The Pet Bed & Toy Maker
How a globe-trotting Fortune 500 consultant transformed himself into an eco-friendly pet entrepreneur and gained a life he loves

In 2007, Will Chen, who holds a Master of Science in Engineering from the University of Michigan, was a flourishing management consultant for several Fortune 500 companies. He was paid well and worked with highly successful business leaders. But something was lacking. “I would fly out Monday morning at 6 a.m. and come back on Friday night,” he recounts. “I really didn’t have much of a life.”

Will felt much like Ryan Bingham, the character played by George Clooney in Up in the Air, who flew so much he earned the dubious distinction of becoming the youngest person to earn ten million frequent flyer miles. He knew he had to make a change.

Today, the former management consultant is the managing director of P.L.A.Y., short for Pet Lifestyle And You, a San Francisco-based company that makes eco-friendly pet bedding and toys for the discerning pet lover. The company’s high-quality products are now available in over 500 pet boutiques throughout North America as well as in many countries in Europe and Asia.

How did Will—an engineer who had never owned a dog—transform himself into an animal lover making eco-friendly pet products?

Weary of the incessant globe trotting required by his consulting job, Will quit his position without a solid plan of what he would do next. His girlfriend, Deb (who is now his wife) was going to school in Berkeley and so he decided to further his education as well, taking a diploma in Finance and Accounting at the University of California. While he was deciding what he wanted to do, a small bundle of fur entered his life—Deb, who is an avid dog lover, wanted a puppy. They chose a Pug, a breed Will was drawn to because of their shared Chinese heritage. (One of the oldest dog breeds, the Pug is thought to have originated in Asia before 400 BC. China is the breed’s earliest known source.) They named their new pup Momo. A small, thickset dog with a short muzzle and large, dark eyes, Momo was highly intelligent and always eager to play. “We brought her home, and she changed our life,” explains Will.

The endearing little dog soon became a central part of the family and Will says he began to realize how much pet parents care about getting the best for their pets. He began to investigate the pet industry and discovered it robust. According to the American Pet Products Association, U.S. consumers spent an estimated 62.75 billion dollars on their pets in 2016.

Vague ideas about a pet business were floating around in his mind when he and Deb purchased a bed for Momo. Will thought the bed would be quite durable but as he recalls, “Momo basically destroyed it within two days.” Will also expected it would be washable but it “got destroyed in the washer and dryer,” recalls Will, adding, “It was a big mess.”

The disappointing experience led Will to start thinking, “I can do much better than this.” He began researching textiles, wanting to use an upholstery grade fabric that would be tougher than materials used in commercial pet beds. The budding entrepreneur also contacted some of the many talented artists in the Bay area to see if they could create one-of-a-kind designs that would enhance the décor of fashionable homes. “I envisioned a lifestyle brand,” says Will. “It’s about aesthetics and standing out in a crowd.”

In addition to durability and design, Will knew he wanted his beds to be healthy for pets and the environment. He discovered many pet beds use a petrochemical-based filler, which is popular largely because it is cost-effective. Will created his own trademark filler called Planet Fill, a polyfiber made from 100 percent post consumer recycled plastic bottles. At last count, the innovative company has prevented over three million bottles from entering landfills. Both the filling and the bed coverings are completely washable. Because of this and other eco-friendly initiatives, Green America, a non-profit organization that certifies businesses that are committed to social change, awarded P.L.A.Y. Gold Certification in 2015.

The company’s success has enabled Will to give back on a social level as well. “We believe that every pet deserves a warm place to sleep,” explains Will, leading him to start the Warm Bellies Initiative, a venture that provides animals in shelters with warm, comfortable beds. Working with The Petfinder Foundation, a non-profit organization assisting over 12,000 urban and rural shelters and rescue groups across North America, Will’s company began donating comfortable mats to shelter animals. As of 2016, P.L.A.Y. has donated over 17,000 mats to animals in need.

P.L.A.Y. has also partnered with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), an organization that rescues and protects animals around the world. Started in 1969, IFAW has life-saving projects in 40 countries and assists wildlife such as whales, wolves and dolphins as well as domestic species such as cats and dogs. P.L.A.Y. will soon be launching a Safari collection of toys with a part of the profits assisting large African animals such as elephants.

With the many innovative initiatives Will has spearheaded, P.L.A.Y. is setting a progressive, eco-friendly model for the pet industry and showing that we all—the new guys, the independents, the small businesses—can make a big difference. Oh, and in the process, find work-life balance and business success. See what can happen when your life goes to the dogs?



