Surround yourself with as many smart and diverse people as possible. No matter how smart or talented you may be, you’ll never be as smart or talented as a room full of smart and talented people. Get advisors, board members, friends, family, former colleagues, etc. and just make sure to leverage multiple smart people to help you make decisions — particularly the big ones. And to the extent possible, I would advise having a diverse set of voices in the room who think about things differently than you do. You want debate and the more thoughtful perspectives that you have, the more you can make informed decisions.
As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zel Crampton.
Zel Crampton, CEO & Founder of Diggs, founded the brand after experiencing personal frustration with poorly made pet products after adopting his dog in 2016. With an engineering degree, and years of R&D, Zel set out to elevate safety standards, innovation, and design in the pet industry. Under Zel’s leadership, Diggs has emerged as one of the fastest-growing brands in the pet space, achieving 400% growth in 2020 as a result of a growing community of safety-conscious pet parents and increased pet adoption during the pandemic.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
There were many issues — too many to count. When I first got the idea for Diggs, many people thought I was crazy for wanting to make dogs crates — fancy ones, in particular. Then I had to figure out how to design, engineer and manufacture complex physical products — something that I had never done before. I also did not have any marketing or retail experience. Everything I was doing was completely new to me. Cash was always such a concern. Our products are CapEx and working capital heavy, so convincing investors to give us capital, in the early days was extremely difficult — I talked to literally hundreds of investors and only a few, extremely appreciated early supporters got on board. I thought about quitting many times.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Great question and I’m frankly not sure. At the end of the day, I have always truly believed in our products and knew there was a huge demand and untapped market for them. I think I’m also very quick to rebound. When things would go wrong, I’d be able to move past those issues in relatively short order. Having an optimistic mindset helped too. I would regularly find myself saying “If I could only make it to XYZ milestone, then everything would be perfect.” Of course that wasn’t true since as soon as you get to the milestone, you have new problems to deal with. But it kept me focused on little victories, which helps.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going great, we recently closed a 13 million dollars Series A investment round led by venn growth partners with backing by Strand Equity. We’re excited to put the funds to work in developing new products, diversifying marketing channels, recruiting talent, and creating a first-of-its-kind product design and development facility in Long Island City.
I think grit and resilience are honestly the most important traits for founders. The challenges and headwinds come at you like rapid fire. I’ve come to learn — the hard way — that running a company is really about dealing with and solving problems. Once in a blue moon you get to look back and say “wow — look at what we’ve accomplished”, or “wow — things are going really great.” But for the most part, you’re in the day-to-day fighting fires and dealing with issue after issue, many of which are mission critical, so you really feel the pressure. Resilience isn’t just nice to have, it’s required to get through each day.
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?
When I had early prototypes of our dog crate, I would go to the pet trade shows to try and strike deals. I was very much like a traveling salesman with a giant case and my dog crate that I would demo to any willing party. What I did not realize was that since I did not have a booth at the tradeshows (booths were cost-prohibitive for us at that point), I was not actually allowed to be selling and doing product demos in the aisles. So I would play a cat and mouse game where I’d see where security was and try to hide from them and do demos. Eventually, at one show, they caught me and asked me to stop. It was all pretty harmless but sometimes you just have to hustle!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Diggs uses qualitative research to solve real problems for pet and their parents. We create differentiated and innovative products that raise the bar for safety, functionality and aesthetics. Diggs is also building a community of pet parents and pet professionals to help educate about training and pet safety, and this sense of community extends not only to our customers and audience, but to our amazing (and growing!) team. Growing from just a few people pre-pandemic to our current team of nearly thirty, we worked really hard to stay close and connected while working remotely. Every single person is dedicated to our mission of creating better and safer pet products.
When I first started research for the Revol dog crate, I would go to dog parks and peoples’ homes and just observe them and their dogs. I would joke “I’m not being creepy, but I’m just going to watch you for the next hour or so.” People were usually confused but were always nice about it. This was how I could learn about product shortcomings, workarounds the people employed (usually unwittingly) and opportunities to improve products on the market.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I would say to thrive, you need to find a way to make good decisions. I have a philosophy that as long as you make fact-based and logical decisions every step of the way, you have the best odds of being successful. I think, therefore, you need to constantly challenge your own assumptions and biases, seek multiple differing opinions, and try to use data and research to inform your decisions. Most importantly take your ego out of the decision-making process. Best idea wins — whether it came from you or someone else.
