Ep #89 | A Community Of Like-Minded People

SAM+ALTER

SAM ALTER

Sam Alter was working at a software company in San Francisco that sold analytics to eCommerce companies to measure what's happening on their website. After being inspired by the young company founders around him, Sam left his tech job in Silicon Valley with the goal of pursuing entrepreneurship while spending more time with his dog. Sam founded Atlas Pet Company, a high quality dog product line backed with a lifetime warranty, even if your dog destroys it. He now travels the country with his girlfriend and their two dogs in a converted sprinter van connecting with influencers and fans of his pet products while running the company remotely.

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Shantel: Hey Sam, welcome to the Imagine More podcast.

Sam: Hi there. How are you?

Shantel: Good. Thanks so much for carving out the time. We're excited to learn more about Atlas, how you got started, your journey of becoming an entrepreneur, and let's kick things off with telling our listeners a little bit more about your company.

| MORE TIME WITH THE DOG |

Sam: Yeah, so Atlas Pet Company makes high quality dog products backed with a lifetime warranty, even if your dog destroys it. We started with a leash, and now we've got a collar and a harness, and some new stuff coming out this year as well. It originally started out of my apartment in San Francisco while I was working another full-time job. It was kind of like the side gig, and as it continued to grow, it seemed like a great opportunity to kind of pursue entrepreneurship and spend more time with my dog. Ultimately it was, what's the big goal? Yeah, so we left San Francisco about nine months ago, after being there for almost three years and we've been on the road for the last nine months, traveling all over the country in our converted sprinter van. A lot of it has to do with just taking photos for Instagram, and meeting up with customers and ambassadors on the road. But also knowing that San Francisco is just too expensive to really start a company without funding, felt like a good time to gather content before moving to Denver, where I went to school, and it's just a little bit easier to get a company off the ground without VC funding.

Shantel: Well, I have so many initial questions and the first thing that came to mind is when you mentioned you replace it, even if the dog destroys it. So is this coming from a need? Does your dog chew everything up and so that's what sparked that idea?

Sam: It wasn't as much the chewing, it just inherently was breaking all the time from going outside and just using it a lot. I think we were maybe a little bit harder on our gear than most people, but at the end of the day everything was made in China, and not manufactured so that you could repair it. Everything felt like you were just throwing it away all the time, so it felt like we had a big pile of these leashes that lasted no more than four or five months. If we could build a product that let us rebuild it, most of the things that get destroyed are the rope, every so often there's a clip, but, you know, throwing the whole thing away when you can rebuild it just doesn't really make sense.

Shantel: Nice. Well, that makes sense. What was your background? What were you doing before this?

Sam: Yeah, so just most recently before this, I was working at a software company in San Francisco that sold analytics to eCommerce companies, and essentially the biggest eCommerce companies, like Harry's and Casper and just all sorts of companies, were using this analytics software to measure what's happening on their website. From my perspective, I was able to talk to CEOs, CMOs, had data around where they're spending their money and how they're growing these online businesses. I was a little bit more curious than most people just because I was running my own business on the side, and learning from people that are able to spend the millions of dollars a month on advertising. They're just clued into better techniques and better software. Ultimately, I was working there for about two years, and before that I had a background, I had started another company in the bitcoin crypto space and spent some time in that industry before... That was when I was in Denver and moved out to San Francisco to pursue more of a tech job, but ultimately realized that eCommerce was as technical as I want it to get, and being able to run the business from the road was the main goal. After spending some time working in software companies where everybody was working remote, it showed it was a little bit easier. But obviously with a physical product, it's not as easy as software, but if there's a will, there's a way. Just to kind of spend some time getting it to the point that somebody else could make the product and somebody else could ship the product, and that let me live more of a remote lifestyle.

