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How I Created An All-Natural Dog Treat Mix

Rachel Steinford
Rachel Steinford

In 2019, I decided to leave a decade-long career as a product manager at enterprise software startups in San Francisco to do something that I was passionate about. I asked my girlfriend to move with me to San Diego, so I could open a dog boarding business. She agreed, we moved south, I proposed to her, and she said yes to that too - a strong start to a new chapter in my life.

It took me the better part of a year to find a place to lease (landlords are generally not thrilled about the idea of putting dozens of dogs in their buildings), but after that things started to move quickly - I got permits, had plans drawn up and found a contractor. I was days away from closing my SBA loan and starting the buildout when I got a call from the bank. You see, this was March of 2020, and a new thing called Covid-19 had made the world uncertain enough that the bank was going to put a hold on underwriting new loans for the immediate future.

Fast forward a couple of months, and it became apparent that taking a large loan to open a business at which people could leave their dogs while traveling was not the best plan. I cut bait (after having sunk in just about a hundred grand), moped for a few days, and then remembered an idea that I’d had for frozen dog treat mix. Summer was coming, I had plenty of time on my hands, and an e-commerce business selling a product folks could use at home seemed like just the ticket - thus, Cooper’s Treats was born.

Was it a lightbulb moment or gradual process of Cooper's Treats?

There was definitely a lightbulb moment back in 2019 when I was still looking for real estate for the dog boarding business - it was a hot San Diego summer day, and I was living in a house with no air conditioning. I offered Cooper a piece of freeze dried beef (usually one of his favorite treats), but he ignored it - it was clearly just too hot for him to want it. Instead, I grabbed a piece of ice from the freezer and gave it to him; that went over much better.

Then I saw a food processor that had recently been gifted to my wife and I for our engagement, and I had a thought. I took some of the freeze dried beef, blended it into a powder, mixed it with water, poured the mixture into an ice cube tray and froze it.

Everything about the experience was terrible. First, when I opened the food processor, freeze dried meat dust came floating out and got in my nose. (Freeze dried meat dust smells about as good as you might imagine). When I mixed it with water, the result was a lumpy brown sludge that bore a striking resemblance to vomit. The end result was brown ice cubes, reminiscent of frozen poop.

Cooper's treats

But when I gave one to Cooper, he loved it. A meat ice cube - the perfect doggie snack for a hot day. It took some iterating to get to a final product that was appealing both for the dog eating it and the human making it, but I did just that while using just a few, high-quality ingredients alongside the freeze dried meat.

Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?

Zip. Zilch. Nada. It’s not even that I didn’t know anything about dog treats; coming from the software industry, I didn’t know anything about anything when it came to dealing with physical goods. Manufacturing, packaging, shipping, inventory management - these were all new concepts for me.

Cooper's Treats starter pack

One particularly stupid mistake that resulted from my lack of knowledge still stands out to me. When I had a box designed for the Pupsicle Starter Kit, our flagship product, I made it about 40% bigger than it needed to be in order to fit all of its contents inside, and then I filled the extra space with packing material before shipping it out.

Outside of the obvious waste of cardboard and packing materials, there was a bigger issue - at that size, it came in at about 1.2 pounds. When shipping via USPS, anything over one pound must be sent Priority Mail - for this particular size of box, that came to about $10. On a $24.99 product (which was also a mistake - I’ve since raised the price to $26.99) for which I offered free shipping, that was obviously a huge problem.

Eventually I figured out that packages under one pound can be shipped by the cheaper First Class Mail, I had the box redesigned to be just big enough to fit its contents with no extra packing material needed, and suddenly it cost $6 to ship.

Have you raised any money? How much?

I haven’t raised any yet. Realistically, if I were going to raise money now, it would be from friends and family, and the idea of that is a bit nerve-wracking. Even though I wouldn’t take money from anyone who didn’t understand the risks of investing in a company at this stage, I’d still feel an enormous amount of pressure not to lose their investment.

Instead, I’ve funded it myself on a relatively small budget - about $25,000 to date - and have just reinvested all the cashflow back into the business. I’m going to have to put in a bit more to pay for my upcoming production run, but after that the goal is to grow the business solely on its own cashflow.

At some point I could see raising money from investors who could also provide some expertise on the operational side of the business, but I definitely don’t want to go the Silicon Valley route of raising huge amounts of money to try and be worth billions. I’d much prefer to own a big piece of a decent-sized company than a small piece of a behemoth.

What is the funniest/most strange customer request you’ve had?

Not a request, but a complaint. A handful of customers have written to us to express their displeasure that when they took their frozen treats out of the freezer, they melted. Apparently we should have included in the instructions that frozen things melt.

What motivated you to start your own business?

Working in Silicon Valley, startup founders are everywhere, and when things go well for them, you certainly hear about it. In that environment, it’s tough not to think about starting your own company, and I certainly did. My problem was that despite having a lot of experience in enterprise software, I just didn’t care about it enough to ever consider trying my own enterprise software startup.

