When Chuck Martin first pitched BarkBath, the concept faced almost universal skepticism.
Martin is General Manager of Global New Business Ventures at Bissell Homecare, the 142-year-old cleaning appliance company based in Grand Rapids, Mich. And he was convinced that there was an opportunity to expand from vacuuming and upholstery cleaning gear into pet care and grooming.
“We’re good at cleaning spots and stains,” Martin says. “We love kids and animals, because they both make messes. Because we have such a strong equity around pet, consumers believe that we’re a pet company.”
And his team’s research showed that the pet industry offered growth opportunities. “It’s gone from $17 billion to $73 billion in the last 17 years. In the next five years, it’s [projected to] go up to $93 billion as an industry,” says Martin.
But to get past the doubters and unleash the company’s first petcare product, Martin and team relied on three non-traditional things: a yellow lab named Maggie, the online crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, and one persuasive penguin.
Bissell was founded in 1876 by husband and wife, Melville and Anna Bissell. It was born after Melville patented an early carpet cleaner to help Anna in cleaning sawdust off the floor of her crockery store. When Melville died, Anna took over, becoming the first female CEO in the United States.
While the company has targeted pet owners as a major customer market—and has even created a foundation that assists animal shelters—it had never developed a product specifically made to clean an animal.
The BarkBath, a portable grooming device, uses existing Bissell technology to wash dogs “from the skin up,” as Martin puts it. As users brush the animal with a specially-designed nozzle, it emits (and then sucks up) a stream of water and shampoo.
But Martin says that the initial idea wasn’t exactly embraced at the company. “They really didn’t understand it,” he says.
Growing Beyond the Core
Years before the BarkBath, Martin’s team was initially formed by CEO Mark Bissell. Bissell, the third generation of the family to run the company, felt that “our core business is only going to get so big,” Martin explains. New growth, he says, would require identifying “new profit centers, new ideas, and new businesses. That’s why he created the Business Ventures group.”
When Martin joined the company eight years ago from Whirlpool Corp., he took the Business Ventures group from a back warehouse at Bissell’s headquarters to a more startup-like loft space, five miles off-site. With a team of about 16, Business Ventures would go on to launch seven businesses—including BarkBath—from this location.
“[The original warehouse] wasn’t very creative, enticing to recruit people into, or thought-provoking,” Martin says. The group first moved off-site in the wake of the 2008-2009 recession. “Our business took a hit,” Martin says. “But we were still able to be far enough away from the negativity that we could continue to invest in new ideas.” Martin adds, “We’ve learned a lot about testing and launching with new avenues—and also about continuing to build awareness in new and different ways.”
Unlike some new ventures groups that conceive and test new ideas, before handing them off to a different business unit, the team Martin oversees takes products all the way into the market. “We take it from the fuzzy front end, prove out the concept, build partnerships, manufacture, build the launch plan, put it in market, and then continue to grow it,” he says.
Prior to BarkBath, the team had successfully launched the Big Green Deep Carpet Cleaning Machine. Available as a rental, the machine required far less water to clean a rug than its competitor, the Rug Doctor.
After launching Big Green and other businesses related to the company’s core experience set, the Business Ventures team decided to explore petcare. Martin saw the industry as not just a growth opportunity, but recession-proof, because animals are seen by consumers as “a member of the family.” He also saw that pet care was an industry with “lots of entrepreneurs, new ideas and products… There must be a lot of pent-up need for new innovation in this area.
“One of these entrepreneurs was Dave Hachey, who had developed a commercial-sized system for washing dogs and horses.
“He’d been talking to [Bissell] for eight years about this idea that he came up with about washing your animal from skin up, and not fur down,” Martin explained, “He had a Newfoundland that had a bad odor. He was using one of our carpet and upholstery tools on some stains. Then, he tried using it on his dog.”
After seeing how the dirt was pulled away from the Newfoundland’s hair with the upholstery cleaner’s soft suction, Hachey built his own nozzle, which used basketball inflator needles to aim water and shampoo at the skin.
“I sat down with him and had an ‘a-ha!’ moment,” Martin says. “What if we could shrink [Hachey’s system] and take it to all the homes?”
Drafting Maggie to Help
“This was our seventh business, but the business farthest from the upholstery cleaning core,” Martin explains.
To make the case for the merits of the idea, Martin’s team put a great deal of work into researching the pet care industry and the functional requirements for a pet grooming product.
Martin says, “My only objective was, not just to get [Bissell’s board] to understand the idea, but just not to let them say no, and allow me to do more research.”
“All I wanted to do was research the idea,” he adds.
To answer questions like, “How much water is needed to wash a dog?” the team gave traditional baths to Martin’s 80-pound yellow lab, Maggie. They found that it took 19 gallons of water to bathe her in a regular bath, but only 48 ounces with the BarkBath prototype.
