Have fun! Don’t be afraid to set big goals but don’t be so focused on them that you get tunnel vision and forget to enjoy the experiences you have along the way. Reflect from time to time about why you started your business. It may evolve, and that’s okay. You’ll learn to pivot and keep learning along the way from both the good and the bad.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Chu.
Michelle Chu is the Founder & CEO of Kono’s Kitchen, a brand of freeze-dried raw dog treats inspired by her rescue dog Kono, an American Staffy mix who went from street dog to Chief Derp Officer of his own company in less than two years. After graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from UC San Diego, Michelle lived in Beijing for 5 years working in startups before moving back to Los Angeles and working her way up to Director of Technology at a global digital marketing agency. She is passionate about dog training and nutrition, building community, and supporting other women of color-owned businesses.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Thanks so much for reaching out to share my story! My parents immigrated to the States from Hong Kong and I was born in Portland, Oregon. I grew up in San Francisco and from a young age, I’ve always loved dogs. In elementary school, I took a class trip to the Guide Dogs for the Blind facility, and all the teachers commented to my mom afterwards about how over the moon I was to be playing with puppies. It took years before my love of dogs turned into an actual business that I’m so incredibly passionate about.
As a kid, I was exceptionally curious, which I think has been a driving force of my entrepreneurial journey. I always wanted to know how things worked, and if I didn’t know, I would ask someone until I found out. I’ve also always been strongly independent, which is crucial for a solopreneur. After college, I moved to Beijing without knowing any Mandarin, and I lived there for 5 years working in hospitality for a bit and then in various startups doing social media management. I had moved across the world with no friends or family, but I built a community of friends in my time there who became like family.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As cliché as it sounds, my motto is “Go Big or Go Home.” I believe that rather than dipping your toe in cold water, you should just jump in. Figuratively, that is. I hate jumping into cold water. But if you’re going to do something, go big or go home.
So I dream big and set big goals for myself. Even though I just launched my company four months ago, I’ve recently launched a new product, our TreatBox: Holiday Edition for the holiday season. Each TreatBox contains four items I’ve hand-curated from other women of color-owned small businesses. In addition, for every TreatBox sold, I’m donating a bag of Kono’s treats to Wags and Walks, a local LA dog rescue. My goal is to donate 450 bags of treats, which is a huge goal, but I’m hustling like hell towards it.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Hands down, the podcast that has inspired me the most and made the most significant impact on me is How I Built This with Guy Raz on NPR. I listened to it for a full year before I launched and have listened to the same episodes multiple times. I think for me personally, I learn the most from hearing about challenges that other people face and how they got through them.
One particular episode that I’ve listened to at least three times is the story of how Raegan Moya-Jones started aden + anais. She knew nothing about the textile industry or supply chain management, and I related a lot to her story last year as I went through my own journey learning about how different pieces of the supply chain came together. The biggest lesson I took from her story was the importance of maintaining controlling interest in your company. I don’t remember what led to her decision to sell her controlling interest, but it led to her getting fired from a company she’d put her blood, sweat and tears into for over a decade, and I can only imagine how heartbreaking that must have felt. There is hope in the end though, as she went on to start a new premium moonshine company called Saint Luna Spirits.
In so many of the entrepreneurs’ stories on How I Built This, there’s a common thread of resilience. It’s something I try to remind myself, because while the future of my business is unknown, I know myself and I know that I can get through whatever comes my way.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
Near the end of my time in Beijing, I started teaching myself front-end development. I took an online course and put together a portfolio of projects that I could bring back to look for a job in web development. I figured I’d find a job as an intern just to get my foot in the door. I ended up interviewing for a Front-End Developer position at a small (at the time) digital agency, and in my interview, my boss asked me if I’d developed websites on WordPress before. Up until then, I’d only developed in straight HTML, not on any sort of content management system (CMS). So I told him “No…but I can learn.”
