We had the good fortune of connecting with Nikki Collier and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Nikki, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
It started with the desire to satisfy my dream of being an entrepreneur. It blossomed into a reality when I found a problem that needed to be solved, and a void that needed to be filled in the pet food market. Entrepreneurship is not very natural for most, but growing up it was a way of life. My father, grandpa, and uncle were all business owners, so I was exposed to the risks and rewards that often accompany this career path. I have always been drawn to the independence, learning opportunities, creative freedom, and lifestyle of working for yourself. For me, these potential rewards of business ownership far outweigh the potential risks. I desperately wanted to forge my own path and was constantly open to new ideas. After a decade of working for multinational corporations, my passions of both dogs and craft beer came together as a viable idea to launch a business around. I spent a good couple of years considering how to make this happen, so when the right opportunity arose, I had zero hesitation. Inspiration struck in 2012 when my husband and I brought home our first-born, our puppy, Tonka. It was at this same time we were home brewing quite a bit and had lots of perfectly good spent grain left over from the brewing process. We brainstormed how to sustainably reuse it – naturally over some craft beers – and decided it was best applied and upcycled into spent grain into dog treats. Tonka overwhelmingly approved. After experimenting and settling on a recipe, I came to realize this had the potential to be the very business idea I had been searching for. I experienced that cliched but very real ‘aha’ moment. With my love for all things dog and craft beer, I confidently knew this was the idea I could passionately get behind. If I was going to put my everything into something, above all, I sure as hell wanted the outcome to be a force for good.
Please tell us more about your work. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about. How did you get to where you are today professionally. Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way. What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
I have a combined fifteen years of marketing, sales, and operations management experience in corporate retail working with many of the nation’s leading brands. I am now applying that knowledge to create my own brand that brings joy to both dog and beer lovers alike. And unlike what felt like a sterile corporate environment, has the added benefit of making an impact in local communities and the environment. I’m beyond proud to have started a business that collaborates with the craft beer community, an industry that overwhelmingly champions a more sustainable environment, their local dog organizations, and the neighborhoods they brew in. Leashless Lab stems from the belief that if we could use food waste more efficiently, we wouldn’t have to produce as much. When I decided to go full-time with Leashless Lab in 2017, the idea of upcycled food existed, but was certainly far from a common household term. The concept still has some way to go, but the growth within the upcycled food world has evolved substantially in just the last four years. At Leashless Lab, our job is to give more, waste less, and bring joy to dogs all through the journey. We are an upcycled dog treat company that collaborates with the craft beer community by creating a new, high-quality product from otherwise wasted – but perfectly nutritious – ingredient of spent brewers’ grain. By rewarding your pup with a Leashless Lab dog treat, you’re choosing to support a business that’s sustainably conscious, giving-centric, and ultimately created as a force for good. The leap into business ownership and getting Leashless Lab to where it is today hasn’t been easy, but it’s without a doubt the best decision I’ve ever made. Challenges arise daily, but with patience, perseverance and remembering that everything is figureoutable my vision and mission for Leashless Lab keeps living another day. There are two big lessons that jump out to me that I’ve learned since starting Leashless Lab. Lesson one is there are so many programs, organizations, and individuals out there willing to help and offer their expertise. Many of which are free or are of little monetary investment such as local university groups, memberships to industry organizations, and other business owners. You have to look for them, you can’t be afraid to ask lots of questions, and you must totally immerse yourself into various communities and network. Lesson two is remembering that even if you don’t know what the future looks like, you have to take leaps and show up to the table like you’re going to get there even if you totally don’t know how. One of my favorite quotes is, “Curiosity is fear’s antidote. The more we become curious, the more we open up to hidden possibilities that may have at one time frightened us.” As an entrepreneur, I have deliberately shaped my career to bring together passions and hobbies into a unified professional and personal life. My enthusiasm for travel serves a desire for deeper understanding of diverse beliefs and global perspectives, and acts as the thread that binds them together. My family (myself, husband Kevin, daughter Ainsley, and dog Tonka) enjoys visiting communities across the country and globe, immersing ourselves in the local scene, and exploring neighborhood identities through their culinary, craft, and canine pursuits. I never take for granted how amazing it is that this joy now directly benefits the professional life I’ve created for myself.