The Unofficial Shopify Podcast

Growing Cat Backpacks into a 7-Figure Biz

Episode Summary

w/ Emily Miethner of Travel Cat

Episode Notes

Today's guest co-founded the #1 cat travel brand in the world. You read that right.

We're joined by Emily Miethner from, now the #1 cat travel brand in the world, and a fast-growing, global 7-figure DTC brand serving catstomers in 75+ countries. As the Chief Marketing Officer, Emily manages influencer marketing, SMS and email marketing, organic digital content, retail, product development, and partnerships.

She's been featured on Good Morning America, in-studio on Cheddar TV Live, and in The New York Times, Wall Sreet Journal, Vice, U.S. News, Vogue, Fast Company, and more, and on 20+ podcasts.

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Episode Transcription

The Unofficial Shopify Podcast

Kurt Elster: Hello, and welcome back to The Unofficial Shopify Podcast, and on today’s show we are joined by someone who cofounded the number one cat, C-A-T, cat travel brand in the world. You heard that right. Yes, we are joined by Emily Miethner from, now the number one cat travel brand in the world and a fast growing global seven figure direct-to-consumer brand serving catstomers, that’s an industry term in the cat travel world, in 75 countries. As the Chief Marketing Officer, Emily manages quite a bit that we’re gonna hear about today. Influencer marketing, SMS and email marketing, organic digital content, retail product development, and partnerships. That sounds like a lot.

In addition to that, she’s doing a lot of PR. She’s been featured on Good Morning America, GMA, in-studio on Cheddar TV Live, and in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Vice, U.S. News, Vogue, Fast Company. Emily, thank you for joining. Oh, I forgot to say my name. I’m your host, Kurt Elster.

Ezra Firestone Sound Board Clip: Tech Nasty!

Kurt Elster: Emily, thank you for joining us.

Emily Miethner: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here. Your podcast is one of the very first I started listening to when we got into the DTC eCommerce world, so thrilled to be here.

Kurt Elster: I’m honored. Thank you. I hope it was helpful and I hope that we can return the favor here to some folks by sharing your story.

Emily Miethner: Yes. Same.

Kurt Elster: So, tell me about Travel Cat. What is a Travel Cat? What do you sell?

Emily Miethner: Yes. So, we sell any sort of product you need to go beyond the great indoors, as we like to say, with your cat. Cat backpacks and cat harnesses are our two biggest products, but we also sell portable litter boxes, portable beds, collars, treat pouches, bowls, anything again to make traveling with your cat, whether that’s for fun or out of necessity, more easy and less stressful. So, those are the different things that we sell.

Kurt Elster: And I think that does not do justice to what appears to be the number one product here for this brand, which is a backpack cat carrier.

Emily Miethner: Yes. Our number one seller.

Kurt Elster: Describe this to me.

Emily Miethner: It’s called the Fat Cat cat backpack. It holds up to 25 pounds of cat. So, it could be one large cat or multiple little cats. We’ve seen it all. And it is a backpack carrier that has the little bubble on the front that also changes out to a screen, so it’s very versatile. It’s extremely cute. A lot of cats will also stick their heads out of the top or look through the little bubble. But at the end of the day, it is just a carrier, and everybody needs a carrier for their cat to at least go to the vet, so although it is very cute and can look very novel, it is at the end of the day a very useful product, as well.

Kurt Elster: So, you’re like, “Look, get over the fact that we strapped a cat backpack with…” It’s the bubble that does it. It’s like it’s half a dome, like a plastic dome that the cat’s got like full 180 view out this backpack. That is hilarious when you see it. But like once you get over the novelty of that, you’re like, “Look, it’s just a legitimate cat carrier.” And honestly, having fought my cat into the cat carrier to go to the vet, just like the old plastic one with the metal screen, he does not like this. And it’s like all hard surfaces. I’m always fearful of him getting injured in this thing. Honestly, the backpack sounds like a better solution now that you’ve been like, “Hey, get over it. It’s a cat carrier.”

Emily Miethner: It is. Wait, so you have a cat?

Kurt Elster: I do. He’s 13 now. His name is Nickers, like Snickers, and because it looks like he’s wearing pants, like three-quarter length pants. And he comes, he knows his name. He comes when he’s called. He’s a very sweet boy.