Alex Willen, Founder of Cooper's Treats

I knew that there was great money to be made in taking care of dogs, given what I was spending on my dog walker and boarding when I went out of town, and one day I just decided that I had enough money saved and that it was time to make a change. Even though that fell through, I had been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and there was no going back!

What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?

I honestly don’t know what the end goal is at this point. I saw plenty of people in Silicon Valley start companies with a plan to sell them in a few years - sometimes that works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but I think that if you’re really passionate about an idea, you’re not going to have a plan to get out of it before you even start. Right now I’m just working on growing the company, getting over the next hump and getting high-quality homemade treats into the mouths of as many very good dogs as possible.

It’s definitely stressful when things go wrong, but in the grand scheme of things I’m happier doing this than I ever was working in the software industry. I love being in charge and doing something I’m really fired up about. I want to keep doing it, and that keeps me motivated.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?

Just do something! Planning is important, but if you do too much too early, it can get overwhelming; plus, things are going to change over time, so planning in too much detail can be a waste of time and discouraging when reality doesn’t match what you’ve planned.

In the early days, I just focused on the next big thing that needed to get done in order for me to have a real business. First that was developing the product. Once that was done, I needed packaging to put it in. After that, I needed a website. When I had all the pieces in place to start selling, I needed to find customers. By focusing on one thing at a time, I avoided getting overwhelmed, and even though I’ve had to go back and fix some early mistakes, I’ve always kept pushing forward in the right direction.

What has driven the most sales?

Facebook/Instagram for acquiring users, plus email. It honestly felt like a miracle when I finally had some Facebook ads that started converting well - I went from 1-2 sales a day (and I was losing money on those) to 20 a day that were nicely profitable. The iOS 14 privacy update has definitely caused some problems on that front, but I’m figuring those out and looking to expand to other advertising platforms as well.

What is stopping you being 3x the size you are now?

Operations - I’ve been making the product and shipping every order from my house since day one, out of a desire to validate the idea while keeping my costs as low as possible. The good news is that I’m now confident that I have a real business and have found a contract manufacturer to handle production and a logistics company to handle fulfillment. My first production run is going to be in just over a month, and it’s just an unbelievable milestone to think about.

Also, I’m really, really tired of grinding freeze dried meat into powder in my kitchen. It gets everywhere. The one good thing about the pandemic is that I’ve got plenty of masks in the house to keep the stuff out of my nose.

How do you protect yourself from competition?

It’s an interesting space to be in, because dog treat mix is obviously a bit of a niche in the pet supplies market. There’s a couple of relatively competitive products owned by larger pet companies, but they use all sorts of unpronounceable ingredients (things like caboxymethylcellulouse).

Cooper's Treats products

Given that pet owners increasingly want high-quality, whole ingredients, it’s actually kind of nice that I have those products to compare mine to.

What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without? Why are they essentials?

Shopify is an unbelievable tool that handles a really insane amount  of the work of running an e-commerce company. It took me a couple of hours to get the first version of my website up, and even though it was pretty ugly, it had all the functionality needed for me to make my first sales.

Klaviyo’s fantastic for email, and it drives a big percent of my revenue. It makes it fairly straightforward to do pretty complex things with email, like segmenting audiences based on what they’ve done and building out conditional email flows.

Facebook ads are critical to my business, and while I know that Facebook gets a lot of hate for their privacy practices, the reality is that their ability to target very particular groups of people is a huge boon to small businesses.

What are your favourite books?

I really enjoy sci-fi, particularly the sort that makes you think big picture about the future of the planet - Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky is my absolute favorite book, and Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is up there as well. I think fiction that causes you to take a step back and see the world in a broader lens is helpful in all aspects of life.

In terms of business books, I really enjoy those that tell the stories of businesses as opposed to the ones that give advice. The Space Barons by Christian Davenport gives a great look at the burgeoning space industry and its major players, and In-N-Out Burger by Stacy Perman is a fascinating look at the history of a business that we Californians know and love.

What are your favourite podcasts?

It’s my dream to be on How I Built This - Guy Raz, if you’re reading this, call me any time.

I’m also a big fan of Odd Lots, a Bloomberg economics podcast. It gets into some complex financial topics, but there are also a number of episodes that really help to make sense of some of the important economic issues that affect us - lately they’ve been going deep into things like how goods are shipped from China to the US, which is definitely relevant for everyone today.

What are the next products you’re working on?

I’m planning to start doing some fun limited-run holiday themed boxes with special flavors of treat mix. I’ve already got my recipe for pumpkin flavored treats for October, but unfortunately with my production moving to a contract manufacturer right around that time, it’s just not going to happen this year. I’m working feverishly to have a special Christmas box, though!

What is current revenue? If you don’t mind sharing

I’m thrilled to say that we just crossed over $100,000 in revenue for 2021, which I think is pretty good for our first full year of operations. Once my production run is done, I’m really going to ramp up the advertising, so I’m definitely hoping to close the year substantially higher than that and have a great 2022!

Company Name: Cooper's Treats
Founder: Alex Willen
InterviewEcommerce

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