Mark is the founder and president of HandicappedPets.com and the inventor of the Walkin’ Wheels adjustable dog wheelchair. When the Internet was still relatively new, Mark created the website to support caretakers of elderly, disabled and special needs pets, providing them with the products, services, and support they need. He invented the Walkin’ Wheels in response to comments from the community of caretakers that utilize the website. Since then, Mark has fostered a large social media community around the pets who use his products. He is also the founder of the Handicapped Pets Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to providing dog wheelchairs to families with financial hardships.
Sophie: Hi, Mark. Welcome to the show.
Mark: Hi, Sophie. Thank you.
Sophie: We're so excited to have you here and learn more about Walkin' Pets by handicappedpets.com so please go ahead and dive in. We'd love to take it off by hearing your story and how you got involved.
| BEFORE THE INTERNET |
Mark: Well, many years ago before the advent of the internet, I had a dog who was diagnosed with canine epilepsy and at the recommendation of the vet, I put the dog to sleep. The vet said there was no cure. There was no treatment, and the dog was not going to live a happy healthy life. Many years later, I had a dear friend who was diagnosed with epilepsy and by then, I had the internet and I did all kinds of research, learned everything I could, and while I was learning that I discovered that if I had had the internet back at the time when my dog was sick, I would have been able to make a much more informed choice. I set out to create the resource that I wish I had had which started out as a website for owners of handicapped pets and a discussion board where they could talk about things like how do you cut a tail hole in the back of a Pampers without the stuffing coming out? This formed into a community, a world-wide community of people who were caring for disabled, aging and injured animals. Then they built a website by telling me what products they needed, what services they needed. I created what was at the time handicappedpets.com what since has become walkinpetsbyhandicappedpets.com and we now employ about 35 people. We sell products all over the world including my signature Walkin' Wheels dog wheelchair.
Sophie: I'd love to learn more about the dog wheelchair. I feel that's how I recognized the brand when I first heard about you guys. Did you come up with that patent? Was it an original design? I'd love to hear more about how you created that.
Mark: Yes, that's my patent and what happened was as I'm listening to my community talking about products, they're all talking about these dog wheelchairs and there were three companies at the time manufacturing them. They were all custom made and they'd send 15 or 16 detailed measurements along with a nonrefundable deposit. Few weeks later, you'd get a wheelchair and it worked. It was great. People loved it but, they were complaining about it. They were complaining that it was too big. It wouldn't fold flat. When the dog's health changed, it needed to be sent back to the manufacturer for adjustment and it was a great product but it just wasn't executed very well. As I'd listen to them, it became apparent that I could solve these problems. The fact that it was so big and couldn't fit into the backseat of a car, well, I could make it fold flat. The fact that it was so hard to adjust to the dog is, actually, I was looking at a pair of crutches and figured oh, I can make it adjustable with these little snap buttons. I came up with this design of a nice looking, fold flat wheelchair that could be mass produced and sold the next day, taken right off a shelf, sent to a dog caretaker, adjusted by him to his dog and used right away. I patented that in August of 2008, after the site had been going for about six years and it immediately became the world's bestselling wheelchair because it was adjustable and it folded flat, looked great, could be shipped next day and was very cost effective.
Sophie: That's super interesting. I really love already how you have just talked about how community feedback was so important to you and you really took problems that your audience was having and created solutions for them. I'd love to learn how you communicated that to your audience as it sounds like around the time the internet was popping and then 2008 was when social media became really prevalent in business, so how were you utilizing those tools to connect with audiences?
| THE COMMUNITY WILL SUPPORT YOU |
Mark: Well as far as community, I've done several business in the past. I've been an entrepreneur most of my life and what I've always believed is that if you provide a valuable product or service to a community, the community will support you. As I developed this community and it was a bulletin board actually, it was called WBBS at the time. It was the same ones that DOS users used to do and as I gave people access to it, and just listen to them, they told me everything I needed to learn. My initial creation of this wasn't about me asking questions, it was just about me paying attention. From there, once I had my community and as I was developing my wheelchair, I was also reselling these other wheelchairs for the other manufacturers and getting a small commission. I also at the time, my background was very much in computers so I understood Google, search engines, and web crawler at the time if anybody remembers that. When I started creating my website, it became a resource for people interested in dog wheelchairs. I reviewed each of the three major manufacturers. I allowed them to order them from my site and then I'd get a small commission. Though, it got to the point where whenever you'd type anything about dog wheelchairs into a search engine, my site would come up.
Mark: So initially, it was about me listening to the community, understanding what they wanted, making it available on the web, and then understanding how search was developing so that people would find me.
Sophie: What were some of the biggest learning lessons in the early days then as you were developing the website and maybe first engaging with the community?
