Being an entrepreneur consists of living out of your comfort zone 100% of the time. Leadership, taking risks, having flexibility, and bravery are musts, every day, for years, and even decades. If that sounds unsustainable or too uncomfortable, then you should probably find something else to do.
In the world of business and within every industry, there are forward-thinking leaders who go against the status quo and find success. Their courage to take risks, embrace innovation, and inspire collaboration separates them from the competition. Until 2002, Apple’s famous slogan was “Think Different”. This attitude likely helped them become one of the most successful organizations in history. This interview series aims to showcase visionary leaders and their “status quo-breaking” approach to doing business. As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erica Messer.
Erica Messer is the owner and founder of Wolfie’s Wish. Wolfie’s Wish award-winning Pet Loss Grieving Cards are the first of their kind. They contain affirmations designed to facilitate healing with simple daily practices.
After the sudden passing of her beloved fur baby, Wolfgang, Erica couldn’t find a product to help her cope so she decided to create her own. Thus, the Pet Loss Grieving Cards were developed and Wolfie’s Wish was born. Erica’s grieving cards won “Best New Product: at the SuperZoo tradeshow and she has been featured on numerous podcast and most recently ABC News in San Francisco.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Wolfie’s Wish was started because of the intense grief I felt after I lost my cat, Wolfgang, to a tragic accident. I had taken a sabbatical from my music career as a harpist. In February 2020 my husband and I moved from California to Munich, Germany to enjoy the travel opportunities and European culture. One week after our move, the country was shut down due to Covid. We adopted Wolfgang that May and he quickly became my new best friend. Words can’t express how deep of a bond we shared. His antics amused both my husband and I. He especially helped me emotionally while I was adjusting to a new country where I knew very few people and was shut indoors. Sadly, Wolfgang died suddenly in a tragic accident that occurred when a window was mistakenly left open by a friend visiting from the United States. It was the worst shock of my life. I was unable to find therapeutic cards or books to help me process the intense feelings of loss and grief. In the thick of grief and mourning, I asked myself how does one choose the right book? How much must be read to feel better? This led me to develop my own sayings, affirmations, and phrases, pulled from my experiences and through meditation. When I shared what I was doing with my mom, she encouraged me to make the thing I couldn’t find — pet loss affirmation cards. This became the start of Wolfie’s Wish Grieving Cards.
My backstory is that I grew up in Tallahassee, Florida and studied music from the age of three. I was in a program with older children and started with learning piano and then harp. Music was the only thing that did not get me into trouble! I was terrible at paying attention or completing anything assigned to me (homework, chores, etc.). I never really saw myself doing anything other than music because I just wasn’t good at anything else. I was a “daydreamer”. I got an orchestra scholarship and then later went into graphic design post-college to, you know, make a living! I moved to California where I met my husband, started teaching and performing harp, and became the proud parent of two cats.
Can you give us a glimpse into your journey into this industry and share a story about one of the most significant challenges you faced when you first started out? How did you end up resolving that challenge?
Well, losing my cat the way that I did was the most significant and difficult challenge of my life. Deciding to build a company around my grief and personal experience to help others was a challenge because I came from a music and art background. I have a college degree and an advanced certificate in graphic design, but no experience with running a business other than playing wedding gigs and teaching harp. Asking questions, finding mentors, watching YouTube tutorials, simple determination, and resourcefulness gave me the confidence to succeed despite my doubts.
At first, I didn’t know if it was a good idea. I worried people would think it was silly. My friends and family were supportive, but it was masked with their care and concern for me coping with loss and trauma. Still, I couldn’t shake all these questions flooding my mind. I thought maybe there was a reason why there are no pet loss products. Surely, someone did research and decided this was not a good idea. However, a part of me thought, what if no one has thought of this or has never pursued it? It couldn’t hurt to try.
I didn’t have a business plan, a team, or the capital to start Wolfie’s Wish, so I explained my idea on GoFundMe and later, Kickstarter. I met my funding goals within a week. It was overwhelming emotionally to see how generous people I barely knew (or didn’t know) pledged. In both cases, that was my litmus test.