Emily Miethner: That’s amazing. Okay, fantastic. Yeah, so the reason, the two big reasons that my husband and I… So, my husband and I are partners, which is its own very special thing in business and in life. So, the two main reasons that we started the company were inspired by a life event, which was we rescued a kitten totally on a whim. We had been together at that point for over 10 years. We had never discussed getting a pet or anything. But we just happened to be in the neighborhood when a family member found a stray kitten and we both sort of just looked at each other and were like, “Let’s go visit that kitten.” And so, we took her home. We had both never had cats before, so I had lots of other animals, like everything but a cat, but we went into full on research mode. Of course, we want to be the best cat parents we can be.

And so, one big thing that we found is that there are really a lot of misconceptions about being a cat parent and what cats need to live a happy and healthy life. So, I’m sure you’ve heard this as well. You know, when people talk about cats, a lot of times you hear, “Oh, well, they’re easy. They sleep all day. You don’t need to do much with them.” And that is a total lie. Cats need stimulation. They’re social creatures. They need enrichment to live long and happy lives. So, that was one big thing we found, and then the other thing we found being both entrepreneurs ourselves, was that there really were not and still are not a lot of companies dedicated just to cats and cat people.

There’s a lot of pet product brands and there’s a lot, like even more dog brands, dog-specific brands, and cat people are really treated a lot as second class citizens when it comes to products and brands that they feel like they can really connect with and that the cats are not an afterthought. So, we started this company to create products that would make it easier to get cats to have enrichment, stimulation, outside safely and easily, and also have always committed, have always been, and will always be dedicated to making products and building community and content just for cat people.

Kurt Elster: So, when you started this, how do you go from like this, “Hey, we have a kitten, and doing the research there’s misconceptions out here,” to cat brand and cat backpack? There’s a big jump there between I got a kitten and now I’m like the number one Travel Cat ambassador.

Emily Miethner: Well, we are almost about five years old, so it’s been-

Kurt Elster: You started when?

Emily Miethner: End of 2017, so we launched our Shopify store October 2017. We have that anniversary or do like an anniversary sale during that. So, we have been around for a while and it’s been steady growth, but yeah, we just… We found this need in the market and we also, like I mentioned, my husband and I have both had previous companies. We’ve been pretty much like lifelong entrepreneurs, so for us we just said, “Yeah, let’s try this. Let’s try something new.” And this was actually also the first company that we worked on, that we have worked on fully together. So, we had previously helped each other out with our separate companies, because we have very different skillsets, but this was the first one where we sort of went in 50/50 and we do actually have a third partner, as well. So, we just have very complementary skills, so he handles all of the paid marketing and analytics, so Facebook marketing, Google marketing, all that kind of stuff, and he also learned a lot about logistics and production in working with our manufacturers. That was something brand new that he took on.

And for me, I’ve used the digital marketing community building skills that I’ve gained in previous companies. So, we have very separate and distinct roles and that just worked out really well for what this company has needed to succeed.

Kurt Elster: Certainly, you rattled off a bunch of products in your catalog. Which did you start with? All of the above or one?

Emily Miethner: So, we just started with backpacks, cat backpacks, and it’s actually crazy to me to think how long it took for us to say, “Oh, we should also have harnesses.” Because it’s such… You know, they complement each other so well. Some people will just have the backpack and keep the backpack zipped up, but majority of people are also having the cat in a harness in the backpack, because a lot of the cats will sort of hang out or people will be walking their cats and use the backpack as sort of a safe space for the cat to jump into if they’re getting tired, or they get spooked by something, so the first was the backpacks and the harnesses. And then we just grew out from there.

Again, what are the things that you might need to travel with your cat? Whether you are going on a hike to a local park, or a national park, or if you’re traveling out of necessity, like moving across country or having to visit family, and Ian and I, we are not the sort of outdoor adventure cat people, really, but we are definitely Travel Cat people ourselves in the sense that we bring our cats on a lot of road trips to go to various places with us when we need to travel for fun or for work. So, we’ve used and gotten a lot of great product ideas from our own trips, including a 40-plus hour road trip that we did over three weeks with our two cats.

We did eventually adopt a second cat so Andy would have a friend and they tolerate each other.

