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Behind the Brand

P.L.A.Y.’s “Chief Pug Officer” Is Changing the Eco-Friendly Pet Product Game

Oh, and his dad, founder Will Chen, is a bit of an innovator, too.

by Sean Zucker
January 12, 2023
A dog wearing bright pink sunglasses while holding a pink plush telephone toy in its mouth.

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Twelve years ago, Will Chen and his wife, Deb, adopted a pug named Momo. Like most parents, they were determined to give her nothing short of the best. But for this family, the best was yet to come. “We became frustrated that we couldn’t find the perfect bed for her, so I decided to make my own,” Chen remembers. Fortunately, aggravation is no match for a dog dad’s love, and with a little help from his family who had over two decades of experience in the cut-and-sewn business, Chen finally had a bed that matched the high standard he demanded for Momo. And, unbeknownst to Chen at the time, he had also just created P.L.A.Y.’s first official product.

In addition to being its founder, Chen is P.L.A.Y.’s CEO. Of course, Momo has gone on to become the brand’s “Chief Pug Officer.” Armed with a dedication to high-quality and inventive products, P.L.A.Y. now offers much more than just cozy beds.

From interactive toys to carriers and travel gear, the brand fully lives up to its acronymous name short for “Pet Lifestyle and You” — all while maintaining an intense commitment to environmental ethics. In fact, Chen’s company is one of the few pet brands to earn B Corp Certification, which is awarded to organizations for making a positive social and ecological impact. Below, Chen chats about giving back, the journey so far, and where it’s headed.

cat playing with sushi themed toys on hardwood floor
Courtesy of P.L.A.Y.

How has Momo influenced the brand and its products?

My wife grew up with dogs, but Momo was my first. I always knew I loved pets, but what really strikes me is how important we are to them and how unconditional that love is. I once read somewhere that pets are a small part of most people’s lives, but we are their whole lives. That has given me the passion to not just create fun and unique products but to make sure that they are absolutely safe for pets. We test our products in-office with our dogs and cats — we don’t sell anything we wouldn’t give to our own pets.

P.L.A.Y. features a variety of themed toys often inspired by different seasons and holidays; did you always envision your product library to be this expansive?

No. When I started P.L.A.Y., I had no idea we would become one of the industry leaders in toys. Our beds are so well-made that as much as our customers love them, they typically don’t buy them too often. We were looking for complimentary products to help us grow and thought toys would be a natural category. We launched our first collection back in 2013 — from there we grew organically and added a handful of collections each year. What you see now is almost a decade of hard work from our team.

cat pulling at a burrito themed toy
Courtesy of P.L.A.Y.

Similarly, the brand tends to utilize a fair amount of humor with many of these toys. Was this intentional from the jump?

Our development process for toys evolved over time. In the beginning, it was pretty rudimentary, with our pattern-maker simply mimicking real-life objects, like a carrot or butterfly. Then we brought in professional toy designers. I began to seek our teams’ input on ideas or work-in-progress collections and realized the best way to create memorable products is to spend the time and effort on them. It means cross-functional team meetings and working with our wonderful ambassadors during the design process. I believe the process is still evolving, and we want to find the perfect balance. But having more stakeholder involvement was the key to enhancing our toys with elements like humor.

Many P.L.A.Y. products feature an eco-friendly filler called PlanetFill® and your headquarters even runs entirely off renewable energy. Was sustainability something you always wanted to highlight?

Saving the environment and protecting our planet have always been close to my heart because it is simply the right thing to do. It may sound cliché, but the earth is our only home, and what humankind has done as a species is terrible. Now that I am a father of two, I am even more cognizant of the importance of leaving a better world behind for our future generation. That’s a strong enough motivation for me to look at business decisions, not just from a profit standpoint but from an environmental and social responsibility perspective.

white dog chewing 3rd themed glasses
Courtesy of P.L.A.Y.

Additionally, the brand’s PlanetFill® is made from 100 percent post-consumer certified-safe recycled plastic bottles; can you speak a bit on the process that goes into sourcing this material?