The next major challenge was product recognition. As the sole employee without a big advertising budget, I had to find creative ways to promote Wolfie’s Wish. Social media has been huge. Not a day has gone by in the last two years that I haven’t turned to social media in some way to promote Wolfie’s Wish. I speak at local schools and seek as many media opportunities as possible to promote the company. In fact, I just wrapped up a month-long tour of pet-focused trade shows in the U.S. As sales have grown so has recognition of the Wolfie’s Wish brand. I am at a huge turning point in the business.
Who has been the most significant influence in your business journey, and what is the most significant lesson or insight you have learned from them?
I saw my Dad be an entrepreneur his whole life. He tried multiple things and ultimately found a new and very successful path in the late 1990s by selling domain name traffic to internet browsers. I saw him shift from a flooring business to buying a computer, taking a typing class, taking over my bedroom, and staying up all night to research domains and build his current business, Nett Corp. He was creative, took risks, and never gave up. He cites persistence as his key to success. I value that a lot. It also taught me that I don’t have to have permission to do something new or different. I don’t have to use someone else’s formula for success.
My mom encouraged me to share the tools that were working for me and make the product (Wolfie’s Wish Grieving Cards) that I could not find when I was grieving. She consistently reminds me that I need to acknowledge my progress, even when it’s not linear. She’s my biggest cheerleader and helper. For example, we started out with her doing all our order fulfillment from the garage.
Can you share a story about something specific that happened early on that you would consider a failure but ended up being a blessing in disguise or ended up being one of the most valuable lessons you had to learn on your own?
Well, a dream without a plan is just a dream. I had to surround myself with people who knew more than I did and could guide me in the right direction. I mostly winged it for the first 18 months of my business. I see how valuable it is to have a solid business, marketing, financial plan, and to do market research FIRST, but this product just wanted to be born and so I did everything backwards! I could have failed without getting a mentor to guide me. I had friends and family backing me up from day one so that got me off to a good start. They also helped me identify where my weaknesses were and how to overcome them. I am very adaptable and have had an “all-in” mentality from day one.
Let’s shift our focus to the core of this interview about ‘Successful Rule Breakers’. Why did you decide to “break the rules”? Early on, did you identify a particular problem or issue in how businesses in your industry generally operated? What specifically compelled you to address this and want to do things differently? Please share how you went about implementing those changes and the impact they had.
After searching for support materials and other support mechanisms (like pet grief support groups) to help deal with my loss, it was clear that society diminishes pet loss grief. This frustrated me and made me both angry and sad. The issue wasn’t how businesses operated; it was that they did not operate in the realm of pet loss grief at all. Rather, there are a handful of voluntary programs — primarily on social media. There are some professional organizations too, but you must dig around to find them. I believe there SHOULD be comprehensive and consistent programs for pet loss grief support provided by businesses involved in animal welfare. This includes pet insurance companies, pet food companies, pet subscription companies, veterinary medicine, and crematories, GLOBALLY. If someone is suffering, they aren’t going to extensively search the internet to look for solutions. I know this because that’s what I had to do, and it was exhausting and frustrating. That’s why I built a free resource page on Wolfieswish.com to help nudge people in the right direction. Not everyone grieves the same way, so I try to offer a variety of solutions.
I thought my situation was unique, but when a professional pet loss counselor told me that I was normal, it made me want to do something about the conversations, beliefs, or “rules” around grief and loss, especially for pets. It is tolerable to mourn the loss of a human, but “it was just a pet” is unfortunately a common phrase, at least in America. There should be paid time off for pet bereavement and support in places like colleges, human resource departments, and community programs. Pet loss grief is nothing to be ashamed of nor should it be belittled. It is a very serious matter that needs to be addressed now.
In the ever-changing business landscape, how exactly do you decide when to adhere to industry norms versus “breaking the rules” and forging your own way? Can you share an example?
I am a natural rebel, so I got really excited to dive into this and make a change.
I had some experience differentiating myself from other classically trained harpists as a harpist/singer/DJ for weddings and corporate events in the San Francisco Bay Area. I created my own niche.