Kurt Elster: Well, cats playing is pretty violent. I think that’s… When you see two cats, you’re like, “Oh, they’re fighting.” They might be good friends beating the hell out of each other, because that’s like cat sport.

Emily Miethner: It’s true.

Kurt Elster: So, when the cat backpack came out, was yours the first styled like this or were you jumping into an existing niche? What was the… Give me the lay of the land in 2017.

Emily Miethner: You know, it is very crazy to see how much the idea of taking out your cat and walking your cat has grown in the past five years. It’s still pretty niche, like a lot of people when I say cat backpack, they think a backpack that your cat wears, like a little clothing item, because just most people just… They don’t think of cats as a pet that you take outside. So, there were cat backpacks on the market beforehand, but so for us, we really… What we did to differentiate is just create the best quality product. And again, also to right from the start build educational content and community around this idea.

Because you know, we always have recognized that this is not common to do more with your cat. And also, it’s not necessarily easy depending on how you might want to be training your cat to use a harness, or get into a backpack, and cats are not dogs, so we don’t present it like, “Oh, this is easy peasy. Just throw your cat in the backpack and they’ll love it.” So, we knew from the beginning for our catstomers, as you mentioned, as we lovingly call them, to be successful with having these products be useful and to help enrich both the human and the cat’s lives, they have to do it the right way.

And so, we were always creating a lot of educational articles and videos right from the start to help people learn how to make their cat a Travel Cat.

Kurt Elster: Sounds like you were serial entrepreneurs already. Were friends and family shocked by this decision to jump into cat accessories?

Emily Miethner: Yeah. You know, it’s very different from what we’ve done before. I actually… I was doing it sort of on the side. We were sort of doing it on the side in addition to other businesses at the start, and I wasn’t telling anyone. We actually kept it a secret for a very long time, for a good amount of time, and eventually we just said to each other, “This is a real, legitimate, big…” You know, this is gonna be a big business and it’s working really well, so eventually we sort of came out with it.

But yeah, it’s definitely funny, because it’s just it’s so niche, but I think it’s a great example of something can be very niche and be seemingly very specific, and like how could you make a real business out of this, but if you’re filling a need, and you’re marketing in the right way, and you’re putting in the extra effort to really build a strong brand through things like community and content, this business is blowing up and we know it’s gonna continue to grow exponentially. So, yeah, it’s a little silly and funny, but it’s a legit huge business.

Kurt Elster: Well, I think something like one in four households in the United States has a cat, so how niche is it? But then what percent of those are like, “Hey, let’s travel with this cat in a backpack.” We gotta do it in style.

Emily Miethner: Right, right. Well, right, but so cats are outgrowing, outpacing pet ownership. People are getting pets more now than they are now… Sorry, getting cats now more than they’re getting dogs. We always joke that dogs will be extinct by 2040.

Kurt Elster: Oh, no!

Emily Miethner: We’re just kidding. We love dogs. We love dogs. But yeah, and also it’s just it’s still a very… Again, cat-centric products is just still a very smaller market. Part of our strategy is also retail and small independent retail stores, and so we go to Global Pet Expo every year, which is the biggest retail pet trade show in the U.S., and we walk around, and still, it’s dog everywhere. Cats is still a much smaller market in terms of the number of businesses that are catering only to cats. But that’s… You know, we’re taking advantage of that.

Kurt Elster: Interesting. It sounds like you’re making the case that cats may be underserved.

Emily Miethner: They definitely are. They definitely are. Because people have this notion that, “Oh, cat people don’t like to spend money. Cats are finicky.” I mean-

Kurt Elster: That’s why you have to spend money on them. My cat’s like, “I have preferences on the right kind of litter to buy.” God help me if I get the wrong litter because they’re out. It doesn’t… It’s messy. He’ll let you know.

Emily Miethner: Well, and we have a premium product. It’s not luxury, but it’s premium. I mean, the Fat Cat is a 119 in terms of price point, and that’s actually sort of in the middle. We have our other best selling backpack is called the Navigator, and it’s made even more so for people who are doing longer hikes, more adventure, sort of outside hiking, and that’s 150. And so, what we really find is we have an extremely diverse range of people buying our product. We have people… Yes, we have the sort of urban, thirtysomething, upper-middle class female buying our products in a major metropolitan city, but we also have people who are 50 years old in a town in Minnesota you’ve never heard of, and they shop at Walmart for themselves, but they want to get the best products for their cats because their cats are like family.

