Entrepreneur and cat mom Leslie Gray Harmon, saw a need in the pet market and made it her mission to fulfill it with her line of pet collars, Made By Cleo.
By Cy White, Images courtesy of Leslie Gray Harmon
Leslie Gray Harmon has been an animal advocate for all her life. As a cat mom herself, she knows all too well that sometimes fur babies don’t always have what’s best for them. From food to, yes, collars, oftentimes the market is limited for our non-human companions. In 2012, she found a way to tip the scales in favor of pets in the pet industry with her breakthrough collar line, Made By Cleo. She took some time to answer questions about her company and the journey to building her cat collar empire.
Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?
Hi! I’m Leslie Gray Harmon, and I’m the founder and CEO of Made By Cleo. Since 2012, we’ve been making pet collars and accessories with a specialized focus on serving the cat market and its unique community of passionate and style-conscious cat lovers. Our cat collars, bow ties, bandanas, ID tags and other accessories are sold online and through brick-and-mortar pet boutiques and veterinary locations worldwide. I’m proud to say that our company is not only female-owned; we have an incredible team of talented artisan-caliber women makers (all based in Austin). They sew and create the thousands of quality products that we sell.
I consider my first cat, Cleo, my first child and this company my second. Cleo was with us for 19.5 years and is responsible for the name of the company. But I am also now a proud mother to two 3-year olds (our daughter, Claire, and our newest kitty, Cosmo).
The whole reason I started this operation 10 years ago was not only to solve my recurring problem of constantly buying depressing-looking, low-quality collars for my cat. I also thought it would be a fun way to subsidize my husband’s and my passion for going to concerts and music festivals like. Well, things quickly snowballed, and it eventually ended up becoming an entirely new career and full-time job. My husband also joined our team of 14 in 2018 to help run daily operations and be my managing partner.
Made By Cleo came out of frustration for not finding durable cat collars for your own fur baby. What was the exact moment you knew you needed to solve this problem?
I distinctly remember the turning point. Cleo had come home (from his usual daytime, sanctioned outdoor adventures) naked and missing his usual store-bought collar and ID tag. It was this terrible-looking, washed out, almost tie-dyed rainbow thing that was fuzzing and fraying. I remember it was already looking sad and in need of replacement before it went missing. And now it was lost somewhere in the bushes or in the woods behind our house, no longer useful. I didn’t have a backup for him to wear; my rule for him to be allowed to go back outside on his own was he needed to wear his collar and tag. (Or at least some obvious, visible symbol that people could identify to know that he wasn’t a stray.)
He was forced to stay indoors for the rest of the afternoon (which any cat parent knows is hard to do when their cat is used to going outside and is very active). I had to run to the store again to go buy him a replacement collar. I remember going to the usual aisle where you’d find cat collars and being struck by how small and underrepresented that section was. Whereas you’d look a few aisles further where the dog section was and there was this huge glowing assortment of collars and leashes. The cat collar selection at the time was literally an assortment of four disposable-looking, low quality options. One was black and had spikes on it. The other was pink with rhinestones. And the other two were nondescript solid color options.
Despite the fact that about 50% of households have a cat, it was shocking that the collar selection was so small. Knowing that a large portion of those households had a cat who regularly went outdoors.
All this to say, for whatever reason on that day, I decided I could do better. That surely, I wasn’t alone in thinking cats should have better-looking and longer-lasting collar options than the market offered.
What exactly do pet parents need to look for when shopping for collars?
The key things to look for: 1) quality materials that don’t fuzz or fray quickly; 2) solid craftsmanship that looks and feels good with polished and professional stitching; 3) and, most important, it should have a quick release “breakaway” buckle clasp for your cat’s safety.
Avoid collars made of polypropylene webbing (a cheaper, inferior material used on a lot of imported cat collars). A lightweight industrial-grade nylon webbing base lasts a lot longer and feels smoother on your cat’s neck. Ideally, the collar is also washable as well. Because even if cats know how to groom themselves, their collars don’t! As for bells, it’s ideal to get a cat collar with a removable bell (instead of welded on, like most companies do), in case your cat (or you) have a strong preference to not have it on.
There was obviously a need for this in the market. Can you tell us a bit about how you created such a successful business out of such a unique concept?
From the beginning, our focus has been on delivering the two things that were so evidently lacking in this product category: 1) quality (both in terms of the durability of materials used and craftsmanship); 2) better, more abundant choices for style-conscious cat people.
It turned out I wasn’t the only one who cared (passionately!) about these things when it came to buying cat collars. Our customers (many of whom have been ordering from us for years) have voiced their own passion about these details through emails, DMs and reviews.
I think it also proved beneficial to limit our scope of products to only what we truly, fundamentally “get” on a deep, personal level. Instead of trying to be all things to everyone (and fake our passion or expertise) when it comes to certain product categories. By that I mean that we chose to limit our offerings to focus on serving the cat market.
People ask us all the time why we don’t expand our options for large dogs. It is definitely not because we don’t love dogs! It really comes down to 1) the materials, components and technical and logistical considerations are completely different when you’re working with cat collars compared to larger dog collars. 2) It’s about the language and culture of our primary audience. The inside jokes and conversations you’d use with a group of cat people are totally different than what you’d share with dog people. The culture and communities are different, even if there is obviously some overlap. So we choose to focus on the one we know best.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned on this journey?
Always go above and beyond in taking good care of your people. That means taking care of your team (the people who make your business run) and also your loyal customers. If either of those groups is neglected in some way, the whole system fails eventually.
What’s been the most rewarding part of building Made By Cleo? Some of the challenges?
Aside from the personal friendships I’ve made with many of our customers and other cat community business owners, getting to a stable enough place in the evolution and growth of our business to be able to give back to the community.
Made By Cleo has joined forces with local and national animal rescue and adoption organizations. There are a combination of product donations to help with fundraising events and cat adoption photos, along with financial contributions. We donate a portion of our proceeds on an annual basis to several local nonprofits including Austin Pets Alive, Austin Humane Society and the city’s Austin Animal Center.
We have also recently leveraged our production abilities and resources, along with the amazing hearts and goodwill of our customers, to help raise relief funding to help Ukraine. (By way of our “We Stand With Ukraine” fundraiser collection.)
For those who want to take the leap and start their own venture, what advice can you give them if they’re a little hesitant?
- Invest in good photography. Connect the dots for people considering your product by showing multiple angles. (Especially if they won’t have the ability to hold the product in their hands in a physical retail environment.) Thankfully even iPhones can do a great job in this department if you’ve got access to some good natural light somewhere. Do not skimp in this area. Pictures are 95% of what factors into whether or not a customer is going to buy from you. A lack of professionalism in the photos, or not enough visual information can kill a potential sale. The customer doesn’t have enough faith to make the purchase. Read up, or watch some YouTube videos on taking good product shots, or take a local class! Learn how to tweak and edit photos with either Photoshop or a phone app so everything is as polished as can be.
- While nailing the important details of a new project is very important, don’t fuss over every little thing so much that you never actually get your “venture” out in the world. Some people spend months or years refining. Thinking it has to be perfect before they make it officially public. After a certain point, you just need to get it out there. You can refine, tweak and learn as you go. Remember, a lot of learning happens while your products (or service) are accessible to people who can give you feedback. Versus it living and maybe dying a slow death in your head.
Any final thoughts?
Thank you so much for this opportunity to share a little glimpse of our quirky, cat-loving corner of the world.