Tuft and Paw founder Jackson Cunningham explains how he and his girlfriend and co-founder Vanessa have started Tuft and Paw, an online cat furniture business, and grown it to a significant level without any outside funding, how Tuft and Paw operates as a company, how Tuft and Paw have been using a combination of digital marketing and PR to grow its business, why he prefers self-funding over venture capital money, how he deals with stress and challenges of being an entrepreneur, lessons he has learned from his journey so far and much more.
Future Startup: What is your background? Could you please tell us about your journey to entrepreneurship and what you are doing today?
Jackson Cunningham: I was in the real estate industry about 10 years ago, but I wasn't great at networking so I ended up getting all my clients from digital marketing (i.e. SEO, PPC) which wasn't as common back then. I realized that I didn't really like real estate very much, but I loved the actual marketing aspect so I started my first website selling handmade masquerade masks and within a few months I was making enough to support myself so I could quit my other job. Since then I've started several companies and never looked back.
Future Startup: What is Tuft + Paw?
Jackson Cunningham: Tuft and Paw is my most recent project that I'm really excited about. We make and sell beautiful cat furniture.
Future Startup: What motivated you to start Tuft + Paw? When and how did you come up with the idea and start Tuft + Paw?
Jackson Cunningham: In 2015, I was on a trip abroad with my girlfriend and we saw some homeless cats being treated very poorly. We vowed to start a company that could eventually give back to the homeless cat community (over a million homeless cats are euthanized in the US each year). A few months later, we adopted our cat Sammie Peppers and realized the options for cat furniture were atrocious - things we wouldn't even think about unless it was "pet" furniture. It felt like the perfect opportunity.
Future Startup: Could you please give us an overview of Tuft + Paw today in terms of the products and services you offer, team size, operations, size of your business i.e. paying customers etc?
Jackson Cunningham: Today, we sell a variety of product categories such as cat trees, scratching posts, litter boxes, and cat beds. Most of our products come from small artisans around the world.
Our team consists of myself, our product designer/engineer, our cat behavior consultant, and our digital marketing specialist but we're growing. I can't go into too much detail on the numbers but we've been doubling every few months for the last year and starting to get a lot of traction.
Future Startup: What went into building the initial operation? How did you manage initial funding and other things to get started?
Jackson Cunningham: I started the company very lean and sort of approached it like planting a tree. I setup the website myself, created all the product images and descriptions and then started doing some outreach to get the word out.
Then it kind of sat in the background for about a year and slowly orders started trickling in.
As soon as we were getting a few orders a week, I ordered a small amount of inventory from my savings. It's been bootstrapped the entire way but we may be looking at funding as we start to design more complex products and our team continues to grow.
Future Startup: How have you attracted users and grown Tuft + Paw?
Jackson Cunningham: Mostly through Instagram, Facebook ads, content marketing, and partnerships.
Future Startup: You launched Tuft + Paw in October 2016, how much has the company evolved over the past years? How have you grown your revenue?
Jackson Cunningham: It's evolved a lot. We started by dropshipping products, then we started inventorying products from around the world at our warehouse, and now we're starting to design some of our own products. Our revenue has grown primarily via PR outreach.
Future Startup: What’s your business model? You work with artisans and brands who sell their products using your platform, how does the partnership work?
Jackson Cunningham: We import products that are hard to find and expensive to ship at wholesale rates and then we sell them at retail prices in North America. We save the customer money because international furniture shipping costs are prohibitive.
Future Startup: Have you raised any outside investment? What are your plans, funding-wise, going forward?
Jackson Cunningham: We try as hard as we can to self-fund unless there is a very good opportunity for growth that requires outside capital. Our ideal situation is to self-fund, then take a loan, then give away equity (in that order).
Future Startup: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Jackson Cunningham: Logistics for furniture shipping are really complex. You can make or break your business by having good logistics and warehousing to reduce inbound and outbound shipping costs. Shipping containers and third party warehouse costs are not transparent at all so it's very hard to compare pricing.
Future Startup: How do your sales and marketing work?
Jackson Cunningham: We just try to focus on having incredible products and we find that makes marketing 10 times easier. We make targeted pitches to big media outlets and we find that works well.
Future Startup: What are some lessons you’ve learned?
Jackson Cunningham: I learned that it's not a great idea to focus on short-term revenue targets. It can lead you to make decisions that are harmful to long-term growth and is also really stressful. It pays off to focus on the long term.
Future Startup: What are your goals for the future?
Jackson Cunningham: I want to launch some truly innovative products (we have a game changer product on the horizon but it's top secret until January when we launch our Kickstarter). I feel like pet furniture is 30 years behind and could use some fresh eyes to bring new products to market.
Future Startup: What’s your advice for other entrepreneurs who are trying to build a business?
Jackson Cunningham: I would say give yourself a deadline and start your business. You'll learn way more by doing instead of researching and preparing. Just do the thing.
Future Startup: Building a company is a challenging job, founders go through this constant ups and downs, how do you deal with the stress and challenges that come with being a founder?
Jackson Cunningham: It's really tough and just comes with the territory. But I try to manage it by eating healthy, rock climbing, and doing yoga. No emails after dinner and no coffee afternoon.
Future Startup: Where can our readers go to learn more about Tuft + Paw?
Jackson Cunningham: Thanks for asking! They can follow us on IG or visit tuftandpaw.com to see our modern cat furniture collection. We also have an email signup at the bottom of our website if they want to hear about special sales or new products.
Cover photo: Jackson Cunningham and Vanessa, Founders, Tuft and Paw (From left to right)