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Tomofun co-founders Victor Chang and Maggie Cheung with their dog, Gobi, and the Furbo dog camera and treat dispenser. (Tomofun Photo)

Entrepreneur Victor Chang is going to let you in on the secret of how to rocket to Amazon’s top sellers list and land a promotional interview on a popular TV talk show: make sure your product is focused on solving a specific problem.

In his case, the challenge was lonely, home-alone pooches and the people who love them.

When Chang and his wife, Maggie Cheung, would leave their toy poodle, “he would give us the saddest puppy eyes,” said Chang, 31. “It would break our hearts.”

Victor Chang, co-founder and CEO of Tomofun.

So the couple decided to build a product that would allow dog owners to see their pets via a wide-angle camera, talk and listen to their animals, and launch them treats. In 2014 they founded Tomofun, a startup based in Bellevue, Wash. Two years later they released Furbo, a device billed as “the only treat-tossing dog camera designed specifically for dogs.” Chang is CEO of Tomofun and Cheung is chief marketing officer.

Tomofun, which has grown to 50 employees, launched new Furbo features this fall. That includes AI that can detect when a dog is barking, pacing or chewing and automatically alert owners when certain behaviors are happening. Furbo costs about $200 on Amazon.

A few weeks ago, a Furbo helped save a dog in a home that was filling with carbon monoxide gas from a fire. The pup started barking, and the device sent an email alert to the owner who rushed home to save her pet, Chang said.

But Furbo wasn’t an instant commercial success.

“In the very beginning, it was maybe ridiculed because it’s a new product for pets. Pets are not respected in the tech space,” Chang said. He’s seen more interest and a better reception for baby-related technology.

There are other dog camera and treat dispensers available, but Furbo is a market leader. A local teen entrepreneur pitched a similar product called iCPooch at the 2014 GeekWire Summit. But the effort foundered and Bondgy, the parent company, filed for bankruptcy in 2016.

Chang said some people have suggested that they branch into human applications or serve other pets — Purrbo, anyone? — but Tomofun is staying focused on canines and improving features to serve pups and their parents.

“The one thing we can’t do better than a dog sitter,” Chang said, “is take them out to pee.”

We caught up with Chang for our Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Team Tomofun and doggie pals celebrate the holidays. (Tomofun Photo)

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Furbo is a smart camera that lets dog parents see, talk and toss treats to their precious pups while away from home.”

Inspiration hit us when: “When our dog Gobi kept giving us those sad eyes when we would leave for work. We knew there was a way to use technology to help relieve the separation anxiety that both pups and parents feel when away from home.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Crowdfunded. We launched our Indiegogo campaign in 2016 and became one of the fastest growing crowdfunding campaigns in history. Crowdfunding not only provided us the funding we needed to bring Furbo to market, but a massive amount of brand exposure giving Furbo a major advantage when it came time to officially launch.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Being hyper-focused on dogs. Where competitors attempt to provide devices that serve all types of pets, we know that dogs have unique needs and therefore should have a unique product.”

Furbo launches the treats, instead of dropping them. (Tomofun Photo)

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Participating in the Amazon Exclusives program, which also enables us to sell through our own website. We’ve been approached by several major big-box retailers to sell Furbo in physical stores, but from a logistics perspective, Amazon gives us the global reach and marketing exposure to effectively connect with our target audience.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “An early version of Furbo dropped treats as opposed to how it now tosses treats, which was a major feature request that came through in customer testing after we already invested a lot of time and capital into R&D under the original ‘dropping’ product design. That distinction seems simple, but the redesign proved to be costly so it was a tough lesson to learn. The spirit of validation is now engrained at the company and we conduct customer feedback and validation exercises with Furbo every two weeks.”

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Bezos. This one probably seems a bit obvious given our connection to Amazon, but Bezos is also a powerful internet marketer. He built an online empire when more companies were doubling down on physical stores, so there is a lot that we as a company can learn from the Amazon way.”

Our favorite team-building activity is: “Celebrating our wins together! 2017 was a marquee year for Tomofun and Furbo, from being the top selling dog camera on Amazon Prime Day, several successful holiday season milestones, and even being featured on ‘Ellen,’ there has been a lot of opportunities for the entire team to reflect on and celebrate our hard work. We are also a global business with team members located around the world, so we always make sure to celebrate our successes when we are able to get in the same room together.”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Being a dog lover! In all seriousness, we look for data-driven people. Whether they are in digital marketing, product engineering or business development — when it comes to an internet based business, having the skills and passion for data-driven decision making is important at all levels and roles. Having a love for dogs is certainly important, though.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “If you do nothing else, get your product design right. For us, we needed to design something beautiful and functional to make sure consumers would want to have Furbo live in their homes. Not all entrepreneurs will be developing a physical product, but the same applies when it comes to designing apps or even software. We are in a new age of product design, and both B2B and B2C companies need to keep design top of mind.”

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