The pet industry is a complex obstacle course to navigate as a young entrepreneur. In today's episode, Lorien interviews Jonaie Johnson about her company Interplay and the challenges that come with being a young Founder and CEO. Check out the show notes below if you would like to learn more about Jonaie and her mission!
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00:00 Lorien Clemens
Hello pet lovers and welcome to Pet Lover Geek powered by PetHub. I'm Lorien Clemens and today we're talking about keeping track and watching those for kids while you are away from home. I'm super excited to introduce you to Jonaie Johnson. I met her last year at the NAVC Veterinary Innovation Summit in Kansas City. It seems like forever ago, but when I met her we were sitting out there in the lobby of all these innovative companies and her device was out there and I just thought, wow, this is a really great idea so I've been watching her. I know that since I've talked to her last, she's had a lot of stuff going on, so I can't wait for her to update me and I've asked her to come on the show and break down, you know, her founding story like how did she come up with this idea? What problems is she looking to solve and just talk generally about what it's like to be a tech innovator in the pet space. So stick around, short little break, and then we are going to talk to Jonaie Johnson.
01:04 Lorien Clemen
Thank you for coming on the show Jonaie, super excited to have you here. Let me first start off by saying I really love the idea of your prototype. Now all I saw in Kansas City was the prototype so I would love it if you can kind of describe what it is. I mean from what I saw before, it really captures exactly what we're trying to do with PetHub, which is keep every family's pets happy, safe and home for the rest of their lives, and talk about keeping them safe and home -- kind of fits in perfectly with that -- and it also seems to be a great product for modern pet parents, but I would love it if you could just kind of introduce yourself and just describe like what is this interplay device that I'm talking about?
01:43 Jonaie Johnson
Thank you Lorien having me on im very excited to be here and talk more about Interplay. So of course my name is Jonaie Johnson. I'm the founder and CEO of Interplay and at Interplay we create remote crating experiences for dog parents with our product the Playtach. So with the Interplay Playtech they'll be able to interact and care for their dog from their phone while they're away from home. So with our product, they can dispense food and water to their dog, see and talk to their dog, and play music and sounds all from their phone while the way via the interplay out. So how it works is they will install our device. So the interplay Playtach attaches to their existing dog crate, but we also have a stand that we sell separately for those who don't crate, then they'll download the Interplay app, connect the device, then from a click of a button they'll be able to interact with their dog.
02:26 Lorien Clemens
And what I love about this is so a lot of us do create our dogs when we're away from home, because as much as we would love to be able to trust them, we just can't. They need to be -- I mean like we have a fabulous Boston Terrier who's generally delightful -- but she only seems to chew on things she shouldn't chew on when we're not home. Whether it be anxiety or whatever. We're not sure, but I love the idea of being able to see her and interact with her and then also get her food and water while we are away, so people are listening to this so can you describe the device to me? When I first saw it, it was very much in prototype form. I don't know how much it has evolved since then, so I don't want to describe what I saw, but if you could kind of just described qhat does this look like? What does a crate device look like?
03:08 Jonaie Johnson
Yeah so it's essentially a food and water, just like we've all seen -- most of us have seen -- food dispensers, so a food dispenser on steroids. So it's a combination of the food, the water, and then also we have a unique, more modern luxury design that we're aiming towards as we continue to develop and build out the product.
03:27 Lorien Clmens
The one I saw physically there's part of it that's in the crate and then part of it on the external part of the crate -- like I guess the mechanics are on the external part of the crate -- and so how big is it physically? Like could I have it on her small dog crate or would I need to have a larger dog crate? How physically big is it?
03:42 Jonaie Johnson
If you have a small breed it's about half the size of the door essentially, but yeah, the food and water dispensers are now on the outside of the crate and then it attaches to the food and water bowls which will be on the inside. So it's kind of a little different from what you're seeing with the prototype, but it's a more refined improvement that hopefully will keep the dog from trying to get inside those dispensers cause it's outside the crate.