They next entered the market research phase with a quick SurveyMonkey online survey, and local in-person focus groups. The SurveyMonkey data “was promising, but we knew there were some gaps, and we wanted to talk to consumers.”
In local focus groups, Martin realized that showing participants the BarkBath concept on paper was not the right way to communicate its advantages.
When participants said, “I don’t know if it’s right for me, but it’s interesting,” Martin realized they “weren’t getting it.” Martin again turned to Maggie for help. He brought the dog in for a “show-and-tell” demonstration of the prototype
“It was the turning point in the whole project. … When I brought my own dog in, put a towel down and used it, everybody stood up and said ‘Oh my god. I have to have this,'” Martin recalls.
“That was when we went to a video concept. We took our cell phones and cobbled together a few things. We made a video montage. We did that on our own and put it into research. It scored off the charts,” he says. “When they see it, they believe it.”
After spending roughly $4,000 to run the SurveyMonkey survey and the local focus groups, “we went to our final round of quantitative research with a big agency out of Portland,” R2C Group. That research focused on price sensitivity.
The vice president of R2C told Martin that “he hadn’t seen a concept score so high in his 25 years at the company,” Martin says.
The product received the green-light for manufacturing in August 2016, with a launch planned for January 2017.
Although the product derived from a pre-existing Bissell upholstery cleaner, it still needed a few minor tweaks. The BarkBath’s specialized nozzle tool was designed by Tekna, a Kalamazoo-based product development company. An internal design team at Bissell created the exterior visual look of the machine.
Help from the Crowd
Still working with a limited budget, Martin’s team decided to turn to a crowdfunding site, Indiegogo, to build buzz and pile up some pre-orders for the product.
Indiegogo allows customers to “back” the products they like—effectively pre-ordering them, often at a discounted rate or with perks included.
Since the products and projects on the site are often being hatched by individual creators, users of the site are accustomed to waiting six months, a year, or longer before actually receiving the item they’ve backed. And from Martin’s perspective, because the platform would only take five-percent of the gross purchase price as its fee, Bissell got the advantage of exposing customers to the product without a media budget totaling millions of dollars; the company would only pay when the product was pre-ordered.
“We didn’t have a big launch budget or time,” Martin says. “Indiegogo allowed me to launch three months before having product. We could build up all the PR and buzz, or see if consumers would communicate… So, I could make modifications before launching on the website and everywhere else.”
Martin pitched this option, as well as another more expensive Indiegogo partnership, which would add analytics, PR capabilities, and video production assistance. The company opted to go with the standard pay-for-performance launch in January 2017.
With no training or guidance, the team would go on to create a website, a marketing strategy, and videos organically.
A Penguin Takes a Dive
With the Indiegogo launch set for March 1, 2017, Martin still realized he needed to work through some of the skepticism about the concept.
“Even when we said we were going to launch—and how we were going to launch—on Indiegogo, we still had skeptics…that didn’t believe the idea was going to work,” Martin explained.
One of those skeptics was within Martin’s New Business Ventures department, but not on the BarkBath team.
“Why would I give my dog a bath that way?” was the question on the mind of Dan Heidenga, General Manager Commercial Products at Bissell Business Ventures.
At first, he said he believed that bathing a pet was just a “standard” household chore. “We put the dog into the bath or the shower and just take the hose and clean him off,” Heidenga says.
Heidenga, a Bissell veteran of more than 30 years, continued, “At face-value, I kind of thought that it was a tough product. I thought the dogs would be scared of it with the noise level and asked, ‘Are you going to be able to get a dog to sit that long?’ I kind of put myself in the consumer’s shoes.”
While Heidenga had questions about the BarkBath concept, he was intrigued by the idea of using a crowdfunding site to launch it. “It was something totally different, and I was really excited about that opportunity and seeing what we could learn from that aspect of it,” he says. “A lot of the innovation of this project, in my mind, came from the launch plan and doing it differently than we’d ever done it before.” The traditional launch plan within Bissell involves spending on television ads, and contributing to the cost of print ads run by retailers.
Throughout the process of developing BarkBath, Martin kept his key success strategy in mind.
“In any organization,” he says, “I tell people you need three things for success… One is time, because I have to find the idea, understand how to market the idea, and then put everything together. Two, I need funding that is going to be stable. If the organization gets into hard times, that funding is still going to be available so we can continue.”
The third thing, Martin explains, is “what I call a penguin.”
“I need one senior leader that is willing to jump off the cliff first, so that everybody else follows,” he says. In the case of BarkBath, Martin’s “penguin” was Bissell’s Senior Vice President of Sales, Mike Best.
“He’s been here 30 years,” Martin says. While Best doesn’t directly supervise Martin or his group, Martin says, “I chose him as my penguin because he continues to have a lot of passion and always saw the vision. He’s far enough removed from our business that he’s able to look at things with a different perspective. I think people appreciate that.”