Mark: Well, one of my first lessons with developing the website was the difficulty in getting a web developer to do it. When I had my vision in trying to make that apparent to a web developer, it started looking like it was going to become extremely expensive and extremely involved and not like my original idea. So, I actually figured it out myself and did my own website for the first several iterations of it. I very quickly learned that you can't fool Google. The search engines basically are designed and managed by some of the smartest people in the world and all of the tricks I tried to use back then to come up first on the search engines never worked. The only way to come up first in the search engine is to be the best answer to the search's questions. It took the whole realm of SEO and search engine optimization into a different arena which just isn't how do I get Google to, or, how do I get the search engines to make me come up first? A correct question is, "How do I be the best site on the internet?"
Sophie: As someone who knows very little about search engine optimization that's super interesting to hear, did you have a background in this or was it mostly self-taught as far as I know you've taught yourself how to build the website but, did you understand search engine optimization at the time either or did you learn along the way?
Mark: I've been a geek all my life. One of my former businesses was called Computer and Network Services where I'd design and install computer and networks for people. I also have a company called Computer Empowerment Seminars which was designed to, at the beginning of the internet, train companies in how to utilize the internet. This was definitely my background. I am a geek.
Sophie: Well we like geeks around here so that sounds pretty cool to us. Tell me a little bit more about how you had fostered that online community and how maybe your team has grown around that? I imagine it's not you responding to everything these days but maybe it was in the beginning?
Mark: In the beginning, it was very much me around everything but as far as fostering the community, the community formed itself around my product and my website. At the time, there were people all around the world taking extraordinary care of their pets but their friends and neighbors were looking at them like what are you torturing this poor beast for? Put it out of its misery. How can you do this to him? I had this whole community of people that had nowhere to go to talk to like-minded people about extraordinary care for pets. Once they found my website and actually back then and this was around the year 2000, the way I got my website out is I did this huge spam system where I sent out four million emails to random email addresses. Back then, you could do stuff like that. At least, get away with it briefly and after about a week, they shut me down but by then I had the word out. Since then, our social media has become a huge department. I've got a whole department that deals with Facebook and Instagram, responding to posts and keeping the discussion alive. Our Facebook community is now well over a hundred thousand and every day we're posting videos of happy healthy pets that are just enjoying their life in wheelchairs and using our other products. Our community builds itself. When you see one of these dogs ... There was recently a dog that climbed Mt. Washington in the wheelchair, pulling the caretaker along with him. You see that, you share it. It's the kind of thing that makes your day and reaffirms the goodness in people's hearts and so it gets shared. Our community is very self-supporting.
Sophie: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. When you scroll through your Instagram, it just gives me chills looking at all of the sweet animals and it's just the most heartwarming thing ever. What does your team look like internally? How big is your social media team because that's 30+ thousand followers on Instagram, a hundred thousand on Facebook? That's a lot to manage.
Mark: We have three people who work on social media. One is dedicated to graphics. One is dedicated to Facebook and does all of our media. As a matter of fact, she recently did two music videos for us. One is called To the Pets, which is just an amazing music video and another one called Purpose. She's just a wonderful musician and then I have somebody who specializes in PR. She just gets the word out and does press releases. We recently got a huge amount of press over a million views on our ... oh, the turtle wheelchair we just made. Somebody contacted us with a pet turtle. It couldn't walk.
Sophie: Oh, my goodness.
Mark: Then we were asked to make a wheelchair for a pet chicken which we did and we sent out videos and pictures. It was picked up by Saturday Night Live where Colin Jost got up there, showed a picture of the chicken in our wheelchair and said, "Why don't you just eat the chicken?" To which we responded with national videos of the girl saying, "Wait a minute. This is my pet. I would never eat the chicken. How would you have felt if you'd said, "Just eat the dog?"" There was a lot of buzz about that.
Sophie: That's so exciting. What a great way to spread brand awareness and also have a little fun with it I guess. I'd love to learn more about the other products. I know that you're not strictly just wheelchairs so y don't you tell the listeners about some of the other ways you guys are helping handicapped pets?
