Wag the dog

Alison Kirby says she knew her Gourmet Canine Cookies would sell well because, having once been a professional pet-sitter, she knows how animal lovers spoil their pets.

“I know that money is no object, because I have cats and dogs and they eat better than I do,” she laughs. “And when I did my research on pet ownership trends, I knew my business would eventually be a money-maker.”

When Kirby’s Akron company, Pampered Pals Inc., became a preferred supplier for Pets.com (a division of Amazon.com), CoolPetStuff.com, MotherNature.com and several other Internet companies, orders started pouring in for her canine treats — made with all-natural, premium-quality ingredients.

And ever since articles about her pet cuisine were published on the CNN and Fortune Small Business Web sites, she’s been running in circles to keep up with the demand.

Kirby started baking dog treats on a small scale in 1996. All of her sales were by word of mouth. Increasing interest prompted her to acquire U.S. Department of Agriculture approval in 1997. She then applied for an SBA loan and opened a 1750-square-foot manufacturing site (comprising an office and a kitchen) in October 1998.

Kirby’s Web site (www.pamperedpals.com) spawned orders from stores across the nation and caught the eye of big Internet retailers eager to bring her on board. Now, 75 percent of her sales come from cyberspace and just 15 percent are from word-of mouth. And while it typically takes a few years for a new business to see a profit, Kirby’s already operating in the black.

The trouble is, she can’t keep up with the orders.

“This is a family operation, but we’re growing so fast that we need to hire bakers, packagers and office people so we won’t have to rely on the generosity of people who come in and volunteer,” she says.

Hiring a large staff is inevitable, Kirby says, because she’s landed a contract with Buyer’s Shopping Network, and is negotiating others with PetSmart and Whole Foods.

“With all that production, I’m going to need people here six days a week,” she says.

But Kirby is hesitant to make a significant investment in more space and automated equipment, for fear it will backfire.

“I’m worried that if you build it, they won’t come,” she says.

Kirby knows that to find and keep good workers, she must provide competitive wages and good benefits. She aspires to offer that and more — specifically, flex hours and childcare and pet care areas.

To achieve those objectives, Kirby’s searching for investors.

“That’s a slow and frustrating process — a real emotional roller coaster,” she says.

In the interim, she’s expanded her Web site and perpetually brainstorms for product enhancement ideas.

“Plus I’m bullheaded and determined. That’s what keeps me going,” she says. “Next year, I see myself working in a bigger space with a lot of employees, more products, and hopefully not working 16 hours a day, seven days a week.”

How to reach: Pampered Pals, (330) 644-2984