It was easy to find good-quality filler in the market, but it took us almost a year because we wanted something eco-conscious and safe. It took so long because we had to research and talk to many suppliers and rigorously test the materials for safety and practicality, like washability. All that work was worth it because as P.L.A.Y. grows, we have been saving millions of non-biodegradable bottles from entering landfills and oceans.

P.L.A.Y.’s line of durable ‘tough toys’ are designed to last. What is the importance of longevity both from an environmental and customer perspective?

Durability and, therefore, the longevity of toys, [have] a significant impact because a short life cycle of anything inevitably means more waste will be created. Fast fashion in human apparel is a prime example of a short life cycle that is terrible for the environment. We understand that dogs all play differently, and it’s hard for toys to be indestructible, but we consider it our job to make all our toys, plush, rope, rubber, etc., to be as durable as they can be because of the reason mentioned above. Not to mention, customers will be much happier, too.

dog with stuffed peacock themed toy in its mouth
Courtesy of P.L.A.Y.

The brand has donated and raised funds for other animal welfare groups, such as the Snow Leopard Conservancy and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). How crucial was helping pets and animals in need while developing the company?

Combined with a team of like-minded animal lovers, it all happened organically. The group often has ideas regarding potential collaboration or giving-back ideas. Our process as a team would be to evaluate legitimacy, impact, feasibility, etc. There isn’t a set formula per se, but we believe these initiatives and our company growth go hand-in-hand.

In addition to animal welfare groups, P.L.A.Y. has also donated proceeds to ZERO, an organization combating prostate cancer, and established an annual scholarship, the Scholars Helping Collars Scholarship, for U.S. college students. Why was it important for the brand to give to groups outside of pet and animal communities and issues?

Giving back is a core value of our company, and we take much pride in the effort we put into helping good causes. In 2012, we established our Scholars Helping Collars Scholarship program, as we know today’s youth are the key to continuing our mission to improve animal welfare. Now in its 10th year, we choose from hundreds of essays annually to award one high school student who can tell the best story — describing the impact they have made in the life of a rescue animal or animal welfare cause. 

waffle with fried chicken stuffed toy
Courtesy of P.L.A.Y.

Reading these essays is truly a highlight of our team’s year, as they are all so inspiring. Each year, the competition gets more complex, as applicants from all over the country share their heartfelt stories with our judging panel. This year’s winner, Blake Austin from Brunswick, Maine, inspired us by her passion and dedication to animal welfare. [We were] moved by the organic garden she had created so the small animals in her local shelter could have access to fresh food. Her commitment of more than 2,000 volunteer hours at Midcoast Humane animal shelter and creating a higher quality environment for animals are bound to impact the world.

dog with blue toy hanging out of its mouth
Courtesy of P.L.A.Y.

How do you select the organizations to give proceeds to and work with?

Here at P.L.A.Y., we love supporting 501(c)(3) organizations that align with our animal-driven mission. We begin our selection process by verifying the details, including non-profit status, tax information, and the organization’s contact information. Once we have all that, we can offer the organization a selection of products for in-kind donations.

We work with them to ensure that whichever products are donated match their fundraiser's theme for maximum fun and impact. We always strive to help as many organizations as possible, as it truly is about animals in need, so we accept donation requests from organizations all across the country. If you attend an animal fundraiser near you, you might see P.L.A.Y. in action.

doodle dog with plush camera toy around its neck
Courtesy of P.L.A.Y.

What’s next for P.L.A.Y.?

Looking back, it seems that P.L.A.Y. has spent the first five years of its existence finding its feet and proving its business concept. Then we spent the last few years honing our craft and becoming the best-in-class in bedding and toys. My goal is for us to continue building on that decade of good work and become a household name for pet parents looking to buy something for their fur babies at home. And I hope we will have fun doing it and stay creative and authentic to our principles. It still makes my day reading messages from customers sharing with us how much happiness we have brought to their pets.

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Sean Zucker

Sean Zucker

Sean Zucker is a writer whose work has been featured in Points In Case, The Daily Drunk, Posty, and WellWell. He has an adopted Pit Bull named Banshee whose work has been featured on the kitchen floor and has behavioral issues rival his own.