Barbara Clarke Ruiz has spent the last two decades traveling back and forth from her home in New Jersey to employers and clients as far away as France, Italy, and Germany to help them build their brands. Three years ago, she started a different adventure, as an entrepreneur, when she started making premium dog treats.
She and her husband, Jose Ruiz, co-founded Lick You Silly pet products, all-natural chicken- and beef-based treats made in the USA.
“I grew up with dogs. I love, love dogs. I’ve never not had a dog in my life,” says Clarke Ruiz, who had two Yorkies—Pepper and Chili—before Pepper passed away the January before last.
The dog treats are sold through the company’s website and at about 21 smaller retailers, but the bulk of the business comes from Amazon, where Lick You Silly is an Amazon Choice product.
As with many food products, the coronavirus pandemic has had a positive impact on the business. “We probably increased our business by 300%,” she says.
“The pandemic is horrible, but I’m happy to have been in a position to provide people a product that they can feel confident about giving their dogs and helping their dogs to find a little comfort.”
BLACK ENTERPRISE caught up with Clarke Ruiz to talk about how she turned her passion into a profitable business.
What made you start a dog treats company?
I started Lick You Silly just from a need that I saw in the market. I had started to cook food for my dogs because they were starting to get older, and whenever I gave my dog a treat, they would throw it up. I started doing a lot of research, really educating myself around dog treats and foods and companies, and what potential competition there would be. I wanted to create an all-natural premium dog treat, something that I didn’t have to worry about a whole lot of added ingredients. I wanted a product that didn’t have hormones, synthetics, gluten. We don’t have any kind of chemicals or synthetics, it’s just a great grade of USDA meat that we produce here in the U.S. We’ve also just introduced the peanut butter treat because there’s a lot of people who are now vegetarian and they don’t eat meat, and they don’t give their dogs meat.
In addition to retail, and working with dog groomers, how else are you getting your products out there?
I’m always trying to think about creative ways to increase our business. One of my favorite hotels is a Kimpton. So I called up a Kimpton in the city; they had just announced that they were doing some special amenities for dogs and I followed up with that. It took quite some time for me to be able to get into these hotels. But I created packaging specifically for them. I had to create some unique items that only the hotels would carry so it would be special. I ended up doing a mini comic book about Yum Yum, which is our dog character on the bag, a dog’s perception of what it would be like to go to a hotel for the first time. Venus Williams’ dog wrote the foreword in the book, and my daughter, who was an animation major, animated the whole book. It’s really cute and funny. And we are now the pet amenity for eight Kimpton hotels.
It’s also important to you that the company stands for something more than a premium product.
We wanted to build a different kind of a dog treat company. And just based on my experience with brand building, I knew it had to be a great story and it had to make a difference. So we have various initiatives that we do with people and their pets. I woke up one morning and said. “I’m going to do a commercial.” So I went on my town’s Facebook page, we have a dog Facebook page—that’s how many dogs live in this town—and I said who’s interested in helping me do a commercial; however number of volunteers I get, I will donate a bag of dog treats to the Montclair [New Jersey] shelter. We want to use dogs to get their humans to do some good in the world. We have an initiative that we’re implementing now called Lick Silly With Kindness. I put a card randomly inside a bag of our dog treats and when you get it, you win a free 4-oz. bag of our treats. But we’re asking you in exchange to do a random act of kindness.
Before becoming an entrepreneur, you spent your career building other people’s brands.
For the last 20 years I have been working as an activewear design consultant. I’ve worked with a lot of world class brands. I’m a designer, so I design their product, I figure out how we’re going to position it in the market, I do research, I do fabric development, packaging, working with marketing, social media—I do all of that as a profession. I’ve done that with companies like Adidas and Nike and New Balance and Asics. I was Walmart’s design director for the activewear division. I also had the grand pleasure of working alongside Venus Williams when she started her brand Eleven by Venus Williams. I just love starting new brands. I don’t even think twice when it’s a good idea. I’m probably the opposite of a lot of people: They have an idea but don’t know how to get it out and I’m like, “I do.”
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs sitting on their own ideas for products?
This wasn’t something that I had planned. I just woke up one day and said, “I want to start a dog treat company.” And you just do it. You connect with people who can help you to implement those dreams. Don’t give up on those journeys. Now is a great time to follow through with things that you’ve been thinking about, that have been on the back burner, and that you didn’t have time to do. Now you’ve got the time to do it. So I would encourage anyone out there that has a dream or a passion that they’ve been putting on the back burner to move it to the front burner and figure out how to do it. Reach out to me, I’m happy to help.