Five years ago, Spencer Williams' pals brushed off the tiny business he had bought as a "cute idea"--hand-sewn fleece toys for cats and dogs. But to Williams, it was also a brilliant opportunity: "I knew this was a great market with growing demand and something I'd really enjoy producing," he says.
Williams' first job out of Vermont's Middlebury College was selling financial research. He tired of it after a year. Borrowing from family, he bought a local pet toy operation with $400,000 in sales and 20 products. Today, West Paw has a new factory and $2.6 million in sales to more than 1,600 retailers. Its 120 products, still hand-finished (and still cute), include leopard-print "jungle bones" and fluffy, beady-eyed "hairballs." What's behind this pet-trepreneur's success? Jennifer Braxton, the buyer for Braxton's Animal Works in Wayne, Pa., credits quality materials and workmanship. Then, too, there are Williams' testers--his cat, Ollie, and his Labrador, Schoggi. How they take to a new product always gives Williams something to chew on.
By Naween A. Mangi