A few years back, Dawn LaFontaine found herself at a crossroads. She had been a stay-at-home mom until her youngest departed for college. Around that time, her husband was also laid off from a job he’d held for 15 years. In search of additional income – and something to do – she started applying for jobs. But then, the rejections came – dismayed, she realized she needed to take control of her own professional future. A cat lover to her core, she started designing fun cardboard box houses for cats as a side project – since as any cat parents knows, felines are obsessed with cardboard boxes. Three years later, she now runs a thriving business, Cat in The Box, to sell those makeshift homes to the masses. LaFontaine says she couldn’t be prouder of all she’s accomplished.
Here’s our lightly edited Q&A, from The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project.
How is your business different from others in your industry?
I make products designed to meet the true biological needs of cats.
Tell us about your biggest success so far.
I’ve had quite a few! Being a finalist in a major pitch competition with a $50,000 prize, being chosen to participate in an incubator program, and receiving coverage in major news outlets like The Boston Globe, Reader’s Digest, First for Women and the U.S. News and World Report.
But beyond all of that, I think my biggest success has simply been running this business day-to-day. When I started out, I had no entrepreneurial experience. I had no idea how to set up a website. I’d never done marketing, bookkeeping or advertising. I knew nothing about SEO or social media.
Today, I have 10,000 followers on Instagram, and nearly 5,000 email subscribers. I’ve designed a multitude of products that I’ve manufactured in the United States, Nepal and China. I ship my products to pet stores and cat guardians around the world.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
I’ve avoided a number of challenges by following my mentors. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel – there are others who have gone before me, who know more than me, and who are excited to help me succeed.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
Do not start your business in a vacuum. Join a course, or a Facebook group, or a focus group of people in your field. It would be unnecessarily difficult to go it alone. Take advantage of what others know and are willing to share.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
I don’t have many dark days. I get to think about cats and talk to cat lovers all day long – what could be bad?
What is your go-to song to get motivated on tough days?
“Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves. That’s me in a nutshell.
Who is your most important role model?
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, but my husband is my role model. While I was at home raising our kids, he was making ends meet while still being a good and present father. He made some significant career sacrifices to be that guy who came home every day at 5 p.m. and sat down at the dinner table with us. He came to every school conference and every play.
It taught me a lot about setting priorities and sticking to them. Everyone says they want “more time with their family,” but you rarely see people, like my husband, who made the really tough, uncomfortable, day-to-day decisions to actually have more time with their family.