While it wasn’t Best who greenlit the launch, he provided supporting evidence to the executives who did. Best “had side conversations with board members,” Martin says. “He was the one that would tell people that [our] trade customers loved it.”
In February 2017, the team finalized the BarkBath and Indiegogo pages in preparation for the March launch. “We looked at about 15 different Kickstarter videos and ten Indiegogo videos, and started dissecting them to [understand] what makes a good video,” Martin says.
Maggie the yellow lab, who would also appear on the BarkBath packaging, wound up starring with her owner in the team’s Indiegogo video.
Launch Day Arrives
Within the first 12 hours of the Indiegogo launch on March 1st, 30 percent of the product’s pre-order goal was reached.
By April, the BarkBath was being sold on Amazon, Indiegogo, and Bissell’s own site.
“We sold out of product and had to air-freight products in from China to be able to take care of just pre-orders that we had in the first 45 days before we even had live sales on Amazon,” Martin says. “BarkBath beat all of our expectations on every success criteria that we had.
I had people walk up to me and say they were surprised, and had thought I would get fired. They said, ‘I’m so happy it worked out for you.'”
Along with record-breaking pre-orders on Amazon, BarkBath has been featured on TV and online media, including on the Today Show and Mashable.com.
“Obviously, [Indiegogo] worked. When the sales went really well, it was kind of hard to argue with the successful result,” said Heidenga, a former skeptic of the product.
He adds that he and his wife later bought the product for bathing their own dogs following its launch.
The Positive Side of Negative Reviews
Both positive and negative customer feedback accompanied the BarkBath launch.
“We built a tribe of people who were really excited about the product,” Martin says, “But we didn’t forecast correctly. We only had a set number of units that came in…” And the company started fulfilling the Amazon orders first, before Indiegogo.
“We wanted to attend to our Indiegogo backers,” who’d been the earliest supporters of the product, “but we got those shipments later,” Martin explains. “A lot of [our Indiegogo] backers posted comments saying they could get it in two days from Amazon, but it was going to take another two weeks” for their orders to arrive.
Although Indiegogo backers paid a discounted price of $89, while the BarkBath sold on Amazon for about $149, the Bissell team decided to send the Indiegogo backers free BarkBath accessories to “make it right,” according to Martin. “We really valued the fact that they bought first,” he says.
Martin’s team was also preparing for another customer complaint, which ultimately did temporarily lower its Amazon ratings.
“We knew that this product was going to be very polarizing,” he says. “It has a sound like the sound of a vacuum. We know that there’s a certain percentage of dogs that don’t like the sound of a vacuum at all.”
On both Amazon and the Bissell site, a disclaimer was published at launch saying that this product might not be suitable for dogs that are scared of vacuums or the sound of a hair dryer. The company also included hoses which would allow the BarkBath unit to be placed further away from the dog during use.
Despite the warnings and preparation, the BarkBath began to slip down to a 3.1-star rating on Amazon, according to Martin. “People loved or hated it,” he says.
What Martin learned from this experience was that people were not reading the product description on Amazon carefully before they bought. But once there were negative reviews on the site, prospective purchasers saw those.
Eventually, people whose dogs were scared of vacuum sounds stopped buying the product. That cleared the way for more positive reviews; after collecting roughly 260 reviews, the BarkBath’s star rating has climbed back up to 3.5.
Looking to the Future
Within three months of its initial launch, Martin’s team was already in the process of rolling out a 2.0 version of the BarkBath product.
“When you get those early successes, it makes you want to go even faster and accelerate,” he adds. Martin’s team has taken the sound issues into account with the development of a “BarkBath Quiet Time.” Launching in April 2018, the product will operate at a lower decible level. They’re also developing line extensions and more BarkBath accessories.
To amp up BarkBath’s marketing post-launch, the team again turned to a crowdsourcing site called Zooppa for user-generated video content. Martin said that Bissell worked with Zooppa for a total cost in the range of $5,000. Martin sent Zooppa a brief explaining what he was looking for, and received video submissions from more than 50 creators on the site. Zooppa allowed him to license five videos for use on social media, with the opportunity to purchase more.
In total, Martin says Bissell has bought licenses for 14 videos, noting that the team would have gotten just one video for the same price using an outside marketing firm.
Martin says that the BarkBath experience has helped show the company that new digital platforms can be leveraged for a very different, more capital-efficient product launch.
Heidenga says that “ultimately, the goal is to take our learnings…[and] try to make processes faster and then apply it back to the core. Do I think we’ll do some of those [BarkBath processes] with other projects? Definitely, we will.”
Martin says, “With that kind of a ‘yes we can’ mentality, we’re really looking at other areas and getting a lot more support for the core organization. We’re going to continue to push ourselves.”