Austin Pet Accessory Company Built on Jewish Values Takes on Shark Tank
By Tonyia Cone
PrideBites, an Austin-based pet accessory company built on Jewish values and strong relationships formed in the Jewish community, has grown from a few guys selling a pet toy at football tailgates to the backing of celebrity investors on the ABC television show “Shark Tank.”
PrideBites CEO and co-founder Steven Blustein explained that the company began with COO and co-founder Sam Lampe’s idea, thought up in 2010 in their college apartment, to create a better dog toy. Along with CMO and co-founder Sean Knecht, the friends were unhappy with the look, feel, and versatility of dog toys on the market and set out to create one of their own.
“All of us met because we were very involved in BBYO when we were growing up,” said Blustein, explaining that Knecht has been one of his closest friends since sixth grade, he met Lampe at Greene Family Camp many years ago, and he knew almost all the other people who are now PrideBites employees through Jewish life.
“We're all very much linked by the Jewish community. It's something that we really hold true to ourselves,” said Blustein, adding that PrideBites is one of the few environments he has been in where he can write “Happy Passover,” on a message board and others can relate to it.
“The morals and values of our Jewish upbringing mean a lot to us. If we can keep and maintain that culture, we think we can provide a really great thing,” he said.
Once they realized barriers to entry were fairly low, Blustein, Knecht, Lampe and PrideBites’ chief production officer and co-founder Ting Liu, a foreign exchange student Blustein met when they were students at the University of Kansas, started looking into factories overseas to figure out what they could build together. They spent a year and a half prototyping products -- going football tailgate to tailgate at the University of Southern California selling Trojan-shaped dog toys and trying to gauge people's reactions – before launching to market in fall 2012.
“The journey has definitely been long in trying to prepare, to get everything right and to get started,” said Blustein, who attended Congregation Beth Yeshurun while growing up in Houston.
About two months after PetBites launched their product, they were awarded "Best Dog Toy for 2012" by “Pet Business” magazine. At the time, Blustein was working as a tax accountant in California. He immediately quit his job to go overseas to figure out how to build out making great products for pets.
When the business started to grow, Blustein knew PrideBites needed a new home in a place friendly to entrepreneurs. With strong ties to Austin, he settled on the Texas capital and began promoting PrideBites’ products to stores.
“What we recognized is the need in our space for personalization. What we kept focusing on was the preparation of how to make our product and always how to get better in terms of the production side, which led us ultimately into being able to offer full customization and design to pet parents,” explained Blustein, whose company employs 11 people, six of whom are in Austin.
Meanwhile, Knecht had always wanted to land the company on the ABC television program “Shark Tank,” a business-themed reality show where entrepreneurs pitch their companies to celebrity investors.
Turned down initially, PrideBites appeared on the seventh season of the show and presented their concept of high quality pet products that float, are machine washable, and which customers can design and customize.
“I couldn't stop smiling,” Blustein said. “I've seen this show so many times and the opportunity to be in front of some of the biggest celebrity investors in the world and let the entire world know your story, and about your business that you've created from scratch is just a really surreal moment. All of us are very thankful for it.”
Blustein and Knecht appeared in front of Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner, Robert Herjavec, Daymond John and Kevin O’Leary, asking the investors for $200,000 in exchange for a 10 percent stake in the company.
After suspenseful negotiation, Herjavec and Greiner invested $200,000 in PrideBites together for a 20 percent stake.
At the end of their segment of the show, Blustein said he was pleased to have access to Herjavec’s skills and traits as well as Greiner’s presence.
Within three weeks after the show aired on April 8, PrideBites has grown close to 10 times its previous size. Blustein expects the company to do a couple million in sales this year.
“It is like a whole new business,” said Blustein. “Through the weekend we hit numbers that we've never achieved. There's obviously a very new norm to the business. It's one of those things now where we have instant credibility. When you email somebody, in an industry that you've been trying so hard to achieve, you get the results and the responses that you need. It's definitely affected our business in a huge way.”
Blustein said Jewish values and skills he developed as a Jewish youth group and BBYO leader have helped him grapple with the challenge of trying to shake up a product that is an industry staple and competing with brands that have been in the business for 30 years.
“Our goal in the future is that anybody who walks into a pet store is buying a product that is unique for their pet and something different from anybody else in the shop,” Blustein said.
Blustein explained that the challenge to get to that point is making everyone believe in his company’s ideas and concepts, which entrepreneurs must overcome by believing in themselves.
“From my time in BBYO, and my experiences growing up and seeing Jewish life, I definitely had experiences early on that helped me to be a decision maker and a leader and step up in situations that may have been more difficult,” he said.
“From a moral standpoint and loyalty standpoint, the things that Judaism preaches so often -- giving back -- are something that you definitely have to think about when starting a company, and definitely when starting a company with your best friends. We always try to do what's right, and thankfully our Jewish upbringing is kind of what drives that,” Blustein added.
For more information, visit PrideBites.com. The company’s products can be found in pet stores around Austin, including the company’s flagship retailer, Tomlinson's Pets.