Mark: Well wheelchairs is one of our signature products because it's certainly the most visible. But, in fact as a dog becomes elderly, injured or disabled, it often begins with a weakness in the back legs. This can show up with the dog having a problem standing up or the dog taking a few steps and walking. For this, we have a rear end support leash and this is a leash that attaches around the back legs of the dog. It's called the Up-n-Go Leash. When you hold it up, you're holding up the back end of the dog rather than the front end of the dog giving him just a little support. If he falls or if he needs help getting up, you just help him up with the leash. If the dog degenerates further, we have a Walkin' Lift Harness which is a neoprene harness that goes on like a pair of underwear around his back legs that gives him a lot of support and really supports the belly and the abdomen to give him a lot of help standing up. From there, we have a Combo Harness which is a back harness which then attaches to a front harness so that you can help him up on both sides and that harness attaches right to our wheelchair. This is really a system that begins when the dog starts to lose his mobility and moves right through to the wheelchair. In addition, we have dozens of other products. We have splints. We have boots. We have a numb knuckle training sock if your dog's paw is knuckling under a little bit. He needs to be trained some neurological and muscular training so this is a boot that holds its feet, its paw in the right position. Many accessories like a hock holder and a wrist holder supports. We've got some new products coming out that are very exciting. We've got a back brace and a hip brace. Basically, we try to come up with everything you need to support an aging, injured or disabled animal.
Sophie: It sounds like a fascinating and massive variety of products that you guys have on your website. Do you have any particular success stories that really drive what you do every day or have inspired you along the way?
| HAPPY, HEALTHY LIVES |
Mark: Well when a customer sends in a video of a dog in a wheelchair, that makes my day. I can't tell you the feeling knowing that years ago this dog would've been put to sleep. Its family would have been deprived of the wonderful relationship they have with their animals and when I see these videos and they're all over my website. Actually, in my office we have pictures all over the walls that customers have sent in. It's really inspiring to actually know that your product is being a part of families, being a part of happy healthy lives, that's something that you just ... It's almost impossible to describe. It's just a feeling of, "Yeah, I did this right. This was the right thing to do." I was in the renewable energy field and I left that for this business and what a great decision.
Sophie: Yeah, that sounds like an incredibly empowering and rewarding line of work to dip into. It sounds like you have a great deal of success with the social media community but has there been any obstacles as far as branding or just anything to do with marketing these products and getting the word out there or educating people on them? Anything of that kind?
Mark: Well I did realize after several years that I had chosen a name handicappedpets.com that really didn't inspire the kind of awareness I was looking for. Handicapped is not a politically correct word and people didn't want to call their dog handicapped when they just needed a little help for a little while. So we changed the name of the company to Walkin' Pets for that reason to identify us and to move the awareness of our products from end of life to just as you're beginning to age a little bit. Very often, a wheelchair is an end of life product, not always by any means. Our Up-n-Go Leash though is something that a middle age or older dog can use or a younger dog even when he's had an accident and needs a little bit of recovery time. I guess one of the obstacles I've found is that I had chosen a name that wasn't suitable for what I was doing and I needed to change that which has been a struggle a lot because of the search engine problems that we have with changing a name and just creating the awareness of the change.
Sophie: Yeah, that's interesting. I can imagine at the time when you started your company there probably wasn't as much awareness around what words were correct or which ones weren't and then making that shift it must have been a huge challenge. We actually interviewed ... the name escapes me but we interviewed in a few episodes back a flower company that had a similar struggle as far as wanting to change the name to stay up to date with just the current climate of society. So, that's interesting. Other than the new products, what's next on the horizon for Walkin' Pets?
Mark: Well the new products are very suitable for the veterinary community and we're making a big push into the vet market. We want to be able to supply these products directly through the vets to the people who need them most. We've been growing extremely fast over the past 20 years or so and we want to continue. We want to continue to become the foremost resource in the world for people who are taking extraordinary care of their pets. We're doing a lot of international business. About 20% of our sales come from outside the US and I want to push much harder into China and India and developing nations such as in South Africa where you still have people who care for their pets as family members but maybe don't have the resources that we have here. One of the things we do that when we go into an area, when we look into a country that we want to market into, we try to determine what the market is for our products and one of the ways we do that is we try to determine what percentage of pet owners sleep with their pets. That's the best way we could characterize somebody who's likely to treat their pets as family and in the US that number's well over 60%. In Japan, in Europe that number is sometimes in the thirties or forties. As different countries become more developed and invite pets into their families then typically, they'll allow them in their beds.
Sophie: I'm definitely a culprit of the 60% in the United States.
Mark: We all are.
Sophie: Well how can we cheer you along in this mission? Where can we follow you and how can people get in touch?
Mark: Well definitely come take a look at my website at walkinpets.com. There's no G. It's walkinpets, W-A-L-K-I-N-P-E-T-S. We have a newsletter. We have a Facebook. I would love to have you in our Facebook community and we have a very active blog and a newsletter which goes out once a month. We would love to have you join us on our journey here.
Sophie: Awesome. Well I'm already following you on Instagram but I can't wait to connect on all of those other ways. Thank you so much for being on the show. We really appreciate you taking the time and it was just such a pleasure to hear more about your mission and all of the good that you're doing in the world.
Mark: Great to talk to you too, Sophie.
Sophie: Thank you so much, Mark. Good-bye.