Alex Willen: “Responsibility for your choices”

Lots of people say they want to be their own boss, but when you’re your own boss, sometimes you really, really wish you had a boss. While it’s frustrating to not have full autonomy when you’re working for someone else, it’s often really nice when someone else bears the ultimate responsibility for your choices. I […]

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Lots of people say they want to be their own boss, but when you’re your own boss, sometimes you really, really wish you had a boss. While it’s frustrating to not have full autonomy when you’re working for someone else, it’s often really nice when someone else bears the ultimate responsibility for your choices. I love that I have the final say on everything, but it’s stressful to know that whatever happens as a result of my choices is going to fall entirely on me.

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 Alex Willen.

Alex Willen is the founder of Cooper’s Treats, a premium dog treat business he launched at the height of the pandemic. He left a decade-long career working as a Product Manager at enterprise software companies in Silicon Valley to start a business focused on his one true passion — dogs. Alex lives in San Diego, CA with his wife Maggie and their dogs, Cooper and Maple.

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?

I grew up in Redondo Beach, CA, not far from LA, and I’ve been a proud Californian ever since. I’m the youngest of two boys, and as a child I loved to read and did well in school.

We had a cat named Baker Loo when I was a kid, but much more importantly my aunt and uncle had two Golden Retrievers. I always remember them seeming so happy — they’d run up with big, goofy grins and lick my face, and I knew in my heart that I was a dog person. It took me well over two decades before I managed to realize my dream of owning a dog, but it was worth the wait!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My dad is not exactly what I would describe as a pithy man (but if you need dad jokes, he’s your guy), but he said one thing when I was young that has always really stuck in my mind: “Don’t worry about the things you can’t control, because you can’t control them, and don’t worry about the things you can control, because you can control them.”

As an entrepreneur, I know how easy it can be to get bogged down in worries, whether they’re about things you can control or things you can’t. The worrying, though, is just a distraction, so every time I catch myself fretting about something, I remind myself to either figure out what I can do about it or just put it in the back of my mind and move onto something I can control.

This really helps me not just from a productivity standpoint, but also in terms of stress. I’ve come to realize that the best thing I can do to reduce my anxiety about something is to write down what’s worrying me and then identify anything I can do to control what I’m worried about. If there are things within my control, I can work on those, and the act of being productive really helps to calm my anxiety. If there’s simply nothing I can do about it, then if it starts to stress me out, I can look back at what I wrote down and remember that I’ve analyzed it and determined everything’s out of my control, so the only thing to do is move onto something else.

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?

I recently read the book Lifespan: Why We Age — and Why We Don’t Have To by David Sinclair, PhD. Dr. Sinclair is the co-Director of Harvard Medical School’s Center for the Biology of Aging, and the book reviews the science of aging and analyzes some of the ways that changes in aging will impact humanity’s future. It’s a fascinating read, because Dr. Sinclair, one of the foremost experts in the world on the topic of aging, views aging not as an inevitability, but as a disease that we should work to cure.

This isn’t to say that he thinks we’ll achieve immortality, but he makes a lot of fantastic points about how science has already extended not only lifespans, but also what he calls healthspans — the number of years we live without serious health issues that impact our quality of life. With America having just elected a President who is 77 years old, I think it’s a particularly important topic — people are not only living longer, but also working longer, and we as a society need to understand how that will affect employment, programs like Social Security and global issues like overpopulation.

In addition to helping me consider those big-picture issues, the book also gave me some perspective on life — as we live longer, we’re going to work longer, maintain relationships longer and be able to contribute to society longer. For those reasons, I think it’s increasingly important that we are proactive and thoughtful about our careers, relationships and lives. With many productive decades ahead, I want to make sure my life is one that I’ve built based on what’s important to me, not just one that happened while I was just sort of passively there. That really helps to remind me why I left enterprise software to focus on building a business around dogs!

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?

I went to college at Stanford and didn’t really have any specific career plans, so I ended up working in the tech industry at an enterprise software company called Box. It’s now a publicly traded company, but back then it was about 50 people in a little building in Palo Alto. I worked primarily in marketing there for about three years, and afterwards I spent the next seven years working in product management at several other startups.

All of those experiences were really valuable for me — working in early-stage startups really gave me the opportunity to see how companies operated and to have the kind of impact that simply wouldn’t have been possible at a Fortune 500 company. Particularly as a Product Manager, I had the opportunity to work closely with folks all over the organization — sales, support, marketing, engineering, finance and even the C-suite. That diversity of experience was one of the biggest things that gave me the confidence to eventually start my own business.

