Colin Buckley of Happy Howl: “Your core team MUST have a vested interest”

Your core team MUST have a vested interest — your vested interest market are those who stand to benefit the most from the problem your company is solving. Your core group that you first bring onto your team must be people from that market. Not only should they be consumers of your brand, they should also be […]

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Your core team MUST have a vested interest — your vested interest market are those who stand to benefit the most from the problem your company is solving. Your core group that you first bring onto your team must be people from that market. Not only should they be consumers of your brand, they should also be incredible at what you’re bringing them on to accomplish. Look for ownership mentality and look for those who are in search of “more purpose,” not just more money.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Colin Buckley, founder of Happy Howl.

Philadelphia-based entrepreneur, Colin Buckley lives his life guided by the call to help others invest in their futures. Throughout his professional career as an investment advisor, he’s helped dozens of retirees plan for long, prosperous golden years. As the leader of the Happy Howl pack, he’s harnessed his passion and ingenuity to create a dog food subscription company with the mission of feeding 50 million dogs in need.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia raised by two loving parents alongside my brother, Joe, who is five years my senior and whom I loved competing with. Joe never let me beat him in anything, which destroyed me at the time, but ultimately was to my benefit long-term. Competing with Joe was a challenge and it made competing with others my own age much easier. Soccer was undoubtedly my passion growing up. I played every day — before school, during and after. I’m still friends with many of my teammates today. I always envisioned myself becoming a professional soccer player and I think that’s why I ultimately drifted towards entrepreneurship. I think there are great parallels between the competition in business and the competition levels of a professional athlete. When I look back, I think of the curiosity I had when I was younger that is still innate today. My parents and teachers never got away easy. The normal “because I said so” or “that’s the way it is” was never good enough for me; I always needed to know why, regardless of the subject. And not only why, but how did we decide on the “why.” And who decided on it? This characteristic has been a gift and a curse for me in my life. A gift as I find myself digging deeper and getting to the true meaning of things — the facts. But a curse as it’s sometimes difficult for those around me that I rarely accept things at face value.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

