In the early 1990s, hay grower John Miller was Oxbow Hay Company. Today, Miller's niche-market business employs 40 people, selling 22 products worldwide to the owners of small exotic pets.

He attributes his company's success to a lot of things, but chief among them are the people he works with.

“Probably the best part of how the business has grown is the great people we interact with every day,” says Miller, Murdock, NE. “We've got a great bunch of people working on a common goal, trying to make life better for everyone we're involved with, either here at Oxbow or the vendors we work with or our distributors or end customers.”

As humble as Miller is about his success, he admits that part of it came from having the right idea at the right time — and being lucky. His first product, Alfalfa Nibbles, was fresh alfalfa packaged in 15-oz bags for rabbit owners. Before he started bagging the product, Miller visited a pet food distributor, who liked his product and said he'd handle it.

Miller's big break into the pet food business, however, was when he was at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, WI. “I was going door-to-door to pet stores up there and the manager at one said, “Do you have timothy?” She was looking for someone to package that grass in small-enough packages for small animals.

“So I went home, went through my hay association contacts and found someone who grew timothy. I bought 50 lbs, put it into 2-lb bags and took them to my first trade show, the American Rabbit Breeders Association. It all sold the first day. We go through a semi load a week now,” he marvels.

“You've got to be the first,” he advises anyone trying to break into a niche market. “Keep your ear to the ground on what somebody's looking for and what is not being done. I was the first to market timothy hay and orchard hay to pet owners, a rabbit pellet made out of timothy and another supplement that is being force-fed to convalescing carnivores and raptors.”

Try and try again, he adds. “It takes a lot of perseverance and a lot of trying to get a lead on what the market needs.”

Miller also advises going to a distributor after developing a product line — and making sure that line is different. “Why should a big distribution company look at you? You have to bring products that are unique, what other people want — and that you're the best at producing.”

He also advises anyone trying to form a business to do market research and have a marketing plan. He didn't have either, in part because there was little market information on pet food and owners.

Today, however, Miller's company has mission and vision statements and two goals: to be honest and to provide proper nutrition for special pets. To honor those goals, he created a pet advisory board made up of leading veterinarians and other industry professionals.

“They know what products are needed. They know Oxbow and that we care. They believe in us and our approach so they are willing to help us in an advisory capacity.”

To learn more about Miller's company, visit www.oxbowhay.com. He is also scheduled to speak at Hay & Forage Grower's Mar. 8-9 Hay Business Conference in Sioux Falls, SD. For conference details, visit www.hayconference.com.