For the past four years, the “bread and butter” for Julie Nickerson and her ruff life brand of apparel designed for dog lovers has been the Bradenton Farmers’ Market and craft markets.
While she still does those outdoor markets, in October she opened her first store in the Jennings Arcade on Old Main Street at 417 12th St. W., Suite 120.
Her progress in launching the business is a testimony to her vision and entrepreneurship, but perhaps most of all her love for her rescue dog Jack, a Golden Lab.
While living in Hilton Head Island, S.C., Nickerson learned Jack, then just a 6-month-old puppy, needed hip surgery to correct a serious medical problem that kept him in great pain.
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Nickerson didn’t have the $5,500 needed to pay for the surgery, but others in the community came forward and raised the money.
Nickerson designed her first ruff life shirt to help raise money for medical care for Jack and other dogs whose families couldn’t foot the bill. The shirt proved popular at Hilton Head among dog lovers, and the response encouraged her in 2009 to start a line of casual beach apparel.
In 2012, she moved to the Bradenton area to be closer to her parents, and in 2013 she received approval from the IRS for her 501C3 nonprofit designed to assist with medical bills for pets. Ten percent of her proceeds go to her nonprofit.
Grateful that others helped her with Jack, she wanted to give back to those in similar difficult circumstances.
“The mission was to give back to other dogs in an emergency situation,” Nickerson said.
She expanded the business in 2014 by adding aloe vera cream for dog skin conditions, in 2015 with aloe vera shampoo for dogs, and in 2016 with a line of dog collars.
You have to grow, think on your feet, evolve, listen to what people are telling you they want.
“I was working out of my house and I couldn’t handle it anymore. My business tripled in the last year,” Nickerson said of her decision to open a store.
Nickerson not only designed her products, but she also initially did all of the sewing and embroidery.
Her inventory now includes decorated dog bowls, rechargeable LED necklaces and dog treats.
Though she doesn’t make the dog treats, if they “get tails wagging, they get approved,” Nickerson said.
T-shirts and sweat shirts remain at the core of her business and have been supplemented by hats, hand bags and more over the years.
“You have to grow, think on your feet, evolve, listen to what people are telling you they want,” she said of her success.
Barbara Seibers, a family friend who has known Nickerson since she was 7 years old, said Nickerson’s passion for animals is genuine.
“She is just crazy about animals and helping animals,” Seibers said. “Her products are doing well and she is really excited about it.”
Although Jack has since passed on, his legacy remains as an essential part of the ruff life story.
Tucker, a yellow lab, is Nickerson’s new dog and is often in the store to greet customers. She calls Tucker her CPO – chief puppy officer.
Hours at ruff life: Monday: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Tuesday-Wednesday: 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 3:30-6 p.m.; Friday: 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday: 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sundays-closed.
For more information about Nickerson’s nonprofit, visit rufflifecharities.org