Interview with Jennifer Williams, Cuddle Clones
Interview with Jennifer Williams, Cuddle Clones
Recently, I had the opportunity and pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Williams, Founder and CEO (Chief Cloning Officer) of Cuddle Clones, a startup company that creates soft and adorable plush versions of furry family members along with other customized pet products. Jennifer earned her undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Business from the University of Puget Sound and an MBA in Entrepreneurship from the University of Louisville. Jennifer spent ten years consulting before utilizing her entrepreneurial skills and founding her company, Cuddle Clones. Jennifer lives with her husband, Danny, and two fur children, Izzy and Annie. A selection of Jennifer’s company’s work is shown below. Please visit Cuddle Clones’ website to learn more!
KATHERINE CARVER: When did you start your company creating custom Cuddle Clones?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: Cuddle Clones really started gaining some traction while I was enrolled in the entrepreneurship MBA program at the University of Louisville in 2009. In the program, we had to present our top two business ideas, and Cuddle Clones was one of mine. My team really liked the idea so we proceeded to the next steps of performing an industry analysis and creating a formal business plan. During the rest of the program, we presented at several business plan competitions and won approximately $50,000 in funding. After school ended, my one remaining business partner and I spent two years refining our product to the standard of what we had envisioned. We finally launched the Cuddle Clones official website in May 2013. The plush Cuddle Clone was our flagship product but we now also offer 3D-printed sandstone figurines and ornaments of your pet, as well as several memorial products.
KATHERINE CARVER: What inspired you to begin your company creating custom Cuddle Clones?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: I had a harlequin Great Dane named Rufus, who was white with very unique black patches all over and two different colored eyes. I remember one day thinking that I could never find a plush animal like him on the shelf in a store and thought it would be neat to have a custom stuffed animal version of him.
KATHERINE CARVER: How did you practically go about starting your company creating Cuddle Clones?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: Starting the company was a pretty difficult process and still is! We tried for a few years to have prototypes made that were of the quality and cuteness that we had in our heads. We had several prototypes made in the USA and China. The ones in the USA were actually pretty bad in quality and also cost a fortune. We had some good prototypes from companies in China but none of the companies wanted to be our manufacturer because their business model involves making thousands of units of the same plush animal, not “one-of-a-kind.” We considered all of our options, and finally decided that we would have to start our own workshop. We chose China because of the availability of materials, the talent of the plush designers, and the fact that we could produce Cuddle Clones hopefully at a price that was not prohibitive to the customers. Even if we had found a good manufacturer in the USA, the retail price would have been cost prohibitive, over $1,000 for a Cuddle Clone.
KATHERINE CARVER: What is the process from start to finish, including the time involved, to create a custom Cuddle Clone?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: First, a customer places an order on our website. We ask some questions about their pet, including name, species, breed, and approximate weight. Then, they upload up to 10 photographs of their pet. We recommend all angles and face close-ups, but we try to work with whatever the customer has. Then it’s on to the selection and customization options. The main customization option is selecting the Cuddle Clone’s position – for a dog, they can choose standing, sitting or lying down. Ear position, tail position, and whether the mouth is closed or open with a tongue are additional customization options. The customer can provide us with any additional details and characteristics about their pet that we are to incorporate into his/her Cuddle Clone. Once an order is placed, we process the information and follow-up with the customer if anything is missing or we need additional information. The order information is translated into Chinese for the designers and airbrushers. Every Cuddle Clone is made from scratch by hand. A plush designer starts by creating the custom pattern for the particular pet. Cutting and sewing are the next steps. A handwork person and an airbrusher put finishing touches on the plush replica. We have different quality control procedures in place at different points of the process. Once approved, a Cuddle Clone is either shipped directly to the customer from our workshop or to us first in Louisville, Kentucky and then back out to the customer.
KATHERINE CARVER: How do you find and hire designers and artists to create Cuddle Clones?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: This was one of the early challenges. I was told that “plush left the USA in the 80’s,” so when we were originally looking for plush designers in the USA, we only found a few and they wanted at least $1,000 for just one pattern. We were able to work with our great network in China to hire our first few plush designers there and now we have 16 plush designers. A plush designer usually gains experience through an apprenticeship – there are rarely schools for plush design. We have regular training programs in place so that our less experienced designers can learn from our folks that have been making plush designs for years.
KATHERINE CARVER: Why do most people have a customized Cuddle Clone made?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: I think the number one reason people buy a Cuddle Clone is to have a huggable way to remember a loved pet that may or may not have gone over the rainbow bridge. Whether the person is purchasing one for themselves or a friend, Cuddle Clones provide some comfort to a pet owner who has lost a beloved member of the family. There are several other reasons why people get a Cuddle Clone made – the full, somewhat amusing list, can be found here. Among the more serious reasons are students heading off to college that have to leave the family pet behind or military personnel who are deployed and want their pet to hold while they are away.
KATHERINE CARVER: What is the most rewarding part of your job as an entrepreneur and CEO of your Cuddle Clone business?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: I do love that I get to look at cute pets all day! I really like that I have built Cuddle Clones from scratch and that we seem to be doing a-ok so far. Our customers are very emotional and while we cannot satisfy everyone, there is nothing better than to receive that email or social media post with pictures of a customer’s Cuddle Clone thanking us for what we do and how we have helped them. From day one of forming our company, we have donated a portion of our sales to charities as well – we like helping individual pets on IndieGoGo as well as different nonprofit organizations throughout the world. You can read about all of our donations here.
KATHERINE CARVER: What does “being creative,” mean to you?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: For me, it’s having a vision and being able to get the right people to execute that vision. I was an actuary in my former career, and for those who don’t know what that is, it’s heavy in math and light in creativity. I always had that entrepreneurial bug and probably have about 30 business ideas. Cuddle Clones was definitely one of the ideas that I thought about the most. While I myself am not a true ‘artist.’ I can envision a business or product that I believe will be successful in the marketplace, even when others think I am crazy.
KATHERINE CARVER: What inspires you to keep going and what keeps you motivated?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: I believe that we are nowhere near hitting our potential of what Cuddle Clones can become. Not many people know about us, so we definitely want to increase awareness. We would like to be known as the place to go, not only for great unique products but a place to go for a community around the rainbow bridge and when your pet passes away. My employees keep me going for sure – they work extremely hard every day to make this happen and I need to be there for them. My own dog, Izzy, keeps me motivated for sure as well!
KATHERINE CARVER: What future projects are you working on with Cuddle Clones?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: We have several projects in the pipeline for Cuddle Clones. We are always on the lookout for new, unique products to add to our mix. We have seen growth in our custom sandstone figurines and ornaments products. We have also been recently promoting our plush creation product, plush replacement product and golf club covers. We introduced two products this week – wood-burned memorials and memorial brass urns. All of these items can be found on our products page here. We have a full section of our website in the works focusing on the rainbow bridge. We also are working on establishing some bigger partnerships in 2016.
KATHERINE CARVER: How can people learn more about Cuddle Clones?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: Interested folks can visit our website to learn more about placing an order or our other products. Our photo gallery is definitely a fun place to go to see all the beloved pets that we have created. Our blog features different pets each week as well as nonprofit organizations to which we’ve donated and individual pets that we have helped. We also are pretty active on our social media pages, including Facebook and Instagram. We regularly run contests and promotions through our email list and our social media. In fact, all Biscuit’s Space readers can use this coupon code, KCARVER, to receive 15% off their purchase, through December 31, 2015!
*All images contained in this interview are courtesy of Jennifer Williams.
You can read additional interviews here.