Shantel: That's amazing. So while you were building both of these companies on the side, did you just get to, if you don't mind me kind of digging into this, did you get to a point financially that the risk of quitting a full time job with, I imagine, benefits and everything became less scary because of what you were making through other companies? Or did you hit a breaking point in the software sales side and you were like, "I can't do this anymore and I have to plug into things that I actually enjoy?"

| STUNTING ITS GROWTH |

Sam: I think it was more of the first one. I basically was working for other young people and seeing that these 24, 25-year-olds were also building multimillion-dollar companies. I think when you're surrounded by the entrepreneurial spirit in San Francisco, it's easier to take that leap of faith, because you're surrounded by more people doing it. On top of that, the business kind of had been growing organically over a couple of years, and then we had a big Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend where even though I was making good money through my real job, it was more of an opportunity that if we can make that much in a Black Friday when this is a side project, what happens if I spend 40 to 60 hours a week on it? And it was, you know, basically I was making pretty good money from the side business. It felt like it would be stunting its growth if I continue to think of it as a side business.

Shantel: Yeah. Well, wouldn't, I mean, exciting risk and what's been the most surprising in the transition of becoming an entrepreneur? Just kind of like, you snap your fingers, you quit the other job, and now you're a full-time business owner.

Sam: Yeah. I think the biggest thing that I wasn't really prepared for was just the social aspect of being in an office. I was surrounded by just really smart people working really hard and I got along with them all really, really well. It felt like my work family was incredibly supportive when I was building this as a side product, and I didn't realize just how quick a lot of those relationships would end as soon as I wasn't coming into the office every day. And you know, when I was working for myself at home with a remote team, I didn't really have any of that camaraderie or just general office environment, socializing, which sounds mildly depressing. But now that I'm on the road, it's a little bit different because I'm able to just meet people through staying at a campground next to them, or also just reaching out through Instagram. It's been a lot more social, to be frank, you're able to hang out with people and have good afternoon together, versus working a lot of time by yourself in your bedroom. It's just not the same. So, I think it was a little surprised by that. Then, just the paycheck consistency is, it's pretty nice when you've got a full time job that gives you all those perks and benefits. It was a Silicon Valley startup, so I got pretty much every perk you can think of. Having all of that come to an end was not ideal, but at the end of the day, I'm also able to build my own company based on those principles. And you know, being able to live in a van, that's a really nice van, frankly, it's all nice because I saw how those companies were able to write off certain things that I didn't feel like were super business-related, and if I'm able to not have an office expense but travel around the country, taking photos for a largely visual brand, it's kind of nice to have that balance. But yeah, the first surprise was just the social aspect, and the second was having all those perks and consistent paycheck kind of come to an end.

Shantel: I definitely, I do think it's a neat opportunity to be in a position now to be creating that type of company that you want, and you have great experiences that kind of can shape that in the future. But now you're like, "Well, I liked this one, but didn't you value this one? So if I want to build a team, this is something that I want to implement." It's kind of neat to be in that driver's seat of, "Whoa, we really can create whatever type of company that we want, and what matters to us. And then make sure, you know, everyone around us believes in that too."

Sam: Yeah.

Shantel: But I feel you on the loneliness piece. I mean, I think entrepreneurship is lonely as it is, if you're a solo entrepreneur and then take that on the road and not be sharing that with a team, and I can't imagine. Are you a photographer, too?

| SOCIAL SHARING |

Sam: Yeah. I guess one of the main reasons I started Atlas as a side project was, I thought it would be nice to be able to write off a camera and a laptop under a business, and still be able to use it myself. That's kind of the original goal, was this $10,000 camera and laptop. And you know, I always was really into photography, and I've always traveled lot, but having that excuse of a daily photo for Atlas and taking a photo of my dog, it just meant that I couldn't stay at my apartment. It was kind of this nice push to get out and go on more adventures, with the social pressure of needing to post a photo. But, yeah, I really enjoy photography. I think being able to go to all these incredible places and capture the moments has been really rewarding. But now that there's social media to be able to share it with other people, and have other people live vicariously through those photos and reach out, and say how they're planning a trip this summer, and how they're looking for advice based on all these incredible photos, it's really nice to be on that receiving end of compliments, frankly. But yeah, it's nice to have that kind of network around being able to take photos and share these cool places with other people.

