Dawn LaFontaine

Founder of Cat in the Box

Dawn LaFontaine is the founder of Cat in the Box, which makes whimsical cardboard box toys for cats who think inside the box.

LaFontaine is a former stay-at-home mom turned entrepreneur. She turned her lifelong love of animals into a business by finding an unfilled niche in the cat toy field.

LaFontaine’s home has always contained all manner of furred, finned, and feathered creatures. She enjoys giving back to the animals who have brought her so much joy by volunteering in animal shelters and fostering homeless pets.

Where did the idea for Cat in the Box come from?

The idea for Cat in the Box came after a visit with my mother to her cat sitter. She was obviously a woman who cared about home decor, and yet her living room was filled with empty shipping cartons. She saw me looking around and sheepishly explained, “They’re for the cats.”

I knew that cats loved cardboard boxes (there is some serious science to explain it – check out my website for more details), but it got me thinking, “Why do their owners put up with dirty, ugly Amazon boxes in their homes? Why not boxes that are clean, cat-safe, and fun?” And so I got home and designed a few.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

As a former stay-at-home mom, I know how to make the most of the time that I have.

As a true boot-strapping entrepreneur, I have to wear many hats. One minute I’m trying to figure out how to enter an unusual charge into my accounting software, the next I’m taping boxes for product shipments, and the next I’m emptying the waste basket.

I’m still in the early stages of my business and so there are many balls in the air at one time. I’m currently in the process of designing a new product to address some of the weaknesses in my current product line and so I’m communicating with several different manufacturers who will be responsible for various product components. Simultaneously, I’m working on building my social media properties and growing my email list. And finally, I’m managing the day-to-day of running an ecommerce business: updating my website, prepping shipments, communicating with customers.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I have product ideas almost constantly. It’s less of a question of coming up with ideas than it is about weeding out the ones I just can’t do now.

Since my products are made of cardboard, I actually develop a rough prototype at home out of scraps first. When I’m satisfied with the general size and shape I send measurements and rough drawings to a packing-design engineer employed by my manufacturer. The engineer develops several iterations of more-formal prototypes that I’ll test with my “audience” (some helpful cats at the shelter where I volunteer). The final phase involves the graphic design that will appear on the boxes, and I use an outside professional designer for this task. This usually requires some additional back-and-forth to ensure that the design realizes my vision, and also meets the stringent design requirements of the unusual printing process required in box manufacturing.

What’s one trend that excites you?

The happiest trend for me is one that is only tangentially related to my business, and it’s the trend toward “rescue.” When I was growing up, a family that wanted to add a cat or a dog to their household would typically seek out a breeder. Today it’s actually on-trend to visit a shelter instead. When I walk my dogs I often run into other dog owners who proud to announce, when asked about their pet’s breed, that their dog is rescue. On Instagram, accounts with the biggest follower counts are often those for cat rescues.

My husband, kids and I have opened our home to fostering and have been shelter volunteers for years. I’m currently a regular volunteer at a local cat shelter, working with the feral cats. I couldn’t be happier that people are realizing that they can not only get a great companion at their local shelter, but that they can save a life at the same time.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I’m extremely self motivated and always have been. No one ever has to tell me to get to work or to do some unpleasant task that needs doing.

I work from home and I don’t have employees or coworkers (yet), so I don’t have anyone around to keep me honest.

But I’ve never needed any outside impetus to get productive. I already am.

What advice would you give your younger self?

My younger self thought you had to do things in a straight line, that you already had to know where you were going to end up before you got started.

I would tell my younger self to be more open minded about all the different ways to make a living and make a life. I would tell my younger self not to wait until middle age to first start trying.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

People always tell young people that they should “do what you love” when it comes to deciding what they should be when they grow up.

I don’t agree. You can ruin something you love by trying to make a living doing it.

When you ask someone what they really love about their job, it’s often something unrelated to the actual field they’re working in. Maybe they love having a lot of autonomy, or maybe they hate travel. Or maybe they love travel! Maybe they like that their workday is always a little different every day, or that they can be home to eat dinner with their family by 6:00 every night. Maybe they like that their job affords them the financial freedom to do what they like on their off days, or maybe they don’t care about making money, but they enjoy helping people.