Instead of investing in extensive market research and focus groups before going to market, I made my first products and went straight to international tradeshows. It was there that I was able to talk to many business owners, show my products to international buyers, and get feedback in a very short amount of time. After all, it would take years to build a direct-to-consumer model and I was not going to make a big difference in selling one-offs on Etsy and telling my friends on Facebook. This was also never going to be a part-time hobby for me. Luckily, since I was on a break from my music career, I had the time and energy to pursue forming Wolfie’s Wish.
Two months after printing the Wolfie’s Wish Grieving Card decks in bulk, I entered my first trade show in Germany, Interzoo. Honestly, in hindsight, I cannot believe I did that. This is a massive trade show with several enormous trade show halls full of every type of pet product, service, and brand. The feedback was wonderful. The businesses and attendees loved my first products which included card decks of 30 cards, each with daily practices to assist in coping with emotions and facilitate healing. I had two different deck designs and an illustrated book I wrote about pet loss. They even wanted the products in THEIR respective languages.
The feedback was also helpful for my personal healing. It was such a relief to know that I was not the only one who thought grief support products were needed.
The Germany trade show led to my decision to enter Superzoo, the largest international pet trade show in the United States. I needed to test the US market and be successful there to grow internationally. Superzoo had a separate category and show area for new products, which was where I exhibited. To my complete shock and amazement, the card decks won a Best New Product Award! The organizers shared with me that no one had ever shown up as a new business AND taken home a best new product award. They said we were already a legend.
These experiences gave me the initial motivation and belief to keep pushing forward. I also rely on various forms of social media, word of mouth, radio interviews, affiliated television interviews, and podcasts to build the business and broaden its reach. This has allowed me a way to help others and enforce the validity and importance of addressing pet loss.
What guidance or insight can you offer to new entrepreneurs trying to follow existing and accepted industry norms while at the same time trying to differentiate themselves in the marketplace?
If you’re going to do something differently, you’re going to do everything differently.
One of my mentors got me to review my vision and mission statement. This statement is crucial as a launching point. It becomes a compass. She encouraged me every day to wake up with these two things clear in my mind before starting my day. This will BE the market differentiator because no two businesses will be alike if they start with this practice first.
Here is the main question of our interview. To make an impact, you have to champion change, get creative, and take risks. Please think back about the decisions you’ve made that have helped your business get to where it is today, and share your top 5 strategies or decisions that helped you succeed by doing things differently. If you can, please share a story or example for each.
1 . Go with your gut! In addition, it is a good practice to surround yourself with at least five people who won’t just tell you what you want to hear and have a different background than you. They can provide you with valuable feedback. However, make sure those people have been successful in their own realm and that they support your mission and vision. Are they excited for you and encourage you to be your best? Then respect and treat those people like the gems that they are.
2 . Hire an attorney and get your legal ducks in a tight row. Make sure that everyone you talk business to has signed an NDA. Even still, don’t let all your cats out of the proverbial bag too soon.
3. Being an entrepreneur consists of living out of your comfort zone 100% of the time. Leadership, taking risks, having flexibility, and bravery are musts, every day, for years, and even decades. If that sounds unsustainable or too uncomfortable, then you should probably find something else to do.
4 . Don’t risk what you can’t afford to lose. I didn’t borrow money for the first two years. I fundraised, cashed out retirement and savings, and sold harps — (yup, I had more than one). All at small, steady intervals. Knowing I was spending my own money made me cautious and discerning of what it was for. Mentorship, tradeshows, branding, and legal were my big investments. Most people get business loans, but I had to test the waters first with my idea. I knew I could and would work again to replenish those resources if I had to. I believed so much in what I was doing that personal money became insignificant. I showed up every day, ready to rock n’ roll. I walked up to people and even cold-called businesses and shops. I would walk up to tables at tradeshows and introduce myself. I dropped off samples everywhere I went. I remember my first retail order for a bookstore in Seaside, FL. My heart was thumping in my ears when I went in to speak to the manager. This was more than a business deal, this was putting my heart on a platter and serving it cold. But without hesitation, she put in an order. If you talk to 10 people, maybe only one will say yes, but that one will take you just a little farther toward success. Talk to everyone you meet and remember WHY you are doing what you are doing. It makes all the difference in how you interact with people.