Shantel: Also, from a thought leadership standpoint, I imagine you're building a community of like-minded people, and being able to really share from experience, as opposed to sharing from behind a desk, in an apartment, or at an office, and just dreaming up. What, I would like to kind of switch gears to the van a little bit, so what prompts where you're going? How do you plan out where you stay? When do you leave? Can you share a little bit about that?

Sam: Yeah, so the first half of the trip, we really knew we'd be covering a lot of ground. My girlfriend, who's also living in the van with me and works for the company as well, her parents are on the east coast, and we knew that we had to be out there for Thanksgiving, so we left at the end of July and basically have like four or five months to get from San Francisco to Washington DC, and then knew after Thanksgiving that we had the ski season to basically the get back to the West for, and we're both on the Ikon pass, so kind of working our way through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, up to Canada, and then back through Idaho and Utah, has been the route for ski season. Then, before that, we wanted to go as many places as we could in the few months, so kind of did a big lap around the country, that was the big guiding light. But knowing that we had a date for Thanksgiving, we backed into that, and then we kind of have an itinerary around like where we want to go in the next few weeks, but most of it's pretty loose, and most of it comes from word of mouth on the road. Once you're kind of in an area, people will have some more recommendations for you, so we can't have everything too rigid. Keeping flexibility is pretty important. But, we typically stay... On the way on the first half of the trip before ski season, we are staying in towns maybe like a day or two, like three days, four days max. Now that we're skiing and the resorts give us seven days at each spot, we'll typically stay about a week and a half or two, and that's kind of been how it's worked out so far. We have traveled a decent amount of ground, so we try to keep those driving days longer, rather than having 15 three-hour days, we'll just do like five longer days of driving. So, that's kind of how it's played out, but it's still pretty flexible.

Shantel: And then when you choose a location, you talked about influencers a little bit. Do you coordinate with them beforehand to try to meet up to collaborate on something, or just to share your product and your business with them?

| COMMUNITY OF LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE |

Sam: No. Yeah. We'll kind of know where we're going two or three weeks out, and we'll reach out and say, "Hey, we're going to be in town. It would be great to meet up and get the dogs together." I think, like you mentioned before, having that community of like-minded people has been super nice, because it's a weird filter, but you know people that care a lot about their dogs are probably going to be good people that we get along with, so we can pretty much reach out to anybody through the account that we've been following or working with for a couple of years now, and basically say, "Hey, we're going to be coming through Chicago. Do you have any parks in mind that we can meet up with? Or any recommendations?" Some places, we've had people that let us park on their driveway, other places, we just put together a Meetup and have a few different people come down to a dog beach, but a lot of it, we'll have a two or three weeks heads up, and give them advance notice, and then when we show up we'll typically spend a couple of days together and go on some hikes and take some photos and spend more time with the dogs.

Shantel: That's amazing. I can't imagine that scenario if you were maybe selling anything else. It's like, "Oh, you know, I sell shirts, let's meet up." No one wants to ... I imagine not many people would want to make more new friends with kind of this underlying, you're selling something, but when it comes to a dog and someone in your family, they're like, "Oh yeah, I go to dog parks every day. I'd love to meet up at one."

Sam: Exactly.

Shantel: Yeah, I was just kind of imagine this scenario could sound a little creepy, but I imagine because it's all around dogs, it makes it a very organic conversation.

Sam: No, exactly. And I think because we've got the, we're pretty active on social media and they've seen our stories, they kind of know what to expect when we hang out. It's not like we're expecting to go on any crazy hikes, but just to kind of go on a nice walk, or just get the dogs together and maybe have a beer afterwards. But yeah, it's pretty casual, and I think a lot of people feel good showing off their hometown and home trails, and we're just super fortunate to be able to have this community that's kind of resonated that we've resonated with, so they're able to show us around their backyards. It's pretty awesome.

Shantel: Definitely. What does the day to day typically look like for you? I imagine you're taking some pictures, but then the rest of the day?

