Insight's Growth Gurus series showcases inspiring leaders from our portfolio of growth-stage software and internet companies. In this interview, we interviewed the Co-founders of The Farmer's Dog, Jonathan Regev and Brett Podolsky.
What led to the inception of The Farmer’s Dog?
Brett: It all started with my dog Jada. She was sick for the first two years that I had her and it set me on this journey to try to find a solution to her stomach problems. After trying every type of dog food that you could imagine and seeing no results, I finally brought her to a vet who said, "Just take the ingredients on the dog food bag you’re currently feeding her but just cook them yourself." When I did that, the result was like magic.
That made me start to wonder about what is going on with dog food. Why is it the status quo that we're giving our dogs these shelf-stable brown balls? After starting to question this, I looked into the industry and why pet food is the way it is. What I discovered was pretty alarming. For one, there's almost no regulation in the dog food industry – and the regulation that does exist is rarely enforced. On top of that, the process that they use to take what they say is food and turn it into these brown balls is a process called extrusion. A byproduct of that process is acrylamide, which is a carcinogen that causes cancer in animals.
After looking into the industry and learning a lot of scary things, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to trust any of these big commercial brands to feed my dog. To make a long story short, I started looking for a brand that I could trust and after realizing that there was just no brand out there that I felt comfortable feeding my dog with, Jonathan and I decided to build that brand.
How did you and Jonathan meet? Did you have different leadership styles early on and how has that evolved?
Jonathan: We met abroad in Israel and hit it off immediately. We ended up living together in New York during the time that he was going through this process of cooking for Jada, so it was perfect timing.
At first, we were leading the business ourselves because we didn't hire any employees for the first two years and bootstrapped the company. Leadership was mainly about your own work ethic. As the company scale, we discovered that we have distinct leadership styles, which has helped us have a dynamic leadership team. Whereas I tend to lead from the front, Brett is better at taking care of the pack and making sure customers and employees are happy. My leadership style is more focused on the vision and the future, and together, I believe it’s the combination of our distinct styles that has created an amazing culture at The Farmer’s Dog.
Is there a story that you can share about a challenge that you experienced when building the company, whether early or more recently? How did you guys go about solving it?
Jonathan: Since inception, it’s been challenging to create a subscription that makes sense for dog food consumption because it's not very obvious. We quickly realized that we're going to need to create a subscription with a high variety of permutations because we may have a two-pound dog that eats one pound a week and a hundred-and-fifty-pound dog that eats three pounds a day. How do we create a subscription that could be efficient and provide value to people with lower costs for such different consumption patterns? We really struggled with figuring out the right way to do that.
In the first two years, we created an Excel sheet and personalized everything that we did, which made it difficult to scale. We ended up bringing in people that were much more intelligent than we were, as far as creating technology around what we had envisioned. The more that we've been in business, we've realized that most of the challenges that you have become much easier to solve when you're surrounding yourself with incredible people. That's a small example of a recurring theme for sure.
How did you guys manage to differentiate and break away from the pack? Pun intended.
Jonathan: One of the main reasons we’ve been successful is because our founding story and the mission of the company is authentic. This helps us make the right decisions for our customers and also resonates with customers; they feel it through the brand.
Another strong advantage is that we spent over a year trying to figure out what it is that we wanted to build before spending a dollar in any infrastructure or raising money. In bootstrapping, we were able to create a very unique supply chain and technological infrastructure that provides us with better unit economics. We can drive more value to customers off similar food production that allows us to compete on less capital.
The best companies nail it and then scale it. If you don't have the resources and you're forced to be scrappy, then you’re forced to be creative.
As you started to mature as a company, why did you ultimately decide to fundraise?
Jonathan: That was one of the hardest decisions for us because we were bootstrapping the company and we were profitable. As we started to add more customers and see the impact that this type of food actually had on dogs, the more we were driven to change the industry. To do this, it would take a very long time with the capital we had at our disposal.
When we decided to fundraise, it was important for us to work with great people who would support our goals. At different stages of growth, we needed different things from investors. For our seed stage, Forerunner was fantastic at providing insight into the customer experience and creating a brand that resonates with people. Shasta Ventures was our second investor of our B round and they helped us turn an incredible experience into a sustainable operation. In our latest round with Insight, what we were excited about was the ability to scale very quickly and in a healthy way. It's really important that the investments that you bring on actually provide value and not just money, because you can get money in many different places.
How are you going to utilize this recent investment to further scale the company?
Jonathan: The platform that we've created is quite unique. When you come to The Farmer's Dog website, we ask you a bunch of questions about your dog because in reality, humans don't know what to feed their dog and are just trusting the marketing on a dog food bag. Instead of creating things that we thought people would want to purchase, we asked questions and then would make the right recommendation based off of that analysis.
By delivering a quality product and experience to our customers, we have noticed that they are starting to look at everything else that they’re providing their dog and questioning its health value. Therefore, we see a very large opportunity to get our food into more of the market and provide them with other products that they're giving to their dog.
Coming off of that, what's your favorite customer story?
Brett: The most memorable story that I can recall is a customer who learned from their vet that their dog only had a few weeks left to live. They wanted to give them the best diet that they could find and the happiest life for the last few weeks of their life. They found us when we were still in beta and I signed them up over the phone. Their story was heartbreaking for us to hear.
At the time, our prices were about four times what they’re priced at now, so it was out of her means, but she wanted her dog to have an amazing diet. Fast forward a year, she called in to tell us that her dog had just passed away. A dog that she had planned to lose just two weeks after signing up for the food ended up living about a year and a half longer, which was crazy.
This was the first time that we really got to see how fresh food, how our food, could be so impactful on health. When we found out about this, we ended up fully refunding her. The story alone was enough of a payment.