It might sound cliche, but Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill was the first book I ever read cover to cover, and I was just 16 years old at the time. Nowadays I read 3–4 books per month because of how much that one book changed my mindset. When I first read Think and Grow Rich, I was in search of some kind of purpose and path (even at 16). I had a quote from the book, “our only limitations are those we set in our own minds,” written everywhere and I still do. As a kid I always thought that successful people were either lucky or just born that way, but this book taught me that the thoughts in your mind are what ultimately shape your future. I truly believe that sometimes all it takes is a simple rewiring of your mentality to see and appreciate all of the goodness in the world — especially after a year like 2020. A book like Think and Grow Rich creates positive thoughts and positive thoughts create positive experiences, positive impact, and positive change.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, making a difference is creating a legacy — but not a “legacy” in the traditional sense. I think our society today has difficulty in separating financial wealth from internal wealth. Financial wealth is simply a number that is constantly fluctuating. Some will flaunt this number and allow it to define them, while others use it to create a lasting impact on society. When you’re driven by making an impact, you’re building your internal wealth because you’re truly making a difference in the world around you. You don’t need money to donate to make a difference either, the only requirement is a heart that feels. Making a difference shouldn’t be measured in the amount of money that was donated; it should be defined by the way in which you made someone, or even a community, feel. To me, this is the true measure of success. When we make decisions at Happy Howl, the first question we ask ourselves is “how can we help more dogs and the people who love them most?” We know that if we never lose sight of this core ethos, we will always be on the path of making a difference. Making a difference is simply leaving a positive, lasting impact on those around you.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Only one in every 10 dogs born will ever find a permanent home. 3.9 million dogs enter animal shelters every year and about one-third of them are euthanized. There’s just simply not enough people, time and money to stop this on-going tragedy. But our Happy Howl team can envision a world where every dog has a forever home — and that’s what keeps us going every single day. According to the Humane Society, about 65 million American households own a dog, or 50% of all American households. Of those, 65% consider their dog to be a member of their family. That means that over 100 million people in the US look at dogs the same way that Happy Howl does. Dog food has been changing in recent years and people are beginning to understand the long-term benefits of human-grade food for their dogs. From a healthier weight, shinier coats, and cleaner teeth, to less vet visits, faster tail wags, and more years — real food makes a real difference. We partner with rescues in a few ways; through our Dog-Obsessed Partnership Program, which offer revenue-split agreements and through our Happy Dogs Promise, our commitment to donate 10% of our profits to our rescue partners for things like emergency veterinary care, surgeries, transportation and everyday necessities. We pay our rescues twice before we ever see a dollar for ourselves. If one out of every 10 dogs in the US ate Happy Howl’s human-grade food each month for a year, that would equate to over 500 Million dollars going directly to animal rescues in a single year. Every dog will make a difference — and every dog will feel the difference.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I’m just a guy who loves dogs. My dogs are literally my best friends. But really, I think the passion in the mission we support comes directly from the origin story of Happy Howl. My Siberian husky Rocky means the world to me. When I got him when I was in college, Rocky had some really heartbreaking issues — he literally threw up every single day for years. I would sit there and rub his back and tell him everything was going to be okay as he looked at me scared and confused. I mean it was destroying me — no matter the dog food we tried or vet we visited, nothing worked. So I did my own research and started cooking my own food. I mean what did I have to lose? I thought, at least this way I’ll know I did everything in my power to search for a solution. But it started helping him. Within a few months, the vomiting was maybe once per week. Within six months, it was gone. Today, it’s a distant memory. But what I started thinking was, in all honesty, Rocky is lucky. Many dogs don’t even find a home — and sometimes it’s because of an underlying medical issue that can’t seem to be solved, just like Rocky’s. So what if we started feeding our dogs healthier sooner? What if we used this opportunity as a battle cry to change the perception of rescue dogs and help them find a home? The dog-obsessed people out there are nothing to mess with and there’s strength in numbers. Together we can literally save all the dogs.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I think a lot of people don’t follow through on the ideas that they’re passionate about because they’re nervous of what others are going to think and say. In the era of social media, it’s difficult to not constantly compare yourself to others and even harder to rationalize investing your time, money, and effort into a project that has zero guarantees. But what I can say is that if that idea and passion gets you excited, wakes you up in the middle of the night and makes you feel alive; then you have to go for it. For me it was just this burning desire to want to get to the next step, to talk to the next person, to find the next dog to give a sample of my food. While the ultimate vision has evolved tremendously over the past two and a half years, there was always a vision from day one. The vision was dogs being excited, happy and healthy and that was enough to keep me going.

If you’re thinking about starting a company or non-profit or changing careers, whatever it may be, just know that there’s always going to be detractors, there’s always going to be haters and those who try to hold you back. Instead of letting them get to you or even resenting them for it, try to harness that negative energy for motivation. No one knows you better than you, and you can be whoever you want and accomplish whatever you set out to achieve. In the beginning of the Happy Howl days, some people actually thought I was joking about it. I was laughed at by people who I thought were my friends. But as I continued to dive deeper into the idea and the passion, I found people who shared the same thoughts as me, the same vision, and the same dreams. So if you want to go after something — wait a few days; if that idea starts to grow, go after it and never second guess your gut.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

At first I just read as much as I possibly could about the industry and the key players in the industry. I tried to understand what their strengths were and of course their weaknesses. I wanted to model the strengths and exploit the weaknesses. I picked up the phone to speak directly to people who started companies in similar verticals or penetrated traditional markets with a disruptive product, service or strategy. That’s how I found my mentor who has been instrumental in where we are today. Even with the notoriety the term “mentor” has gotten in recent years, I still find it to be underrated. I heard once that “smart people learn from their own mistakes, but wise people learn from others mistakes.” That’s what a good mentor can help with. A good mentor doesn’t give you all the answers necessarily, but they ask you the right questions and when you’re at a fork in the road, they can give you advice from a similar experience that they’ve dealt with. That can make all the difference, especially in the beginning.