Quite often the field they work in now is not a field they even knew existed when they were trying to decide what to study in college. My husband, a lifelong newspaper junkie, always thought he wanted to be a journalist — until he became one. He worked 80-100 hour weeks, ran his car into the ground traveling from story to story, and earned a pittance. He couldn’t even afford a new pair of jeans when he needed one. Today, he works in corporate communications using the same writing skills he honed as a journalist. He loves the lifestyle it has afforded him, and he still reads the newspapers every day for fun.

I would say, try to figure out what it is meaningful to you, and the skills that you can bring to bear onto a profession. But if you really love something, consider if you might enjoy it most as a hobby.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Read. Read. Read. Read. Read.

Then read some more.

The more you read, the more you find that you need to read. And the more you read the more you know.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Social media is key to ecommerce and to a very pictorial business like mine.

I’m middle-aged. When I first got started I had to ask my 20-something daughter what Instagram is all about. I remember being puzzled. People look at each other’s photographs? Why?

Today, I have about 8000 followers on Instagram and Pinterest, and now my daughter is asking me for tips! (She recently had an assignment in college involving social media and needed help building a following fast.)

One of the great things about social media is the ability to connect directly with people all over the world who share an interest in the sphere my product serves. They see my sincere interest in their pets and I get to build trust.

Business aside, one of the great things about social media for me as an animal lover is that I get to interact with like-minded people from around the world all day long. I love getting to know my Instagram “friends” and their cats.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

My first product designs were too large and too expensive to ship.

I didn’t know this when I designed them. I thought, “My customers will enjoy a product that they don’t have to assemble.” And I thought, “Cardboard is light and inexpensive to ship.” I was right on the first account, and wrong on the second.

I was doubly wrong on the second when USPS changed their shipping rates earlier this year. My products went from expensive to ship to prohibitively expensive to ship.

I’m currently in the process of redesigning my products to make them more compact and easier to ship. This will allow me to expand my margins, sell on other platforms, like Amazon, and wholesale. And the cats will still love them!

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I’m a ballroom dancer and there are no really good, comfortable shoes for social dancers.

Lots of social dancers will wear sneakers to lessons and social dances. They’ll wear a sock-like product over them to allow them glide on the dance floor. Others, like me, will have dancing suede adhered to the bottom of comfortable non-dancing shoes for the same purpose, which can be expensive and cumbersome.

There is a company that currently makes a sneaker-like dancing shoe that is extremely overpriced, grossly unattractive, and not nearly as comfortable as even cheap sneaker. Moreover, it only comes in a few limited sizes, and only one width.

If I had the bandwidth myself (and I don’t), I’d design a very comfortable, well-balanced dancing shoe for men and women of all sizes and widths who want comfort at social dances.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Well, it was a bit more than $100, but a night of dinner and theater in Boston with my husband.

Sometimes you just have to get away from the business.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I joined Steve Chou’s Create a Profitable Online Store program, one of the best training courses out there for ecommerce entrepreneurs. You can learn more about his approach by visiting his website mywifequitherjob.com or listening to his My Wife Quit Her Job podcast.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I’m a voracious reader and I read many genres, including business.

Ecommerce is a strange animal, though. This world is changing too fast for books to keep up. The ones I’ve read are already outdated by the time I’m reading them.

I’m about to featured on the podcast of one of my mentors, Scott Voelker of The Amazing Seller. On the recording, he recommends Building a Storybrand: Clarify your Message so Customers Will Listen by Donald Miller. It’s on order — I haven’t read it yet, but I know if Scott recommends it that it’s going to be a really exciting and relevant read.

What is your favorite quote?

“The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”

Abraham Lincoln said it.

I’m still new to entrepreneurship and often feel overwhelmed and like I’ll never be able to learn it all. I have to keep reminding myself to take it one step at a time and as it comes.

Key Learnings:

  • When the going gets tough, just keep going. Take the next step, and the next step, and the next step.
  • Get up in the morning and work. Do what needs to be done, even if it isn’t your favorite task.
  • When something isn’t working, try a different tack. Don’t keep doing the same things expecting different results.
  • Never say, “that’s not me,” or “I don’t know how to do that.” You’ll surprise yourself if you try.