Ask for help: I am a person who has always tried to figure everything out on my own. That does not work when starting a business. This is not a small or easy task — you will need help — you will need people in your corner.
Talk to anyone and everyone: This lesson is directly tied to #1 and was one of the hardest ones for me to learn — it is also the most important lesson and the one that has made the biggest difference in my life. There is a whole world of people who have started businesses — they have made all the mistakes you can think of and have come out on the other side — better, stronger and smarter. And they want to help you!
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jen Weatherhead, CEO and a co-founder of ZenPup, an elevated pet wellness brand that specializes in CBD infused formulas. After becoming the mother of two miniature daschunds — Rooster & Roxanne — she noticed Rooster spending a lot of time alone in the dark and realized he had terrible anxiety. Being a huge advocate for holistic cures — Jen began looking into natural anxiety remedies for her little guy — but the choices available were underwhelming, untrustworthy, and did not meet her high quality standards.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me! OK — a bit about me. Without aging myself too badly, I have worked in formula and package development within the beauty industry for over 15 years — with extensive expertise around natural, clean ingredients. Additionally, I am personally a holistic, natural wellness fanatic and have been fairly obsessed with Eastern medicine for decades.
The idea of ZenPup started when I became the proud mother of two min long-haired dachshunds — Rooster & Roxanne. My babies were only 4 pounds each when they first came home and we quickly learned that Rooster had severe anxiety issues. My little man spent the majority of his time sitting in the bathroom…in the dark…behind the door….facing the wall. When I took him to the vet to see what could be done to make him more comfortable, they immediately wanted to put him on fairly severe anxiety medication. The thought of putting such strong pharmaceuticals inside his tiny body was too much for me — so I set out to find an alternative solution. This was about the time CBD started to become popular in the human sector — and I thought it could be a good solution for Rooster’s anxiety. However, when I did a deep dive into the pet market — I was pretty horrified at what I found. There was no ingredient transparency, no testing results, no COAs, jenky websites and visually unappealing packaging/branding — just absolutely nothing I would ever use on my little Rooster. I started to do some research and learned that a TON of people felt the same way I did. There are over 17million dog owners interested in CBD, but only 5million have tried it — stating they could not find a brand they trusted or could relate to.
Coming from a development background — when I cannot find what I am looking for — I typically make it myself. And thus, ZenPup was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There definitely hasn’t been a shortage of lessons learned — good and bad, since launching ZenPup, but one in particular really stands out to me and shows exactly how such a seemingly small thing can become a big thing.
My husband and I headed to a friends place on the Upper Westside for a Christmas party in the early days of launching ZenPup and while passing the time on IG in the back of the Uber, I noticed Jen Atkin, who is the Founder of Ouai and very close to the entire Kardashian clan had recently adopted a dog (Roo) from a shelter and the animal was having a very difficult time adjusting to the massive change. At that moment I turned to my husband and told him I just got a crazy idea. What if we pull together a cute little care package and shoot it over to Jen but address it to Roo that includes our entire lineup of products? Fast forward a year and that little gesture has paid off on multiple fronts. Ms. Atkin has not only said we are a game changer of a company on her Instagram a bunch of times, she has also included ZenPup in her travel diary from a big trip to Italy she took with Roo, added us to her recent holiday gift guide and also got our products in the hands of Bella Hadid — who is arguably the biggest model in the world.
The biggest takeaway from all of this I think was something that doesn’t seem like an opportunity on the surface can truly take on a life of its own and can help you grow a relationship with another badass woman who you’ve looked up to and is doing some really great things in her respective industry. Plus, who knew looking at an IG image of a cute puppy could allow ZenPup to make a real change in an animal’s life.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Probably putting our very amazing but very fidgety puppies in our 1st brand shoot. Being a start-up, we are incredibly conscious of minimizing our burn rate and doing things as cost effectively as possible. After looking into the cost of ‘dog models’ (it’s a thing! And they are not cheap) we decided to use our own little babies — Rooster & Roxanne. Fast forward to the day of the shoot, we arrive at the location only to realize it is on the 5th floor of a walk up! Now, dachshunds have very short legs and they are not supposed to walk up stairs because it can damage their long backs. So, I arrive on my own — two huge suitcases of props + 2 not so small dogs…and realize I now have to get all of us to the fifth floor. So here I am, one dog under each arm, climbing what truly felt like Everst. I make it to the top — a sweaty and disheveled mess (very cute first impression for our photographer) — leave the pups in the studio and go back down to lug up the suitcases. When I arrived back at the studio, both dogs had peed on the floor (another great first impression) — and there are NO paper towels anywhere. On top of that, the bathroom was about as far from the studio as possible. I trek to the bathroom, get enough toilet paper to clean up their mess, go back to the studio, clean everything up and then walk back to the bathroom to throw everything away. During the time I was gone disposing of the mess, these little rascals decided to poop on the floor! So I had to do the entire process all over again. Thankfully the shots turned out great — but it was without a doubt one of the longest and most trying days i’ve had in a long time.