After that, I just picked up the phone and called anyone who would talk to me. People hide behind email these days. Emails won’t move the needle. Pick up the phone. Call potential partners, call potential clients and customers, call suppliers, call manufacturers, call logistical companies. Not every conversation has to have some deal attached to it when you hang up. Use every conversation as a stepping stone and make sure you extract valuable information from it. Then use that information when you call the next person.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I think one of the coolest things about our company is that we built our company through Zoom calls way before COVID began. Our team is located in different cities throughout the country and most of our team haven’t met each other in person, but we feel as though we know one another personally. We have such a close team and it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come. It’s been a running joke that the first six months of the company was just me and our Food Scientist, Ben, meeting a few times per week and just trying to figure things out. Now, we have 10 people on our calls who are all absolute all-stars in their given field. The conversation isn’t theoretical anymore, it’s application. Sometimes I have to step back and remind ourselves how far we’ve come in this short period of time. But then it’s right back to the dogs.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

When I first decided I was going to start selling the food I was making for Rocky, I had 17 crockpots in my Amazon cart. The number was 17 because that was the number of crockpots that would have fit in my apartment in Philly at the time. I was thinking, “okay, I’m going to buy the crockpots, then I’ll go to the supermarket and buy about 250 pounds of food, trade my car in for an SUV and start delivering this stuff on Sundays.” It sounded like a perfect plan. That’s when I met my mentor, Chris, and he just said “hear me out.” He started bringing up quality assurance, labeling, insurance, feeding guidelines, and scalability. Things I had not yet considered. It’s really funny and humbling looking back. All good things take time and all good companies are built brick by brick.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

As I mentioned a couple times previously, Chris Joyce has had a huge impact on both myself and obviously the development of Happy Howl. Chris is the founder of Gusher which is essentially a company that helps people like me take things from an idea to development to launch to ultimately, success. I appreciate Chris because I can tell he believes in Happy Howl but he also believes in me and today I truly consider him a friend. My parents and of course my grandmother and late grandfather are four people that have been in my corner since I started on this journey and who I can honestly say that they believed in me my whole life. My parents are amazing people and my grandmother is an amazing woman and it always helps to have those types of people in your corner and I couldn’t be more thankful to have them in my life supporting me.

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There is a story in particular that not only helps solidify the true purpose of Happy Howl, but also makes me emotional to this day. About a year ago, a woman reached out to me to ask how she could order the food. Unfortunately, she had found our landing page but we were long before launch, so if you searched for “Happy Howl”, you might come across a video of me explaining my story with Rocky in my lap. The woman let me know that she also had a dog with stomach issues similar to what Rocky faced but her dog was much older and continued to get worse with time. Our food wasn’t ready for purchase, so I asked her a few questions about her dog, his allergies, eating habits and, based on her answers, offered her my at-home recipe that is one of our Happy Howl recipes today. She was so thankful that she offered to pay me, which I politely declined, and a few months later she reached back out to me to let me know that her dog’s condition was vastly improved. He was keeping his food down, his stomach issues cleared up and he was more energetic. Hearing this made Happy Howl real. It opened my eyes even wider to the fact that this entire project, this entire company and our entire mission is so much bigger than us. That if we are already able to help a dog before we even have our food for sale, then where can we really take this thing? How many dogs can we really help? What kind of difference can we really make? Those are the type of questions that keep me going and have me understanding that this is an opportunity to make a true difference in the lives of millions of dogs.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I really think this is an opportunity for communities and specifically individuals to step in and make a difference in what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re already working with a core group of rescues that we have partnered with and have seen the benefit of what we can provide to them. What I think communities can do is they can nominate a rescue that they know is helping dogs and we can work together to figure out a way to align with them to help their cause. There’s no reason why we can’t help more dogs. Like I said before, strength comes in numbers and every dog who eats Happy Howl is helping another dog that hasn’t even met their forever family yet. So I encourage those who are seeing this and reading this to nominate a rescue, to learn about Happy Howl, to try our food for their dog, and to get involved with us to make the world a better place for every dog who provides love to us that is the definition of unconditional.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).

Your core team MUST have a vested interest — your vested interest market are those who stand to benefit the most from the problem your company is solving. Your core group that you first bring onto your team must be people from that market. Not only should they be consumers of your brand, they should also be incredible at what you’re bringing them on to accomplish. Look for ownership mentality and look for those who are in search of “more purpose,” not just more money.

