It all started with Justin Bieber. (Doesn’t everything, really?)
Whenever Niels Skou wore his “Bieber shirt,” which was emblazoned with the singer’s face, everyone’s faces lit up.
“I could see how happy it made people,” he says. “They’d get excited and look up from their phone and point at the shirt.”
Here’s how it happened…
Puppy T-Shirts, What?
Every summer for several years, Skou worked for Rockstar Energy Drink, traveling around the country with music tours.
Although it was an “awesome job,” he wanted to start his own business.
One night on tour, a friend sat him down and said, “We’re not going to leave this table until you figure out what you’re going to do.”
Having been in Times Square in New York City a few days before, where they witnessed the magical effects of the Bieber shirt, the friends landed on the idea of “making shirts with images that would make people happy.”
And having always been a dog lover (Skou actually used to dream of starting a nonprofit that gave hearing aids to deaf dogs), puppies were the obvious choice.
“It always kind of came back to puppies,” Skou says.
So in early 2013, he bought 75 high-quality T-shirts and printed puppy images on them. Then he handed them out to the most influential people he knew — which, being in the music industry, were pretty influential.
Despite his connections, it was still a big risk: Skou spent $5,000 of his savings on an LLC, trademark, shirts and printing. He also hired a designer.
One of his early breaks came when a TMZ employee wore one on the eponymous show.
While it might’ve appeared like a success from the outside, the high cost of printing and marketing the shirts meant he was actually losing money. Skou lived at home, packing orders in his parents’ living room.
“We definitely struggled,” he admits. “We would have our shirts in US Weekly, and then I would go home and eat Top Ramen.”
Still, he never thought about quitting.
“I just knew it would pay off,” Skou explains. “Even though we were losing money, it was a good investment to me. People were happy with the products we were selling.”
He kept at it, but was anxious to move out of his parents’ house, so he accepted a full-time marketing job.
He says he “really should’ve been going after the entrepreneur thing,” but the lure of a steady paycheck was too strong. He even turned down an offer from investors who wanted him to work on the shirt business full time.
“Now I look back,” he says, “and realize I should have quit the job a long time ago.”
A Money- and Puppy-splosion
Eventually, the choice was made for him: In March 2015, he was laid off.
Instead of getting discouraged, he decided to focus more on Puppies Make Me Happy, expanding the company’s social media and marketing efforts.
“I put more energy into it and as I did, it got bigger,” he explains. “It’s been a little over a year now, and it blows my mind where it is.”
A year ago, Skou grossed an average of $2,000-$3,000 per month, but didn’t turn a profit; now he grosses an average of $40,000 per month.
The shirts are sold in boutiques, yoga studios and gyms across the country, as well as on the company’s own website and The Chive.
“I’ve just been focused on what needs to get done to keep the company growing,” he explains. “It’s like tunnel vision — I don’t really think about anything else.”
Skou still only has one employee — the designer who’s been with him since the beginning.
He contracts the cutting, sewing and printing of the shirts out to other companies in Los Angeles. The other main overhead costs include a storage unit and company van (which is covered in — what else? — puppies). He also gives a portion of proceeds to dog-related charities.
The Heart of a Puppy Empire
What’s at the heart of Skou’s success?
If you ask him, it’s the fact Puppies Make Me Happy’s products make people, well, happier.
“If you wear something that makes you happier,” he says, “you’ll make someone around you happier — and everyone will be in a better state of mind.”
It’s certainly worked for him.
Looking back on his more than three year entrepreneurial journey, Skou says: “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that success isn’t going to happen overnight. Every day is like a roller coaster.”
“Everyone thinks, ‘Oh my God, I’m just going to wake up one day and be successful,’” he explains.
“No, dude, it takes a long, long, long time.”
Unless, of course, you’re Justin Bieber.
Your Turn: What would you put on a T-shirt?
Susan Shain, senior writer for The Penny Hoarder, is always seeking adventure on a budget. Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.