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Raise the woof

At Planet Dog, business is a creative romp

Dog water
Planet Dog often relies on dogs -- many of them owned by employees -- to test out products.

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Maine
Retail

(CNN) -- This company has clearly gone to the dogs, and the canines -- not to mention their owners and the business itself -- couldn't be happier.

Dogs dominate the Portland, Maine, headquarters of Planet Dog. Co-founders Alex Fisher and Stew Maloney say the furry co-workers keep the human employees refreshed, make it easy to test products and reflect the business's fun, free-thinking philosophy.

"We are always empowering people to just let it out, let's think outside the box," Fisher said. "And as long as you have enough different, unique personalities around the table, I think we're always free to be crazy."

A passion for pets, and a knack for business, has helped Planet Dog establish a strong presence in its industry. Today, the company's toys, bones, leashes, beds and more can be purchased online, at independent retailers and via national chain stores such as Petco, Petsmart and Eddie Bauer.

According to Fisher, who has designed many Planet Dog products, understanding the dogs' point of view -- preferably ones that like to play and chomp -- is central to success.

"These things are designed with dogs' teeth in mind," he said of the company's signature item, the Orbee ball. "Not only are they durable, they float, they bounce, they're peppermint scented. Dogs just love them."

After a few start-up years in debt, the company now breaks even and projects to amass considerable profits in the coming years, according to Fisher and Maloney.

Planet Dog aspires to stand out in the corporate world, in which profit sheets sometimes take precedence over personality, by stressing its unique business culture and worldview as much as its bottom line.

Maloney singles out Ben & Jerry's, Patagonia, Tom's of Maine and Stoneyfield Farm as inspirations for Planet Dog, companies defined as much by their culture as their products.

"We respected them because their businesses were all about social responsibility and quality products," he said. "We wanted to model ourselves around those great businesses."

'Fun to ride the wave'

The "big bang" moment for Planet Dog came in 1997, when friends Fisher and Maloney started sketching out ideas for a business. One hundred cocktail napkins later, the company was born as a dog-centric retailer with an altruistic edge.

"The dog thing seemed to be the most fun and have the most potential," said Fisher. "The market seemed to be really fairly large and growing, with lots of voids."

Early on, the two were the entire company -- conceiving and creating products, as well as seeking out venues in which to sell them.

"Our working relationship in the early days was all about the dialogue between us," Maloney. recalled. "We weren't afraid to say stupid things, and we weren't afraid of criticism. It was like a tennis-match dialogue, back and forth."

Dog jumps
Dogs are a big part of the business -- and the fun -- at Planet Dog.

As Planet Dog grew, its co-founders tried to keep the atmosphere creative. Fisher said he and other employees still routinely throw out new ideas, testing them on their colleagues and, in time, their colleagues' dogs.

"There's no such thing as a bad idea," said Fisher. "It has really helped us sort of really be creative and different. And I think that's what drives our business."

Today, Planet Dog has 40 to 50 employees, depending on the season, and is looking into moving into a new, larger campus.

Besides exploring business opportunities, such as partnerships with large chains like Target, the company recently opened a flagship store of its own in Portland. Maloney says the shop gives Planet Dog an opportunity to hear directly from customers and share Planet Dog philanthropy -- focusing on the environment, animal welfare and education -- with the Portland community.

"It's just so much fun to ride that wave," he added of the company's growth. "It's exciting, and it makes me want to get up and come in to work everyday."

Fisher says that the considerable challenges involved in starting up a company strengthened Planet Dog in the long run. He says that he looks forward to continued growth but does not want to lose the company's free-wheeling culture in the process.

"That's our greatest challenge: to continue to introduce newer and different and better and more durable and more interesting and better-smelling whatever it is, new products, to the market," said Fisher.

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