How often do you find a business idea within an insult?

Lynn Thompson has a soft spot for cats, to say the least. She’s been a cat-lover since she adopted her first one over 20 years ago. Frustrated by the lack of resources for the products she wanted and inspired by a need for a new form of income, the idea to start a business based on cat products wasn’t far from her mind. However, it was when a man left an insulting comment about her that she found the perfect name, Old Maid Cat Lady, and a business was born. Her business is now home to over 1,100 products.

Tell us a little about Old Maid Cat Lady.

Old Maid Cat Lady is a retail site that sells products “for cats and their people”! I carry some of the same things that pet supply stores carry, but try to go beyond that to offer a lot of products they either don’t have the floor space or the demand to carry; the unusual things people can’t find in other places. And I also carry items for people who love cats; everything from T-shirts to custom oil portraits of your cat, collectible figurines, jewelry, posters, decorative pillows…you name it, if it’s got a cat on it, it’s something I’m looking to carry.

What inspired it?

When I first adopted a cat over 20 years ago, there were things I’d looked for at the time that I couldn’t find anywhere. Through the years, I’ve had that happen a lot. I knew somebody had to be making these products somewhere, and was frustrated that I couldn’t find them. That was the first inspiration. Secondly, my main business is being a writer and editor. After my mother passed away last year, my thoughts were so fragmented I couldn’t concentrate enough to do that type of work. It occurred to me that I needed another stream of revenue that would be less dependent on my ability to do the actual work, and wouldn’t be so project-centered. As a one-person business, if I don’t have work, I don’t eat! A retail site was just the thing to do that, as some of the aspects of it can eventually be outsourced to others on a virtual support team. And while there is ongoing work for it, the concentration level is not as intense as the other types of work I do. Finally, I got the fun name from an insulting comment some guy posted after I was featured in a news story on pet longevity!

What are some of the most popular products you offer?

A lot of people have bought the scratchers, which I have in all shapes, sizes, and designs. The various types of cat dishes have been popular, too — I just added a line of elevated dishes that are better for your cat’s digestive system than crouching down to eat. They sit up on a pedestal so the cat can stand or sit up to eat; pretty cool! I’ll soon be adding more of them with fancier designs that are really beautiful.

What separates you from the competition?

A few things, really – one, that I offer so many things that local pet stores don’t stock, as mentioned above. Secondly, that I have both products for cats and for people. I’m more like some of the boutiques I’ve seen in travel destinations that cater to cat lovers in that way, rather than just an online pet supply store. And thirdly, I know my customers because they’re people like me — those whose cats are like children to them, and who love to find unusual things to spoil them. My experiences as a cat owner are all contributing to what goes on my site. Oh, and did I mention that I donate 10% of my proceeds each week to a non-profit group helping cats? I feature a different one each week. There are so many cats in need, and I can’t take them all in myself, but I can do a little bit to help them. Lots of people all over the country are doing great grassroots work to help cats every day, so by sharing my profits with them maybe I can make a difference, make a few cats’ lives better and save them from euthanasia or abuse. Once my site is consistently generating more profits, the difference I can make will be even greater.

Can we expect to see any new products in the near future? If so, can you give us a hint?

Absolutely! I’m still adding artwork, decorative pillows, rugs, and collectibles from the market I attended in August, and also still adding some items from pet product suppliers I found at a trade show in the spring. Being a one-person business has its challenges, and time is certainly the main one!

What goals do you hope to accomplish over the next year or so?

First is to get to the first page of search results for all my keywords. That takes time to do, as Google looks at inbound links that grow organically over time. If they’re added too quickly, they perceive them as artificial and discount them when determining your page rank. Secondly, I want to develop some of the aspects of my site that my customers will want to see, such as original artwork, an e-newsletter, and other aspects that will emerge as more people become familiar with my site. I want to be responsive to what my customers tell me, so they’ll determine some of my future direction. One thing I’d like to offer more of is foods and cat litter products; it’s been hard to find suppliers who can drop-ship those for me, but I think as more people retail online, the suppliers will find that they’ve got to offer that service to stay in the game. And I’d like to get to the point where I’ll be able to outsource some of the work for the site. Right now, it’s very time-consuming. But I’m documenting all my processes so it’ll be easier to show someone else how to do what I’ve had to learn the hard way. That’ll free me up to do more product research and marketing work.

What are some lessons your business has taught you?

LOL – That everything costs twice as much, produces half as much revenue, and takes three times as long to become profitable as you’d planned!

Is there anything else you’d like to mention about your business that I might have missed?

Some of the more unusual products I have include a speaker from Pet Acoustics that filters out frequencies upsetting to animals and only plays the ones that calm them. You can use it with any CD in your library, not just ones written for animals, and it’ll help calm your cats. I also have cat trees from Pet Tree Houses and Kitty Palms that look like real trees instead of the usual carpeted types of cat trees; they’re a real decorative element in your home instead of just another piece of cat furniture, really gorgeous! And I have a really nice litter box cover that looks like an end table; it’ll go nicely in a bathroom or a den, and unless you look closely, you’ll never realize it’s a cat litter box!

Any advice you’d like to offer fellow entrepreneurs that are just getting started?

Do your homework! I’m writing a series of e-books for people who want to start a writing business like mine; they’re called A Professional Writer’s Ladder to Success, and they walk someone through all the stages of planning, launching and running a successful writing business. They’re available on Old Maid Cat Lady, in the section called “Life Beyond the Kitties”. If someone starts with the first one and completes the worksheets with each one, they are essentially writing a business plan that will get them off to a good start. In addition to the planning most people neglect to do, you have to follow through with the execution, and keep improving! Keep your eyes on your customers because they’re the ones who put food on your table. Good customer service is key, and can make the difference in whether you succeed or fail.

Originally posted by Angela Shupe on October 12, 2012 in Interviews.

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