By Bianca Kapteyn

One of my all-time favourite  television programs is the BBC documentary series Connections, created and hosted by science historian James Burke.  The show’s premise is interconnectedness, showcasing how history, science, events and accidents, etc. eventually connect to bring about change in the modern world. The  notion of  interconnectedness can be approached and channeled into other arenas, say for example, business models.

Some months back, I had the opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with Stephanie Volo, President of Planet Dog.  Planet Dog is one company that is built on a social dynamic  model that’s values based and values led.  Here’s what she had to say…

CC:The conception of Planet Dog; the eureka moment, where did it transpire?   Stephanie Volo: That’s a good question;  1997 is when Planet Dog was conceived, if you will, by two gentlemen  – Alex Fisher and Stew Maloney . They met each other randomly at a cocktail party and just started talking and realizing  that each of them had very, very interesting skills that actually benefited one another.

They were looking at all different types of things to do based on a model that really inspired them; that model is a values-based and values-led model.  What I mean by that, for instance, are organizations like Patagonia, Stonyfield Farm, Tom’s of Main, Smith  & Hawkin – all types of companies that are built on values where they can be socially responsible and give back to their communities.

As they were talking – and sort of talking with me about it – we were realizing that our best friends were at our feet, and realized this did not exist elsewhere in the pet industry.  So, we talked about our list of criteria, and what we wanted to move forward with in terms of what matters to us: animal welfare, the natural environment and education, those types of things – and, just really having fun.

It took us almost two years to develop 16 SKUS. With 16 SKUS in our backpack in 1999, we introduced ourselves to the market.

CC:The eureka moment:

SV: But the moment for us was probably when we heard Gary Hirshberg speak at a function. He said values equal value. And at that point we thought, ‘Well, that’s the direction we want to go in. So let’s now go find an industry.’  And it was our best friends that actually sparked the industry for us.  I think in the beginning we were a little  bit ahead of ourselves. Not a lot of people got it. Every single SKU of that 16 were made out of eco-friendly materials, whether organic cotton,  natural hemp or recycled soda bottles.  Ironically, fast-forward twelve years, and everybody  is doing that.  It’s been a exciting evolution, I think, in the pet industry.

We’ve seen lots of really exciting, new innovative products come on board, I think regardless of how it happened. It’s really good for planet Earth and for us to move forward in a, hopefully, healthier way.

So we’re really excited about it. And I’d like to think we were somewhat of the leaders in doing that.  But, we are probably most known as being innovators.  And we take that now, today, into everything that we do. And we ask the question, ‘Will it enhance the lifestyle that people share with their four-legged best friends?’  And that’s how we start to developing our products.

CC: Which leads us to the uniqueness of your product lines.

SV: Twelve years ago with had 16 SKUs, and they were eco-friendly materials and that was really important to us.   The three areas of interests were the natural environment, education and animal welfare. We sort of did two things. We realized we want them to be eco-friendly and socially responsible. But also, we have to realize that these toys are for dogs, and things that go into dogs’ mouths. We thought, ‘Well, okay, we’ll need something of integrity, something substantial and durable.’

In the very beginning of our time, L.L.Bean – who ironically and very luckily for us is our neighbour– they wanted to start carrying our products very early on. We actually ended up saying no to them three times, because we just knew we couldn’t supply their demand.  Finally, when we felt we were ready, L.L.Bean started carrying our products. That was 10 years ago, they’ve been our number one customer since.

L.L.Bean, introduced us to some of their sources here in Maine, moulding manufacturers that made the soles of their world famous Bean Boot.

We started meeting with them, and realizing all of those new, fun and different materials that we could be using for dog products.

Once again we sat down and said, ‘Okay, we’ll need to list out the criteria that’s important to us and important to a dog – its got throw, its got to bounce really funny, and smell good too.’ All those types of things.

Can we recycle, can we use recycled parts in it – all of those different things.  Two years later, we introduced the first of millions of millions of Orbee-Tuff toys.

Orbee-Tuff, is a compound that we engineered along with a Maine Moulder.  It’s a thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) and it’s petroleum-based.  Its a recyclable material. That’s important to us when we’re moulding, because inherently, during the moulding process, you have waste.  The material goes in, you mould it and it cuts out.  You have this waste. We were trying to figure out how we would have no waste.  With this material, it helped us do that, because we can fuse all of our waste, regrind it and put it right back into the moulding process and make toys.

Orbee-Tuff is recyclable. But we also make Orbee-Tuff toys that are 100% recycled.  Every thing that’s made in Orbee-Tuff material is mint-scented. It’s incredibly durable, with award-winning durability.  It’s buoyant and 100% guaranteed.  All of our Orbee-Tuff is made in the USA.