Kurt Elster: We always… Paul Reda, my business partner, always says people will spend money on faith, kids, and pets. And like those three are really reception proof categories. And that’s actually what you’re describing here, is people will be like, “You know, I’m willing to spend more on my cat relative than I would on myself.” That’s kind of interesting and I absolutely believe it. Many people develop real relationships and love for their pets. So, why not spend some cash on them?

Well, you said you’d never manufactured anything before, and neither have I. Manufacturing scares me. Especially doing it for the first time. Talk me through that experience. Did it go well? Did you run into issues?

Emily Miethner: I mean, we certainly have had issues over this five year period, but we now have some really strong relationships with a number of manufacturers. We have diversified in terms of where we get our products, so not all of our top selling products come from the same place, and we just developed a really strong team of partners and we’re very happy and comfortable with where we are now. We are very lucky that with supply chain issues… I mean, we’ve definitely had hiccups, but we haven’t had any major issues that a lot of other businesses might have had if their timing was off of when they got shipments or missed shipments with COVID, and the pandemic, and it is rough, though. Our factories still have issues from time to time.

We just had one of our factories had a shutdown recently because of an outbreak, so the pandemic’s still affecting supply chain, and that can be tricky, and we try to communicate with customers. And just being transparent and honest, like the reason this is still out of stock, or we have to push a ship date is because our factory had a temporary closure due to COVID. I think for a lot of people in the U.S. that is sort of back of mind and they don’t think it’s an issue anymore, but it still touches us from time to time.

Kurt Elster: It’s not the nightmare that we had one to two years ago, but certainly it’s still there and we still run into supply chain bottlenecks intermittently. But like, you know, it’s easier now where it’s like, okay, can find alternatives. The delays aren’t as long. You get better ETAs. And I think things changed in that we’re a little more tolerant of dealing with it. I think consumers are aware of these issues now.

Emily Miethner: Yeah. And just in terms of process of new products, things… It definitely takes longer now to develop a new product. And for us, our strategy is focusing on less is more in the sense of not trying to push ourselves to come out with a ton of larger new products, especially because just what our products are, we want to make sure they’re safe, and they’re thoughtful, and when we are making new products or updating products it’s always feedback based on our customers.

For instance, one of our newest bags that I’m super excited about, it’s called That Transpurrter. We really embrace-

Kurt Elster: Who’s in charge of all these puns? They’re fabulous.

Emily Miethner: We embrace the puns. Oh, that’s our partner Alex. He’s come up with most of them. We do have a new incentive program now where if you come up with a name for a product you get a gift card, so we’re trying to get more of the team involved. But so that, so it’s the ultimate calming carrier, and it came out, we launched it. Over a year in development. Came up this late spring/summer, and we’ve already sold out. We’re pretty much as soon as the first few dozen started going out, we started getting reviews. We immediately looked at that feedback and we started making revision notes. We work with really excellent product designers to take what our customers want and implement that, so we’re not afraid of making adjustments quickly to physical products, which maybe not a lot of people think about. They’re like, “Well, if you come out with this one product,” because then you have to change the product photos, and the description, and people might have different versions. But you know, we’re always trying to improve our products and make them better, so again, as soon as that product came out we already started working on some small tweaks that we knew would make a pretty big difference, so that newer version of the Transpurrter is going to be shipping this fall.

So, you know, only about a six months in between, and not that the other product is not great, but these are just some nice tweaks that we think people are gonna really appreciate.

Kurt Elster: So, you take customer feedback in the form of reviews, I’m sure like customer support tickets, returns, that kind of thing, and then that feeds into a feedback loop for your product development cycle. It’s a good way to go about it. And on delivering these products, are you using 3PL, or do you do this yourself? Are we in a garage? What’s going on here?