04:05 Lorien Clemens
Yeah, I mean, I know that that's one of the things that you wouldn't wanna leave them. A lot of the food dispensers and the and water dispensers, they're either huge, so you can't really put them in the actual crate, but you also don't want them chewing on the cords or you know knocking them over and stuff, so have something that is physically secure to the crate. I can see how that's like such a great idea, but I would love it -- I kind of jumped ahead -- How did you get this idea? Where did this come up? I'd like to hear your founder story, you know, how did you come up with this idea and say like, "hey, you know what I'm going to build this thing."
04:35 Jonaie Johnson
Yeah definitely, so it was actually my senior year in high school and I was taking a bridge class. I was taking a college class on high school, used to travel over to the college, but yeah, the college there, and I was working on this semester-long project. So she gave us this task. We worked on a semester-long project -- I could develop a business model around it -- it just had to be -- It could be whatever we want it to be. So most people were already working on things that they were familiar with and such but I always wanted to think outside the box and work on something innovative and creative that could keep my attention for the longevity of the semester. So I thought about my aunt and she was always away from home and she would also always leave family events early to rush home and care for her dog. So I'm like you know this would be awesome if she could do this from her phone while she's away, and that's where the idea for Interplay was born.
05:20 Lorien Clemens
Has she tried it out? Has she actually gotten to try out the prototypes?
05:23 Jonaie Johnson
Not yet, but she definitely will once we finish finding our final design for the beta.
05:29 Lorien Clemens
Well, talk about that, so you know, having developed product myself, particularly in the tech space, there's all these things that you don't think about, especially if it's not like something you're used to doing and so I would love it if you can kind of talk about all those challenges that come from developing a product from scratch, and then this this process of prototyping and testing and iterating, and it can be super intense, so I'd love it if you could kind of chat about like what's that process been like for you?
05:53 Jonaie Johnson
Yeah, so definitely it's been a process. It's been an entire planning process for me, especially as a young founder, so I kind of jumped into a lot of something that I wasn't familiar with, but definitely was able to surround myself with a lot of mentors and advisors who've been able to guide me, but what I can say, you definitely need a growth mindset as you're going through this process, 'cause as you mentioned there's gonna be a lot of iterations, a lot of different testing, is gonna be a lot of failures and things that you're gonna have to pivot from. Your initial brainstorm might not work, but you can still get it to work. You just have to continue building it out and kind of testing. It could be great until you get to that kind of final, I guess, MVP or version that you're ready to actually release to users and feel comfortable when they get it in their hands and then hopefully that's the version that you can go to market with, after some final tests, but we've been a complete testimony to that 'cause I actually started out as a dog crate so we were building out the crates and everything and had all of the components built into the crate. We had a nice unique design for the crate itself, but then of course as I continue progressing and look towards scaling and manufacturing, I realize that the pricing would be astronomical and something that I did not even wanna bring to my customers at all. So I realized that it would be more feasible and scalable as we look to penetrate the market.
07:07 Lorien Clemens
Yeah, coming up with that MVP and then thinking like okay I gotta think long-term and I love the words that you know, feasible and scalable, that's like one of the questions that we're always saying like, okay, yeah, we did this in one. It looks awesome but seriously we have to make thousands and thousands of these. Is that going to be something we can do? And then you got things like shipping and all those kind of things and so now I guess what I'm understanding is it's a standalone product that you can put into any kind of crate?
07:33 Jonaie Johnson
Yeah, so right now we're targeting more of those wired -- the standard crate that you see more popular in homes -- with a black kind of fence design. That's what it is most compatible with now that we've done testing with, but we're also working towards getting other types of crates as well to see if our product can work with that too.
07:52 Lorien Clemens
Oh, that's fantastic 'cause there's a lot of really unique designs out there for crates and it would be super awesome if you could find a way to integrate with some of this really cutting edge crate companies too. I think that that would be fantastic. So is it battery operated? Is it plug-in? Like how does the mechanics of it work?
08:11 Jonaie Johnson
Yeah so right now it's plug-in. One of the prototypes were battery operated but then as we continue kind of building it out and like going through the process we realize that it would be a lot easier to have it just as the plug-in on our end, and also probably the consumers end as well so they didn't have to continue worried about charging it and such and we realize that with this unit they probably won't move it much. So a plug-in would be ideal.