As far as avoiding burnout, I would recommend 3 things: (1) being ruthless with your time. Make sure that you minimize meetings, and when you have them, people should come prepared and look to make decisions. If meetings are unproductive or unnecessary, cut them off rather than continue to spin your wheels. (2) Never, never, never procrastinate. It should be your own personal goal to get through your entire to-do list and inbox each and every day. Doing so allows you to stay ahead and not be mentally bogged down with how much is on your plate. An added benefit is that once your plate is cleared, you can take a real break at night and on weekends, so that you can truly refresh. (3) Delegate as much as possible. Literally. I think of myself as the conductor of an orchestra. You keep everything moving and orchestrated but you don’t play any instruments yourself. This is the most efficient for scaling and is the best use of your time as a founder/CEO.
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?
My maternal grandfather, Eddie, was definitely an inspiration for me. He survived the Holocaust, though most of his family did not, and he immigrated to Canada with basically nothing. After unsuccessfully starting several businesses, he eventually started a successful small company in the Montreal, Canada, area. Not only was I inspired by his perseverance and resiliency, he provided me lots of professional guidance prior to his passing 5 years ago. To this day I remember some of the talks we had and the lessons he gave me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Diggs is very much a mission driven company. One of the things that really surprised me when I first started exploring the pet industry is that there are no product safety standards in the same way as there are for other consumer products, like juvenile and baby products. For that reason, companies in the pet industry have been getting away with making low-cost and poorly made products for decades, resulting in injuries to both pets and parents. Our core mission at Diggs is to improve safety standards of pet products. We work with baby products manufacturers to help us achieve some of the standards from that industry. We hold ourselves accountable to their standards wherever possible including, for example, to eliminating the presence of heavy metals and phthalates in our products. We recently hired our Head of Pet Safety, whose job will be to work tirelessly to improve the quality and safety of our products — no matter how good they might be already — and to help set quality standards for the pet industry in partnership with major 3rd party testing facilities.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- It’s way harder than you think. I, foolishly, said to myself as I was starting Diggs “I can make dog crates — that’s easy”. NO IT WAS NOT. It took twice as long and was 100x more complex than I initially thought. So the take-away for me is not to underestimate what it takes to start something from scratch. And to add to that, when things go well, you should feel that much more pride.
- Err on the side of quality and expertise. The old adage is true: “you get what you pay for.” To the extent possible, you should try to invest in real experts and higher quality at every step along the way. Whether that’s lawyers for IP filings or creatives working on your branding. Customers have super high expectations and the more you can deliver on a premium experience, the more chance you have for success. I have generally found that when you try to cheap out on things, you end up paying much more for it down the road.
- Surround yourself with as many smart and diverse people as possible. No matter how smart or talented you may be, you’ll never be as smart or talented as a room full of smart and talented people. Get advisors, board members, friends, family, former colleagues, etc. and just make sure to leverage multiple smart people to help you make decisions — particularly the big ones. And to the extent possible, I would advise having a diverse set of voices in the room who think about things differently than you do. You want debate and the more thoughtful perspectives that you have, the more you can make informed decisions.
- Enter attractive markets. You can have a great idea in any market but if you enter a market that is big, growing, etc. you dramatically increase your chance of success. I like to joke that you can be successful in the pet industry just by showing up to work because it’s so big and growing so quickly. These macros trends mean that I don’t have to be the only company that succeeds, and I don’t have to struggle to find customers.
- Understand the financing dynamics before moving forward. Most companies need some sort of early-stage capital to get off the ground. If you anticipate raising equity capital from institutional investors like VCs, you need to understand what kind of investors would invest in a company like yours. You might find that the investor base is very small or niche or might have certain requirements to invest (e.g., scale, profitability, etc.) In my case, the world of investors that invest in consumer durables is sizable, but they generally like to see sufficient scale (revenues) before investing.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
There will be many challenging moments. Each day can feel like a grind. I would make 2 suggestions: (1) have people that you can turn to for emotional support and for logical problem solving. My wife, Julie, was always so supportive for those days when I would feel down. She has been great at picking me up and helping me address my insecurities. My great friend and Diggs board member, Isaac, is always willing to hop on a call to work through problems. As a founder himself, he knows what it’s like to make decisions and deal with issues in a high-growth company. Using him as a sounding board has been so critical to helping me make good decisions and get through challenging times. (2) It’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day challenges and problems, and you can sometimes forget to celebrate the victories, particularly the small ones. My advice is to take some moments for yourself and your team to appreciate victories and the progress that you’ve made. I found board meetings particularly helpful because you’re forced to reflect on what you’ve achieved and how things are going. More often than not, I was pleasantly surprised at how much we had accomplished since the previous board meeting.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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’m passionate about solving environmental and biodiversity problems. It’s amazing how the human population continues to grow and more people are pulled out of poverty. The downside is that all of this growth and wealth creation has come at the expense of our planet and the other animals and plants that live here. I would love to spearhead a movement to better protect our natural world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can visit www.diggs.pet to keep up to date on new products and information from the brand.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!