Emily Miethner: No, no, no. So, we run our own warehouse, which we love. We were using a 3PL. When we hit that first milestone of not being able to pack our own boxes anymore, which is always fun, and realizing, “Okay, we need somebody to help us,” we did start with using a 3PL. It was a totally nightmare experience that lasted over a year and we eventually got to the point where I just said, “You know, there’s literally no way we could do a worse job. Let’s just try doing this on our own.” So, yeah, there was a lot of mistakes that were happening with the 3PL, and I would just say high level my tip there is if you’re having issues with the 3PL you’re using, just don’t be afraid to cut them because cutting your losses early… You know, it’s a big financial and logistic pain in the butt to move 3PLs. You have to move all your product. You have to start over. But if your 3PL is making numerous mistakes over a period of time, you just gotta move on. So, I wish we had moved on faster, but yeah, we’ve been shipping out of our… We actually just moved to a new warehouse that’s more than double the space of our first one and we have a full-time warehouse manager and multiple people picking and packing, and it’s really amazing to own that part of the process because it’s so important. I mean, it’s how fast people get their products and we’re able to deliver or fulfill within a couple of business days, so we’re pretty close to on par with Amazon, which is pretty exciting.

Kurt Elster: Compare and contrast. What do you think are some of the landmines, the pitfalls, for someone who’s trying to set up their own warehouse and do their own fulfillment for the first time? Especially coming from like I’ve got a 3PL and an established business.

Emily Miethner: Yeah. Well, I think the part with the 3PL, you just have to really do the research and spend a lot of time figuring out if they’re gonna be a good fit for your type of product and your needs. So, if you have a very low number of SKUs, and they’re super simple, and basic, and it’s not a consumable, there’s just there’s no 3PL that really does it all. And if they do, I would be very skeptical. I mean, maybe some of the most… the sort of biggest players out there. But you know, there’s some 3PLs that… We also do Amazon, so Amazon is a good chunk of our business, although we’re mainly direct to consumer on our site. But there’s some 3PLs that charge a lot more or don’t do… They don’t do retail. They don’t do Amazon.

You know, so I think for us, we’re happy that we made the decision because of the… Since we have I would say maybe more a complex strategy in terms of all the different channels that we’re selling on, the different types of ways we’re sending out products, from shipping to Amazon, to shipping to retail partners, small ones, big ones, and then even for instance we launched this huge partnership with a video game called Stray, and we made a… It’s a video game where you play as a cat. You would like it since you’re a cat parent yourself. So, it’s a very accessible puzzle video game and we made a custom harness that looks like the harness that the cat is wearing in the game and a custom backpack. And just even with that partnership, there’s all of these nuances of influencers, and preorders, and early shipments, and first batch, second batch, and just all this stuff where if we were working with a 3PL, I think it would just be so easy for there to be many, many mistakes, so just to be able to have our own warehouse space where we can talk directly to the warehouse manager whenever we want. We can go in physically if there’s an issue. It just makes sense for us and it-

Kurt Elster: You get a lot of flexibility with it when you own it.

Emily Miethner: Yes. Yes. That’s huge. Yes. I think, right, if you need more flexibility with your strategy and how you’re shipping to customers and different types of customers, I strongly consider renting… And you don’t have to own a space. You can just rent a space. And we did actually find somebody in a Shopify networking group who helped us as a consultant to set up the warehouse at first. So, that was definitely helpful too, because we had never set up a warehouse before, so maybe that’s not something people think of. You can hire consultants to help you figure out what type of supplies, and equipment, and sort of set up flow might you need to set up your space in a good way. And just hiring. We hired a really experienced warehouse manager and that made all the difference, as well.

Kurt Elster: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. When you hire someone smarter than you at something, just listen to them on what they want to do and suddenly life becomes much easier.

Emily Miethner: Yes.

Kurt Elster: Within reason, of course. So, early on, we go back to 2017, 2018, this is a… Yeah, cat owners may be underserved, but it’s still an established, crowded space. So, how do you get the word out? What’s that look like?

Emily Miethner: That looks like just trying a lot of different things, but also each year between the three of us, the three partners, so it’s my third partner, Alex, he handles a lot of the web side of things, like the tech side of things. We just really try to make sure that each of us are doing one to two initiatives that are gonna really make an impact and drive the business forward. Versus it’s very easy to kind of get lost in day to day random things that don’t really make a difference. But by committing to doing like a couple big things every year, so it’s just been doing that continuously and trying a lot of new things.

During the pandemic, we started running virtual events, and virtual events for a cat product is not something you’d think, “Oh yeah, that’s so obvious.” But we did. We had started to go to cat conventions. Those are a thing. Before the pandemic. And we just really love-

Kurt Elster: In person?