I got the job and went on to work my way up from Front-End Developer to Director of Technology, leading a team of 12 developers.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
I never planned to launch my first business in the midst of a global pandemic. But when I set my mind to something, I follow through with it. One trend I’d been seeing for the past several years was an increase in spending on pets. According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent 90.5 billion dollars on pets in 2018, 95.7 billion dollars in 2019, and despite the pandemic, are on track to spend over 100 billion dollars on pets in 2020. That number just blows my mind. At the same time, I can absolutely relate because I spend obscene amounts of money on my dog, Kono.
I adopted Kono two years ago from the Inland Valley Humane Society. He was a stray, so I did a DNA test and found out that he’s an American Staffordshire Terrier mix, with some Mastiff, Chow Chow, and German Shepherd in him. He’s my first dog and I had no idea what I was doing, but I dove headfirst into the role of dog mom, making him homemade liver treats and spending time every day training with him. When I thought about what my first business would be, I knew it would be dog-related. I’ve loved dogs since I was a kid, and Kono has absolutely changed my life.
When I pivoted to my solopreneur journey, I knew that I was starting a company that wasn’t just a passion project, but that would scale into something huge. Go big or go home, right? One thing that was really important to me from the start was my branding, which I worked on for over 6 months before I actually launched. While I had a vision for the brand, design is not my strong suit, so I worked with an incredibly talented designer who brought my vision to life.
After I launched Kono’s Kitchen, I knew I needed to focus on content for social media. I experimented with different types of content, such as guides on how to incorporate pumpkin into your dog’s diet and self-care tips for dog parents. I soon realized that I needed a faster way to create graphics on my own than Photoshop or Illustrator. So I got Canva Pro, which has made my workflow at least 4 times faster than what it was before. I set up my logos, fonts, brand colors, and even TreatBox colors (a secondary set of brand colors) in the Canva Brand Kit, which makes it so much easier to create assets with cohesive branding. Having icons and photos available in Canva for my social media content has also been really helpful, because as a new business, there may not be a lot of user-generated content (UGC) in the beginning to use as posts. I could just have Kono model with all the treats on every post, but people would probably get tired of seeing his derpy face.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
About a year and a half ago, I started looking into a raw diet for Kono. I’d been learning more about the amount of processing that kibble goes through and the fillers and low-quality meats that go into some kibble brands, and I wanted to feed Kono a fresh, species-appropriate diet. It was overwhelming to think about the cost, the time, and the knowledge it would take to switch him over to a raw diet, so I put it on pause for several months. During that time, I stumbled on freeze-dried raw treats, and it seemed like a great way to start him on a healthy eating path by giving him treats with minimal ingredients. I realized that there were other dog parents who were also starting to look into raw diets but were just as overwhelmed as me, and I wanted to make it easier to incorporate the nutrition from raw meat into our dogs’ diets.
I decided to keep it simple to start, so I launched with just three proteins — beef, chicken, and salmon. I spent a long time deciding on the size of the treats, because I wanted them to be the perfect size for training treats. Some of my customers use them as meal toppers but the majority use them for training. One of my pet peeves with treats in the past has been having to stand in my kitchen for 15 minutes before a walk breaking down “training treats” into smaller sizes. So I wanted treats that you could just give as is, and were a good size for both larger and smaller dogs.
While I started Kono’s Kitchen because I was looking for perfectly sized treats that were a healthier option for Kono, I knew early on that I also wanted to build a community of imperfect dog parents. Social media can be so curated, and I want to show the side of dog parenting that can be super challenging — the messy crate poops, escape artists who break out of wire crates (more than once), the tears behind training challenges….but also how we got through it all. It takes a village to raise a dog, and that means supporting each other through moments we’ve gone through ourselves.
How are things going with this new initiative?
If you’re asking me to answer from the perspective of an entrepreneur who’s inherently hard on herself, I’d say it’s going very slowly. Building brand awareness is incredibly hard, and I’ve never done this before, so I’m trying anything and everything to see what works. But if I truly take a step back and look at all I’ve accomplished in the past four months….it’s been pretty great. I’ve built up a community of down-to-earth, loyal customers who are the best brand advocates for Kono’s Kitchen. I’ve formed genuine friendships with a lot of different people, and I feel so supported by people I’ve never even met in real life. I’m so grateful for Kono’s pack because it can definitely get lonely as a solopreneur.
