With plenty of 20th Century businesses still struggling to find the formula for success in this dog-eat-dog economy of the 21st Century, Manny the Frenchie is booming. The 2-year-old French bulldog has seven employees scheduling his appearances, managing his T-shirt sales and booking his modeling gigs.
"It boggles a lot of people's minds that a dog can be a business," says Jon Huang, 35. He and girlfriend Amber Chavez, 31, an Aurora native, say they never expected anything more than a pet when they bought the dog in the summer of 2011 for a discounted price of $900.
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"The breeder was very motivated to get rid of Manny. Nobody really wanted him. He was the last of his litter," Huang says. The puppy was almost 4 months old and didn't have a name when they brought him home to their Chicago duplex, Chavez says. They thought about naming their new dog Derrick in honor of Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose, but, as huge boxing fans, they opted instead to name him after Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. Manny the boxer has 3,957 followers on Instagram. Manny_the_Frenchie has 361,709 followers on Instagram.
"Manny was a puppy and he was extremely cute, so a lot of our friends would ask us to send them pictures," Huang says. To save time, Huang and Chavez opened an Instagram account for their dog and posted photos online, where other people found them, and earned Manny a spot on the "popular page."
"Once he got on the popular page, more people started following and it just kind of blew up," Huang says. "In the world today, social media is huge."
On Instagram, Manny is followed by celebrities such as rappers Lil Wayne and Swizz Beatz, singer Christina Milian, "Glee" actress Jenna Ushkowitz, Broadway and film actress Sanaa Lathan, pro athletes Evan Turner of the Philadelphia 76ers and former Chicago Bear Brendon Ayanbadejo, and Victoria's Secret model Shanina Shaik.
The Manny the Frenchie Facebook page has 88,542 likes, and 17,206 people follow his @FrenchieManny Twitter feed. The entertainment website BuzzFeed listed Manny at the top of its list of "12 French Bulldogs You Need To Be Following On Instagram." Manny appeared on the Steve Harvey TV show.
"Large corporations started asking us if they could use him," Huang says.
Manny was a hit at the Threadless T-shirt company, Huffington Post and American Apparel. His likeness appears on clothing designed for dogs and humans. Sponsored by PetSmart, Manny was the star of Saturday's Manny's #Monstercute Halloween Party at Paradise 4 Paws luxury pet hotel and resort in Chicago. Starting Friday, Manny's face will appear on a line of "big face" shirts from The Mountain T-shirt company. The dog also sells shirts through mannythefrenchie.com, makes appearances in the city and suburbs and donates money to animal charities.
When Manny's popularity took off, Huang and Chavez couldn't keep their jobs and handle all of their pet's work, so Chavez quit her hotel job to help manage Manny. They lured Naperville native and friend Dani Majer away from her career in sales to help run Manny's social media sites, and added five part-time employees.
Explaining to people that she works for a French bulldog can elicit odd reactions, Majer says. Many Americans, mostly older folks who can't name a famous dog since Lassie, are still shaking their heads in disbelief over that paragraph about how BuzzFeed named Manny the top dog of French bulldogs on Instagram, and that there are things called BuzzFeed, Instagram and Swizz Beatz.
"If they haven't heard of Boo the Pomeranian, they don't get it," Majer says, referring to the pop sensation dog that Khloé Kardashian dubbed "beyond cute" in 2010. Boo has been the subject of two books, had his likeness made into stuffed animals and became a spokesdog for Virgin Airlines. Manny is aiming for that sort of career.
"Hallmark reached out, so we are doing some greeting cards with them," Majer says. Other marketing possibilities are in the works for Manny and his extended doggy family, says Majer, 27, who graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in business administration. She says Instagram boasts Manny & Friends @manny_and_friends, Frank (Manny's younger brother) @frank_the_funnyfrenchie, Leila (Manny's older sister) @leila_the_bullboxer, and Cooper (Manny's cousin) @cooper_the_frenchie.
"They all have crazy amounts of followers as well," Majer says. "It's pretty crazy."
And it probably means that old-timers will have to rethink that old "gone to the dogs" expression.