The Perfect Pet-Lover Gift? A Stuffed Animal to Match Your Pet
Inspiration comes in all forms. For Jennifer Williams, it started in 2006 with Rufus, her Great Dane. “One day, I was just looking at him. He was really unique-looking with two different colored eyes. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to just have a big plush of you?’” Jennifer says. “I thought, ‘Someone should make stuffed animals of their pets.’ I remember Googling it but didn’t really find anything.”
Jennifer is giving customers a chance to celebrate their pets in a fun and different way. Here she stands in her office surrounded with Cuddle Clones that she’ll be shipping out to them.
It wasn’t until 10 years later, when the Washington State native and actuary moved to Louisville, that Jennifer revisited her idea for what she named Cuddle Clones, when she enrolled in the University of Louisville’s MBA Entrepreneurship program. “As part of the curriculum, you have to present your top two ideas, and I chose Cuddle Clones. It turned into a business project for the next two years, from 2009 to 2011, and I did the industry analysis and business plan,” Jennifer says.
With her business partner and eventual co-founder Adam Green, Jennifer won money from entrepreneurial business competitions, including $40,000 from the state competition Idea State U in Lexington. They spent the next two years exploring how to make the vision for their product become a reality, working with consultants and ultimately visiting China, where all the materials were made. Jennifer spent a month in China and decided that what made economic sense was to open her own workshop there.
By this time, Jennifer had raised some money from investors as well, including friends and family. “We applied to be a Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise, appropriately enough nicknamed ‘Woofie.’ It means it is our subsidiary, but it’s a wholly owned U.S. company. We bought sewing machines, materials, and hired designers, and provided the investment money China required” Jennifer says.
Since starting Cuddle Clones, Jennifer and Adam have gained national attention and are excited about the financial growth of the business.
Cuddle Clones launched its website in April 2013, and Jennifer started by making stuffed animals for friends. Today, customers submit multiple photos of their pets, the animal patterns are digitized, tweaked, and sent to the laser cutter. Then, the Cuddle Clones are sewn and stuffed by hand from hundreds of tiny pieces of fabric and finished with airbrushing to replicate each pet’s individual coloring. “We wanted something accurate but still cute and with a little bit of personality to them,” Jennifer says.
The company, which also sells additional pet-related products such as slippers, mugs, and T-shirts, experienced a boom in growth about three years ago after a spate of significant publicity hit in one week from sites like BuzzFeed, CNN, and USA.com. Even Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford wore Cuddle Clones slippers on a Christmas gift segment of Today.
“We went from making 15 Cuddle Clones a week to making 150 a day,” Jennifer says. In 2015 to 2016, the company increased revenue from $100,000 to $400,000, and the next year, soared to $1.3 million. In 2018, Cuddle Clones is projected to sell 15,000 units and earn revenue of approximately $3 million. In addition to 32 employees in China, the company employs 14 in the Louisville office, where all products are sent before being shipped out. In July, the company moved to an expanded office space with its own loading dock at 445 Baxter Avenue.
After five years in existence, what’s next for Cuddle Clones as a company? Jennifer and Adam recently hired a CEO, Brennen Lawrence. “Adam and I like working in the business. We decided to hire a leader who will allow us to continue to do what we’re good at and like doing, and he can do strategy and fundraising,” she says.
With such a personal product, Jennifer said customers are not neutral about Cuddle Clones. “Either they love it and say, ‘Oh, my god, I have to have one of those,’ or they think it’s a little creepy,” she says. But Cuddle Clones have inspired some beautiful and emotional stories, Jennifer says.
“One of my favorite stories is when I met a woman at a pet conference who told me she had two dogs at home, and she and her husband were going to Thailand to adopt two children,” Jennifer says. “They made Cuddle Clones of their pets to help the children ‘meet’ and acclimate to their pets before they saw them in person.”