Every morning around 5:15 AM, I am rudely awoken by a flat-nosed freight train. Amidst jubilant snorts of anticipation, I stumble to my fridge and pour a colorful mix of fresh turkey, kale, carrots, and chickpeas. My attempts to go back to bed are instantly thwarted by slurps of ecstasy and 20-30 minutes of steel being repeatedly slammed against my baseboards. Eventually, I emerge and forcefully separate an angry Frenchie from her empty bowl.
I have Brett Podolsky to thank for my loss of sleep. Brett founded The Farmer’s Dog with Rocket Internet alum Jonathan Regev after spending two years with a sick pup, trying every “high-end” dog food on the market to no avail. Eventually, he ended up simply cooking a simple feast of chicken and fresh veggies for his dog Jada and two years of stomach ailments were cured in two days.
“I wanted to find a brand that I felt comfortable feeding my dog. When I realized that this brand didn’t exist, I decided to build it”
The Farmer’s Dog boasts that they test on humans and I’ve been tempted a time or two to fry it up with some eggs. If they gave it a healthy pinch of salt and re-branded as “artisanal sausage” with a store a few blocks down on Bedford Ave, I have no doubt they could get $14.99/lb from the Williamsburg crowd.
While I live with the ultimate satisfied customer, it isn’t so much the quality of food that caught my attention. It’s that every batch of food is personalized for Stella’s idiosyncrasies and arrives labeled “Stella’s Turkey Recipe.” How the heck do these guys achieve this kind of personalization at scale? So with Stella in tow, I took the G up to Metropolitan to find out.
A Brand Built By Personalization
Though they now boast full distribution centers in Westchester County and Chicagoland, The Farmer’s Dog began with a couple of guys cooking in a Brooklyn kitchen and little to no marketing effort.
“In the early days, we grew primarily through word of mouth with customers consistently praising the dog’s enjoyment and the level of personalized service,” says Podolsky. Every package of food is customized for each dog based on activity level, age, weight, breed After a user inputs her pet’s basic info, algorithms mash the data to determine a dog’s ideal amuse bouche.
But it’s not just our four-legged friends who reap the benefits of having a canine concierge. Ultimately, humans pay for the food and personalized pet food at your doorstep solves a key pain point.
Unlike a shopper at Sephora, most dog food shoppers aren’t looking to spend a lot of time having a serendipitous in-store experience. But when you walk into a massive pet food retailer or your local store, you are inundated with the aroma of cow esophagus and scores of brands you know nothing about. So you pick the one with the catchiest marketing, totally unaware of the contents. It’s basically like shopping for wine without the fun of sampling the product.
Product-market fit for The Farmer’s Dog starts with the understanding that many consumers want a radically simplified experience instead of a paradox of choice. “When you come to our website, instead of flinging a million options at you, we present a few choices tailored to your pet’s needs.”
Personalizing at Scale
To appreciate the market opportunity for high-quality, personalized pet food, it’s vital to note that pet food is a $25B industry with fundamental flaws.
There is no FDA or governing body to fact-check the claims made by dog food companies, giving marketers carte-blanche to say whatever will sell while stocking their food with fillers. Poor industry ethics are literally triggering a war on the high seas and there is little way for consumers to separate legitimate product distinctions from outright lies. Hell, pet food companies could take a page from the SaaS playbook and say the food is “powered by AI” and there would be no legal ramifications.
But we live in a world with more pets than kids where dogs have their own Instagram accounts. Something doesn’t quite add up.
Thus, it’s no surprise that The Farmer’s Dog just raised $8M in a Series A round led by Shasta Ventures with participation from Forerunner, known for backing little e-commerce shops like Warby Parker and Dollar Shave Club. Last month, Chewy.com was acquired by PetsMart for $3.3 billion in the largest e-commerce acquisition in history. Whatever it says about society and millennials, the market for a luxury pet food brand couldn’t be hotter.
As the company grows, Podolsky says that personalization will remain core to their strategy. “At first, we thought we couldn’t afford to continue to be personalized since we felt our ultimate differentiator was the quality of our food more than the personalization. But over time we realized that personalization was fundamental to who we are as a brand.”
Podolsky assures that as the company scales, each pack of food will continue to be precisely portioned for each pet and will always feature his/her name on the label. In fact, The Farmer’s Dog plans to use the funding to build engineering and customer support infrastructure that gives owners more control over the content and frequency of their shipments.
“We started this company to make healthy dog food accessible and to give pet parents the peace of mind we think they all deserve.”