CC. Tell Us about  Planet Dog’s corporate philanthropic arm, the Planet Dog Foundation (PDF) and its accomplishments?

SV:The biggest differentiator of our products, compared to other products, is that  2% of the sales of our product go directly to our foundation.  Not just one or two products,  everything.  Like I said, we were built on values.

The very first thing we did was create our (Planet Dogs’s) philanthropic arm where we could give back to the areas of interests that we wanted to give back to.

Our foundation is the heart and soul of who we are and what we do,  it means everything to us.

We are a lifestyle organization. And what I mean by that is our product architecture includes play, go, home and gift. And then we break it out by: puppy, core dog years, and then the senior years, called Old Soul.

So we try to cater to as many dogs as possible in their lives, and provide for them fun, unique , innovative accessories that can only enhance the lifestyle they share with their (human) parents – until they are ready for their little doggie heaven, I guess…

Along the way they can get to partner up with amazing people out there like; NEADS, The Hearing & Service Dogs of Minnesota, Working Dogs for Conservation, Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

All of the these amazing organizations  out there that help support dogs to give back to people.

This is part of PDF accomplishments?

We have several grantees, and it’s just been the most phenomenal experience. When you’re able to give money to a small organization, where it really impacts them, where we actually are able to train this dog to live its life with a human – a human who otherwise would not be able to live or function without that dog.

That is why we’re in business. The more we make,  the more we sell. And the more we sell, the more we can give away.

CC: How much, to date, have you given away?

Since 2006, we have given away $600,000.00

CC: A day in the life of Stephanie Volo?

Oh my gosh – where do I begin?  A day and a life is never the same here at Planet Dog. We’re a multi-channel organization.  And what that means is we ultimately are designers and developers of product for dogs.  We’re constantly, constantly  thinking.  Alex and I, who own the company, we are..  I would consider ourselves little bit ADD – constantly thinking like a dog, just going from one fire hydrant-to-the-tree -to-chasing -the- squirrel. It’s absolutely crazy.  We also have a retail company store here in Portland, Maine, that allows us to get out in front of the customer and say, ‘What is it that you need? What’s missing out there, what could we be doing better?’  So it makes us the best designers and developers that we can be.

We also have a website,  so we have  three  different, major stakeholders, if you will, in our company – so that makes my job a little bit crazy.

I have to think about the end-consumer, the retailer that’s carrying our product, and the grantee who’s going to be using our money to train the dog.

So a day in the life of me would be working with the most incredible team in the entire world.  I have the very best team, trying to figure how best to affect each one of our stakeholders.

And that consists of  a lot of fun marketing, product development, making sure that we have the proper partners making our products for us.  There’s constant, constant  sourcing, trying to figure out if we can make as much as possible here in the United States, or at least in North America.  There’s spreading the word as much as I  possibly can, whether that be answering questions, responding to customers asking questions,  responding to people like you who want to learn  a little bit more about Planet Dog.

It’s a bit crazy.  It starts really early in the morning and ends really late at night.

It’s constant.  I look down right now and  my very nine and half year old monkey (my dog) is at my feet.  And when he’s with me,  you know, and when our employees’ dogs are next them, it just makes you want to work  even harder because that’s what we’re here for – to make their lives happy.

CC: How many dogs do you have?

SV: I personally have only one dog now. We have one chocolate lab, and that’s good for me because there are more dogs in our company than there are people.

CC: That’s Funny..

SV: It got so bad at one point,  that we had to have a rotation because it was so disruptive. We could not focus or function.  They’re like kids when they get to daycare!  They  all sort of romp for 15 minutes and then they go in their offices and take their nap.  We have several dogs – a minimum  of seven dogs to 10 dogs every day in our headquarters.  In the retail store, you can imagine, there are all kinds all day long.  And in the distribution centre – which we call  ” the Dog House” – there are  seven dogs.  We’re lucky.

CC: You’re Dog Friendly, you walk the talk…

SV: WE DO!  There was an interesting statistic that was published several years ago, that said people who brought their dogs to work, worked 76%  harder and were more productive than they would otherwise be.  You found employers  didn’t have to say, ‘Can you stay extra?’  They didn’t have to say, ‘Can you work  a little bit harder?’  Their team already was doing that because they didn’t have to rush home to let their dog out. Everyone one was happy, including the dogs…

CC: What can we expect to see from Planet Dog in the near future?

SV: Our goal for 2010 is to entice people with products other than toys.  So we’re coming out with three major new product launches in other categories – whole new categories for us and for our customers. Very exciting.  Two of the three  launches have taken two years to develop.   Stay tuned…