Olivia Canlas lives in Vancouver, just steps away from great shops and fabulous restaurants. Yet she’s a die-hard online shopper.
“I love the convenience of things being delivered to me,” said Canlas, a member of Canada Post’s Solutions for Small Business™ savings program, who buys shoes, makeup, clothes, even bathing suits, online. “Even though I have all the shops 10 minutes away from home, l love the idea of things just coming to me.”
So, when Canlas was looking to quit her job as an orthodontic dental assistant and start her own business, online shopping was a natural fit.
Finding a niche
Enter Meowbox, a monthly subscription box filled with treats and toys for feline fur babies. Canlas, the Vancouver-based company’s CEO, co-founded the business in 2014 and now has five employees dedicated to sending locally made toys and delicious, nutritious treats to cat owners across North America every month.
“I was up one night looking at Facebook, and I saw ads for a dog subscription box. I wondered if there was one for cats,” said Canlas, who owns two cats and fosters others for a local cat rescue organization. “I was shocked to find that there wasn’t one, and I remember getting this tingly feeling like, Oh, my god, I think I just found the perfect business for me.”
Canlas and her co-founder, Francois Deschenes, weren’t pioneers in the now massively popular subscription box business, but they were definitely ahead of the curve. The market for these timed packages – which can contain products like coffee, makeup, clothing, diapers, and wine – has more than doubled every year for the past five years, with a record 18.5 million Americans visiting at least one subscription site in the first three months of 2018.
Learning the trade
Her education in the business model came in the form of – you guessed it – shopping. Specifically, shopping the competition.
“We would order from them and observe how they would manage their marketing emails, their packaging, how they manage their social media, if we called them, what kind of process they would go through on the phone,” said Canlas, who complimented her hands-on learning with courses in small business management at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. “I also really love attending marketing conferences, so I did a lot of that, while our co-founder would attend more of the technology conferences to keep up to date with that side of things.”
Stand out in the crowd
The big challenge for Canlas was to differentiate her subscription box from others that might appear in the marketplace and stand out in the field in general. She’s done that by having treats and toys made exclusively for her company so that subscribers are “getting something exclusive, instead of just something they could get at their local pet store.”
She also has her staff pen a handwritten note to the recipient kitty on the inside of each box, and there’s a rumour that the boxes themselves, which the cats love to play with, are infused with catnip. And it’s worked – with some clients even sending her videos of their cats “unboxing” their monthly treat.
“When our boxes come in the mail for our customers, it’s a joy for the cat parents to see them and look at the different themes we’ve used, and for them to see their cats get excited,” Canlas said. “It’s a nice little treat in the middle of the month for the cat and the cat parent.
Meowbox’s business model allows clients to choose to receive a $29.95 box (which includes shipping) every month or every other month. The box includes four to six items, and the company will swap out treats for toys if the owner’s cat is on a diet. To streamline the shipping process, Meowbox uses only one size of box and ensures that the boxes weigh the same every month: just under half a kilogram.
When it came to choosing a shipping company, Meowbox experimented with a few services but has found that Canada Post is their best ally, thanks to its affordability, its tracking and how easily it handles returns.
“Also, Canada Post will deliver to you no matter where you live in Canada,” said Canlas. “We’ve got customers in the middle of nowhere, so that’s important to us.”
Taking the plunge
Canlas is proud of how far she’s come in the past four years: from being a dental assistant to a successful entrepreneur who has built a community of cat lovers, even hosting a one-day event, Meowfest, for felines and friends to meet and mingle in Vancouver’s Yaletown. Her advice to aspiring business owners who don’t know if they’re ready to take the plunge? Just do it.
“The best thing you can do is give it a shot and see what happens, then listen to your clients and tweak your business as you go,” she said. “I can’t imagine anyone who is 10 years into their business who is doing things the exact same way as when they started.”