Award-winning Ottawa entrepreneur turns passion for pets into cross-border business

Jessica O’Neill

When Jessica O’Neill was in the midst of recovering from dental surgery, she found her mind preoccupied with her canines.

Not the teeth – though surely those were a close second – but her dogs. Pups were her business: O’Neill was already the owner of Canine Habitat, a kennel-free home for pet care and behaviour rehabilitation in Perth that opened in 2015. 

That business drove her to invent the JWalker harness. Having grown frustrated with the selection of canine harnesses on the market, O’Neill had developed her own custom design that used a shoulder attachment to redirect a dog’s focus. The JWalker harness is handmade from tubular climbing webbing and is designed to prevent irritation, burning or chafing of the dog’s skin.

At the time, she only intended to use the harness at the Habitat. But while she was at home following the removal of her wisdom teeth, O’Neill put a few videos and photos online, explaining and demonstrating her concept to viewers.

“We are listening to what people are missing and filling those voids,” she says.

The approach is paying off.

In its first year in 2016, sales of JWalker products totalled approximately $70,000. That grew to $100,000 last year and O’Neill is forecasting it could increase to up to $180,000 this year.

In recognition of her company’s growth, as well as its international sales and foray into manufacturing, 34-year-old O’Neill was recently named the West Ottawa Board of Trade Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

The award recognizes a business owner or founder under the age of 35, “who has excelled in business, exemplifies leadership and entrepreneurial skills and demonstrates an exceptional vision contributing to the business success.”

Financing hurdles

From her early days of living on her family’s hobby farm, O’Neill has had a passion for animals. She says she believes that it’s not your dog’s behaviour that determines if you’re a good owner – it’s how you respond to it that matters.

Her business roots date back to 2010, when she launched Pet Intel, which has grown to a network of animal coaches who help clients one-on-one to support them with their pet’s behavioural issues.

JWalker was a new start for the business. The group’s “first pioneer,” O’Neill says, was a pet store in Westboro. The product hit retail stores and started to blossom, expanding to shelves in Montreal and Toronto.

Before she and her team knew it, the product demand became higher than they could produce. They signed with one of Canada’s largest supply distributors, but the demand was high and O’Neill grew concerned about product quality. She holds all of her products to one philosophy: They must be functional, humane and high quality.

“I knew that in order to maintain the quality and support for customers, I needed to open my own factory,” says O’Neill.

She then opened her own 1,600-square-foot manufacturing facility in West Ottawa in May 2017. She recalls it being an interesting process for someone who didn’t consider herself very “domestic” – going from never having owned an iron to learning how one operates industrial sewing machines. 

Today, the company continues to grow. JWalker now has five products and it’s slowly expanding in the United States through e-commerce and upcoming shows this summer. O’Neill has sold more than 8,000 product units and has increased her retail presence to more than 200 stores.

O’Neill, a mother of two and step-mother to two, says people “grossly underestimate” the expenses involved with launching a startup and recalls the difficulties she encountered when approaching a “traditional bank.” It was her first stop, but she had already invested money of her own into the company. The bank told her that if she’d come to them before she’d invested and leveraged herself, it could have helped her. But if she’d done that, she also wouldn’t have had any proof of concept.

“It was very frustrating. It was a catch-22."

“It was very frustrating. It was a catch-22,” O’Neill recalls.

The company continues to receive attention. O’Neill and her team recently interviewed with Dragons’ Den and are waiting to hear if they will get to pitch on the show this spring. They’ve also been picked up by The Shopping Channel and iHeartDogs.

O’Neill hopes her company can continue growing and expanding to meet the needs of her clients, but when it comes to measuring success, she has her own definitions.

“What I’ve found is ... each time we do an expansion or provide another service, there’s another hurdle to jump. For me, the biggest measurement of professional success is not necessarily the outcome of jumping the hurdle, but how willing I am to attempt the jump.”