How One Couple’s Pet Project Turned Into an Online Sensation
Published August 2016
Unconventional cat furniture with an artistic flair.
2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest Winner
Byron Center, MI
In a little more than two years, CatastropiCreations has grown from an Etsy experiment into a full-fledged small business with employees, commercial space and a bright future ahead. But, the most interesting part of this small-business success story is how the whole thing began — with a boyfriend trying to impress his cat-loving girlfriend. Spoiler alert: it worked.
The whole thing started when Megan Hanneman met Mike Wilson at a pizza parlor in Portland, Oregon, where they both worked. They started dating, moved in together, and Wilson soon discovered that he wasn’t the only love of Hanneman’s life. She was really, really into cats. Instead of “love me, love my dog,” Wilson had to bond with the two cats that also inhabited their small apartment.
It wasn’t always easy. The two cats didn’t always get along. “When you put two cats in a small space, it’s not the best situation, because cats are territorial,” explained Hanneman, co-founder of CatastrophiCreations. “A lot of websites recommend shelving, or mounting something vertical for cats to play on in this situation. That way, they get their own space, which prevents conflict between the two cats, but it also gives them a way to get exercise without going outside.” The problem was, those shelving options, albeit great for cats, were real eyesores for human beings. So, Wilson decided to take matters, literally, into his own hands.
A Man and His (Borrowed) Miter Saw
“I’ve done graphic design work and I’m pretty handy, so I thought I could make something that was better than what we could buy,” said Wilson, co-founder of CatastrophiCreations. “The first piece I made was the Indiana Jones Bridge, a hammock-like cat bridge that hangs in the corner of a room.”
The cats liked it so much that Wilson borrowed a miter saw from Hanneman’s dad and started building more unique, vertically mounted pieces in the couple’s third-floor apartment. Not only was the cat furniture attractive to the cats, but it actually looked stylish on the wall. There was nothing else like it on the market.
“My mom is a photographer and has sold some of her work on Etsy. She told us that we should try to sell our cat furniture there,” Wilson said. “It went crazy. People started writing about us online and the orders started pouring in.” By day 33 on Etsy, the newly named CatastrophiCreations had so many orders that the couple had to move the operation from their apartment to a one-car garage. By day 110, they had so many orders that both quit their day jobs to focus on the business full time. “After we both quit our jobs, we decided to move to Michigan to be closer to my family, and set up production in our townhouse’s two-car garage. Our living room was our assembly room,” Wilson said. “We hired my best friend to work with me in the garage, and Megan’s friend from Portland moved to Michigan and started working with us, too.”
The company launched its own website and continued selling through Etsy. Not only did the orders skyrocket, but customers started spontaneously sharing pictures of their cats using the furniture. Without actively marketing, CatastrophiCreations had amassed a growing community of feline-loving fans who spread the word about this unique, new company.
Moving On Up
“Our orders grew so much that we started getting wood deliveries. It was so noisy in the garage that our neighbors hated us,” Wilson said. “We were also in Michigan. Not only were we running out of space, but we were working in an unheated garage with winter approaching.” Clearly, it was time to move into a real, commercial space. That doesn’t mean that next step wasn’t frightening. “Up to this point, we didn’t have to put our own money into the business at all. We always kept our spending low,” Hanneman said. “I was afraid we’d go into debt. It was a way bigger commitment than working out of your house or garage.”
But, they decided to take the plunge, moving in plenty of time for the holiday rush — or so they thought. “The company that occupied the space was shutting down, so our move-in date wasn’t firm. We ended up moving at the end of November, which is the worst possible time,” Wilson said. “To make matters worse, we found out that we were turned down by Amazon Handmade because they didn’t have a pet category. We were counting on that additional channel to help justify the winter move.”
The first few months in the new space, orders slowed down and the company bank account dwindled. But then, everything started falling into place. “The last three months have been our three most consecutively busy months,” Wilson said. “It was the right move for us, but the timing was bad. We won’t do things like that again.”
Winning a FedEx Small Business Grant
Wilson and Hanneman have used FedEx for domestic shipments for the past three years, and have been pleased with the service and attention they receive. “FedEx has been awesome to work with. As our volume increased, they loaned us a scale and a thermal printer, which makes life easier,” Wilson said. “We’re also a part of their FedEx Rewards loyalty program, where we earn points when we ship with FedEx.”
So, when the couple heard about the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest, it seemed like a natural fit. They were pumped to get to the top 100, but winning a grant was what Hanneman described as “pure excitement.” CatastrophiCreations will use the grant money to fund the company’s first cat tree, which is also its first non-wall-mounted product. “We want to make our cat tree out of solid wood and steel, so it’s sturdier than the particle board trees on the market today. But, that means we have to work with a steel company for our frame — and that’s expensive,” Wilson explained. “Because of the FedEx grant, we can 100 percent go for it, and have the cat tree ready to go well in time for the holidays.”
Sitting in the Cat Bird Seat
It’s important to note at the time of this writing, CatastrophiCreations is still a small business that’s only a little over three years old. The company now has nine employees; the owners have been interviewed by NBC and the BBC, liked by a bevy of Facebook fans, and promoted by YouTube stars. Most importantly, their artfully designed furniture continues to delight cats and their owners worldwide. “We’re absolutely blown away that we’re able to do this for a living,” Hanneman said. “We’re so thankful to our customers and our fans.”
One great idea. One pet project gone viral. One amazing small business that is catapulting to the top of its category by solving a problem in a whole new way.