A business owner at 13 and a high school graduate at 16, Ellee Crawford knows a thing or two about setting goals high and working hard to achieve them.
“I officially started Small Pets and Company when I was 13 but only sold a few products here and there,” said Crawford, who enrolled in her first class at College of DuPage as a 15-year-old high school freshman. “It took a LOT of work to get very few sales, and I actually gave up for about a year but then came back to it and kept at it.”
Small Pets and Company produces reusable cage liners. The liners wick the pets’ urine into an absorbent layer to keep the animals dry and their cages from smelling.
“I was fortunate to have a passion, knowledge and some expertise around rabbits and guinea pigs,” Crawford said. “I had a sick rabbit that needed a better solution for bedding. I created a ridiculous solution, but it helped in my situation. Then I realized that companies sell much better cage liners online. I kept changing and adapting my product until I was able to take it to the market. Then I had to figure out how to compete against individuals and companies that had been selling for several years. It really took off in early 2016.”
Today her liners sell on Amazon and she uses a manufacturer to make them.
Crawford began attending COD full time in fall 2016 as a Business major, and she won the inaugural Pitch Contest sponsored by COD’s Entrepreneurship Club and E2 Emerging Entrepreneurs Mentoring program. She used the $1,000 prize to help fund her business.
“My time at COD contributed to my success in allowing me to explore my interest in entrepreneurship and get a solid foundation. I also had the opportunity to be an officer for the Entrepreneurship Club, which is a great way to connect with like-minded students who are working on their own businesses.”
She credited Assistant Professor Peter James with linking her to the College’s Business program.
“His entrepreneurship course is one of the best and most applicable courses I took at COD,” she said.
Armed with that knowledge, she has used it to formulate strategies for moving her business forward.
“Something that I do every day is to always push back,” she said. “There are so many situations that I run into where at the surface, something doesn’t seem doable, but by researching more, talking to someone else or attempting to do it anyway, I’ll find out that it was totally an option after all.”
Crawford also had to learn how to deal with the inevitable doubt all entrepreneurs face at certain points in their endeavors. “There were many days that I felt discouraged and lost hope based on sales for a particular day or week, sometimes even a few months,” she said. “But when I looked back, I saw progress.”
She said she struggles with being so engrossed in her business that she “forgets to have balance in my life and I get temporarily burned out.”
“In order to avoid that, I try to remember that entrepreneurship is all about learning. Yes, it’s so fun at times and it can feel so exhilarating. But whether I had an amazing day of sales or didn’t sell a single product that day, at the end of the day if I learned something, I was successful.”
Her advice to other young people looking to go into business for themselves?
“I think it’s important to be happy with your work and proud of your product or service, but it’s even more important to research first and find a gap in the market that you can fill. Figure out where your expertise and passions are needed and go from there. What worked best for me was to make decisions very quickly and adapt even faster. When I first started selling cage liners, I realized that it is a very difficult industry to enter. The only way to not disappear in a marketplace that competitive is to be the better option for the customer.”
Crawford continues to look for ways to improve her product and production. For example, she flew to China and visited factories for two weeks in order to add new product lines to Small Pets and Company. She also redesigned her cage liner to be both the most durable and aesthetically-pleasing cage liner in the industry.
Now at Northern Illinois University finishing her degree in marketing, she is also pursuing other passions. For example, she became a Certified Personal Trainer and coaches a group fitness class at F45 Training in Geneva.
With so much business experience at such a young age, she is contemplating her future path.
“It’s crazy to think that literally thousands of small animals have one of my cage liners in their habitat. Every once in a while I will see a photo posted of a customer’s guinea pig or rabbit with their new cage liner, and it makes me so happy.
“I am working on prototypes for new product lines and I just want to see how far I can take Small Pets and Company. I am so fulfilled and driven by the highs and lows of entrepreneurship and the whole journey in general. My goal is to own businesses for the rest of my life and not work for someone else.”