They Called it Puppy Love: Cindy Dunston Quirk Turns a ‘Pet’ Project into Global Brand
Updated: Sep 18, 2019
Meet her and she’ll be covered in “a healthy dose of dog hair and the occasional muddy paw print.” Receive an email from her and the salutation is “WOOF!” Eat with her and you might be asked to taste a dog treat. It’s safe to say that Cindy Dunston Quirk’s life has gone to the dogs. This founder of Scout & Zoe’s pet treats and chews wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s turned her love of dogs into an award-winning global business dedicated to making pet lives healthier.
For most small businesses, the advice is crawl, walk, run. For Cindy and Scout & Zoe’s, they are moving quickly – four legs at a time. Cindy took a break from developing new products and playing with her own pups to tell The Startup Ladies how her business is taking a bite out of the $61 billion pet industry.
What is Scout & Zoe’s?
Here at Scout & Zoe’s we create craft, small-batch natural treats and chews. The company is named after my dogs. I started the company in 2010 because Zoe, my German Shepherd, had allergies and needed something to chew on. I developed elk antler dog chews and quickly learned there was a vast number of dogs globally that also had allergies. Combine dogs with allergies and the number of dogs who love to chew (umm, ALL of them) and I had a winning product line!
In 2012 I added treats to our product assortment due to products which were produced outside the US that were killing pets. That was my line in the sand to create nutritious treats made from human-grade, USA-sourced raw ingredients. Now treats are the majority of our annual revenue.
The pet space is highly competitive – what’s been your strategy for getting Scout & Zoe’s noticed within the industry and by customers?
Getting noticed within the pet industry is challenging due to the sheer number of people starting businesses in this space. Scout & Zoe’s has always been known for consistent high-quality products that have either single or limited ingredients made without fillers or additives. We are also known for usage of novel proteins. That alone sets us apart from most treat companies.
The other differentiator is that I eat most of our treats. I figure if I won’t eat the treats, why would I want to give it to my pups? If I won’t give the treat to my pups, it will never be available for anyone else’s pets. The fact that I eat my treats gets a great deal of attention from consumers. They appreciate my transparency.
How has Scout & Zoe’s evolved as you’ve learned more about the pet space and customer needs?
Our evolution continues to follow development of highly nutritious products for many species of pets, not just dogs. I learn as much as I am able about invasive species from which we could create treats. One great example of this is our Asian Carp products.
Asian Carp is a highly invasive species of fish that is not native to North America. It also has no known predators and is very prolific in breeding. In short, this fish is destroying our waterways.
Scout & Zoe’s takes this tasty and nutritious, but invasive, fish and creates eight different treats for dogs and cats. We use everything from the organs and eyes to the red meat to make our Carpius Maximus family of products – Carp Jerky, Eye Candy (dehydrated eyeballs), Viddles (hearts and livers), Spears (red meat treats), Planks (skins), Bubblers (outer air bladders), Puffers (inner air bladders), and raw frozen Carp Burgers.
These treats comprise our Fish on a Mission®. The fish are caught by local fishermen in Kentucky, processed by a second chance employer (all employees have been incarcerated at some point in their lives) and packed with love by intellectually challenged adults. We aim to rid our waterways of the Asian Carp one great treat at a time. To learn more about our quest to save American waterways, visit www.scoutandzoes.com/carp.
You mention that Scout is “selectively obedient,” which could apply to being an entrepreneur too. What business rules have you broken to make your journey so successful?
I have never been one to follow the crowd or take the easiest path. I tend to color outside the lines and make my own rules. In the beginning, with the antlers, I chose to have five sizes of chews so the product would have a better fit for all dogs. Marketing scholars suggested only three sizes to make the assortment cleaner and more easily marketed. I thought there are different size dogs and we need to have chews to fit each size. Turns out my intuition was spot on!
I’ve watched my pets and what they needed as they aged. I looked for items to solve their issues with products already on shelves. When I didn’t see one, I created it.
The biggest rule I have broken so far is market research. I’ve just watched my pets and what they needed as they aged. I looked for items to solve their issues with products that were already on shelves. When I didn’t see one, I created it. I haven’t missed yet!
How have you built Scout & Zoe’s to complement your own strengths and weaknesses?
