Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Jill Bong, co-founder of Chicken Armor®. We designed a different chicken saddle that makes it not only affordable but low-maintenance as well.
What is a chicken saddle? It is basically a chicken “vest” that helps to protect the backs of the chicken from mating or molting injuries. The coverage that these saddles provide gives the chicken time to heal and to grow new feathers while preventing other chickens from pecking at these sore spots.
Our customers are mostly homesteaders or suburban chicken-keepers who want to protect their chickens affordably and without the hassle of having to maintain and wash a more traditional saddle.
Since its inception, Chicken Armor® has sold over 50,000 saddles. Our saddles have protected chickens in all 50 states and on 4 continents.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Chicken Armor® was born out of necessity. In 2011, our beloved chicken died from her mating injuries. We were devastated. We knew that a hen saddle would have saved her but with a flock of over 80 chickens, we are unable to afford to saddle them all.
Keep your startup costs as low as possible. Not being heavily invested in something frees you from the pressure of “making it”. It gives you the leeway to fail or to pivot your business.
Since we were unable to afford saddles for at least $8 each and were unwilling to sew traditional saddles, my husband and I decided to develop something else. Other than having some experience keeping chickens, we had no background in product development. (I did, however, have over a decade’s experience of running my own businesses.)
After brainstorming and testing different patterns and no-sew materials, we came up with our own design that only needed to be hosed clean.
We tested and revised various designs and materials on our flock for another year before settling on the final prototype. At this point, we decided that there was a micro-niche to be filled - Chicken Armor® was born.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We knew that we wanted a simple, no-frills product that didn’t need to be sewn, could be easily cleaned and didn’t fray.
Since we were strapped for cash, we had to think outside the box. We got in touch with material wholesalers and asked them to send us decent-sized sample pieces of various materials which we thought might fit our needs. Fortunately for us, the samples were sent to us for free.
With a nice array of materials, we were able to try different designs. The early prototypes were complicated and would fall of the chickens too easily. Since we had a decent amount of sample of material to work with, we were able to modify the design to one that worked well.
We then modified the length of the saddles such that they would not only fit the average chicken appropriately but such that they would also be easy to pack and ship with as little waste as possible.
Once we decided on the final design, my husband was able to make a simple pattern template in his shop. Because our production design is so low-tech, we continue to use these templates to cut Chicken Armor® saddles by hand to this day.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Again, we had no money to launch this business so the first place where I tried to sell Chicken Armor® was on a gardening forum where I frequented. It was not where our target audience was and I was mostly teased about the invention. Fortunately, someone decided to try us out and we made our first sale - $5!!
With our confidence boosted, we started offering Chicken Armor® on eBay. At that time, we were still using free sample material to make our saddles. A small number of sales started rolling in via eBay and because our start-up costs were virtually nil, we quickly showed a profit.
Customer reviews were mixed. Many had trouble figuring out how to put the saddle on the chicken. Others were unhappy with the simplicity of the unconventional design. Because of these issues, we started including a small instruction sheet with every order.
We also introduced a 100% lifetime no-questions asked guarantee. While we appreciate feedback on why the customer wants a refund, we never ask why. Our main goal for this generous policy was to encourage people to try Chicken Armor® out for a while. If at that later point, they are still unhappy with it, they can return it for a refund. However, we’ve found that most people end up keeping the saddles.
From eBay, we migrated to selling on Etsy. Again, to keep overhead costs low, I also set up a free storefront on freewebstore.com. Once we had a storefront, I reached out to influential chicken bloggers who agreed to do a product review in exchange for blog sponsorship. The returns were marginally successful. We got decent product exposure but few sales. After a few months of advertising, we decided to
I wasn’t until I started pitching stories and articles to niche magazines that Chicken Armor® really started gaining traction. Our biggest breakout was when a small but very relevant magazine, Backyard Poultry Magazine picked up and ran a full feature about our invention.
Because of the success we saw from the feature, I started pitching tirelessly to media outlets large and small. None of the other media coverage got us the same success as “Backyard Poultry Magazine” but every outlet provided us with more exposure and credibility.
The profits generated allowed us to not only pay for more traditional advertising but to also pay for trademarking and patenting fees. Again, to keep expenses low, I attempted both processes myself. The trademark process was successful and fairly straightforward (you don’t need legal training to complete the trademark process) but the patent process was more complex.
After being denied, we sought legal help for the patent process. Unfortunately, after quite a bit of investment into the process, we decided to abandon it due to spiraling costs. We decided that our micro-niche market was too small for it to be worth suing any infringers over anyway.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We’ve tried many marketing avenues: Google Adwords, Facebook ads, niche print media advertising, Facebook and chicken blog giveaways.
Our main marketing success is by far, via pitching stories to media outlets. While there isn’t a monetary cost for such coverage, it requires persistence, time and effort.
The best outlets to focus on are the ones that cater to your target audience. For example, if you sell hunting knives, you’ll want to look for not only hunting publications but also periphery media outlets like outdoorsman or survivalist publications/groups/podcasts etc.
If you have a better kids’ lunchbox to sell, your customer is not the child but their mother or even grandparent. Focus on them. I’ve found that the bigger and more mainstream the outlet, the fewer the follow through sales.
In general, you can pitch your story to the editor or producer of your chosen outlet. Bear in mind that the bigger the entity, the less likely it would be for them to pick up or to even respond to you. I’ve found helpareporter.com and podcastguests.com to be good places to pitch to the media.
Remember: when pitching, it’s not about you. It’s about them. You’ll need to spin your story in a way that will be of interest to their audience.
I never turn down an opportunity to be featured, even if the outlet seems irrelevant. You never know who’ll read about you there. You’ll also generally get an SEO boost from being featured.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
In an interesting twist to the business, I turned my pile of rejected story pitches into a book on backyard chicken-keeping. The book, in turn, spawned a self-publishing business with a portfolio of over a dozen books and over two dozen journaling books.
This, together with an expansion into print-on-demand t-shirts by Amazon Merch provide us with multiple steady passive income sources.
For the longer term, we are working towards expanding our homestead product-line under the umbrella byJillb.com brand. The possibilities for products under this self-reliance brand are vast and may include anything from homemade soaps to pink-themed produce!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
My advice would be to keep your startup costs as low as possible. Not being heavily invested in something frees you from the pressure of “making it”. It gives you the leeway to fail or to pivot your business.
You can always scale up or scale across as you make more money. If something becomes stressful or a burden then you might want to start reevaluating what you’re doing because I think running a business is also about enjoying what you’re doing.
If it’s not fun, you might as well go back to having a steady-paying job!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Microbusiness Independence: How to Quit Your Job and Start to Live by Anna Hess gave me the shoestring marketing ideas.
Pat Flynn’s Smartpassiveincome.com blog has a lot of good information.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Do it. Keep your expenses low. Be flexible and open-minded to new opportunities and ideas. Don’t be afraid to fail.
I have more failed business ideas than I care to remember! Also, don’t be too quick to quit your day job.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
- Jill Bong, Founder of Chicken Armor
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