08:35 Lorien Clemens
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I mean other than -- the only thing that with plugins devices that we have here are is making sure that our cat doesn't chew on them -- but you know once you've dealt with that issue, I think it can be great. Now I know that this kind of question is often proprietary, but can you chat a little bit about what's the future? What can we expect to see and when can we expect to see something come out?
08:57 Jonaie Johnson
Yeah so I'm planning to launch the Kickstarter at the end of May this year where we will be selling a product through presales, but of course, that's contingent upon because going through beta and selecting the manufacturer to work with and getting those timelines aligned with our timeline. So that's what I have today on the calendar. It could be sooner, could be slightly later, but I'm really confident in making sure that we do get that out in May.
09:23 Lorien Clemens
That's exciting. It's always like super thrilling, and when you do get that out, make sure you let us know 'cause we can always throw a link out on our social media and everything like that. So I'd love to just -- i'm imagining that people that are listening are curious, wanna know a little bit about you -- so you mentioned you came up with this idea In high school?
09:39 Jonaie Johnson
09:40 Lorien Clemens
And I mean I know you're a young whippersnapper, you don't have to tell me your exact age, but you know -- But how long have you been working on this, and is this your full-time gig? Or is this something that is just a passion play for you and you're still, you know, going to school or doing other things?
09:54 Jonaie Johnson
Yeah so I love that question, so thankfully I made sure that entrepreneurship. So while I was working on projects throughout class, I was able to use my company as an idea and kind of something that I could work on so I was able to get a lot of feedback from professors and such and also get credits for working on my company as well. So that was an advantage there, but I recently graduated in May of 2021, but I did graduate early in three years.
10:22 Lorien Clemens
10:23 Jonaie Johnson
So that kind of tells my age there a little bit, but I started working on it in 2019. That's officially when I started working heavy on Interplay -- is when I was accepted into the E-Scholars program at UAC (University of Missouri Kansas City) and what that program is, they essentially help you take your company from the idea stage to a viable proposition by the time you end the program. So I went through the program twice and that really set the foundation for not only where I am with my company in terms of getting everything in line from our marketing plan, financial projections, and such, our pitch deck together, but also entering the entrepreneur ecosystem here in Kansas City. So they really played a key role for me to be able to get involved in that manner there. So from that, once I graduated and completed the E-Scholar program, I was actually selected as the 2020 UMKC Student Entrepreneur of the Year there. So that was always a fun and exciting achievement there. And post-graduation I was a product management intern at H&R Block and then from there immediately after the internship I was fortunate enough to land a position as a program manager at my current role, Launch Code. So that's what I do full time, but I also am heavy at working on Interplay too. I feel like it's almost two full-time jobs as interplay starts to pick up, but right now I'll say it's part-time, but I am looking to hopefully make that transition to full-time to Interplay once we do have a successful Kickstarter campaign in May.
11:49 Lorien Clemens
I love it. Can you talk a little bit about, I mean, you're young, you're female, talk a little bit about like are there any challenges that you have had that you're like, people maybe don't take you seriously?
12:00 Jonaie Johnson
Oh yeah they definitely -- oh I love this question -- because in the beginning for me when I was coming to one of my advisors, one of my advisors that's helped me along this way, she initially didn't want to work with me because she viewed my company as a school project, so she said it was a little school project and she wasn't really sure, you know, if it will go anywhere, and then also told me essentially not to quit my day job or drop out or anything, and not to put all my eggs in one basket there. So although that was a little demotivating for me at the time, 'cause you know this is someone I'm looking to give me advice for the company but she told me this is something that I probably shouldn't, you know, focus too heavy on but it did also give me kind of a lot of fuel to my flame there 'cause I'm like, you know what? This is something I'm actually serious about. This isn't just a hobby for me. This is something that I do see me bringing into fruition later down the road and I just really wanted to surround myself by people who saw that vision as well. But I know one major challenge for me was being a non-tech founder, a solo founder, working on a tech-heavy product that's IoT, that includes both software and hardware. So of course I couldn't have just an easy entry or keep this simplified as I enter the tech space. I came in as complex as possible with combining both software and hardware, so I'm learning both ends while working to try to make sure this product is launched on the market, but I've been fortunate enough to have a team -- a development team -- and also a hardware team who have not only been working with me despite, you know, my age and usefulness, and believing in the vision, but also kind of teaching me and guiding me and providing me with advice and insight along the way rather than just building out, they're explaining what they're doing, how they're doing it, and why they're doing what they're doing. So that's been extremely helpful for me as I enter the tech space.
