In 1987, Bobby Wise and Lyndon Lambert became the proud parents of a handsome Wire-Hair Fox Terrier they named George. And while they were madly in love with their dog, they were less than enthused (to put it nicely) by the range of available dog products at that time.
Nothing they could find appealed to their personal tastes and high design standards. Their disappointment led to a major epiphany for the young couple: What would happen if you designed goods that were as pleasing to look at and live with as they were to chew, sleep on, wear, and eat out of? And from that thought, George the company was born.
Since then, Bobby has opened an extensive e-commerce store and three George locations in Northern California and has placed George products with vendors all over the world. Recently, I was fortunate enough to sit down with him to get the full scoop on the incredibly successful brand he has built. I was completely in awe of Bobby’s involvement with the dog world, and inspired by one of the kindest and savviest business owners I’ve ever met. Enjoy our interview!
When was George founded?
In 1996. It was myself and my partner, who is no longer living. His name was Lyndon Lambert. We adopted George, who was the muse and inspiration behind the shop. George was born in 1987 and died in 2002. He lived a good long life, and we have lots of his legacy living on.
What was the concept behind George?
We were living in New York at the time and we just fell in love with our little dog when we got him. George was a Fox Terrier from the Bronx. We were so in love with this little dog, and we didn’t like any of the things we could find for him. At that point, most of the pet supplies were either just down and dirty and not very interesting, or they were super fancy. Like Chanel rip-offs or very decorated things. So we wanted something that was just a little more simple and well-made. Something that was aesthetically pleasing, that you wouldn’t mind having around your house. It’s the caretaker that ultimately has to live with all of these products.
We tried to take that into account when we were designing our products. Initially we started with about three-quarters of our own product, and then we bought a few things from other people like some beautiful silent whistles and handsome travel bags from England, along with some old leather collars. As the market grew and our knowledge of the market grew, we realized we needed to make more things we could sell to other people in the wholesale world.
How do you choose merchandise for George?
We try to bring in products that are helpful for pets, if it’s nutrition. If it’s a toy, it either has to have a really great aesthetic or an interesting story. And then there’s a few things that people just have to have that we carry because it’s necessary.
Where do your own products come from?
We’ve worked with a lot of the same manufacturers for about 20 years. We manufacture most of our bowls domestically with a ceramics company here in California. A lot of our collars are made locally by local sewers. All of our higher-end sweaters are hand-knit on the East Coast.
I’m such a huge fan of all of the George designs! Where do they comefrom? Can you explain your design process to us?
I’ve worked with different graphic designers over the years. The woman I work with now is incredible, and we’ll sit down and work on the computer together to tweak things and design things. So, it’s kind of a collaborative effort. If you have a decent eye and a point of view, you can translate that point of view into something that’s good.
Sometimes things are really easy, and all the components come together very easily. You’ll have a graphic in your mind, you’ll have a specific product you want, the sourcing for raw materials will be really easy and it will just all come together. Other times it’s like pulling teeth to make things happen, and what you envisioned in your head turns out to be totally different in the end. But that’s not always a bad thing either because in the whole design and manufacturing process, different things usually work themselves out so that you end up with something that’s great. Every new product is a different adventure. We work with so many different people that it requires us to know a little bit about a lot of things.
What was it that made you take the plunge into opening your own business?
Initially it was a desire driven by wanting to show art product in a retail context that we thought would give it justice. We had an idea for a really great old-fashioned pet store that offered mostly our own products. We wanted it to be a neighborhood pet store, but with an elevated design aesthetic. The San Francisco store was really successful at that.
I imagine running a retail business must be frightening during a down economy. Have you found it challenging to hang on? Are people purchasing less for their pets?
Luckily we’re in a market where you’re dealing with a very emotional customer, because their dog is like their kid. We all want to do the best thing and the right thing by our animals, so we’re lucky that there’s that connection and it’s not just another commodity.
We’ve got a great following and I feel like we’re doing something that’s different. We’re differentiating ourselves from others, and there are a lot of people that really appreciate that. Especially up here in the Bay Area. We’ve been very lucky.
I think the key is to also offer basic things, because people will come into your shop to buy basic stuff, and then while they’re there, they’ll buy a nicer collar or they’ll realize that what we’re selling is special and they’ll go a little further and pay a little more to buy something that’s nicer.
How have your products been received by other pet shop owners?
We’re lucky because we’ve been doing this for a long time and we have a bit of a following. We’re also repped by a really great rep group from L.A., so we go to all of the big gift shows.
We also have good representation in Japan. We have a Japanese distribution partner and he has four George stores over there. It’s a nice synergy between all the places that we’re selling stuff in.
How did you build your George community? How do you reach out to your customers?
We’ve always tried to be generous as far as donations and organizations that we support like PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support). I was on the PAWS board for almost 10 years. We worked with them on a lot of different events like Petchitecture in San Francisco. I was the co-chair of that event for five or six years. We try to involve ourselves in the community that way. We do adoptions here [in Berkeley] every other Sunday. And we do adoptions every Saturday in Marin with the Milo Foundation. We try to have as many events as possible. It’s important.
What’s been a career highlight for you?
About a year or so ago I worked with Old Navy and I designed all of their pet products. I worked with Todd Oldham back in 1991-1992 when he designed some pet charms for us. We became friends over the years. He was working as the design director for Old Navy a few years back and he brought me in to design pet products. It was really fun to be a part of it and a great experience to see what we do here on a very small scale blown up into this much bigger context. It was the hardest job I’ve ever done. But a great experience!
Now that the dog industry is huge, and people are doing so many different things, is there anything you’re seeing that you don’t like? What are your dog trend pet peeves?
Tutus for dogs. I love seeing dogs in little coats because it’s utilitarian, but having your dogs wear tennis shoes all day, and tutus, and underwear, there’s something a little bit wrong about that. I think it’s undignified.
As far as your price points are concerned, is there a limit to how high you’ll go?
If someone comes in and they have been hand-making their collars in their studio in Berkeley and they say the retail price is going to be $300, we would carry a few of them if we really loved them. I think it’s honoring someone’s labor of love.
Practically speaking, there are only a few people who could spend that kind of money anyway. But it’s fun when those types of customers come in, and we have something to show them. Like when Danielle Steel comes into the shop. But it’s got to be something we love. We have these beaded collars that are handmade in Santa Fe that are amazing. We also have some cat trees that were made by the former set decorator of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. He lives in Marin and he makes these insane little cat sculptures. They’re great!
Do you have any tips for anyone out there anyone aspiring to open their own pet store?
Make sure that you can work a new concept into it somehow. Either by your merchandising or by virtue of the design direction you want the products to go in, because there’s so much out there right now that tends to be similar. It needs to be a fresh take on something to differentiate yourself. Especially if you’re going to try to sell your products wholesale. There are a lot of products out there!
If it’s your dream, make sure your dream is unique enough to make it interesting to others as well as yourself. And make sure you figure out all of your costs and expenses because that’s the scariest thing. In small business, things change so much that you have to be really quick to change with economic times and customers’ desires. You also have to be quick on your feet and willing to do something different if you see that things aren’t working.