Better By Design
With a focus on comfort, style and safety, 2 Hounds Design offers a wide range of high-quality, custom-made collars, leashes and harnesses.
It is not often that the worlds of physics and fashion collide, but that is exactly what happened in 2003, when Alisha Navarro decided to leave behind a budding career in engineering to start 2 Hounds Design, a collar and leash company based in Monroe, N.C.
With an advanced degree in physics, Navarro was working as a project manager for an engineering firm when she first dipped her toes in pet product manufacturing. Like many entrepreneurs in this industry, she began by addressing a need for her own pets—two beloved retired racing Greyhounds.
“Honestly, [I started 2 Hounds Design] by accident,” she says. “I didn’t intend to start a company. I was just making a few collars for my own dogs, and people saw them and liked them.”
But these were not ordinary collars that Navarro was making. As with all sighthounds, her Greyhounds’ physiology—with a small head relative to their neck size—required the use of martingale collars. However, what really set Navarro’s creations apart from other collars on the market from the start were the materials she uses in their construction.
“We use a lot of really unique materials, like silk brocades, high-end Scalamandré silk,” she explains. “I have literally taken clothing apart to make collars out of it because I liked the pattern or color.”
Of course, many owners of other dog breeds also favor martingale collars as a humane alternative to choke collars, and because they do not utilize buckles, which can be a point of weakness in some traditional collars. Weak points have not been an issue for 2 Hounds Design, though, even as the company has branched out into more traditional buckled collar designs. That is because Navarro only uses molded nylon buckles, which do not shatter when cold or melt when hot. “They are the same buckles that are used on firefighters’ uniforms,” she says.
What started out as a hobby for Navarro slowly grew into a full-fledged manufacturing enterprise as she continued to reinvest the money made selling her unique collars via a “dinky little” website that she designed herself, as well as through her connections within the sighthound community. “We actually boot-strapped ourselves,” she recounts. “We started out with $500 and a sewing machine, and now we have 42 employees.”
Despite some pretty significant growth, Navarro continued to operate 2 Hounds Design out of her home until 2009. That turned out to be a big year for the company, as it not only moved into its first headquarters/manufacturing facility, it also began licensing the patent for and manufacturing the popular Freedom No-Pull Harness, which has grown to account for a big portion of 2 Hounds Design’s sales.
“At that time, we also started designing and making our own custom ribbons, which were exclusive to us,” says Navarro. “And we added additional types of collars.”
These exclusive ribbon designs have been key in helping 2 Hounds Design stand out in the marketplace, so it’s no surprise that Navarro and her team put a lot of time and energy in researching and crafting this element of the company’s products. “For designers, it’s really tempting to only make things that they like,” she says. “While it is important to make things you like—for example, we have ribbon patterns that feature robots and comic book designs that reflect my personal geeky sense of style—we also design ribbons based on input from our employees and customers.”
Based on such feedback from customers who asked for more traditionally masculine patterns, 2 Hounds Design has steered away from what are considered to be more feminine designs with many of the patterns it is introducing this fall. Included in the company’s latest offerings are patterns that feature preppy plaids and diagonal stripes, along with bowties, squirrels, leaves and the aforementioned robots.
Aside from collecting input from customers and employees, Navarro also looks to the world of human fashion for inspiration in designing the company’s collars and leashes—a practice that she says used to be less time sensitive. “About 10 to 13 years ago, we had a little more lead time, because the pet industry was about a year behind the interior design and other industries,” she explains. “Now people are a lot faster, and you have to stay on top of the latest trends.”
To make sure that every pet store it works with is armed with the right selection of on-trend products, 2 Hounds Design takes the time to learn as much as possible about each retail partner’s unique customer base and tailors its recommendations accordingly. “Because we have a little bit of everything, the first thing we say to stores is, ‘Tell us about your customer,’” says Navarro. “Is your customer super modern and hip? Are we talking about Millennials? Are they a tech crowd? What do they already have on their dog? I want to put collars inside their store that sell for them.”
2 Hounds Design’s ability to tailor a pet store’s collar and leash selection does not stop with suggesting patterns, though. The company actually custom produces every order based on a retailer’s preferences in ribbon design and hardware type, as well as product length and width. “We make everything custom, because if you look at all of the options we offer in every pattern, there is no way we could keep all of that in stock,” Navarro says.
As a company that offers a high level of customization and is growing quickly, it is vital that 2 Hounds Design stays as flexible as possible. In this way, Navarro says, the company’s youth and size provide a decided advantage. “We are still a relatively young company and a small company,” she explains. “And that makes us very agile.”
While Navarro’s career has gone in a very different direction than what she may have expected coming out of college, her background in physics and engineering still plays a very useful role in her current business. “No, I’m not doing advanced calculations,” she says. “But [my background] has given me problem-solving abilities, as well as the ability to analyze data and pull out trends and patterns, and I’m really good at applying those skills across the board.”
This has proven particularly useful as 2 Hounds Design has moved toward lean manufacturing processes to remove waste and maintain its much-needed agility as it continues to grow. “That is where I really thrive,” says Navarro.
With this ongoing refinement of its production processes and a new 20,000-square-foot headquarters under construction, 2 Hounds Design is well poised to continue the aggressive growth it has enjoyed over the past dozen or so years. But even as the company grows, Navarro says that one thing that will never change at 2 Hounds Design is its commitment to helping retailers achieve success. This includes not only building an effective selection, but also providing valuable advice on building attractive merchandising displays.
“We try to be as hands-on as we can with stores,” she says