If satisfied customers are the key to a company's success, Nancy Brown should have a winner with her home-based business, Spirit Remains.
The Louisville company has what might seem to be a quirky product -- custom-designed wooden containers for the cremated remains of pets. But for Brown's buyers, there's nothing odd or off-putting about the idea.
"A lot of people think it's a little bit strange," but keeping a pet urn from Spirit Remains is "really kind of been a neat thing," said Amy Longanecker of San Diego.
Brown works with pet owners to create a container -- typically described as an urn -- that reflects the appearance, personality and habits of the pet. She topped the urn for Longanecker's Staffordshire bull terrier Gidget with a miniature park bench, tree and dove -- and a figurine that Brown painted to look just like Gidget, with a white nose, chest and stomach.
"I just think that her work is incredible," Longanecker said. Gidget's urn "was something that I really needed closure on" after keeping the ashes in a tin container for more than a year.
Patricia Land of Phoenix is another happy customer.
"I think what she does is very, very special, very personal, and it's better than anything I've found on the Internet, from very low-priced urns all the way up to $3,000 pieces of art. Somehow, they just don't capture the spirit of your dog, which is important," Land said.
She has ordered an urn for the ashes from her toy fox terrier, Belle. The container will incorporate such items as a small tiara to recall the pet's regal manner, a purple satin pouch to hold the ashes, her dog tag and a French music box signifying a trip to Paris that she had hoped to take with Belle.
"Everything that personified the dog is going to be part of the box," Land said.
Despite the good reviews -- and her painstaking labors -- Brown is struggling with the business, which she began more than a year ago and has marketed through a Web site, an art show and promotional materials at veterinary offices.
Brown said she has sold about half a dozen urns, which typically range in price from $110 to $175. Sales are "really pitiful," she acknowledged.
Part of the problem, she believes, is that veterinarians are reluctant to discuss the possible death of pets with their owners, and her Web site is far below those of competitors listed on search engines when "pet" and "urn" are keyed in. Spirit Remains' out-of-town sales have all originated with advertisements in dog magazines.
Still, Brown is confident that she has a good idea and a good product.
"I know that pet items are in demand," she said, and pet owners "are willing to spend." What's more, "I know that people that have seen my urns really like them."
Among the 40 designs displayed on her Web site include scenes such as "cat looking at cardinal in tree," "dog by white fireplace" and "dog with cat and Christmas tree." Customers can buy ready-made containers or request custom decorations to reflect the personality or appearance of their pets.
Brown developed the idea for the business after the 2005 death and cremation of one of her dogs, a yellow Labrador named Suzie.
"I got her back in this little black box, this little wooden box, and it had a tassel on the top. It was nicely made and everything, but I couldn't put it out anywhere," Brown said. "Every time I looked at it, it just reminded me that she was dead. It was just too somber."
"I decided I was going to make something else that I wouldn't hate to look at," she said.
Brown built an urn that featured a figurine resembling Suzie and small yellow-orange balls that appear to be bouncing near the dog -- in memory of the Labrador's passion for playing with tennis balls.
"I put it on three legs, and that's symbolic," Brown said, explaining that there is "something not balanced, something missing. Also, she's elevated because she's no longer grounded to the Earth."
After Suzie's death, Brown was soon facing another problem. Her employer, a life insurance company, was moving its Louisville operations to Cincinnati, and Brown, a computer programming analyst, would soon lose her job. The answer, she thought, might be to develop urn creations as a business.
So far, she has continued to support herself by doing contract work for the insurance company, but still has hope for Spirit Remains. "It would be nice if it were something that I could make a living out of," she said.
Why would someone spend more than $100 on a storage box for pet remains?
It's all about love of a lost friend, Land said. When Belle died in November, "I was just devastated. I have other dogs. I've had dogs all my life, but this one (was) really special."
She had adopted the terrier after it had been abused by previous owners, and it came to her with one leg missing, but personality intact.
"Normally when I have my dogs cremated, I bring them home in little wooden boxes or little plastic boxes, but it just wasn't fitting for her. She was very regal and she ruled," Land said. "I think she deserved it after the hard life she had had."
To help jump-start sales, Brown is getting some marketing tips and help with her Web site from Roger Bauer, a Louisville small-business consultant.
Customers like Val Locke of Harpswell, Maine, believe it's just a matter of getting the word out about Brown's decorative containers.
Locke, who had lived in Louisville from 1982 to 1997, knew Brown but didn't know about the urns until the two friends happened to make contact last year. Locke quickly placed an order.
"I had a cat for 15 years who died. Literally I held onto the ashes for about seven years," Locke said. "I was reluctant to just toss them out."
She commissioned an urn, "and it's in my house now with my cat's ashes in it. And it's really cute," featuring a cat sitting in a rocking chair.
"It's a nice reminder," Locke said.
Reporter Bill Wolfe can be reached at (502) 582-4248.