Would you buy a dog toy from these guys? Pet owners and companies say yes
Axl the goldendoodle didn’t even need to see the prototype dog toy developed by three South Bay students — he could smell it in the backpack one of the teens brought home.
“Axl literally opened his bag and just stole it,” said Arin Jain, 18, who invented TuffToy dog toys with his 17-year-old high school classmates and longtime friends Rohan Gorti and Zubin Khera.
The goldendoodle’s high interest in the toy — a brightly colored fabric “skin” over a scented rubber ball — has now been matched by dog owners: The Harker School seniors have sold more than 2,000 units since June, and this month got their products into Bay Area pet boutiques. On Monday, they secured a $17,000 deal with a Silicon Valley software company for TuffToys embroidered with the firm’s logo.
TuffToy started in 2021 in an entrepreneurship class at Harker, a private K-12 institution in San Jose, when Jain, of Saratoga, Gorti of the Silver Creek neighborhood of San Jose, and Khera of Campbell, were juniors instructed to identify a problem and invent a solution.
Their thoughts turned to dogs. Khera had Axl, Jain also had a goldendoodle, named Cosmo, and Gorti had grown up with a Labrador retriever named Dash that had recently died. Maybe the world needed a better dog toy?
“We interviewed our friends, our neighbors, people at dog parks, just anyone we could find with a dog, and we asked them, ‘What are common issues you have with your dog toys?’” Jain said.
A particular type of complaint stood out, and the students had found their problem.
“The current (dog) toys on the market, they’re very expensive and they break really easily, so you’re stuck in this cycle of buying a dog toy, waiting for your dog to rip it in a day, and buying another,” Jain said.
Each TuffToy consists of two parts — a scented rubber ball and a plush skin — and are intended to be very durable. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Gorti learned to use a sewing machine and they created low-budget initial prototypes — the “minimum viable product” in Silicon Valley startup lingo — using rubber balls and puppets bought online. They went out to dog owners again, for feedback, to refine their toy.
The students learned that noise-makers inside dog toys, especially in the work-from-home age, are far from universally popular. “We were thinking of putting a squawker inside, but a lot of owners, when they hear that thing going off, it’s just annoying,” Jain said. They landed on scent as a tool for canine engagement.
Cosmo the goldendoodle relaxes with a couple ‘Monster Mash’ dog toys from TuffToy (photo courtesy of Arin Jain)
Axl the goldendoodle, after sniffing out the toy and snatching it from Khera’s backpack, started playing with it instantly, running around the house with it,” Jain said. Cosmo loved it, too. But did the product solve the problem?
“We tested the toys’ durability by giving them right to the user: dogs,” Jain said. “We went out to local dog parks and had dogs of different breeds, sizes, and ages interact with a TuffToy. The dogs could not tear through the toy.”
The students ordered 300 units from a manufacturer they had found in China, received the toys last May, then launched their online shop in June and sold 45 toys in the first two days, boxing them up at Jain’s dining-room table. Business went so well the clerk at the local post office soon knew Jain by sight.
In July, the students, who have known each other since kindergarten, beat out software-focused student-inventors for the $20,000 first prize in a national business-pitch competition in Chicago.
Since receiving some seed money from Harker, where tuition at the high school level costs north of $60,000, to get their product off the ground, the young business partners have invested about $7,000 of their prize proceeds in growing TuffToy, expanding their offerings to include embroidered brand names and logos for corporate sales. Products so far include the inner rubber balls in scents of peanut butter, beef and vanilla, and fuzzy outer skins decorated in sports, “Monster Mash” and “Happy Howl-idays” designs. Customers can buy balls and skins together or separately.
In September at what’s billed as the nation’s largest dog festival, Bark in the Park in downtown San Jose, the trio set up a booth and sold more than 100 units. “It helped us understand how to sell to people,” Jain said, adding that they plan to peddle their wares April 27 at DogFest in San Francisco.
Revenue has hit $24,000, from sales of more than 1,000 units to consumers, mostly online, and about 1,250 units to corporate customers including 500 to Harker for sale in the campus store, Jain said. This week’s tech-firm deal, for 1,500 toys, each with a ball and two custom-designed skins, will add a big revenue boost. Jain said he could not disclose the company’s name.
Earlier this month, Waggin Tails Pet Supplies, with shops in Los Altos and Union City, began carrying TuffToys.
The students’ business and entrepreneurship teacher at Harker, Michael Acheatel, said his pupils hit on a winning idea, but would probably succeed at any enterprise. “They have all the traits of all the successful entrepreneurs,” Acheatel said. “They’re resilient — any time they see a road block or a hurdle … they just get right into the problem-solving mode. They just have a crazy work ethic, very, very diligent. They see opportunity and they seize it.”