While I’m still working on different ways to increase sales, my focus has been on cultivating relationships and trying to be not only authentic, but raw (pun not intended but damn that’s a good one) with my brand. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted my brand voice to be before I launched, which was basically just my own voice. Sarcastic, self-deprecating, but also supportive of those around me. It’s still been a journey though of finding my voice. When you start a company and manage the content yourself, it’s almost like you go through an identity crisis figuring out who you are as a company and what kind of content you want to put out. And a big part of that is just experimenting. In the past month, a lot of my content has been focused on self-care, because I believe that in order to be at our best for our dogs, we have to take care of ourselves first. Whether I’m actively putting that into practice is a different story, but I try to be transparent about the fact that I struggle with it too.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The two people who I’m so grateful to, not just for supporting my business but for supporting me in every aspect of my life, are my mom and my sister. Growing up, my mom worked full-time while single-handedly raising me and my sister. My mom’s own story is so inspiring to me. She immigrated here from Hong Kong as a teenager, learned how to speak English and got herself through high school, then put herself through college at UC Berkeley and then her Master’s degree in Marriage & Family Therapy. My grandparents didn’t speak English and couldn’t help her with things like applying to school or for scholarships, and they themselves were busy working multiple jobs.
Even though my mom worked full-time, she was always present at my piano recitals and basketball games. She was able to balance work and family back then, and even now, she’s constantly reminding me to take time to enjoy life and take breaks from working on Kono’s Kitchen. She’s always encouraged my sister and me to follow our dreams and never pressured us to take any particular path in life, but encouraged us to discover our own. As a result, both my sister and I felt the freedom and were empowered to found our first companies (separately) this year and have been navigating new territory together.
My sister lives in Sydney, Australia but we talk every day. Thanks to the difference in time zones, I have someone to keep me company when I’m up late working on a guide for Instagram or writing a blog post. Both our small businesses have physical products, so we face some similar challenges, but some different ones as well. My sister’s the definition of a hype woman and celebrates my milestones and accomplishments as if they were her own. Between the two of us, my sister’s always been the one who needed a partner, a sounding board to bounce ideas off of, but what she doesn’t know is that she’s supported me in ways I didn’t even know I needed.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
In the past four months, I’ve had a few moments that felt pretty surreal. But one in particular stands out to me. Within two months after launching Kono’s Kitchen, I had my first celebrity customer. It was none other than Sunny Ozell, who I follow because I’m a fan of her singing. She and her husband, Sir Patrick Stewart, foster dogs regularly for Wags and Walks, a local LA rescue that I work closely with, so I thought maybe she’d heard of our treats through them. Turns out she had seen Kono’s treats on a dog influencer’s Instagram story, so she went online and bought some from our site! That’s not the part that was surreal, though.
A week or two after the purchase, I was working at 3am and got an Instagram notification from @madameozell saying “Oh hiiiiii.” So naturally, I responded with “Oh heyyyyy.” Sunny started talking to me about some crate training challenges she was having with her current foster, and it was one of those “Did she mean to message me?” moments. But then she referenced some posts I’d written on Kono’s personal Instagram account, @itskonono, and told me she appreciated the honesty of my own struggles raising Kono because it made her feel less alone. We ended up talking for almost an hour. And it was such a validation to me that I was on the right path in my mission to build a community of imperfect pet parents who could support each other.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I try to journal as much as I can so I can remember this journey and the things I’ve learned along the way. About a month after I launched Kono’s Kitchen, I wrote myself an “open letter’ (is it still an open letter if it’s to yourself?) with some things I had learned about starting a small business. Here are some thoughts from that letter, as well as a couple of things I’ve learned since then:
- Learn from what others are doing but don’t compare yourself to them. Easier said than done. There’s value in seeing what’s worked or hasn’t worked for other companies. But I think when you start to compare yourself to them, that can hold you back from really focusing on what your own company’s potential is.
- Take the time to celebrate your wins in the moment. This is something I’m still learning to do, especially in such early stages of my small business. I’m constantly in go-mode, and I forget to step back and truly appreciate the milestones I’ve achieved in such a short amount of time. I’m grateful beyond words to have friends and family around me who are always reminding me of my wins and celebrating with me when I don’t take the time to.