Sam: Yeah. I guess during ski season we typically ski during the weekdays and take the weekends off, so we'll have pretty long days, Saturday and Sunday. Then during the weekdays, we'll probably ski from nine to one, and then work in the afternoons from two to seven or eight. And because we're not spending a lot of time driving to or from an office, we just get up at dawn, we'll work in the parking lot for a few hours, go get some food or go somewhere where we can cook some food, and then go back to work. It feels like I work pretty much every day, but I try to get a decent amount of activities in the first half or second half of the day, just to break things up, and also take out the dogs at least once a day on a good little adventure so they're not all cooped up in the van. But I feel like we're having a pretty good balance of personal activities combined with work activities, knowing that the trip won't be forever. We only have a few months left, where I'll be going back to more of a kind of standard routine, like eight to six or whatever at an office.

Shantel: You said dogs, plural. So there's you, and your girlfriend, and multiple dogs in the van?

Sam: Yeah, so we both have a black lab actually. We both had them before we met. So we basically had matching profile photos on a dating app. Everything kind of fit together pretty well.

Shantel: And so does it, I mean does it feel pretty tight, or have you just gotten used to ... Yeah, I'd love to see pictures.

Sam: No. I mean, I feel like it could be tight if you're not ... Like, we've had other people in the van with us, and it feels a little bit more tight when there's more than two people and two dogs, but because of the way the van's laid out, there's kind of a living room area that's separate from the bed area. So one of us can hang out on the bed, one of us can be in the living room. The dogs pretty much sit in the front seats staring out the window, or when we're driving they'll lay on the floor. They definitely cuddle up. Maybe we appreciate it more than a person that doesn't like dogs, but it doesn't feel too cozy.

Shantel: Yeah. Well, that's fair. Let's love to dive into the team, break down. So you and your girlfriend and then there were some remote teammates helping him with that. Can you talk a little bit about roles?

| ALL THROUGH SLACK |

Sam: Yeah. Yeah, I basically am focused on marketing and new product development, partnerships, and ambassador outreach. And then my girlfriend handles more of the day-to-day operations with customer support and tracking orders, and making sure everybody's happy, basically. Not like the team members are happy, but customers are happy, whether they're reaching out on Instagram or email or anything like that. Then, we also have a full-time person in North Carolina that makes all the leashes and collars, has a workshop where basically keeps all the raw materials. Then, we've got another person in Southern California that fulfills all the orders. She was just kind of a family friend that fell into the role, but she's been super helpful just because, yeah, she basically is responsible for all of the outgoing packages and returns and exchanges, and we all talk through Slack and have Front for our customer support. Otherwise, I would say basically Slack is the main driver between how we all communicate, and the store is run off of Shopify so everybody can log in there and see kind of what's going on. But yeah, for the most part it's all through Slack.

Shantel: I think it's just amazing these days, how much things can be done virtually, and how essentially, you've crafted this whole business to fit the lifestyle that you wanted, and you can do it all from wherever.

Sam: Yeah, totally. I mean it's kind of insane that even traveling in the middle of nowhere, as long as we have a reliable cell phone connection, that's all we need to download movies or anything. Slack is really low bandwidth, so we're pretty much have been in constant contact the entire time, and we've been in some incredibly remote areas that yeah, it's nice to have kind of a culture where everybody is pretty self-sufficient and doesn't rely on us responding immediately, because they're able to take action on their own. But, it's also nice that when we do need to step in, everything is pretty connected and everybody's pretty responsive.

Shantel: You touched on only a few months left. So what, the plan is to stop traveling?

Sam: Yeah. We left with kind of the idea of a year on the road, and knowing that holidays are our biggest time of the year, we want to give ourselves a few months before you have the big Black Friday/Cyber Monday and Christmas rush. That puts us back in Denver around July, where we'll probably get a warehouse office, and start hiring some people and giving them a few months to ramp up before the bigger season. But we'll probably still live in the van, with the office as our home base until winter time, like November, December. I think the cost of getting a warehouse and an apartment at the same time is pretty high. But also, the flexibility of not knowing where we want to move, and not being tied down to a deadline around needing an apartment, I think it will just open up the options, because Denver's a pretty hot real estate market right now. Just don't want to be forced into something, would rather kind of take our time. The reality of having a warehouse being kind of the home base where we can ship packages to, or potentially take a shower, that makes it a lot easier to still stay in the van.