The Harness Maker
This artist, turning down a lucrative job offer to instead follow a path of entrepreneurship, created an innovative harness that has formed the cornerstone of her successful pet products company

Full-time, well-paying jobs for art teachers can be hard to find. So when the Toronto school board offered Roxanne Pettipas a full-time, salaried position with benefits it was a golden opportunity, a rare and coveted break that might never happen again. But instead of ecstatically exclaiming she would take the position, Roxanne turned it down.

“I just felt I had to take a risk,” explains Roxanne. “If I didn’t, I would regret it.”

The risk involved a manufacturing venture, namely, launching a pet products company. Today, the former art teacher turned inventor is the creator of the Buddy Belt, an innovative, easy-to-use harness that takes pressure off a dog’s neck and trachea when walked on-leash.

It all started in the 1990s when she took her one-year-old dog, Buddy, a Miniature Dachshund, for walks on-leash and was alarmed to find he was choking. Roxanne wondered if the collar was putting pressure on his windpipe. She looked around for harnesses to solve the problem but was disappointed with what she found, discovering them to be awkward and bulky.

An art teacher by profession, Roxanne is an imaginative, creative person with a flair for visual design. She was also used to improvising with everyday materials for her art projects. At the time, Roxanne was using rubber in her art classes. Could she use it to fashion something for Buddy?

She came up with a funky design that looked somewhat like a ladies’ brassiere—except there were holes where the cups should have been. Roxanne put Buddy’s front legs through the two loops of the ‘bra’ and then fastened the strap at his shoulders. “It was a bit crude but it worked,” explains Roxanne. “He was much more comfortable on walks and there was no stress on his neck.” It also put her more at ease on walks because she didn’t have the stress of listening to her beloved pet gasping for air.

After fashioning the rudimentary rubber model, Roxanne started to experiment with leather, roaming vintage stores for old-fashioned leather coats and gathering remnants from leather shops. Roxanne continued to test her evolving design on the always amiable Buddy and soon, the miniature Dachshund was sporting ever more fashionable iterations. Buddy gained the attention of onlookers whenever they went for walks. “Kids would ask, ‘Where did you get that harness?’” Roxanne recalls, “and then they would say, ‘I want one.’”

And so this art teacher started making harnesses by hand to fill the growing demand. “At the time,” Roxanne explains, “I had no templates, and I was using the enlarging and reducing buttons on the photocopier to create patterns of different sizes.” She also faced another challenge when she had to learn how to use a heavy-duty industrial sewing machine.

“The demand just kept coming,” explains Roxanne, “and so I didn’t stop.”

In 2003, she acquired a clicker press, a widely used die cutting machine, which enabled her to cut the leather by machine instead of by hand and thus expand production. She also asked veterinarians and other health care specialists to review her design. Dr. Leo Rosenberg, a certified animal chiropractor who works with Pets in Motion, a Toronto-based company providing adjustments to pets’ spines and extremities to improve range of motion and joint mobility, tested her creation and validated her own findings, concluding the “Buddy Belt enhances proper function and health.”

As a teacher, Roxanne had no training in the nuts and bolts of running a business. The aspiring entrepreneur decided to study with Biz Launch, one of the largest small business training companies in North America. Developed by entrepreneur Andrew Patricio, an internationally recognized business expert, the company offers a wide range of seminars, webinars, and resource guides designed to teach budding business owners. “The courses were given by actual entrepreneurs and tailored to meet the needs of creative, industrial, entrepreneurial types,” explains Roxanne. “It was much better than taking ‘Business 101’ at university, where I would have just fallen asleep.”

By 2003, Roxanne was ready for the next step and moved her steadily expanding business into a Toronto factory space. The company now employs more than 30 people and showcases its products in pet stores throughout North America as well as internationally. They offer two product lines, a high-end leather harness as well as a less expensive synthetic leather product, called Buddy Belt 2 (BB2). The harnesses are available in a multitude of colours and designs, and fit tiny dogs weighing less than a two pounds to those weighing 100 pounds or more. The company also sells accessories such as matching ID collars, leashes, and liners. Sadly, Roxanne’s beloved Miniature Dachshund, Buddy, passed away a few years ago at the age of 18. The little dog was a vital part of her family and she knew that losing him would be hard. Even so, she says, she never anticipated the deep and long-lasting pain that his loss caused her, though she takes comfort from her business named in his honour. “Because of him,” she notes, “I made something that matters and brings joy to so many families.”