Emily Miethner: In person. Yeah. Before the pandemic. We had gone to about three cat conventions and it was just… It’s a really great experience to sell your product in person, to be giving the pitch, and answering questions live. I mean, I really recommend that for any DTC brand. If you have an opportunity to do a popup, to be involved in a market, what a great experience to just get that live feedback. So, we had really enjoyed that and then we had started… I said, “You know, if we’re gonna be here, let’s host panels about traveling with your cat.”

So, we’re not just there, but again, we’re educating. We’re always thinking about how can we educate. So, when the pandemic happened, we started doing virtual events, and they… We started off small and the last virtual event we did a year and a half after we started, we did a Travel Cat virtual summit with over 700 people attended this event. And it was a three hour, three hour event. Virtual. 700 people.

Kurt Elster: Travel Cat summit. Three hours. 700 people. It’s virtual. What are the talks, the panel? What’s the content for that look like?

Emily Miethner: Yeah. So, and that was actually… The summit was a good example of like adjusting our strategy. So, at that point we had been doing virtual events for a bit over a year, and we looked back at the calendar and saw what were the RSVPs like for each one, for each topic, each time of year, and we said, “You know, the summer was kind of slow.” So, instead of doing something during the spring and summer, let’s do a big spring event. And so, we just took the topics that we knew that our community was most interested in, and we just broke them up a bit more. Because we also got feedback from the virtual events that were broad, like harness training, backpack training, people wanted to get a little more granular.

So, for the summit, we had a session just on hiking and outdoor traveling, and then we had a separate session on travel for at hotels, and on airlines, and in cars. We had a session about training older cats and for more advanced people. You know, and then we also just threw in some fun things like a general cat health panel. We had a panel about how to make your cat Instagram famous. So, you know, we did some sort of broad categories, as well, that weren’t so specific to our products, but then we did also have a product demo going on during each time slot. So, we had three to four session topics people could choose from per time slot, so I think there was about 20 different sessions. It ended with cat bingo with a famous Instagram cat guy, @Nathanthecatlady. He’s hilarious.

So, it was really fun, and people loved it, and it was also the sessions were small enough where, and we did this on purpose, where there’s maybe 30 to 40 people per session, and we recruited a really diverse range of people from our community to be the speakers, and so we know that a lot of people made these real connections that they’ve carried on now after the event. Whether that’s actually like meeting up with people who are based in their city, or now we see the connection happening on Instagram, people talking to each other and that sort of thing, and that is extremely powerful. If you as a brand, when people talk about community, it’s usually it can be a very fluffy word. What does that mean?

But if you can build community where you’re introducing people to other people who they will stay connected with after they’re done with whatever that connection point was that you facilitated, that’s extremely powerful and you’re gonna create some really strong, loyal fans through doing that.

Kurt Elster: Absolutely. Yeah. We hear authenticity and community a lot as keywords or buzzwords in eCommerce marketing and on this show, and I think it would be really easy to just dismiss a lot of ideas as like, “Oh, well, that won’t work, and I won’t bother with that.” It’s like, “All right, someone’s gonna sell a cat backpack and they’re gonna do an online virtual event for it and it’ll get 700 attendees over three hours.” And they’ll be like, “Bullshit. I don’t believe you.” But out of context it sounds ridiculous, right? And then, but when you hear it told like this, you go, “Absolutely, I believe it would work.” So, you give yourself a chance to try it, we might get somewhere here if we’re open minded about some of these things.

But I think you personally, I think your superpower seems to be being able to readily identify what does and doesn’t work and being able to like, “Let’s double down on that. Let’s go harder on that. Let’s do that but better.” Or let’s cut what’s not working and fix it. It really, it’s a consistent theme here. That’s a good ability to have.

Emily Miethner: Yes. Yes. No, thanks. Yeah, I appreciate that. Yeah. And you know, I think really knowing… Right, like you said, like what is working and doubling down on that… I mean, so this really creating event opportunities, giving people speaking opportunities, so I organized hundreds of events and programs in my past company, and I always knew one of the most powerful things is to give people an opportunity to be a leader. Giving people an opportunity to share their experience in different ways. So, for instance, having people, recruiting people to speak on panels, virtual or in person, has been really special and amazing.

