Seattle-based ZippyDogs is a woman-owned, LGBT-owned small business offering cost-effective incentive ideas and brand-touting promotional products. Spouses and co-owners Elise Lindborg and Kelli Henderson are promo experts with 45 years of combined experience in delivering people-pleasing, off-the-leash solutions.
We sat down with Top Dog Elise to talk about the story behind ZippyDogs, some of the challenges she faces as a minority-owned small business owner, and how certification is helping the company grow.
CVM: Tell us a little about ZippyDogs. What does your company offer?
Elise: We are your brand companion. We take care of your brand through the creative use of promotional products. Promotional products are different than radio advertising or TV advertising or print advertising. You can see that at trade shows—people gravitate to see who has the best swag. We like to call it “swag with a wag.”
CVM: What led you to promotional products? Were you always interested in the industry?
Elise: In grade school I got a book called A Thousand Free Things. It had addresses to different companies, and if you wrote to them they would send you something free from their company. It was like wooden spoons or a top that would spin. NASA sent me some 8x10 glossy pictures of all the planets. I just thought that was the coolest thing.
Now as an adult, I've already had two careers. The first was with the U.S. Rowing Association working with the Olympic rowing team from 1985-1996. Then I did tobacco prevention for a few years [which was funded by a grant]. I remember we had a giant cigarette costume made of foam and felt. It was expensive and heavy and it would get dirty when we took it out to schools to do presentations with kids.
When the grant funding that program ran out, I got a scholarship to go back to school for a master's in public health. I realized that public health wasn't for me—too much red tape, not enough working with the public. I was getting dissatisfied with it but wasn't sure what I wanted to do next.
One night I told my wife that I was going to go downstairs and work on my epidemiology paper. She heard a bunch of banging and clanging down there, and instead of working on the paper I had come up with a prototype of a cigarette costume that was collapsible and made out of vinyl. It was very lightweight; anyone could wear it. I sold it for $600, half the price of the foam costume we had before. I crashed the World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Chicago, gave out postcards saying I had these available, and I sold both of them.
Two weeks later the health departments I'd sold them to contacted me and said, “Hey, Elise, the costumes are a huge hit. We have health fairs coming up and we need stress balls and t-shirts, can you do that?” And I said, “Of course, of course!” I had no idea where to get that! That's when I discovered the “swag” industry. An entrepreneur was born.
CVM: So where does the name come from?
Elise: After selling the costumes and the stress balls and the t-shirts, I realized that this was a business and I needed a name, so I named it Lindborg & Associates. I designed a logo and made some business cards and went down to my first little tchotchke trade show. I walked in and it was all these old men in tweed suits with leather patches, and they all named their companies after themselves. I decided I needed something different and unique, a conversation starter.
Kelli and I were throwing out some random words and phrases one night. Then our 15-year-old dog, Bjorn, went zipping through the room and I said, “He's really zippy tonight. He's a zippy dog.” A light bulb went on. We went online and checked to see if the domain was available, but ZippyDog.com was already taken, so we put an “s” on the end of it, ZippyDogs.com, and just ran with it. We can fetch for you, we can dig up good deals, we're brand companions.
CVM: It's certainly memorable!
Elise: Definitely! Seattle, where we're based, is a dog-friendly city. There are more dogs per capita than children in Seattle, so on a local level it really works. At first people are confused about what we do, but then once they know what we do, they'll never forget our name.
CVM: What are some challenges you've faced during your 17 years in business?
Elise: Right now our biggest challenge is finding good employees. Seattle is growing so fast, and everyone expects more money. It's also challenging finding people with experience within the industry. It's really a lot to learn about printing and processes, who are good suppliers, who are bad suppliers. We've picked up steam, but we need more employees!
The other challenge for us as a woman-owned, LGBT-owned business is that our industry is very competitive. There are a ton of promotional product distributors, and most of the Fortune 500 companies go with really large companies, like $10 million companies. So, what we're doing is finding the niche within a company where we can provide products, like Employee Resource Groups (ERG). In the past three years, we've worked with Bristol-Myers Squibb's women's ERG and other projects; we've done some work with Chevron, Merck, Microsoft, and Google.
CVM: Does working with these big corporations give you added credibility?
Elise: Absolutely. It's made us step up our game, too, and market ourselves differently.
CVM: How has being a certified diverse supplier helped you grow?
Elise: Our certification through the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce has been amazing. The NGLCC has a more intimate conference and we get to meet more people, make more connections with potential clients. We also attend the Women's Business Enterprise National Council annual conference. I see some of the same people at WBENC that I see at NGLCC, which helps with building relationships. It's a matter of showing up and being consistent, letting people know that you're here and you're growing.
CVM: As a successful minority-owned business, what advice do you have for other diverse business owners?
Elise: I always tell them, “There are opportunities everywhere.” Don't be a wallflower. Talk to anyone and everyone. You never know who you're going to meet, who you're standing in line next to, who will need your services. And apply for everything! When we got certified with NGLCC, we got a scholarship to attend the Tuck School of Business Executive Education Program at Dartmouth College. We also applied for and got into a Google leadership program.
Also, be confident about your abilities. Don't ever downplay your successes. There's too much bragging and then there's no bragging at all, so you need to find that in-between where you're confident about your success because that draws people to you.
And finally, think big, go beyond where you think you are, take risks. Like with Microsoft, I knew exactly what they needed to hear to get them to take a risk with us and this year we provided them with PRIDE swag for their global PRIDE activities. It was a massive project; we shipped to 19 countries and 18 cities in the U.S. They liked what we did and they're already talking about what we can do for them next year.
ZippyDogs continues to leverage its diverse certifications for opportunities to gain a seat at the table and prove its value as a brand companion to Fortune 500 companies. To learn more about Elise, Kelli, and ZippyDogs, visit http://zippydogs.com.