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Milwaukee was deemed the coolest (and most underrated) city in the Midwest by Vogue Magazine a few years back and I honestly couldn’t agree more. It’s an absolute gem that sits on the shores of Lake Michigan, where the views are unbeatable year-round. It is bursting with culture, incredible food, art and festivals that make it a truly unique – and in many observable ways up-and-coming while simultaneously being established – community. I’d start my tour of Milwaukee by ditching a car and plan to explore by paddle and pedal, weather permitting. It’s the best way to pick up on the intricacies of the city and supports the city’s ever-increasing green transport ideology. The Milwaukee River runs through the heart of downtown and is a great option to see the city by kayak, boat, and stand-up paddleboards all while stopping at docks along the way for a bite and beer. We’d transition from water to Milwaukee’s paved trails by hopping on a Bublr Bike, Greater Milwaukee’s non profit bike share program with 80 plus Bublr Bike stations (after, of course, explaining to said guest that ‘a bubbler’ is native Milwaukeean for ‘drinking fountain’). We’d leisurely roll along Lake Michigan stopping to take in the views of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s mesmerizingly moving wings of the Calatrava structure, or consider burning off cheese curd calories by biking nearly 100 plus miles through the city on its six main paved trails. If our travel company was large enough (up to 16 people), and our legs still willing, we’d have the option to further cruise around with Milwaukee Pedal Tavern. Here you can explore the Third Ward and Walker’s Point neighborhood, experiencing their bars and pubs from a bicycle bar — you should be noticing a theme here, some Milwaukee stereotypes are quite true. If one has had their fill and pedaling around doesn’t sound appealing – both neighborhoods are worth the visit regardless of mode of transport. The Third Ward is a revitalized warehouse district full of dining options, boutique shops, art galleries, and trendy retailers, while Walker’s Point is an industrial area turned cultural and ‘foodie’ hotspot. Such offerings include the Milwaukee Public Market, a one-stop Milwaukee shop for food with 15 plus local vendors, as well as nearby ModGen, a modern take on the classic general stores that I dare anyone to exit without making a purchase. A little further south, we’ll find my favorite cocktails at Boone and Crockett and a one of the best cultivated beer lists in the city (nay, our country) at Burnhearts in Bayview. Having mentioned Milwaukee stereotypes, it would be a sin to leave Milwaukee without sampling some cheese, so while in the neighborhood a stop into Clock Shadow Creamery is a no brainer. On that note, nearby is Milwaukee’s coolest and dog-friendliest hotel, The Iron Horse, whose cheese curds are a personal favorite of mine. Staying here is a must, but if you opt for other accommodations, one must at least check out their restaurant and patio for a drink with views of their famed neighbor The Harley-Davidson Museum. Before we get into the city’s deep brewing history and surrounding culture, it should come as no surprise that we take our coffee quite seriously as well. Valentine, Vennture, Anodyne, Kickapoo, Pilcro, Stone Creek, and Colectivo are all local favorites, and offer exceptional starts to anyone’s day. With over two centuries of brewing heritage, Milwaukee has historically been home to some of America’s largest brewing pioneers – Pabst, Schlitz, Miller, Blatz – and has definitely earned its nickname “Brew City.” Today, Miller’s Milwaukee production facility still produces upward of 10 million barrels a year. Deriving from a Germanic love for community cheer and full steins, beer gardens have seemingly popped up in every green space in recent years, and offer a wonderful way to wind down a day from.. drinking all the other beer in the city. Milwaukee has also experienced a renaissance of craft breweries, with over 30 taprooms to choose from and more each year, offering a more diverse beer style portfolio than our forebears could have ever imagined. It’s impossible to name a favorite, but of note is Lakefront Brewery’s tour which is nationally renowned, and entertaining (edu-taining?) for those who don’t even like beer. Don’t mean to repeat myself, but one must also try their cheese curds. I could talk about brewing and cheese all day, but we must touch on other means of sustenance. I guess. Trying to name some of my favorite restaurants in the city feels next to impossible. Luckily, Food Halls and Food Trucks have been growing in popularity in recent years, and are as much a destination as any singular restaurant. For those indecisive days or for a group that can’t decide what to eat, you can’t go wrong at Sherman Phoenix and Zocalo Food Park. Moving past the Brew City moniker, Milwaukee is also recognized as the “City of Festivals.” All year long, though summer especially, the city is itching for a reason to party. Most notably, the world-famous Summerfest celebrates music and merriment, but also of note its many culturally specific festivals: Mexican Fiesta, Bastille Days, Irish Fest, Indian Summer, Festa Italiana just to name a few. To wrap up all this Milwaukee exploring that’s filled with eating and drinking, a nice day hiking along gorgeous bluffs of Lake Michigan is just what visitors might need. Remember when I said I can’t pick a favorite food spot? Well, I lied. There is no question that I’d start and end my Milwaukee tour with a visit to Kopp’s for their cheeseburger, fries, and custard. Milwaukee is home to the world’s largest concentration of frozen custard shops. For those who haven’t heard of or had custard before, it’s ice cream but also has egg yolks as an ingredient. This gives it a richer, creamier texture than ice cream. I’ve been known to say that Kopp’s would be the last meal I’d request to have during my time on earth. It’s that good. Aside from its many attractions, the Midwestern charm runs deep. No matter how you spend your time, the people of Milwaukee are some of the nicest you’ll ever meet.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I can say with the utmost certainty that without the support from my mom, Deb, Leashless Lab would not have survived past year two. Moms in general have the most thankless jobs on earth, and I recognize that, so my desire to give her ‘a little credit’ feels like a bit of an understatement. She has been my cheerleader my entire life, and even now at 37 years old (and a mom myself), I feel better equipped to recognize that I very much need her in so many different capacities, and she reliably delivers (exceeding unspoken needs) every time. This started back when she herself was age 16, supporting my dad and all his brilliant entrepreneurial adventures. She’s realistic, grounded, hard-working, asks great questions, smart, and most of all has an enormous heart. My husband and dad would have stepped out of career paths to work full-time to help build Leashless Lab if they could, so I’d be remiss to not give a huge shout out to them as well. But mom was top dog in this regard and dove right in. It’s not lost on me how lucky I am to have a teammate and sometimes therapist to work alongside with, and often knows what I’m thinking before I myself do. Cheers to moms everywhere!
Jen O’Hara of Dogs of MKE https://dogsofmke.com/