Kelly Costello: “Here Are 5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being on Shark Tank”

Listen to successful entrepreneurs, even if you don’t want to hear what they have to say. I will admit I was pretty arrogant and stubborn when I started. I was young (22) and thought I could do it all on my own. Some really nice people tried to give me advice and I just ignored […]

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Listen to successful entrepreneurs, even if you don’t want to hear what they have to say. I will admit I was pretty arrogant and stubborn when I started. I was young (22) and thought I could do it all on my own. Some really nice people tried to give me advice and I just ignored (most of) them. I needed the Sharks criticizing me on national television to realize that I did not have the answers and I needed to take advice.

As a part of my series about the ‘5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On The Shark Tank’ I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Costello. Kelly is the owner and founder of Puppy Cake LLC. She began the company in 2007 just before her 22nd birthday. She started the company with 2 cake mix for dogs flavors and has since grown it to 14 different products and a multi million dollar company. Kelly lives Evans City, PA with her husband, 5 rescue dogs and 2 rescued cats.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit of the backstory about how you grew up?

I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh in a house that was next to “the woods” where I got to spend a lot of time outdoors. I was certain I wanted to be a veterinarian for most of my childhood. My parents were very supportive of my love for animals and let me take horseback riding lessons and spoil my dog.

Can you share with us the story of the “aha moment” that gave you the idea to start your company?

In 2007, I was looking at old cake mix advertisements for a client. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if they made that for dogs?” It was that moment that I realized that dog owners across the globe wanted to treat their dogs like family by giving them safe and healthy cakes.

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

The most exciting thing that has happened since I began leading, which has been since the beginning, is I got to present Puppy Cake on Shark Tank for season 3. I did not get a deal, but the exposure was incredible. I have used the advice I receive from the sharks to help grow my business. I’m so thankful that I got on the show.

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

Oh, there are many humorous mistakes, some more expensive than others. One time during a very busy month, I must have had pumpkin on the brain because I told our production team to make pumpkin cake mix for a new customer. They made all the product and put it on the pallet as instructed. Thirty minutes before it is due to ship, the shipping manager is doing the final check of the pallet before we wrap it. “Why is there pumpkin cake on this pallet? And where is the banana cake that they ordered?” my shipping manager asked me politely. I quickly realized my mistake, apologized to my team and all of us made several cases of banana cake for the next 30 minutes. We had very little time to spare. I learned that the process that I had been using to communicate to my team had too much opportunity for human error. I changed the way that I communicated to the team so that I had few opportunities to make mistakes.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are working on a new line of ice cream mix for dogs. We are working on getting the trademark for an adorable and funny brand name for it as well. The packaging will be very clean and the ingredients will be limited and healthy. Kind of like Halo Top, but for dogs. This line will be for dog owners who need limited ingredients and require a very clean ingredient deck for their dog’s health. Of course, any dog will be able to eat this stuff as well!

Ok, thank you for all that. Let’s now move to the main part of our interview. Many of us have no idea about the backend process of how to apply and get accepted to be on the Shark Tank. Can you tell us the story about how you applied and got accepted? What “hoops” did you have to go through to get there? How did it feel to be accepted?

I had applied for season 2 and didn’t hear anything back. So, when I heard from Yun Ligner, the executive producer, I immediately asked her if she pulled my old application. To my surprise, she had not. She had been browsing the web and found our cake mixes for dogs and reached out. That first phone call was my first interview. She then had me fill out the new application and I went through the process like everyone else, but it was much faster. I was absolutely thrilled when I found out that they were flying me to LA.

But the best feeling was getting the call from Clay Newbill that my episode was going to air! That’s when it became truly real.

I’m sure the actual presentation was pretty nerve wracking. What did you do to calm and steel yourself to do such a great job on the show?

I took it very seriously and spent the whole week watching every episode of shark tank and preparing for any question they might ask. I treated it like a competition and got into game mode. I used to run track and you have one shot to do your best and this wasn’t much different, just slower. I took many deep breaths, made my face look calm and my body followed. Once you’re in the tank and you do the pitch, the rest comes naturally. You forget the cameras are there and you’re just pitching your business to 5 savvy business people.

So, what was the outcome of your Shark Tank pitch. Were you pleased with the outcome?

I didn’t get a deal on the show but I am incredibly thankful for the exposure. Mark Cuban called me a wantrepreneur, and he was right at the time. Lori Greiner said I had a good product, but not an investable business and I needed to expand my line, which I did. Daymond John said that he would just take off the trash lid for their dogs’ birthday. Robert Herjavec was out so fast; I barely remember what he said. The kicker was Kevin O’Leary. Good ole Mr. Wonderful said in response to how a human cake could kill your dog: “Who cares if your dog dies, just go out and buy another one.” Dog owners didn’t like him much after that.

While I would have loved to get a deal then and I was disappointed that I didn’t. today. I am thrilled that I own 100% of my company and have grown it without the Shark’s help.

What are your “5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being on The Shark Tank”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. If you wouldn’t buy your business, why would anyone else? I realized that I didn’t have good numbers and it didn’t look like a worthy investment. So instead of making a plea for help, I needed to focus on making it investable. If it was investable, then it was profitable and something I would want to keep for myself.
  2. Actions speak louder than words in life and in business. The effort I put into my business at the time on the show was a reflection of the sales that I had. Part time efforts result in part time results.
  3. You need a line of really good products for someone to invest in your company. If it’s just one product, it’s not a company, it’s a product. Investors want to invest in a company.
  4. Listen to successful entrepreneurs, even if you don’t want to hear what they have to say. I will admit I was pretty arrogant and stubborn when I started. I was young (22) and thought I could do it all on my own. Some really nice people tried to give me advice and I just ignored (most of) them. I needed the Sharks criticizing me on national television to realize that I did not have the answers and I needed to take advice.
  5. Sometimes, the Sharks are wrong. My company was unique and niche-y, but it has grown to a mule million-dollar company that is profitable. If you can prove that the market is there, go with your gut and keep fighting.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive and avoid burnout?

Burnout is such a real thing and the best thing is to recognize it when you feel it coming on and start an action plan right away. The last time it crept on, I realized that it was because of my duties and that I needed more of doing what I love (being creative, coming up with new products, marketing) and less of what was taxing me (being involved in the minutia of production). The solution was to promote an employee to be responsible for the execution of the production plan instead of me.

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. 🙂

At Puppy Cake, we are very passionate about animals, especially our pets. I have been working on creating a fund at our local animal shelter where anyone can come in and get their pet spayed or neutered at no cost. The number one cause of pet overpopulation is unwanted/unplanned litters. I have found that many well-meaning families and individuals can’t afford it or feel like they would have to make too much of sacrifice to pay for the surgery. We want to help anyone from any walk of life get their pets spayed or neutered. I feel like initiatives like this are the best way to eliminate pets being euthanized because there are too many pets and not enough homes.

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

Eleanor Roosevelt said “A woman is like a tea bag — you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” I didn’t know what I was capable of until I pushed myself beyond what I had done before. I’ve said yes to almost every order and opportunity to grow Puppy Cake. Turns out, I’m pretty strong.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have lunch with Amy Schumer. She is a comedian, actress, producer and activist and more. She grew her career from nothing to being globally successful. It’s much harder for a woman to be successful as a comedian and she did it with complete authenticity and speaking her truth. I really admire her for that.

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