo because I immediately knew how to approach customers and knew what they needed in order to buy the collection. I learned a lot from Adam about quality and the small details and from Marc I learned how to have fun with product.
HOW SHE TESTED THE VIABILITY OF THE BUSINESS
I started small. I tested out some toy concepts and had samples produced to test and bring to our first tradeshow. The first toy we ever did was a giant rubber paperclip and the reaction we got was so amazing that I knew we were onto something. The advice I would give to those with a great idea is start small. Refine your idea as much as possible and then introduce it in the most manageable way, whether that means showing it to friends and family or bringing it to a small tradeshow. And after that, it’s important to follow your gut. If a product isn’t getting the reaction you hoped for, don’t force it. Try something new.
ADVICE IF YOU’RE CHANGING CAREERS…
It’s most important that you are inspired by your business idea – because you will be spending a lot of time on it. It’s really easy to think of a career change as the end of something but in a lot of ways, it’s just a new adventure and all the experience you had will not go to waste. I wanted to build a business where I could not only do something that inspires me but that I could also give back to the shelter community. We partner with shelters regularly to provide them with supplies that they need and that was an important component to the business. I think that when you’re ready for a change, you just know. I had been working so many hours for so many years and I knew that I only wanted to continue doing that if it was for myself. It’s very easy to be stuck in your ways, and it’s very scary to do something new. However, I think it’s a really satisfying and exciting thing to be thrown into something you know nothing about. Learning the intricacies of a new business is so fun. I am someone that needs to keep moving along. I have a hard time sticking with something that I am not happy with. I think optimism with a dash of realism is the way to go. It’s important to be confident about your decision but also to hear what others have to say and to take that into account.
HOW FRIENDS & FAMILY REACTED TO THE NEWS OF HER CAREER CHANGE
I think anyone that knows me well was not surprised by my decision (except for maybe my boss) to change paths. I had always looked for entrepreneurial ways to express myself at work whether it be taking on new projects or finding more productive/effective ways to do things. They knew about my obsession with my dog so I don’t think anyone was shocked.
We make dog products that fit beautifully into your home and are also playful pieces that your dog will enjoy. When I used to shop for things for my dog, everything would have dog paws on it or bone prints and my goal was to steer clear of things like that because I think there are a lot of people just looking for something simple and modern for their dogs.
The market is really oversaturated with quick and easy products that while they serve a purpose, they are not the prettiest. Our goal was to always have a product that is well made and of course looks good. Its changed a lot since 2011 when we launched, there are more and more products than ever and I think many brands have caught on to the fact that so many people are looking for items that look good in their home.
I think the most important thing is to keep your head down and keep developing things that you like. There will always be copycats and those that take inspiration from you but you just need to do it better and your customers will notice. It can be incredibly frustrating but my advice would be to just stay focused.
ON BECOMING HER OWN BOSS
I really enjoy the experience of learning from others at work but there is something about starting from scratch and making mistakes on your own and learning from them that is really exciting. You really have to take full responsibility for everything and learn how to fix things when they are wrong. I come from a family of entrepreneurs and I really felt like it was in the blood a little bit – it felt like it was something I just had to do.
HER WORK SCHEDULE
I had a baby in October so things have recently gotten a bit more hectic. Our office is in walking distance from my house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and I spend most of my time there. Once a week, I will typically be out visiting stores and checking out the current market to see how product is being merchandised and displayed. It’s also really helpful to speak with store owners and customers to get feedback on our product. I try to spend a day or two a week just developing new products and working on sample improvements and production updates to keep the collection looking fresh. The rest of the time is primarily spent working with our designer on upcoming marketing and social media campaigns, speaking to our accounts and managing photo shoots.
BUILDING A TEAM
When I first developed my products, it was just me! Today we have a Warehouse and Customer Service Team, someone dedicated to Design, another to Sales and support staff. We hired our PR team early on, as we felt it was important to get our name out there both through trade shows and through editorial. It’s definitely a costly expense but if no one knows about you, it’s very hard to sell anything! We have found it to be a really important part of growing the business. We definitely see an impact on sales when we have new product features in magazines. The internet has given everyone the opportunity to open their own storefront without the tremendous overhead of traditional retail. We work with some fantastic retailers across the country that show our brand so well so we never felt the need to go the route of opening our own stores.
BALANCING MOTHERHOOD AND WORK
I have to be so much more efficient! I “worked” from home for the first few months after having Lila and wow, that was challenging. I used to be someone that would push off projects occasionally and now I don’t have the luxury of doing that anymore. When I get started on something, I have to finish it … and quickly. I shortened my work day a little bit once I became a mom because I have always wanted to balance the two worlds. I want to spend as much time with her as possible but I also love what I do so much! In terms of overcoming mum-guilt, it’s best to just accept that you never will. Sad Face. But in all seriousness, its hard… I always keep in the back of my head that she is learning amazing things when she is away from me and gaining independence. I can’t wait to show her the business I have built as she gets older!
I have learnt so many big lessons but one that has stuck with me is to grow slowly. We had a large account purchase from us the same year we launched and I just wasn’t prepared for the amount of product, work and time it would take to properly support them. Lesson learned! Now I am much more selective about what we take on. I am proud at my ability to roll with the punches. Looking back, I think I thought the world was ending a few times but I survived and learned.
HER ADVICE TO FELLOW ENTREPENEURS
Go slow and steady. Think through the details of your life change but also don’t be so timid that you don’t take the leap. Be patient with yourself and those around you and make mistakes but learn from them so you can improve next time.