Talk to 10 potential customers per day, even if you can’t sell them anything yet — I’ve heard founders say things like “we’re not ready to get feedback from customers yet.” That is a death sentence. Get feedback early and get feedback often. It was always easy for me because I could literally walk down the street and qualify a person as a customer by whether they had a dog next to them or not. It might not be so easy for you but make it into a game. This will teach you where your customers hangout, who they talk to, and most importantly, what they want. To take it a step further, do two things; get their contact information to add them to your email list, and give them a postcard or something similar with an incentivized CTA. You can build your customer base before you even have anything concrete.

However long you think it’s going to take, double it, then double it again — so you have a great idea… you think with conservative estimates you’ll have it up and running in three months. Think again. Then think again. An ongoing joke within our team is “we’re three months till launch,” it’s just not that easy. But you should be soft-launching as often as you can. Put an iteration out there and get feedback, improve, iterate, then launch again. Things will never be perfect so don’t expect them to be and always make sure you’re improving based on consumer feedback. Don’t forget to celebrate the small wins as you go though — that’s what keeps your team energized and focused. Good things take time and good companies are built brick by brick.

Prioritize your sleep to increase productivity. It might sound counterintuitive but it’s true. When I first started, I was burning the candles at both ends only sleeping 4–5 hours per night. I thought I was doing right by myself by working 18 hour days regularly. It wasn’t until I found myself convinced that I had some type of terminal illness that I realized my issue was not getting enough restorative sleep. Adrenal fatigue is a real thing and not all time in bed is equivalent to productive rest. If you find yourself thinking you’re not sleeping enough, you probably aren’t. Two things that helped me get this under control was reading Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson and investing in a Whoop strap that truly has been a game changer. Give sleep the respect it deserves, and you’ll find yourself using the time you’re awake with much greater efficiency.

When you’re trying to build a company, treat your personal finances like a business — probably the most stressful part of starting a business is the delayed gratification part. Not only are you putting time and effort into something that won’t show you an ROI for a long time, you also need to keep putting money into it to keep it moving. It can be discouraging to see large invoices or expenses come your way before you have revenue. If you treat your personal finances like a business, you’ll be ready for the unexpected and you’ll know how to handle it. Personally, I keep a daily spreadsheet that is extremely similar to a company’s balance sheet and income statement. I can tell you my expenses, income, and net worth on a daily basis. It might sound tedious but it’s a real difference maker in getting you to understand the flow of money. Then, when you get to the point where your business is making money, you already know what to do.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Everyone should not only consider making a positive impact on our environment and society but they should make it a purpose to do so every single day. We create the world, the society, the community, and the neighborhood that we live in. We all play a part and if we are all conscious of the things that we do and the impact that we make, whether that is negative now or positive tomorrow, we can create a better world for ourselves, for our families, ad our communities and when we leave this earth, we can leave it a better place for those who come after us. It’s up to us to do better and I think we have the resources and the knowledge available to accomplish just that.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

You know this is such a hard question to answer because there’s so many people I admire and constantly read about like Ray Dalio, Oprah, Patrick Bet-David, Tom Brady or Jay-Z. I love reading stories about people that have accomplished incredible things in their lifetime. But truthfully, if there was only one person it would have to be Chamath Palihapitiya. Recently, I’ve been really drawn into his story and some of the keynotes that he has done over the years and I just really respect the way that he not only does business but how he tries to continuously create a better world. His thoughts on social media, obviously coming as a former Facebook executive, are something that I believe in tremendously. I think that we’re going to find in the long run that Chamath is going to make an astronomical positive impact on our world and I would love to let him know that he’s done a lot for me without me ever even meeting him.

How can our readers follow you online?

I try to stay off social media the best I can. I actually don’t even have a personal Instagram, Facebook or Twitter but you can find me on LinkedIn and you can find our company, which I post from often, on Instagram and Facebook. There you can see all of the good that we’re doing in the dog community and we would love for you to join in and be a Happy Howler!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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