And so, now that in-person events are happening again, we’re gonna continue doing virtual events, but for instance, Cat Con is the biggest cat convention that happens and has been happening in California since I want to say around maybe 2015 or so. And so, this year it’s back for the first time in a couple of years, and immediately I said, “You know what? We’re gonna go hard at this event.” We’re gonna get a big booth. We’re gonna have our whole team there. And we’re going to pay to have a panel because we want to have that thought leadership. We want to deliver the education. You know, we’re spending a good amount of money there, but it’s because that’s what we’re good at. Making an impact, connecting in person, elevating people in our community to have these speaking opportunities, so it’s an easy choice to say, “You know what? We’re gonna create this budget line item for something we’ve never done before,” and then all of a sudden spend a good amount of money. But it makes sense because it’s really capitalizing on what makes our brand different.

Kurt Elster: And it’s interesting you bring that up and say like, “Look, I believe in in-person events so much that we’re gonna drop some serious money and really go all in on this.” Because over the years, I’ve talked to so many people who have sold their product, especially early on, at in-person events, and that could be as simple as like I had a table at a 5K, right? It doesn’t have to be complicated. And 100% of the time they’re like, “I loved it. I talked to people. It was so easy to sell because I could just explain it.” In person is very different than online, and it works well, and it gives you a much better sense of who your buyer is and sort of how to pitch and frame your product.

And then as companies grow, and they get more responsibilities, they stop going to the events and they stop doing the in-person stuff. And I think that it’s such a missed opportunity when that was often like a grassroots way for brands to grow. And then they give up on it as it balloons, and gets more expensive, and it’s like, “I gotta build a booth now.” It gets… You know, those booths are pricey.

Emily Miethner: Right. No, they can be, and it’s just about being strategic, right? We’re not gonna be at the street fair in Astoria, Queens, selling our cat backpacks because we can. It’s like you want to pick the events that are going to be strategic, and make sense, and you can also partner with other brands to do events, but yes, I am definitely an IRL advocate and so I strongly encourage people to think about how can you be creative about bringing people together around your brand in a way that it might not… and sometimes it might not always support the bottom line so directly in the sense where you make your money back, you know? I mean, we’re definitely thinking about Cat Con of like, “Okay, how many backpacks do we need to bring and sell to at least break even?” We’re of course thinking about that, but it’s bigger than that. It’s the brand awareness. It’s again, like you said, being there in person. It’s bringing our team together.

I mean, we have a remote team. We’ve always been a fully remote operation. And so, even just having the chance to bring our whole team together for the first time ever, that’s immensely valuable. And so, that was like a strategic decision, like let’s put this all together. So, you know, there’s ways to do it that make sense, but especially if maybe that’s not anybody on the team’s sort of first thought or strength, but it can be a very powerful thing, so I strongly consider people to think about it and to be creative.

Kurt Elster: No, absolutely. And so, I think one of your other superpowers it seems is PR. And what’s funny, when you describe yourself as Chief Marketing Officer, PR did not come up as one of your activities. And yet you’ve been featured all over the place. There is tremendous value in the PR placements you’ve gotten. How does that work?

Emily Miethner: Well, to be honest, we have never put a full on concerted effort into that. PR is not necessarily a strength of mine personally. And so, really it’s come from sort of organic connections and getting the product out there and getting myself out there just as an expert in my space, talking about what I’m good at, sharing interesting things on social media of personal branding, and that’s really it. And you know, for press, there hasn’t ever been necessarily a huge bump from any sort of press only, so I’m actually a little press skeptical in the sense of I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that being something that people focus on early on, especially if you’re a small team.

But that doesn’t mean to totally disregard it, but just thinking about what’s gonna actually make an impact. So, I don’t even know if you’d consider this press, per se, but you know, for Travel Cat, it’s almost more important that we get on those SEO listicles of the 10 best cat backpacks of 2014. Or not 2014, that would be… That’s a long time ago. But you know, 2021. We spend more time kind of reaching out to those types of articles to get into, which I would consider them in the press category, put them on the press page. But yeah, I would… I think when you’re just starting out, it might not be the best use of time.