In early 2019, I decided to become a franchisee of a national dog boarding franchise. I left my career (or more accurately, I was struck by some serendipity when the company I was working at laid everyone off right as I was about to sign the franchise agreement) and moved to San Diego to find a location to lease. After spending the better part of a year searching for real estate, signing a lease, having plans drawn up, getting permits, finding a contractor and preparing to close my SBA loan, I got a call from the bank in March 2020 saying that all loan underwriting was being put on hold due to Covid. They resumed lending in May, but I decided to pull the plug — the dog boarding business is driven by people traveling, so taking out a large, personally-guaranteed loan to open one no longer seemed like a good plan. Unfortunately, shutting down meant that all the money I had invested into the business was lost, and that was about 100,000 dollars.

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?

First I slumped around the house for a couple of weeks feeling depressed. After that, I considered going back into product management, but I decided that I really wanted to figure out how to give entrepreneurship another go. I had been making some frozen treats for my dogs by blending freeze-dried meats into a powder along with a few other ingredients, mixing with water and freezing them into ice cubes, and I ended up turning those into my new business.

I had a logo and packaging designed, had nutritional testing done on the treats and put up a website — and thus was born Cooper’s Treats.

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

After my dog boarding business failed, I was making a batch of treats for my dogs, and it occurred to me that the reason I started making them in the first place was because there weren’t any high-quality frozen treat mixes available on the market. I went and did some more research just to make sure that was still the case, and sure enough, the only treat mixes out there were made with a series of unpronounceable ingredients. Mine, on the other hand, have only four ingredients each, and they’re all things you can pronounce — our Beef and Cheddar Pupsicle Mix, for example, has freeze-dried beef, whole wheat flour, whole egg protein and cheddar cheese powder. Our main competitor has ingredients like sodium carboxymethylcellulose and thiamine mononitrate. I know I’d rather be feeding my dogs real meat and whole grains than that stuff.

At that point I knew two things — there are a huge number of people who, like me, care deeply about what they feed their dogs, and ecommerce was booming because of the pandemic. Because of my career background, I knew I had the skills to start a website and begin marketing these treats, so I did just that.

How are things going with this new initiative?

Things are going really well! I’ve done thousands of dollars in revenue since we started selling in June and have received amazing feedback on the treats. Lots of folks have already placed second orders, which is the best feedback of all.

At first, I set things up as quickly and cheaply as possible — just a simple website with photos of my dogs and the treats that I took in my house. Now that I’ve started to see real traction, I know I’m selling a product that really resonates with people, and I’m working on updating everything to be more professional. I’ve redesigned the website and am currently having professional photography and videography taken of the treats. I’ve also finalized the recipe for a baked treat mix and am beginning production on those, so everyone can make their dogs homemade, baked treats during the chilly winter days! Our products make an amazing gift for your dog (or for any dog parents you know), so I’m excited for what I anticipate will be a big holiday season.

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?

My wife! She has helped me in countless ways, but here are a few of the highlights.

When we met, I was working at a company that made software for call centers, which is, shall we say, not the greatest way to contribute to the betterment of society. My wife, on the other hand, was part of a team at a biotech company that was developing a treatment for spinal cord paralysis. Not long before we met, one of the patients trying their treatment, who had previously suffered a severe spinal cord injury that left him largely paralyzed, had recovered enough function in his arms that he was able to throw out the first pitch at a White Sox game. Having a wife who not only loves what she does, but also works in a field that meaningfully affects people’s lives for the better, is a constant inspiration to me and a reminder that work should be about more than a paycheck.

When I suggested to her (and for context, at the time we weren’t yet engaged) that we should move to San Diego so I could leave my career and start a dog boarding business, she was immediately supportive despite how crazy that sounded even to me. It was a huge leap for me to not only leave the city where most of my friends were, but to also leave a stable career and start a business, and I genuinely don’t know if I could’ve done it without her unwavering support. As of now, she’s continuing to work as a scientist to support us financially while I pursue Cooper’s Treats. I am eternally in her debt.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

After a failed dog boarding business and a postponed wedding due to Covid, I’ve had enough of interesting stories for this year! Luckily, things have been fairly calm and steady for me — we’re growing slowly but surely, and the most interesting things for me have been the emails from customers with pictures of their dogs loving the treats.

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.

