Jessica Harris is the owner of K9 Salute and 2016 winner of CSBDF’s 2015 Dream Big competition. Harris served in the Washington Army National Guard for twenty years as a Combat Medic before deciding to channel her patriotism, love of dogs, and caring nature into creating her own company, which uses a portion of its proceeds to support causes for protecting police K-9’s and providing veterans with service dogs. With the help of CSBDF, K9 Salute is successfully selling healthy dog treats, increasing awareness for K9 service dogs, and benefiting K9 and veteran charity organizations.
CSBDF: How did your business get started? What was the inspiration that started it all?
Jessica: I have always had an entrepreneur bug and had an idea a few years ago for another business, but it would have been a brick & mortar business. After I moved to NC from Washington for a job, I was laid off only 10 months after I moved here and 5 weeks after I closed on a house. So after months of struggling to find another job, I immersed myself into the local veteran entrepreneur community and started building my network of business people and figuring out all of the resources in this region to start building a business.
The inspiration behind K9 Salute was after 8 police K-9’s were killed in the line of duty in January 2016. This was an unusually high number for one month, and 2016 was a very bad year overall, with 34 dogs in total killed. I remember reading a dog magazine and looking in the back where all of the product advertisements are and wondering why these companies were successful when so many are so similar. I was very upset after that 8th dog had been killed and wanted to do something to honor them. Not only am I, of course, a huge dog lover, but I have an extra special place in my heart for working dogs. I wanted the general public to know what value these dogs bring and how important they are in saving human lives. I wanted to be able to help raise money to protect them since most departments don’t have additional funds in their budget and they generally get protective vests and medical equipment through fundraisers or donations. The light bulb went off about creating a healthy dog treat where I could share stories of the fallen K-9’s directly on the packaging and then donate a portion of those sales to help K-9 units get protective equipment for their dogs. So after two days of an intense Google search, I found that no other pet product company was doing anything like this, and so K9 Salute was born.
CSBDF: Where do you see your business going in the next five years?
Jessica: I see K9 Salute being a national brand. The pet industry is very innovative and exciting right now, and there’s no slowing down in sight. Besides the patriotic side to K9 Salute, I want to really be able to offer healthy products for dogs. I have ideas to add other products such as toys, dental care, and paw & nose balms. I want to be a company that people can feel good about when spending their money. One of the reasons being an entrepreneur also appeals to me is the opportunity to give back. I think successful businesses often start with that mission. I see being able to donate 1 protective vest per month to a police K-9 from my sales, as well as treat and monetary donations to a local non-profit that rescues shelter dogs to become service dogs for veterans.
CSBDF: How do you define success in your life?
Jessica: That definition has evolved over time and I think changes as I get older. Success in my life is being happy and adding value to others around me each day. We spend so much of our daily lives working it really is important to find something you love to do. I think it’s a great gift when we figure out what we’re meant to do. Success is living my true purpose while having a positive impact on others and providing a great quality of life for myself, and hopefully for future employees.
CSBDF: What is your ultimate goal for your business?
Jessica: A big goal for my business is being transparent in where I source ingredients from. Pet owners are becoming very aware of what they feed their pets. Not only do I want to support American farmers, but I specifically want to support veteran-owned farms. A lot of veterans are going to into the agriculture industry after leaving the military and I want to support both the American farmer and other veterans in business. I want the ingredients to be 100% traceable back to the farms they come from so that pet parents know what they’re feeding their dog and know that they’re helping farmers across the country. It’s important to me that farmers are certified humane and that the animals are treated well. This is part of the reason it has taken longer than expected to start my jerky line. I want to establish those partnerships with farmers to help make them successful while also creating top quality dog treats that people can feel good about giving to their dogs.
CSBDF: What is your inspiration?
Jessica: My inspiration for K9 Salute are the men, women, and K-9’s that serve our country and local communities to make it better. After leaving the military it really can be a struggle to find a new “sense of purpose.” I didn’t realize how true this was until after I was out. I think this is why so many veteran-owned businesses still have a patriotic feel and core values similar to what we were used to while serving. It’s our way of still being able to give back to others in some small form.
CSBDF: How did you hear about CSBDF? How has CSBDF helped you? Jessica: I first heard about the CSBDF when it was still The Support Center back in 2015. They were at a few entrepreneur events I had attended and I was interested in partnering with them when the time was right for a business loan. They really promote loaning to veterans, women, and minorities, making them a unique lender, unlike a traditional bank. I also liked that they were smaller than a bank and I felt like there would be a more personal relationship.
I ended up coming across the ‘Dream Big’ competition they were holding in 2016, only a few months after I had the idea for K9 Salute. I came across it the week that it was actually ending. I saw the contest on a Monday on their Facebook page and it was ending that Friday. After reading through everything I needed to submit, I decided it was too much to get done. I went to bed that night and couldn’t stop thinking about the contest, so I got up and decided I had 4 days and nothing to lose so I went to work on it! I hand carried some documents I didn’t have time to mail and got it to their office at 4:30 on the Friday it was closing at 5:00. I wasn’t expecting much of the contest but got a call the next week I was chosen as 1 of 3 finalists. After one week of public voting, I ended up winning by only 9 votes and was able to secure a loan to start K9 Salute. Since then it has given me the confidence to just enter various business contests I see. They don’t always pan out, but they force you to really look at your business plan and evaluate how you’re doing things. So even if you don’t win a contest, it’s still good for your business.
CSBDF: What made you decide to open your own business?
Jessica: The driving force really was getting laid off. Before I got out of the military I had an idea for another business as I stated before but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go the brick and mortar route. That’s a much bigger commitment than e-commerce. I had applied for over 250 jobs and was still unemployed one year after being laid off. That gives you tremendous motivation to make something for yourself so that you never have to depend on someone else. I’ve always admired entrepreneurs for their hard work and creativity and really wanted to be a part of that world. Hard work doesn’t feel like work when you’re doing it for yourself and you truly love what you’re doing.
CSBDF: How did you choose the type of business to open?
Jessica: My greatest love and passion in this world since I was a child are dogs! I never thought I would work in the pet industry, but when I started to learn about it as a whole and that it was $60 billion dollar industry that has steadily grown in the last 20 years, I knew that I could have a business in a field that was my passion, make money, and be able to give back to the community I love.
CSBDF: What were the most difficult challenges you faced in the process of opening your business?
Jessica:One of the most difficult challenges was not fully realizing how much money I would need to get things off the ground. This isn’t the case in every business, but I made a few mistakes early on which were not cheap mistakes. Package design and product testing were much more time consuming and expensive than I anticipated. I also invested in production equipment that turned out to be useless when I should have put that money towards a co-packer that has all of the processes in place already. I also thought everything had to perfect from the beginning, but it really is more important to get your product out there and then refine things over time.
The other major challenge is literally doing everything when you first start out. When you are a one-person operation you are the accountant, marketing and social media specialist, salesperson, and everything else in between! You quickly realize you are not good at everything, but unfortunately it takes time to get to a point where you can hire someone.
Follow K9 Salute on social media!
“Success in my life is being happy and adding value to others around me each day. We spend so much of our daily lives working it really is important to find something you love to do. I think it’s a great gift when we figure out what we’re meant to do. Success is living my true purpose while having a positive impact on others and providing a great quality of life for myself, and hopefully for future employees. ” - Jessica Harris