13:48 Lorien Clemens
You're a lot like me in that like every time somebody says, you know, maybe you shouldn't be doing this. Maybe you don't belong here, I'm like, oh okay, watch me. Because I know when I first came on to PetHub and you know I was the only woman in the room. I remember very succinctly, sitting in a room in Issaquah, WA. And all these guys that were, you know, from Microsoft and Amazon and had been all these, you know, super high tech positions that were part of building the initial part of PetHub and I would say something and they would be like, yeah you just don't understand Lorien and they would try to talk over me and I kept stopping them and saying wait, you know I'm a part of this.
14:26 Jonaie Johnson
14:27 Lorien Clemens
and just kept, you know, bulldogging forward as it were, and keep at it, because now I'm the CEO, you know, and so it's one of those things. Keep at it and I also -- I gotta say -- just I'm thrilled to get to talk to young folks like you. It's a lot different than it was back in the day when I was in college and getting started out, especially for young women. Let's be honest. To get into that space, really, it was so difficult to get anybody to take you seriously and I love that you are out there and you're making it happen. Talk a little bit about the future of pet ownership and how you feel like Interplay can fit in there.
15:10 Jonaie Johnson
Oh, I love this question because there's so many different things like interplay Playtach is just the entry point and the beginning of what I have planned and what all Interplay could do within the near future because as pet ownership continues to rise, and we see the spike with the Covid, and I think it's gonna continue to grow from there and we're transitioning from where people are viewing, you know, their dogs or pets as, kind of, especially the idea that pets belong outdoors, or you know leaving the dog house out in the yard, and starting to bring them in the home. Kind of loving them like their own child. So as we transition from that and we evolved to the more so humanization of pets. I think it's so much we can do with Interplay and kind of tapping into that market of the humanization of dogs and just really making it easier for the pet parents to interact and care for their dogs and stay connected to their pet along the way and throughout their pet ownership journey. So as pet ownership continues to rise, I see Interplay rising as well.
16:07 Lorien Clemens
That's awesome, alright tell people -- now I know you don't have a product out yet -- but I'm sure there's a lot of people that are listening like, okay, I wanna see where this goes. So they're gonna wanna follow you and they're gonna wanna, you know, when your Kickstarter comes out they're definitely gonna want to check it out. So tell people how they can learn more about you.
16:22 Jonaie Johnson
Definitely, so if you're interested in learning more about Interplay, you can visit our website at www.gointerplay.com and follow us on Instagram and Facebook @gointerplay and Twitter @gointerplay1. So that's where we post and keep our followers updated on the latest development of our product and the newest update. So especially even when you go on the website I encourage you to subscribe because the people who are subscribed are the first ones to know about the latest updates and also when we officially launched and then they even received some perks as well.
16:54 Lorien Clemens
That's exciting. Well, and I can't wait till you get launched, soon as you do get launched, come back and chat with us here at PetHub and we'll see about getting you some airtime there as well. Thank you so much for coming on the show today Joanie it's just been really exciting to get to hear about you and your journey, and I'm a big fan, and I can't wait to see where this goes, and more importantly, where you go because I have a feeling you are a rising star in the pet and tech industry and I'm looking forward to watching that journey.
17:19 Jonaie Johnson
Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure.
17:22 Lorien Clemens
And everybody I am going to remind you where you can go if you're interested in learning more about Interplay, Head on over to their website www.gointerplay.com. That's gointerplay.com and they're also on all of your favorite social media platforms. Thank you so much for tuning in. This has been Pet Lover Geek powered by PetHub.