Making waves (and wags!) in the pet industry for over 21 years, Laura Lee English, the CEO, and co-owner of Pet Planet has helped paved the way for women entrepreneurs to put their best paw forward in what has predominantly been known as a male-dominated pet industry. As the company woofs up their anniversary this November, Mrs. English sat down to talk about the world of entrepreneurship, thought leadership, and where she can see Pet Planet heading in the foreseeable future.

Question: What made you take the leap into entrepreneurship?

Laura Lee: From an early age, I talked about owning my own business. I never knew specifically what that might be, but I remember being asked what I wanted to do and it was always to own a business of my own. After some time in the “corporate world”, learning what life might look like there, it became an even more important step for me to take. And when my parents advised they were moving to the same city as I was in, my Mom and I decided it was time to find something for us to sink our teeth into. We started out looking at many different kinds of franchise opportunities, from coffee shops to bakeries. Many months of looking landed us that nothing really resonated with us – that provided the passion that we knew it would take to be successful entrepreneurs. Then, my husband and I lost our dog to cancer. Reuben was diagnosed and we were told there was nothing we could do. We didn’t accept that and sought an alternate opinion from a holistic Veterinarian. That Veterinarian taught me things I didn’t know and made me realize that there is so much misinformation out there about healthy pet food and treats. I was angry that big advertising sold me sub-quality products that may have ultimately lead to Reuben’s life being cut short at the age of 7. The alignment of Reuben’s diagnosis and battle with cancer and my Mom and I looking for a business to start together led to Pet Planet – a community-based pet food store that Guardians could actually trust. No rawhide, no dangerous ingredients on our shelves, and objective nutritional information to help the families we served make better decisions for their pets. Something my husband and I didn’t have when we lost Reuben. Something we felt we could make a difference at, and leave a small legacy.

Question: What were the biggest initial hurdles in building your business?

Laura Lee: Just about everything. Neither of us had retail experience, especially opening a new retail concept. However, we had optimism and a whole lot of grit. Months of writing a business plan, citing and negotiating a location, establishing the name and brand image we were going for, designing the interior retail space, learning what we needed to about the products we would put on our shelves, finding contractors we could trust to build the store, determining the point-of-sale requirements… the list goes on and on. Retail is not for the faint of heart, and as small as an endeavor as it seemed it was – opening a small format pet food store – every step of the way brought more questions, more time and more money. We made all the mistakes an entrepreneur can make.

Question: What steps did you take to overcome those hurdles?

Laura Lee: Very simple – we just did it. If it were easy, everyone would do it. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we were driven by a passion to change an industry, with one little pet store. Youthful ignorance and a whole lot of tenacity got us to November 26, 1996 – the day we opened for business. 21 years later it is amazing how many hurdles we have overcome. From one store to 60, from one province to five, from one country to two – business is full of ongoing hurdles. Success comes from how you respond to them, how you learn from them, and then how you move forward. We all have the decision, every morning we wake, as to what attitude we will bring to the day. On the difficult days, the right attitude gets you through a lot of hurdles.

Question: What was your business original mission?

Laura Lee: To be the anti-big box with an uncompromising commitment to just being better. To be a trusted small-format community pet store where customers could find healthy products for their pets. We would not sell inferior pet foods, treats or other products. We would provide objective information on how to choose a pet food, and we would build relationships with our customers that our competitors just didn’t feel were important. We wouldn’t sell pets – that was completely unethical – and we would advocate against the retail sale of pets in the city. We would approach each customer with the same level of intensity as the day I found out that my dog had cancer so that we could do everything in our power to help another Guardian try and avoid the same kind of day with their pets.

Question: Has that changed? Of so – how has it evolved?

Laura Lee: I am very happy to say that no, our original mission has not changed. In fact, it has gotten even more intense. The marketplace has become even more confusing and unscrupulous and our place in it is even more important – to be a trusted place where families can feel comfortable with the decisions they make for their pets. For example, rawhide is the #1 selling dog treat in the world. We won’t sell it because it is very dangerous. But… all of our competitors sell it, even those who position themselves as “healthy” or “natural”! We just won’t compromise the health of a beloved pet for profit. We believe that profit comes from doing the right thing.

As a sideline to our original mission, one really unexpected but amazing thing surfaced. When we started Pet Planet, we were pretty focused on our business, and ourselves as it related to the business. But then we hired a few people. And we grew by adding more stores and hired more people. Then we offered the concept as a franchise and our franchisees hired more people. All of a sudden, that first little store became a catalyst for so much more people and families to earn a living by doing something that they felt good about. So today, a secondary mission we have is to continue to build a sustainable and thriving business that can support so many more people, either as franchisees or employees.

Question: What quality do you believe all Pet Planet franchisees have?

Laura Lee: Passion for pet health and welfare – and for their customers. Every single one of our Franchisees is committed to our original mission – in fact, most of them were customers or employees who experienced Pet Planet first hand and wanted to become part of something that positively impacted pet health in their own communities.

Question: Who do you look up to in a leadership role/who do you follow?

Laura Lee: Howard Schultz – ex-CEO of Starbucks – he joined Starbucks when they only had a couple of shops in Seattle and had this amazing vision and tenacity to change the way the world thought about coffee. His story and his commitment to building a business that can make a difference in the world is inspiring.

Robin Sharma – writer, business coach and leadership speaker – his insightful thought on business and leadership are amazing.

Question: What would you tell a female who is considering entrepreneurship?

Laura Lee: First, forget that you are a woman. It doesn’t matter. I never once thought I could or couldn’t do something because I was a woman. I believe that is the most important aspect of any women’s rights movement – we have earned the right to just be who we are, gender aside.

Second, know you are going to work harder than you ever have before. So, pick something to do that you love, that you have a passion for. It makes all the time, energy and challenges so much easier.

Third, understand that you will have people all around you telling you that you are crazy for wanting to do what you are doing, or that you won’t be able to do it. Don’t listen to anyone but yourself, and don’t let anyone knock your confidence off – protect it and own it.

Question: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?

Laura Lee: Listening to advice that went against my instincts.

Question: Describe your greatest moment of success.

Laura Lee: Becoming a Mother.

Question: What do you know today about the industry you wish you would have known when you started?

Laura Lee: Nothing. If I knew then what I know now my path may have been very different. We embark on our journeys, and we make decisions when we hit forks in the road, but it really isn’t about the destination. It’s actually about the journey.