But I mentioned this partnership. The only kind of out layer of this that was huge, but it wasn’t just press sort of on its own, but that partnership that we did with Stray, the video game, that was a hugely… It still is. It’s going on. A hugely successful partnership where we saw… This is actually press related, so the one thing you should do, a very actionable tip, is set up Google alerts for keywords and phrases that are relevant to your category or your product. So, I have Google alerts set up for cat backpack, for Fat Cat backpack, and that is how I discovered this video game that was coming out called Stray, where you play the game as a cat. And I watched the preview and I thought, “Holy crap, this is amazing. It’s so cute. And the cat is wearing a harness.” So, I reached out, cold pitched the video game studio, and said, “Hey, we make cat harness and backpack products. Would love to chat about doing a merchandise collaboration.” And we ended up doing one.

So, we ended up making a Stray-inspired cat backpack and then also replicating that harness, and you know, we didn’t necessarily… I mean, we had no idea. We’re not video game people, so we had no idea necessarily what to expect in terms of sales, and anything like that, but this gaming studio, publishing studio, was working and it does work with this amazing PR team, and we did a PR launch around the partnership, so they did this big push and press release, like very official, about the Stray x Travel Cat, and that press about the partnership, that sold us… I mean, our sales were bananas those first few days. Quadruple the sales numbers of a normal sales day. I mean, just knocking milestones off the chart.

And they got so much press. But that’s because the video game is getting so much press, and it was about the product partnership.

Kurt Elster: Yeah. I looked up the game. It actually looks quite incredible. It really-

Emily Miethner: Yeah. It’s amazing.

Kurt Elster: It looks really good. I’ll stick it in the show notes.

Emily Miethner: Yes. And you know, they… Actually, I’m an adjunct professor, and I’ve taught computer art kids, so I see them, I see my computer art kids talking about how beautiful and visually stunning this game is, so I would consider people instead of thinking… When it comes to press, instead of thinking about, “Oh, I want to just reach out to press to get my product featured,” think about doing something that’s worth getting written about, like something unique, something special, right? Some sort of partnership, some sort of marketing initiative. That’s gonna be way easier than just, “Oh, let me try to get journalists to write about just that my product exists.”

Kurt Elster: Right. Yeah. That’s just… It’s not a compelling pitch for most folks. And like at best, really, you’ll get those listicles. Which are fine, but clearly, and especially in your experience, nothing like this product partnership where you are adding value to an already really cool thing. Yeah, Stray, that game looks great. And now I need a new gaming PC so I can play this. And I need some cat backpacks.

Emily Miethner: Oh, yes. Well, we can hook you up. We’ll hook you up with our friends to get a copy of the game. It’s for PC and PS4 and 5 right now, so for anyone interested. It’s a very accessible game. I haven’t played games, video games, since like The Sims, and I enjoyed playing it. I could do it.

Kurt Elster: That’s fabulous. Emily, one final question as we come to the end of our time together. If you had to go back, what’s one thing you would have done differently?

Emily Miethner: Well, I did already mention that I would have left our 3PL sooner, but maybe that’s cheating since I said that already. I think I don’t know if I necessarily have… That’s probably my biggest regret, and that was such a big regret that it sticks with me. It’s like burned into my brain. So-

Kurt Elster: That bad, huh?

Emily Miethner: Yeah. You know, so I think besides that, I don’t know if there’s anything I necessarily regret, per se. It’s been a journey. We’ve tried a lot of different things. We’ve definitely had growing pains. But we have a really good team with the three of us partners and it’s been amazing, and it’s been really fun, and we’re cat people, right? So, it is truly… We feel truly lucky that we can build a company around something that’s so important to people. I mean, they’re pets. I’ve seen our catstomers on Instagram share posts about pets passing away where it’s like a cat that we… that I knew and followed because they had our products, and I’ll just burst out into tears because it’s just-

Kurt Elster: They’re family.

Emily Miethner: Yeah. So, it’s very amazing to help build that bond with people and to bring cat people together, too, because cat people are awesome and we’re on a mission to make sure they don’t continue to be underserved. So, we’re well on our way and we’re excited to fill that need.

Kurt Elster: Emily Miethner, thank you so much. Please, check out these Travel Cat accessories, carriers, harnesses, et cetera. They’re fabulous. And Stray, the game, also looks worth your while. So, all those links in the show notes. Check it out. Emily, thank you so much.

Emily Miethner: Thank you for having me.