Cat in the Box founder, Dawn LaFontaine, a lifelong lover of animals and pet “mom” to a menagerie of creatures, knows that cats love boxes, but wondered why cat owners put up with dirty, ugly shipping cartons in their homes. She founded Cat in the Box, which makes whimsical cardboard box playhouses for cats who think inside the box, to meet cats’ scientific need for access to a box, and their guardian’s desire for something fun and attractive to display in their homes. Her products are made in the USA, eco-friendly, and of course, cat safe.
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Thank you for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers. They want to know you, some of the background story to bring some context to your interview.
Dawn LaFontaine: Cats are crazy for cardboard boxes. Google “cats in boxes” and you’ll get about 121 million hits, mostly photos and videos of cats squeezing into boxes they have no business squeezing into. The idea for this business came to me during a trip with my mother to her cat sitter. The sitter is a woman who clearly cares about home decor. But on this day her carefully styled living room looked like the inside of a UPS truck: cardboard boxes everywhere. She sheepishly, explained: “They’re for the cats.”
I already knew that cats like boxes (there’s actual science behind it; see my website for the details), but it got me thinking, why do their owners put up with dirty, ugly Amazon boxes in their homes? Why not something clever, and fun (not to mention, highly Instagram-able)? I designed a couple, which are made in the USA from recycled cardboard and imprinted with cat-safe, human-grade soy inks.
My boxes have been featured in The Boston Globe, Parade Magazine online, Product Hunt, TrendHunter, designboom.com, and in a variety of local media outlets and popular cat blogs. And cats and their people love them! Customers have literally sent me hundreds of photos and videos of their cats playing, sleeping, and hiding in my boxes.
You are a successful entrepreneur, so we’d like your view point, do you believe entrepreneurs are born or made? Explain.
Dawn LaFontaine: Made. If only it was so easy that you could be “born” into success in this very difficult endeavor.
There’s nothing magical about being a successful entrepreneur. You have to want it bad enough to persevere. It’s easy to give up when the first thing goes wrong, when you lose a chunk of money when you can’t figure something out. The ones that make it are the ones that stick with it and swerve when they need to swerve, pivot when they need to pivot, and not just give up.
But what makes a person persevere when the going gets tough? I’m assuming there are those people who will say that perseverance is a trait you’re born with. I’d argue it’s a quality that grows within you from life experiences.
If you were asked to describe yourself as an entrepreneur in a few words, what would you say?
Dawn LaFontaine: I don’t give up. Period
Tell us about what your company does and how did it change over the years?
Dawn LaFontaine: I’ve been in business for only three years so “over the years” might be a bit of hyperbole. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had challenges to address. My first two products were light but large. I was relying on a specific service offered by USPS to ship them. When the postal service conducted a rate change, they effectively eliminated that service. I spent a year redesigning my large products to make them more compact.
My next group of products were more compact, but the compactness introduced other issues. They weren’t as sturdy when assembled. And owners were demanding an additional feature — a scratcher — that is typically made in China. I wanted my product to be American-made because cats chew and lick cardboard and China has an unsavory history with pet products.
I redesigned my next product to address this customer feedback. My Spooky Cat Haunted House is extremely easy to assemble, incredibly sturdy, and includes a scratcher (I think I found the only factory in the U.S. willing to make a custom scratcher). I redesigned my best-selling product, a gingerbread house for cats, in the same way.
I also wanted to expand to include other unique cat products that are not found in the big box stores. Cardboard playhouses are fun, but they’re expensive to manufacture, ship and store. I’m introducing my first non-box product, a Christmas stocking for cats, this season.
Thank you for all that. Now for the main focus of this interview. With close to 11.000 new businesses registered daily in the US, what must an entrepreneur assume when starting a business?
Dawn LaFontaine: You can assume that someone else has tried what you’re planning to try. That doesn’t mean yours is going to fail, but you have to keep in mind that there are a few new ideas out there. You need to think about what you’re going to do differently that someone else hasn’t already tried.
Did you make any wrong assumptions before starting a business that you ended up paying dearly for?
Dawn LaFontaine: I haven’t paid dearly for anything – us bootstrapping entrepreneurs rarely put too much money in any one thing. But I did make a huge false assumption in starting this business: that the product is the thing. You think, as in the baseball movie, “if you build it, they will come.” In other words, make something unique, fun, or amazing and people will see it and buy it. No, they won’t.
The idea isn’t anything at all. Don’t spend too much time coming up with The Next Big Thing. It’s not about the thing. It’s about implementation. The great thing about it being about implementation is that you can take everything you learned about designing, manufacturing, marketing, selling, shipping, advertising your thing and apply it to another thing. You get to keep everything you ever learned.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what advice would you give yourself and why? Explain.
Dawn LaFontaine: Start earlier.
Gosh, I waited until my kids were out of the house. I was busy as a stay-at-home mother. I wanted to focus on my children and our household, which was more than a full-time job. But a business needs time to marinate. A website needs to age. It takes a long time to build a mailing list. I could have been writing blog posts in the evening.
I only wish I hadn’t waited to start.
What is the worst advice you received regarding running a business and what lesson would you like others to learn from your experience?
Dawn LaFontaine: All the advice I got was, “don’t do that. It’s too risky.”
My advice would be, “don’t listen to others who discourage you.”
In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business? What hasn’t changed?
Dawn LaFontaine: I’m in eCommerce. It’s been a good time for the eCommerce business as more people become comfortable purchasing online from direct-to-consumer businesses. All the other aspects of running a business, from accounting to supply chain issues will always exist.
What is a common myth about entrepreneurship that aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be business owners believe in? What advice would you give them?
Dawn LaFontaine: It’s a common myth that entrepreneurs are always working. While it’s true that you have to work a lot at the beginning, most of the really successful entrepreneurs that I’ve met work exactly as much time as they enjoy working.
What traits, qualities, and assumptions do you believe are most important to have before starting a business?
Dawn LaFontaine: Perseverance most of all. A desire to win and prove others wrong. A willingness to continuously learn, and a willingness to be uncomfortable not knowing how to do things. An openness to getting help from others and to baring yourself in all of your naivete.
How can aspiring leaders prepare themselves for the future challenges of entrepreneurship? Are there any books, websites, or even movies to learn from?
Dawn LaFontaine: There are too many to mention. Read everything. Listen to every podcast. Join groups – free groups, paid groups. Participate in everything. Apply for everything (there are so many contests, grants, accelerator programs once you go looking for them).
You have shared quite a bit of your wisdom and our readers thank you for your generosity but would also love to know: If you could choose any job other than being an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Dawn LaFontaine: I was a stay-at-home mother for 22 years. Best job I ever had.
Thank you so much for your time, I believe I speak for all of our readers when I say that this has been incredibly insightful. We do have one more question: If you could add anyone to Mount Rushmore, but not a politician, who would it be; why?
Dawn LaFontaine: I’ve visited Mt. Rushmore. It’s fantastic, and the history of the Black Hills and the monument is fascinating. I wouldn’t add anyone to those mountains.
Larry Yatch, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Dawn LaFontaine for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Dawn LaFontaine or her company, you can do it through her – Instagram
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