Local Edition: This former journalist built a business that helps your dog be your drinking buddy
This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.
I usually only work from Poynter's offices once a week, on Mondays. When I come in any other day, many of my co-workers stop and have to think for a minute about what day it is.
I'm sorry to be doing that here now, too.
If you're new to Local Edition (hi, ONA17!), welcome.
If you're returning, thank you! And sorry if I've tricked you into thinking it's a Tuesday. It is, in fact, Wednesday, and we're going to try sending LE out mid-week from now on.
If you're new, we're nearing the end of our talk on how we make money from journalism and what we need to learn about that. (Here's a reminder of the format.) This week, we're talking to someone who isn't a journalist.
Unlike some of our past guests, though, she once was. Actually, we worked together.
Crystal K. Weibe was the arts and entertainment reporter at the St. Joseph News-Press while I was the Sunday features writer and an assistant features editor. Like most former co-workers, we've stayed connected through Facebook.
Unlike most former co-workers, she's left journalism and forged a totally new career out of combining two pretty awesome things: dogs and drinking. Crystal owns Beer Paws, which has dog gear, beer biscuit treats, dog beer and people merch.
I talked with Crystal about the company she founded and what she's learned since leaving journalism. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
By the way, her dogs' names are Coconut, LuSeal and Kona.
Kristen: Will you start by telling us a little about yourself and the evolution of your career. How did you go from reporter to entrepreneur?
Crystal: Sure. So I was a writer and a little journalist from high school on. I was the state high school journalist of the year. I was really on that path, went to the University of Nebraska, which has an awesome j-school, and had some pretty fantastic experiences there, including internships in Washington D.C., Colorado ... and I really focused and found that my passion was writing about the entertainment industry and specifically rock 'n’ roll and local art scenes.
I really specialized in that field. I tried to do as much of that as possible when we were working together at the News-Press, and then when I went on to work at The Pitch, an alternative news weekly here in Kansas City.
I kept on that art focus, and through that I met a lot of really interesting people. One of the things that always stood out when I was writing about rock ’n’ roll and the arts is how these performers and artists really had to sell themselves and come up with new ways to attract attention beyond just the art they were producing. I was always really interested in the merchandise side of things.
After close to five years at The Pitch, I changed strides and went over into marketing and was working for a division of Staples as a copywriter, and I took that position and drove it into something bigger that was more social media. In the four years I worked at Staples, I learned so much about business and I was writing blogs about how to promote your business and developing product recommendations for people.
All of this stuff just percolated I think. I was still blogging at the time, mostly about being a dog mom and rescuing dogs, and I applied what I was learning there. Eventually, all of these interests kind of came together. About two years ago, I left the full-time gig at Staples and I’ve been running Beer Paws ever since.
Kristen: How did you even get the idea for Beer Paws? Where did that start?
Crystal: As I built an audience on my blog, which was called Wayward Dogs ... and was simultaneously in this corporate business environment where I was constantly having to think about people marketing their businesses and making money, I was like, well shoot, I’m giving away so much money of my own to animal rescue, which is awesome, but I’m giving more than I can afford. And I have this growing audience on my blog that is really responsive to me. Maybe I should have a product to sell them and then we can kick back some of the profits of that to the rescue groups, so it’s a good thing for everybody.
I was actually in a commercial for someone else’s pet product that they were trying to launch. And in this commercial, there was another dog that was pretending to be my dog. And I noticed that he had just a regular bottle opener on his collar. And I was like, gosh, that’s brilliant. Your mom’s so smart. Why haven’t I done that?
Boulevard Brewing had fairly recently switched to a pry-off cap and I was in a total Boulevard house at the time, and I was always looking for my bottle opener. I was like, oh shoot, every dog should have a designated bottle opener on their collar. How fun is that? So that’s what kicked it off.
It was a product that I launched to my blog readers, then I started going to events, and the response was good. People thought it was really fun and they said, well what else can you do with dogs and drinking? Or, I’m a wine drinker, do you have anything for me?
Since I was in the promotional products industry, there was no end of cool product ideas coming my way. And then simultaneously I’m doing my own experimentation. That led to developing and tweaking dog treat recipes with home brewers, which led to working with actual breweries, and it just spiraled.
I ended up going through a program called BetaBlox, which is a startup accelerator program. Even though I had worked in a corporate setting for a while and still was, before I went through that startup accelerator, I didn’t have much confidence that I could do this thing.
As a journalist, you often times have a different view of business or even look down at it a little bit. In trying to get a little baby business off the ground, I did feel like, oh no, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m not a business person.
So going through that program was important for me, showing me some ropes, connecting me with some mentors, and more than anything, propping me up and making me feel like I could do it.
Kristen: Do you wish you’d known more about the business side when you were a journalist?
Crystal: At The Pitch, the vibe there was different and I think it was more apparent, on some levels, that hey, we need these ads and these special events to help keep the paper funded. I think I understood it pretty well, but I can reflect back on conversations with other reporters back at any number of the news organizations I worked at, and I feel like there was definitely that tension between the writers and people on the other side.
While there are reasons for that, it’s a bummer and it would lead to that feeling of division in the newsroom, when at the end of the day, we were all on the same team and we wanted our publications to succeed
Kristen: Exactly. Exactly. So if a journalist is ready to learn more about the business of journalism, where do you think they should start?
Crystal: I think I would just start with being open to visiting with people on the other side of the newsroom and talking to them and starting an open dialogue and understanding what the pressures are for them.
Kristen: It seems like you’re still using a lot of the same skills that you developed when you were a journalist. What are some of the things you still use?
Crystal: Oh definitely. I feel like I was an early adopter of social media. I’m still doing that. And I still find myself zeroing in on stories that I want to tell. I don’t write most of the blogs on my site, but I feel like I’m the self-appointed editor. ... We have to be so good as journalists at zeroing in on the good stories or the significant things, and it’s tough to explain, but I feel that sense, it’s almost like a sixth sense, that I should pay attention to.
Kristen: Yeah, the spidey sense never really goes away. What’s next for you? How do you want to keep growing and evolving?
Crystal: Oh man, sometimes that’s hard to think about. I find that a lot of times I’m sucked into “what’s the next step” day to day to day in my baby business. Right now I’m really trying to get over the next big hump. I have some folks that help me out with keeping this little train on the tracks. I want to keep building this business in a way that, every time we hit a new level, I’ll remove myself from part of the process and start focusing on the next thing.
Right now I’m really focusing on getting us to the next level, bigger productions, making it more of a national brand, and eventually, being able to be less involved in the day to day ... and be able to run this thing a little bit more hands off so I can focus on other things.
Next week we're wrapping things up with two guests hosts. But first, a huge thanks to everyone who said hi at the Online News Association gathering. You can listen to the conversations we had around local news here and here. Also, check out Membership Puzzle's latest findings on different membership models. ProPublica Illinois' first project officially launched this week.
See you next week!