Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our November/December 2016 issue. Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.
You never know what your hobby can turn into. Milia Bell started out making hand-knit cat toys in her spare time to sell at farmers markets and gift shows. Her handmade Tickle Pickles — green knit tubes stuffed with organic catnip — were a huge hit. It wasn’t long until wholesale orders started coming in from pet supply stores wanting to carry the products. Milia quickly found herself running a full-scale business, which she called Tipsy Nip.
As orders increased, Milia started looking for a manufacturer to knit the tubes. Her goal was to keep all manufacturing in the U.S., so she found a U.S.-based factory to produce the tubes. The toys are then hand-stuffed and finished in the Tipsy Nip studio in Vermont.
Milia ran Tipsy Nip for a few years as she continued to work full time in marketing for a local nonprofit. In 2012, she exhibited the Tickle Pickles at her first trade show, and everything changed. She established 25 new wholesale accounts, and business boomed. A year later, Milia took the leap and made Tipsy Nip her full-time job.
Tipsy Nip started with just a handful of products, the original 8-inch Tickle Pickle, the 12-inch XL Tickle Pickle, and the Tickle Gherkins, a tiny version of the Tickle Pickle that cats and kittens absolutely adore. Milia started experimenting with different blends of catnip and herbs to expand the product line. There are now five new Tickle Pickles: Purple Haze (catnip and valerian root), Calm Kitty Chamomile (cat nip and chamomile), Black Magic (catnip and licorice root), and Laughin’ Lemongrass (catnip and lemongrass).
Milia most enjoys creating new products she knows cats will love. For this year’s holiday season she created a Holiday Jingle Tickle Pickle, a red catnip-stuffed pickle with a jingle bell inside. All new products are vigorously tested by Charlie, the Tipsy Nip quality control director and Milia’s sole co-worker on most days. Milia for more, visit tipsynip.com ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼won’t sell anything that she doesn’t feel 100 percent comfortable giving to Charlie, and everything must have his approval.
Before Charlie, Milia had many other cats in her life, and her business definitely grew out of her love for them. “I think Tipsy Nip began because I needed to find a way to express my love of all cats,” she said. “In my experience, people who love cats want and need to find a way to express that love. You just want to make them as happy as they make you.”
Over the years, Milia has learned that it’s important to focus on your strengths. In addition to the Tickle Pickles, Milia designed a line of interactive cat toys made from wood, hemp, and cork, as a way to expand her offerings. The new toys didn’t sell as well as the original Tickle Pickle; in fact, they were detracting from the brand. Milia eventually dropped the line and focused solely on the Tickle Pickles. This is a good business lesson: Even if you have a great idea, it’s important to assess the idea in the context of your overall business and make sure you’re concentrating efforts on the most successful ideas.
Milia believes strongly that businesses have a responsibility to give back to the community that supports them. Tipsy Nip has worked with several organizations serving feline communities that need the most help. The company raised money and awareness for Black Cat Rescue in Boston through a special promotion of
the Black Magic Tickle Pickle and recently teamed up with My Cat Kyle to raise awareness about the need for animal-friendly domestic violence shelters. One-hundred percent of the proceeds from sales of the #CatsAgainstDV Tickle Pickle are donated to URIPALS, a New York City-based organization providing domestic violence safe houses that accommodate families and their pets.
What does the future hold for Tipsy Nip? Milia hopes to expand into international markets so cats everywhere can feel the Tickle Pickle love. Import/export regulations can make it difficult to get botanical matter, like catnip, into other countries, but Tipsy Nip is now being sold in Dubai where it is enjoyed by Emirati cats.
About the author: Kate Benjamin is the founder of the popular cat style blog Hauspanther.com. She specializes in helping people live stylishly with cats. You may have seen her on Jackson Galaxy’s show My Cat From Hell. Make sure to check out Kate and Jackson’s books Catification: Designing a Happy and Stylish Home for Your Cat (and You!) and Catify to Satisfy: Simple Solutions for Creating a Cat-friendly Home.