Puppy inspired her pet project
A trip to a North Carolina flea market proved transformational for Erica Kovacevic (’06, communication). Not only did she come home with a furry bundle of unconditional love she purchased from a woman selling puppies there, but her life also changed in ways she did not anticipate.
“I became a crazy dog mom,” she says of the change that took place after the shih tzu/poodle/bichon frise puppy she named Chico became a family member. Kovacevic had been working as an education consultant with a digital online company, Discovery Education, supporting K-12 schools with STEM implementation and professional development.
But her new acquisition stirred more than puppy love within her. Today she is the founder and CEO of Chico’s Mafia Tough Dog Apparel, a clothing company for dogs. She officially launched the company May 1, 2021.
“When I got Chico that sparked the desire for entrepreneurship,” she says. “I became the crazy dog mom. I’d see all the same dog clothes online. He’d wear them once, and they’d rip. There was nothing creative in my eyes.”
That wasn’t good enough for her special boy.
“I decided to make some clothes,” she said.
One thing led to another.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t I take this opportunity to create a small business that focuses on him with an element of giving back.’ I wanted to create collections where you buy a shirt or bandanna, and a portion of the proceeds goes to a local shelter. It’s a unique niche of custom dog wear. Urban comfort wear. You can pick a color, like pink glitter, that you can’t find in stores.”
Never mind that Kovacevic had no background in fashion. She did know she needed her own heat press to create the clothes. She went online to a site run by Stahls, a manufacturer of the machines, and found they offered a scholarship and machine to help promote small businesses. She applied and won the scholarship, which turned out to be just what she needed.
“I’d been looking into manufacturing, but the limitations were too much,” she says. “I knew nothing about heat press, but winning the business scholarship was monumental. And the business development support helped get me up and going.”
That helped her with marketing and redesigning her website and social media pages. And that led to the exposure she needed to get some attention from magazines and other news media. Although she may not have had any background in fashion, she did have some in business, having earned an MBA at Wake Forest University School of Business and an Entrepreneurship Essential Certificate from Harvard Business School, among a variety of postgraduate degrees and courses she’s taken.
It’s a good thing, too, because she’s basically a one-woman company. She takes the orders, designs the clothing, creates them on the heat press, keeps track of inventory and ships products to expectant customers. She handles the social media, answers emails and puts out a weekly newsletter. All of this is done within the confines of her home. Her lone helper is Chico, who serves as the quality inspector.
The name of the company is no accident. Chico’s Mafia is, of course, named for her beloved pet. But Kovacevic also plays on Mafia as an acronym for Modern Active Fun Inclusive Apparel and, secondarily, My Animal Family Is Awesome – not to mention fashionable when wearing the company’s wide array of doggy duds.
There’s the Camo Collection, with bandanas and harnesses in a camouflage pattern. Shirts come emblazoned with canine philosophy: “Diva in training,” “I’m a lover not a biter,” “Play hard nap harder.” There are sports shirts for canines who are doggedly devoted to the New York Yankees or Atlanta United, the city’s soccer team.
Sales of some items generate revenue for charities, another of Kovacevic’s goals when she founded the company. Her fashions are the official dog wear of the Paws Atlanta runway show, and sales benefit the not-for-profit animal welfare organization.
Now, some 654 designs later, she has a thriving company, a well-dressed dog, loyal customers and even some consumer testers in the form of a playgroup of eight dogs and their owners – dubbed the “Dog Mafia” – that gathers weekday afternoons for an hour of frolicking in a dog park near her Atlanta home.
“The response from people has been great,” Kovacevic says. “I have ‘Dog Mafia’ parents that give me ideas. Their ideas really provide me with creative help. They are like my focus group. I knew I’d have fun with it, but the support of so many people has been surprising.”