The lesson there — ask for help! So many friends and family members offered to pitch in, but I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone and felt sure I could handle it on my own. I was way off base there and really wished I had taken them up on the offer — it would have made the experience so much easier and more enjoyable. Another valuable lesson — sometimes it’s better to pay a little bit more (like for a studio with an elevator) to make your life a little bit easier.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are working on SO many exciting things right now. My mind is swimming with my launch ideas and right now, we are in the process of creating 7 new formulas. Expanding our portfolio into different categories will give pet parents a wider range of CBD infused formulas to incorporate into their pet’s daily routines — thus improving their overall quality of life. I think every pet parent will agree — there is nothing worse than your baby being uncomfortable — be it anxiety, skin issues, pain — our formulas improve the lives of pets, and thus, improve the lives of their owners.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Oh boy — there is more than just 1 person — but I would say that the 3 most important people who I will forever be grateful for are my fellow co-founders: Nicholas Weatherhead, Orlando Baeza, and Stephanie Liu. They are in a class of their own and have been on this wild ride with me from the jump. Starting a business is HARD…and scary…and overwhelming. There is so much that goes into getting a company off the ground. These 3 are the best partners because first — they are all genius forces of nature in their respective fields, and second — because they understand what we are trying to build and how different ZenPup is from everything else out there.
This industry is young dynamic and creative. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?
We definitely try a lot on unconventional routes. A year ago we were a sponsor for a big event at South x Southwest that got a lot of recognition. Megan Thee Stallion posted about us as a result of that event. We did a dog park poop bag takeover across NYC and had a team go around to all the major dog parks and put ZenPup branded poop bags in all the parks. We go out of our way to look for strategic partners that represent the brand’s lifestyle.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
- I’m really pleased that the stigma around cannabis is finally starting to fade and that people are beginning to recognize that this plant has unbelievable powers.
- Improved regulation. Some brands worry about new FDA regulations — but we welcome this and look forward to it. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there who are misleading consumers and they give the entire industry a bad wrap. These regulations will help weed out the bad apples, while legitimate brands (like us) rise to the top
- There are a lot of super cool technologies being developed with CBD. Without getting too technical, formulas require ingredients to be water or oil soluble — with water soluble being the most popular. CBD is an oil, so in the past there has been difficulty getting the oil to properly integrate into formulas. We are seeing really interesting powder technologies that can now transform the oil, allowing it to be incorporated into all types of formulas.
- Advertising. This is one that we all hope will shift soon, but digital advertising around CBD is very tricky because it is still considered a regulated/ high risk substance. This means we have a tremendous amount of hoops to jump through in order to be able to market ourselves.
- Payment Processors. This is one of those things that people don’t think about — but because CBD is still considered regulated/ high risk — we do not have the same options available to us that other brands in other categories have. We cannot integrate Amazon Pay or Apple Pay. We cannot offer a subscribe and save feature (Shopify recently changed their rules around this and in order to offer subscriptions, you must use Shopify’s processor….but they do not accept CBD brands.) We are limited to a very small number of payment processors that will work with CBD brands. Basically — there is an added level of complication to everything we do.
- Bad Apples. This is probably my biggest concern — the lack of regulation and consumer awareness around CBD has led to a decent amount of brands creating very poor and ineffective products that risk giving the entire category a bad reputation. I have seen brands position themselves as a CBD company — and charging a premium — but they are using hemp seed oil instead of hemp oil. Consumers don’t know that hemp seed oil has none of the benefits of hemp oil, so they buy the product — it doesn’t work — and then they are turned off of CBD forever.
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business”? Please share a story or example for each.
Oh boy — I could make a list way longer than just 5 items, but i’ll try to pick the most important one
- Ask for help: I am a person who has always tried to figure everything out on my own. That does not work when starting a business. This is not a small or easy task — you will need help — you will need people in your corner.
- Talk to anyone and everyone: This lesson is directly tied to #1 and was one of the hardest ones for me to learn — it is also the most important lesson and the one that has made the biggest difference in my life. There is a whole world of people who have started businesses — they have made all the mistakes you can think of and have come out on the other side — better, stronger and smarter. And they want to help you!
- Be prepared to hear no more than you hear yes. I once read that anyone who has a truly new and different idea will have people doubt, question and negate them constantly. The important thing is to have conviction and know what any truly new idea is always first met with resistance.
- Be prepared to feel overwhelmed at times — and know that is absolutely fine.
- Remember you are entering into a highly regulated space, and understand what that means across all areas of your business — testing, compliance, ads, website, retailers, etc.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Let’s be real — start-up life is HARD. People do not go to a start-up for a cooshy 9–5 job. They go to a start-up because they believe in the business and want to have a voice/ shape the future of the business. With that in mind, I think the most important thing in a start-up is making sure everybody has a voice and feels valued. This means operating from a place of full transparency, so everyone knows what is going on — good, bad or otherwise. It also means trusting the people you hired and making them feel empowered to do the role you hired them for — while of course always being there to offer support.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have 2 answers for this one
- I would want Cannabis to be legal on a Federal level. What most people do not know is that since Cannabis is not federally legal, no research on the plant’s medicinal properties can be funded through the government. This plant is thought to have some of the most unbelievable efficacy against some truly horrible diseases — but we are missing out on its potential until it is legal on not just a state level, but a federal level
- This one is not really related to people — but is geared towards pets in particular. It’s not a new one — but pet adoption and rescue is something near and dear to my heart. One of my dreams is to open up a Rescue Ranch where we save pets on death row in kill shelters, rehabilitate them and find them a new home. I believe that animals are the physical manifestation of pure, unconditional love and we as a society need to reevaluate how we treat them. Pets are not disposable — they are living, breathing beings who deserve love, affection and happiness. And perhaps if more people were educated around pet anxiety and the ways it is expressed, they would be able to better understand why their animals are acting out and take the appropriate measures to help (like giving them CBD).
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
If I am being honest, my social media game is very weak. There is little to no activity on my personal IG account (@jentriz), probably because most of the focus is really growing ZenPups’s social presence (@thezenpup).
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!