5 . Changing subconscious patterns and old beliefs is a must for progress. Change the way you think and the whole world changes. Do you have self-improvement as part of your strategy? No one is perfect. Making changes to the external world is only possible by pushing your own boundaries as well. If you are going to challenge an idea, belief, or practice, are you BEING that change? I think they go together. If you accomplish small personal goals and improvements, it gives confidence and courage to make changes in business.
Or, rather, number 5 is about carving time out for yourself, friends, and family to avoid burnout and make sure you enjoy the process — win or lose. I work 7 days a week, but Fridays are my art days when I go into my studio or take a class (I also offer pet portraiture). On Sundays, I turn off my phone after an initial check in the morning. Doing these two things is like opening a pressure valve in my brain.
As a leader, how do you rally others to align with your vision? Also, how do you identify those who may not be fully committed or even silently sabotaging or
undermining your efforts? What steps do you take to address these situations?
The right people come to me. Someone offered to help me after seeing my posts improperly translated from English to German on Instagram. They soon earned my trust and respect which led them to become my “right-hand-man”. It is VERY easy to tell who gives a darn and who doesn’t. Working in the realm of grief and loss is not everyone’s bag. It makes most people uncomfortable. But it’s a must for working with Wolfie’s Wish because it’s a personal, emotional connection that our customers need. If we are not empathetic and understanding, we will lose them forever. I look for passion, enthusiasm, and willingness to learn in people that I work with over skillsets or education. Anyone can learn a skill, but you can’t teach passion, kindness, and drive.
Imagine we’re sitting down together two years from now, looking back at your company’s last 24 months. What specific accomplishments would have to happen for you to be happy with your progress?
It’s not a clear picture. It’s baby steps. Am I making progress? Am I keeping my goals, mission, and vision in mind? Was I better than yesterday? I would love to have a global team of passionate people working to promote pet loss grief awareness and solutions in two years. I would love to have some standards in place for addressing pet loss grief in the workplace and the pet industry. I would love to work with businesses that have a focus in pet insurance, pet food, pet subscription, veterinary medicine, and cremation. Specifically providing custom solutions for their clients while making sure that these solutions align with that business’s mission and vision. I would love for people of tremendous influence (like celebrities) to share their own experiences and solutions to pet loss grief. To interview pet loss counselors and dedicate time to helping people feel validated and know that there are solutions to help with the healing process. We tend to read about celebrities like Paris Hilton losing Baby Diamond or Seth Rogan’s loss of his fur baby Zelda. Though we don’t see many influencers expanding on their loss and sharing what support looks like. Pet loss happens to every human with a fur baby, it’s time to bring this conversation to the table and address the validity of this type of grief with ways to heal that grief. For example, Reagan Pasternak wrote Griffin’s Heart, a book about pet loss. She is someone like me who has spoken out about the unspeakable profound impacts of pet loss.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I want to eradicate the phrase “It was just a pet” from ever being spoken again. I want to see paid time off for pet bereavement in every workplace. I want to see that people have access to free mental health services.
How can our readers continue to follow you or your company online?
Wolfie’s Wish website
Thank you so much for sharing all of these insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
About the Interviewer: Chad Silverstein is an accomplished entrepreneur and visionary leader. He started his first company, Choice Recovery, Inc., while attending Ohio State University and grew it to become an industry outlier before selling the business after 25 successful years. With the launch of his second venture, [re]start, a career development platform, Chad aimed to help people find meaningful career opportunities. Under his leadership, his team was recognized as a “Top Workplace” award winner for over a decade, twice being ranked the #1 small and medium-sized business to work for in Central Ohio. Chad sold [re]start in 2023, enabling him to focus on building an online community of high-performing leaders and continuing to make a positive impact in people’s lives.