Shantel: Are coworking spaces pretty big in San Francisco, or --

Sam: Yeah, they're really popular, but I think the biggest issue we would have is that they're not always dog friendly, and it feels like after spending so much time with my dog, and how the whole business coming around wanting to spend more time with my dog, the coworking space just doesn't necessarily work for that. And, because we also have to do manufacturing, I don't think they're really big fans of like having power tools and stuff, so we need our office space for that.

Shantel: That makes sense. Yeah, I was thinking about that earlier, of if it is kind of lonely sometimes on the road, if one of those hot desks type things at a WeWork or Industrious would be helpful, just to be able to pop in. But that does make sense with the dog piece, I completely forgot about that.

Sam: Yeah. For the most part, we've been able to just work out of Starbucks and coffee shops. We try to stay at local coffee shops if they have them, but some of the towns we've been to, even a Starbucks would be a big stretch. Yeah, we can typically work out of a coffee shop, but then also the van is really outfitted with Wi-Fi. It's really, really strong. We're pretty much always in service there, so we can probably just go to a park or a trail head and hang out there for the afternoon.

Shantel: When you move back and you start hiring people, what is the first thing you're most excited to get off your plate?

Sam: I think an operations manager that would handle more of the purchase orders and sourcing of materials and just managing the manufacturing process would help a lot. I didn't really know anything about that before I started. My whole background was all digital, so I think I've been able to get it this far, but take it to the next level, it just would be nice to have some expertise and learning from somebody that has the experience, or has done it for a bigger company. I think Colorado has decent companies like Topo Designs or something, where I could hire them from Topo and they'd be interested in having a more leadership role, while also still bring a lot of experience to the table. Then, outside of that operations manager, a product designer as well. I think I've been able to design some products well, but having somebody, again with experience, that's used to working with manufacturing processes that I really have never been exposed to, I'm just trying to learn as much as possible from those types of people.

Shantel: Well, that's exciting. What do you think is next for Atlas, and new product lines or, what is the vision for the company next few years?

| A WHOLE NEW OPPORTUNITY |

Sam: Yeah, I think we've basically started with some very simple products designed around bigger dogs, and I didn't really have a smaller dog to test things on. Now that we've started working with webbing and some other types of materials, I'm excited to kind of break into the smaller dog market. Most of our customers are living in major cities, and the reality of that is they typically have smaller dogs. So kind of opens up a whole new opportunity just when you can get dogs, get products to dogs under 20 pounds. Then, I think just bringing everything under one roof, and having some more efficiencies across manufacturing and fulfillment will just help to make the operations a little bit more seamless and easier to scale. Right now, it's just a little bit more cumbersome having multiple people across the country, trying to figure out where to send things back and where to get things sent to. Just trying to streamline a little bit of that, and then come out with some new products for smaller dogs.

Shantel: Nice. Well, I am also a large golden retriever fluffy dog owner. I'm excited about your lifetime products, and if you're ever, you guys are ever in Atlanta, we have a dog friendly office. You're welcome to come and we'll show you some cool parks around town.

Sam: Awesome.

Shantel: But I loved, I'd love to share with our listeners, how can people learn more about you and your company and get plugged into your products?

Sam: Yeah, absolutely. I think the easiest way would be to check us out on Instagram under @atlaspetcompany. That probably has the most interesting photos and good stories around the adventures we've been going on. But then, if you're interested in the business, you can check out AtlasPetCompany.com, and check out the collars and leashes and harnesses. If you have any other ideas or suggestions, feel free to reach out. I'm super accessible, so always like hearing from customers and hearing what products they would like designed.

Shantel: Great. Well, thanks for carving out the time, and safe travels.

Sam: Yeah, great meeting, Shantel. Talk to you soon.