As the company grows, I find that I am way more resourceful than I had ever imagined. I’ve also noticed growth does a couple of things. It shows me my greatest strengths: product development, relationship building, private labeling, and negotiating large sales deals.
Growth also shows me where I need the most assistance and pushes me in the direction of locating strategic growth partners that possess that strength. Whether it is taking over social media, creating branding videos or marketing tools, sales sheets for trade shows, or filing for a new trademark, there are companies with whom I have wonderful relationships because they excel at that very task.
What’s been your biggest aha moment as an entrepreneur?
My biggest aha moment was bringing a new product to the pet industry through our Asian Carp treats. This is something even Hills, Purina and Mars haven't done. I did it and was so thrilled when I realized I had accomplished something that even the big boys hadn’t done.
I did it and was so thrilled when I realized I had accomplished something that even the big boys hadn’t done.
Also, I am a lot smarter than I thought.
What key resources have you used that other entrepreneurs should know about?
I read a lot. I also listen to podcasts when I am working in the warehouse. One of my favorite books is Change Your Questions, Change Your Life. You can find out so much when you ask the right questions.
I also listen to brain/body relaxing sessions. After the busyness of the day, I need to take time to refresh and regenerate myself so I can be present and give it my all the next day.
The podcast How I Built This on NPR is fabulous! Each episode is with an entrepreneur who discusses how their idea was formed and what they did to bring it to life. It also includes challenges they faced along the way. The “Stonefield Yogurt” episode should be required listening for every entrepreneur. Gary Hirshberg should win an award for overcoming challenge after challenge and not giving up.
I have mentors in and out of the pet industry who help and guide me when needed.
I’m also a member of many organizations which provide needed advice. Being an entrepreneur is sometimes a very lonely endeavor, so it helps to have like-minded people for bouncing ideas and challenges. A few of the organizations I rely on include The Startup Ladies, The Club of Pet Boss Nation, Pet Industry Wholesalers, and Purdue Foundry.
What’s next for Scout & Zoe’s?
My goal is global domination. Yep – I’m very serious about that. With that goal in mind, I am methodically scaling the business each year. In 2020 we will see more international wholesale accounts, as well as the addition of domestic product distributors. Canadian accounts also are part of that plan, as is more of a concentration on our direct-to-consumer website.
Regarding our products, I currently am assessing which products are doing well and which should be retired. We will add a few novel proteins such as wild boar and emu.
Keeping an adequate amount of product inventory on hand to sell makes Scout & Zoe’s extremely capital intensive. I’d like to bring in several investors in the coming months. Additional capital would allow me to attend more industry trade shows and devote more dollars to marketing. We have wonderful products which make the lives of pets better. We just need more pet parents to know we are here for them.
What mantra keeps you going when things get tough with the business?
I have three mantras:
There is no plan B. This is going to work out better than you had hoped it would. You are doing all this for the pets of the world!
Look more closely. The answer is right in front of you. You’ve got this!
The Universe always has your back!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received to help you as an entrepreneur?
Stay the course. Keep the larger vision for the company top of mind.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs, especially those operating in the pet space?
Whatever your industry, create an experience for your end customer while differentiating yourself. Don’t be exactly like your competitors. STAND OUT! Customers love to be remembered, pampered and have their expectations exceeded in a big way. Even though you may not be your ideal customer, look at the products/services you provide through your customers’ eyes. How can you make their experience stellar? What can you do to elevate their time with you to such an exceptional level they can’t wait to tell their friends? Those small details can turn grateful customers into evangelistic customers who sing your praises to all who will listen. Strive for being memorable and exceptional in every little detail.
How has The Startup Ladies helped you as an entrepreneur?
I love The Startup Ladies community! This community affirms I am not alone as an entrepreneur. Through all the resources available to use like Startup Study Hall, we can gather, ask questions, be educated by experts, and enjoy a sense of community with like-minded business owners who are experiencing the exact things I am. When I am feeling overwhelmed or need guidance, I can turn to one of my Startup Ladies and receive reassurance or direction. I am so happy to have been introduced to this wonderful group of founders and funders.
(Now funders, who wants to help me achieve my vision of global domination?) WOOF!