Whistle

Design Director
Overview
As Design Lead on the founding team at Whistle, I was tasked with creating a fresh brand in a very seasoned industry. Our initial product, the Whistle Activity Monitor, focused on keeping pets healthy by monitoring their daily activity goals and was part of a growing IOT movement.

Our brand attracted an exceptionally dedicated community of dog lovers, and our active user stats consistently reflected high customer engagement levels (~65% continued checking the app daily after 90 days). A few months after our initial launch, we closed distribution deals with Amazon and PetSmart. But after the first year, we were struggling to gain substantial traction outside our core user base.

That’s when we decided to launch the Whistle GPS pre-order campaign, and sold more units in pre-orders (~75,000) than our main competitor, Tagg, had accumulated in total customers (~50,000).

Creating a lasting brand

Upon joining the company in April of 2013, I had 2 months to prepare for our initial launch.

We had a name, a logo, and a prototype of the physical device, but we needed literally everything else—website, storefront, content strategy, photography, packaging, app design, promotional materials, social media strategy, and press page.

Everyone agreed we didn’t want to be like every other pet brand on the market (i.e. no dogs catching frisbees in mid-air), but we hadn’t yet articulated what we did want to be. We also didn’t yet know what our core feature set would be.

To ensure we launched with a brand and a voice that not only stood out, but also had staying power, I gathered the whole team together (all 13 of us) for a rapid design session focused on 3 important questions:

  • What energizes us about this space?
  • What are our goals?
  • How will we change pet care?

With the material gathered from the sprint, we were able to outline our positioning statement—Improving the lives of pets as they do ours—and I was also able to clearly define our identity.

Target audience

From the outset, we chose to focus on the next generation of pet owners who care more about their pet’s overall happiness than about health and safety alone.

Voice

Our goal when speaking was to make an emotional connection with the audience. To that end, we felt it was important that we refer to dogs as first-class citizens. Whenever we had to explain something about “your dog”, we spoke about them as friends, family members, and trusted confidants. We avoided the term “owner” and never spoke about the dog as an ownable object.

Tone

Energetic, confident, adventurous, and approachable. Every other pet brand was either too cutesy or too domineering. It had bothered all of us collectively as we shopped for goods and services for our own pets. We wanted to be the “anti-pet-brand” brand.

Style

Our photography told stories through the lens’ of the dog. People were characters existing in their narratives, and not the other way around. We emphasized the dog’s voice and personality, accentuating and even exaggerating their likes and dislikes.

Our aesthetic was clean and fresh with a Sans Serif font, ample white-space, and thoughtfully-placed pops of color.

Launching Whistle

With our identity outlined, I now needed to articulate the launch priorities for our first product, the Whistle Activity Monitor.

Leveraging my experience from Google+ where we consistently launched complex initiatives at scale, I knew how to work with my cross-functional partners to ensure clear deadlines, strong communication, and collective momentum.

I organized my work in such a way that we were able to achieve all of our required goals, and even attained our stretch goals within the ambitious 2-month window.

Launch goals

  • Clarify brand look and feel (Colors, Fonts, icons)
  • Coordinate and direct product and first-round marketing photography
  • Create website content (product descriptions, features)
  • Mock-up min-viable app screenshots
  • Collect employee photos for our team page
  • Stretch goal - Create an area to celebrate early adopters, the Founding Hounds
  • Stretch goal - showcase the packaging on the site (from in-progress prototypes)

Growing the team

A few months after our initial launch, as the company and its product and marketing demands grew, I began searching for our next designers. It was important to me that new hires had the tools needed to help maintain the standards and sustain the momentum. So the initial assignment for our first designer was to codify our brand principles and visual language into a shareable Style Guide. Then, our second designer gathered up our UI elements into a functioning design library. These projects not only helped them both get familiar with the brand and our style, it also helped create the parameters within which all new contributors could inject their own creativity.

During my 2 years at Whistle, I grew the team to include 2 full-time designers and 1 community manager.

Crafting company culture

Finding people who were just as unreasonably passionate about dogs as we were was our first priority. They didn’t have to be the most senior, but they definitely had to have heart.

As part of our new employee on-boarding process, I asked everyone to submit a photo of themselves as a child with their favorite family pet. We proudly showcased these photos on our public team page to celebrate our shared love of pets.

WhistleGPS

During our first year in the market, we were selling units on Amazon, and our product was being prominently featured at PetSmart retail locations nationwide. However, despite an enthusiastic core user base, sales were beginning to slow. Activity tracking alone just wasn’t resonating with the larger pet market the way we’d hoped. The business needed more revenue to sustain itself, so we started exploring options for adding pet location-tracking as a service.

When we kicked off the WhistleGPS campaign, we weren’t sure what the final product would look like or how big it would be. In fact, adding a GPS antenna without making a device too large or too heavy for a dog’s collar would be the team’s biggest challenge to date. However, we also had to move fast to meet our proof of concept deadline for Series B funding. To add to the challenge, there were already some established brands to compete with, the largest of which being Tagg with approximately 50,000 monthly subscribers.

My team was given 3 weeks to launch a crowdfunding campaign. In that time, I lead us in developing a new product name, writing and producing a commercial, coordinating the accompanying photography, and creating a website with a strongly resonant differentiation message—worry less, adventure more.

Ultimately, our WhistleGPS campaign was so successful, it earned us more pre-orders (~70,000) than our main competitor had in total customers (~50,000). And Tilt, the platform we had used to host our store page, even listed us as a best practice example of how to run a crowdfunding campaign.

The success of WhistleGPS not only secured our next round of funding, it also fueled the acquisition of our main competitor, Tagg. We bought Tagg for $15M just a few months after our campaign launched.

Looking ahead

I absolutely loved my time at Whistle and the team I helped build. After an incredible 2 year journey, the team was ready for their next challenge, and I was ready for my next chapter—running my own company.

Krista Sanders
ks@kristasanders.com

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