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The cult of the 14-year-old doggy entrepreneur

Brook presenting at Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge Credit: Discovery Education

iCPooch — presented at last week’s Geekwire summit — is Skype for your dog, but with cookies. Not spyware but, like, real cookies that you can deliver to your Fido via the internet. Now, there are two things you must come to terms with about iCPooch: that it could actually, maybe work and that it was invented by a 14-year-old.

Okay? Let’s move on.

Brooke Martin, inventor of iCPooch, does not sound 14. When she called me from her Spokane home, she thanked me for my time; when I mentioned how impressed I was by her Geekwire talk, she said she was “just trying to inspire young people.” She uses words like entrepreneurial and humbling. She thanks her supporters. Look at her face and you see a high-school sophomore; watch her body language and you see the 30-something founder of a startup.

iCPooch was inspired by Brooke’s golden retriever Kayla, whom Brooke diagnosed as having separation anxiety. “We’d be getting ready to leave and she’d be running all over the house, carrying our shoes around,” says Brooke. So, Brooke thought of our own cure for separation anxiety — video chatting. Logical enough, although dogs don’t have the same tolerance for glitchy video feeds. Enter the cookies.

For $100, you get a plastic, treat dispenser with a computer inside so that it can connect to your home wi-fi. After downloading the iCPooch app on two different tablet/smartphone devices, you place one device on the face of the dispenser and the other in your pocket. Next, fill the dispenser with snacks and off to work or dinner or vacation you go! When you get worried about your pooch, you can beam into the room and call it over. Then, push the “Drop Cookie” button and out it pops. Brooke sees iCPooch extending to cats (yeah, okay), candy for your kids (well, maybe) and “even giving pills to your Grandma” (hmm…).

In its first two months of retail, iCPooch has sold 400 units. What’s more impressive, however, is Brooke’s exposure. At Spokane’s Start Up Weekend — a business workshop and competition — she received a standing ovation and first place. On Kickstarter, she raised almost $30,000. She was the only exhibitor under 16 at the Global Pet Expo in Orlando. She’s been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, featured on NPR, Fox Business and NBC, and celebrated in pet publications nationwide. Next week, Brooke will travel to New York to speak at the Purina “Better with Pets” summit. People love iCPooch.

Unless, of course, they just love Brooke.

She has certainly tapped into a relevant and exploitable trend: We love our dogs, but don’t have time for them. According to the Humane Society, 47 percent of American households own an average of 1.6 dogs. This puts us well into first place for dogs per capita. And yet, Yelp alone lists over 100 doggie daycares between Edmonds and Burien — pretty close to the number of actual daycares. In the world of PetSmarts and Petcos and Mud Bay, people are willing to spend on their pets — the pet industry fetched $55 billion last year. One can imagine a place for iCPooch on their shelves.

But, without Brooke and without viral videos, does iCPooch still exist? At 14, Brooke is a young, articulate, business woman (girl?). She’s poised on stage and answers questions easily. She is, without a doubt, magnetic. Now picture a Capitol Hill hipster or man in a suit pitching iCPooch and it’s not so interesting.

Indeed, there is no media on iCPooch that isn’t Brooke-centric. During last week’s Geekwire summit, T-Mobile CEO John Legere was floored by Brooke: “Give me a break. iCPooch. I mean, kids, dogs. You shitting me. I was pissed right then. I was trying to call in sick. I was saying there is no freakin’ way I am going in after that genius.” But, Mr. Legere, are you actually interested in an iCPooch device for your furry friend?

I asked Brooke what the hardest part of iCPooch has been and she said balance. “It’s homecoming this weekend, but I’m going to New York to speak,” the regret in her voice lingering for just a second before she caught herself: “but it’s such a great opportunity and I’m so grateful.”

Yes, it is a great opportunity for her. But it also must be confusing: Should she be a business prodigy with a great idea or a 14 year old who’d rather go to homecoming? Can she be both? It’s a question for her fans as well: Do we like her or her product? In the end, it really boils down to one thing: Are we more obsessed with neat kids or our dogs?

iCPooch will tell us in time.

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