Address: 1712 E. Maple St., Maquoketa, Iowa.
MAQUOKETA, Iowa — Blue-9 Pet Products has a star employee, and he has four legs.
Cork, a red tri-merle Australian shepherd, is a frequent, furry face at the company’s Maquoketa headquarters, where he enjoys the perks of being canine companion to Blue-9 CEO and founder David Blake.
While the pup occasionally has been known to lift a paw for product testing, his main role is to look cute and boost morale.
“Cork loves it here. He’s like an old shop dog,” Blake said. “And of course, he loves the Blue-9 products.”
Blake started his pet product company in his garage in 2014 after years in the technology industry. He was looking to enter a maturing field full of passionate, friendly people, and he figured canine training tools would be a good option.
It all started with the Klimb, a training platform meant to curb negative behaviors and increase dogs’ focus. The elevated surface capitalizes on dogs’ evolutionary tendency to seek higher ground and provides a consistent spot to go when told.
Through positive reinforcement, Blake said, dogs learn to think of the Klimb as “their place.” Staying on the platform requires focus, which helps dogs learn to avoid distractions that could lead to negative behavior like a ringing doorbell or someone eating at the table.
“When you think back to the circus days, people were using platforms for all the animals and teaching them all sorts of tricks,” Blake said. “That was intriguing to me, so I went with it.”
Blake’s idea took off, and the company is now worth somewhere between $5 million and $10 million, and its headquarters occupies a 12,000-square-foot building in Maquoketa.
While the Klimb is still Blue-9’s “flagship product,” the company also sells several additional products such as inflatable training platforms, treat pouches and an adjustable harness meant to prevent leash pulling.
“Each of the additional products we’ve brought on has been made to solve a problem,” said Jamie Popper, Blue-9’s director of business development. “I really like to hit that home when I talk with pet owners.”
Most of the company’s sales take place online. Its products’ popularity is bolstered by partnerships with other recognized brands like American Kennel Club and Kong, and Blue-9 is now a well-recognized name in the dog-training industry.
Blue-9 employees also attend a variety of industry trade shows in the U.S. and abroad. Those events allow for rare face-to-face interaction with consumers where they can express what they like about certain products and what they’d like to see improved.
“Before COVID, we did 26 trade shows a year. We’re probably doing half that now, but things are ramping back up,” Blake explained. “It’s great to get in front of people to see what they’re looking for.”
Blue-9 moved from Blake’s garage to its current Maquoketa location in 2017, and it’s been expanded once since. The building acts as a headquarters and distribution hub while most of the manufacturing is done elsewhere.
The company has six full-time employees and several part-time workers. Its small size has allowed workers to become tight-knit, and the team eats lunch together at least once a week.
They’ve also planted a corporate garden at the Maquoketa location, which is harvested for group meals.
“I was always told growing up to pick your boss and not your job, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here with Dave (Blake),” said Tim Taylor, who oversees the company’s logistics and inventory. “It’s a very casual atmosphere here, and it makes it a lot easier to come to work.”
In addition to connecting with one another, Blue-9 staff also have made an effort to connect with the community surrounding the business.
Each July, the company hosts KLIMB Classic, a canine sports event held at the Jackson County Fairgrounds. Hundreds of dogs show up each year to participate in dock diving, Frisbee and other canine competitions.
Proceeds from the event are then given to the Jackson County Humane Society, a no-kill shelter in Maquoketa. The shelter also sets up a booth at the event each year to showcase its adoptable animals.
“They’ve been very generous with us over the years,” said Nick Meyer, humane society board president. “They’ve allowed us a platform to show off our animals, and they’ve been great in terms of donations.”
Looking forward, Blake hopes the company can continue to identify and create solutions-focused pet products. He also hopes to expand the company’s reach abroad, where it’s already established markets in places like Europe, Australia and Japan.
“Our tagline is ‘helping dogs succeed,’” Blake said. “… So we want to continue to grow that in the United States with new product development as well as outside the U.S. by identifying additional partners.”