- Set yourself up for success by building a framework to achieve balance in your life and business. I’m very good at finding ways to automate workflows and I spent a lot of time in the year before launching Kono’s Kitchen establishing initial supply chain processes, templates and SOPs for email and social media. What I’m not great at is listening to my body and finding work/life balance. I saw a post on Instagram recently that challenged women to stop wearing workaholism as a badge of honor, and I definitely felt like it was speaking directly to me. But I’m learning to ask for help in areas I’m weak in, so I’m working with a coach to help me figure out a business strategy that includes awareness of and care for my mind and body, not just the best way to organize my content calendar.
- It’s okay not to know everything. As a Founder & CEO, I carry the weight of responsibility that comes with those titles. As an individual, I’ve learned it’s okay not to know everything. As a business, this is a much harder lesson. Businesses carry certain authority until you remember that there are real people behind those businesses, and real people are not perfect. I started Kono’s Kitchen because I wanted a healthier diet for Kono and I wanted to help people achieve the same goal for their dogs. Does that mean I know everything there is about feeding raw? No, and I don’t claim to. It motivates me to keep learning, which thankfully I love to do.
- Have fun! Don’t be afraid to set big goals but don’t be so focused on them that you get tunnel vision and forget to enjoy the experiences you have along the way. Reflect from time to time about why you started your business. It may evolve, and that’s okay. You’ll learn to pivot and keep learning along the way from both the good and the bad.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
I don’t check the news every day. That’s one way I’ve learned to protect my mental health this year. Another strategy that has made a huge impact on me is learning to say no. This could be saying no to virtual social events, no to certain business opportunities that come my way (rather than feeling like I need to say yes to everything just because it’s a new business), no to working on something tonight when I can work on it tomorrow.
An extension of this is practicing the art of not offering up excuses when you say no. A dear friend of mine, Annie Choi, the founder of Found Coffee here in Eagle Rock, texted me recently asking me if I had the brainspace for her to run an idea past me. I was taken aback because I’ve never been given permission to say no like that. Normally when someone asks if they can run an idea by me, I say yes immediately. If someone asks if I can take a look at something, I say yes immediately. But when my friend asked me that question, she was giving me the space to think about how I was feeling in the moment and if I had the capacity to talk through something with her. And I didn’t need an excuse. I could just say “No, I don’t have the brainspace right now” and she would’ve understood, no questions asked.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
If by “bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people” you mean “bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people AND dogs,” then the movement I aim to inspire is increased support for families and individuals before and after they adopt a dog. I still have a lot to learn about how the shelter system and rescues work in the U.S., but what I do know is that time and time again, I’ve seen a failure to set dogs up for success when they go to their new homes. Owners, especially first-time owners, should be provided more resources and education on how to select a dog based on its breed and temperament, and should have access to support for training after they bring a dog home. I’m passionate about creating and implementing solutions to set dogs and their owners up for success and decrease the number of dogs who are given up or returned to shelters and rescues.
From a personal as well as business standpoint, I want to continue supporting and uplifting women of color. I want to be intentional about who I partner with and use my platform to highlight small businesses I believe in. As a woman of color and the daughter of immigrants, this has been important to me from day one of my company, and it will continue to be a cornerstone of our values.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Antoni Porowski from Netflix’s Queer Eye series. I had my answer before I finished reading the question. We’ve already had a virtual meet-cute and it’s a dirty one but it’s our little secret. Okay, it’s not a secret. I sent him a TreatBox: Holiday Edition and he messaged me about it when I was on the toilet, which I promptly told him. I also told him I would absolutely share this story if I was ever interviewed or asked about it. Hiiiiii Antoni!
How can our readers follow you online?
You can connect with me on our Instagram, @itskonoskitchen! I share content on everything from dog training and nutrition to #KonosSelfCareSunday tips to help you be a more balanced dog parent. You can also read my articles on The Bork Magazine, a resource center on the Kono’s Kitchen site.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!