Give yourself a schedule, and make sure it includes breaks. When you’re starting a business and are really passionate, it’s easy to put in 100 hour weeks at the expense of everything else — I certainly did at first. You have to remember, though, that you’re building a company for the long term, and you can’t do that if you burn yourself out in the first couple of months. Take at least a full day off every week, and give yourself breaks during the day. Don’t neglect exercise or your loved ones — a healthy body and the support of the people around you are as important to the success of your business as that marketing campaign that you’re really excited to launch.

Understand shipping and all the costs associated with it. It was a real surprise to me what a big percentage of your costs go to shipping in an ecommerce business. Right now our Pupsicle Starter Kit, which is the bulk of our sales, sells for 24.99 dollars and costs about 10 dollars to ship. I’ve actually just had the box redesigned in order to get the weight down, so I can ship it via USPS First Class Mail (at its current weight, it has to go by the more expensive Priority Mail), which is going to bring my shipping costs down about 40%.

If you need to rely on suppliers, make sure they’re reliable or that you have alternatives. One of the ingredients in my recipe was originally yogurt powder. Unfortunately, there’s really just one main supplier (at least at the quantities I’m buying), and I found out the hard way once that they sometimes go out of stock and are very difficult to get a hold of. That ultimately led me to switch that ingredient out in flavor of whole egg protein, which is also good for dogs but much more widely available.

Lots of people say they want to be their own boss, but when you’re your own boss, sometimes you really, really wish you had a boss. While it’s frustrating to not have full autonomy when you’re working for someone else, it’s often really nice when someone else bears the ultimate responsibility for your choices. I love that I have the final say on everything, but it’s stressful to know that whatever happens as a result of my choices is going to fall entirely on me.

If you’re new to entrepreneurship, do something that you can start cheaply. My dog boarding business had really high startup costs — 50,000 dollars just to join the franchise and then thousands more on legal, architectural plans, permits, etc. Starting it also involved signing an expensive, long-term lease. In a way, I’m lucky that things fell apart when they did — if Covid had hit a few months later, I would have already taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from the bank to start construction. Cooper’s Treats has been just the opposite — it cost me a few thousand dollars to make my first batch of product, get a website up and start selling. I always have the flexibility to scale up my spending on things like marketing, but I won’t lose my shirt if something happens to the business.

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?

First, let me say that I have been watching far too much news for the last few months, and even though I know it’s not particularly helpful, I have difficulty stopping.

That said, when I get bad news, whether it’s something personal or any of the sorts of things we’re all familiar with from the news cycle, I really focus on trying to maintain perspective. I lost 100,000 dollars when I closed my dog boarding business, but I’m lucky to have saved enough money from my high-paying career in tech that even with a loss of that size, I didn’t have to worry about whether I’d be able to pay the rent or put food on the table. That was not the case for so many other people in the world who lost jobs suddenly and didn’t have the cushion that I did. Even now, as unemployment levels decline, there are still millions of people without jobs, and I’ve got a wonderful wife making sure our rent is paid. From that perspective, I’m incredibly lucky despite any of the bad things that have happened.

Similarly, my wife and I were supposed to have a big wedding in May — instead, we had a quick ceremony over Zoom. But we’ll still get to have our big wedding; it’s rescheduled for May 2022. There are others out there who missed things that can’t be rescheduled — funerals, birthdays, senior spring in college. There are women who were forced to give birth in terrifying situations in hospitals full of Covid patients, without even having the comfort of their partners by their sides. We just have to put off a big party for a while, so we’ll be just fine.

I believe that when things get bad, that’s the best time to take inventory of what’s good in your life. Whether you write a gratitude journal or just call someone and let them know that they’ve been there for you and you’re thankful for them, showing appreciation for the good things really helps to keep you from spiraling into the bad.

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?

I would have everyone spend a year living in a community vastly different from their own. There’s so much division and animus today between groups that virtually never interact with one another except through angry comments on Facebook posts. It’s easy to hate people who are just an abstract concept — if you’ve never met someone with a different color skin than yours, then they just don’t seem real in the same way that the people who you see and interact with every day are. Once you get to know people who look different than you, you’re a lot more likely to think of them as real people like yourself, not just some unknown strangers defined by stereotypes. If we could all just think of each other as real people, I think that would go a long way.

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!

Josh Wais and Lauren McDevitt are the founders of Good Dog, and I admire them both as entrepreneurs in the dog space and people who are really doing something good for dogs by helping people get the right dog from the right place, whether they’re looking to adopt or get a dog from a breeder. The pandemic led to an enormous number of unethical puppy mills churning out unhealthy dogs in terrible conditions to meet demand, and that really highlights the need for a company like theirs. I really admire them both.

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Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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