How This Couple Started A Healthy Dog Treat Business

The Story of Treats Happen

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

We’re Lucas Walker and Riley Wallbank, and we are from Toronto. We make all natural dog treats with our company Treats Happen.

Our flagship product is our beef lung dog treats. Dogs go crazy for it and their parents love that it’s healthy and made without fillers or additives. We’re making about $15K per month right now but expect that to consistently double by the end of the year as we launch our new branding and increase distribution.

One of our biggest learnings is that we aren’t just an e-commerce company, we’re a brand. Many people who want to start a business look to be direct to consumer through their own website. We look to be available on as many profitable channels as possible.

how-two-friends-started-a-healthy-dog-treat-business

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

We started making dog treats for ourselves when we weren’t happy with the options in stores. After seeing a few others selling online, we thought why not us.

Most products in stores were pretty unhealthy (think cookies but for dogs. High in carbs and sugar, and a lot of chemicals and preservatives). The healthier products were all aimed towards people with smaller dogs. We’d go through a bag of treats in half a day.

Way too many people have great ideas. At the end of the day, the ultimate litmus test is if someone will buy your product. Sales is one of the best skills you can learn. If you want to grow and scale, you’ll be pitching/selling for media coverage, investors, even suppliers.

It started out as a hobby or side hustle and way to have a few more write-offs for our taxes. When Lucas was fired from his day job we saw there was a pet expo two weeks away so we made as much product as we could, Riley built a beautiful booth and we tested if anyone really want to buy from us.

Because we were new, we wanted to create a popup storefront that could sell products, not just give out samples of “build brand”. It was the time that target was closing in Canada so we were able to get some great display racks at next to nothing and really create a storefront. One thing we did which looking back was so dumb was give things “real” prices like $8.50. This made things complicated. One thing we learned immediately was to line price everything and reduce change.

We did $3,000 that weekend and knew we had a business.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

For us we started by reverse engineering the few products we found in stores.

What we found was many of the treats were made as thick as possible. The reason for this was you could fit more into a dehydrator/oven. We didn’t like this as you ended up going through the treats more quickly. We aimed to make our treats as thin as possible so one ounce of our treats was much more economical than what was on the market.

how-two-friends-started-a-healthy-dog-treat-business

We also tested the time it would take to make our products. We had to dehydrate long enough to remove moisture for shelf stability, but too long and we’re wasting time and electricity. It would start with a dehydrator then taking samples out every 12 hours (twice a day) and see how they looked.

Then testing out other cuts of meats which we could dehydrate. We weren’t satisfied with the options in stores and through experimentation, we figured out a way to make the treats better.

For us, the differentiation was about what made us better. A lot of this came from reading negative reviews of other products out there. Using chemical preservatives. High carb, even the size of the treats. If you’re using treats for training, you want them to last as long as possible.

We also realized there was a big discrepancy in marketing and customer service. All the major pet brands in Canada go lazy when it came to social media. Even now they think they can just jam their message out there and people will follow them. Early on, and even now, we made a genuine attempt to connect with our customers. Our customers are at the heart of everything we do. We don’t send out product to “influencers” because we can’t defend to our customers why we would send something to someone who has never bought from us but when you’ve spend hundred, or sometimes thousands with us, you get nothing.

As we grew and outsourced production, we work with our manufacturers and kitchens to create new products and enhance current ones.

The regulations in the pet industry are interesting as there aren’t currently many auditing bodies, but when you go across you’re following the same specifications as anything that’s human grade.

This is one of the reasons we choose to find a manufacturer instead of building a plant ourselves. We want to partner with someone who has done it before rather than trying to learn how to be a manufacturer as well as learn how to be a consumer brand..

Our first manufacturer found us after a feature in the Globe and Mail, and we even went through some acquisition talks (I can’t go into more details due to NDA). Our current one was introduced to us by a mutual friend.

Our costs were quite low because we were making the products ourself.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

Looking back, our first website was so bad. We didn’t even have product photos, just logos. We used photos from our iPhones without really setting it up, and no thought went into the product page copy or anything.

When first starting out, read some books on copywriting. The big brands don’t take much time on the product descriptions on their website so really go into detail. Also read the negative reviews of other products and turn those into the positive of yours.

Enjoy the moment. It’s very easy to stress about where you need to be or something that happened but you can only really control where you are right now. If you’re having a nice meal or at the Jays game, enjoy it. Most things can wait.

One more thing is don’t skimp on your about us page. We use it to highlight our values and tell our story. It’s one of the top 5 pages people view on your website. When buying a product you want to know who you’re buying it from.

When you’re just starting, focus on getting traffic then if it will convert. It’s becoming harder and harder to grow your own audience which if I was just starting out again is where my efforts would be focused.

For us, e-commerce is a channel. Our goal is to have multiple channels which can carry each other if one is down. We’re not creating a website, where you can buy products as much as we are creating a brand which is also sold online through our own website.

Since launch, what has worked to attract new customers?

We’ve been shifting from direct to consumer to distribution through brick and mortar. This isn’t sexy but a lot of this is old-fashioned cold calling.

We realized our product is much more a buy in person product. Given the cost to ship, it’s hard to acquire a customer and make money when you sell a product that’s $10-$30. People also like to go to a petstore as an outing with their dog. There are a lot of nuances to the pet industry that make it unique.

People also like to bundle their purchase. They want treats, food, maybe a toy, collar, or other accessory. It’s rare to just need treats. We don’t want to dilute ourselves into those other categories.

Below is our ideal customer for each platform

Direct through Shopify/Website

This is where our loyal and repeat customers come. Often they’ll buy multipacks which helps us cover our shipping costs. We can also give them extra and learn more about them and build audiences with them. Here we have the most control, but we want to have a large order size. Not everyone wants to buy their dog treats by the case.

Amazon

We do fulfilled by Amazon in the USA. We actually use them to fulfil smaller orders for us. It’s a great place for first time purchases, as well as for new customers to try our treats for the first time. In the last three years., it’s gotten significantly more expensive and competitive though.

Distributors

We use distributors to get us into brick and mortar retailers, particularly independants. It’s how they prefer to buy. We sell to distributors at 30% off wholesale so it’s our lowest margin channel, but we sell by the skid so the volume is there to make it up. A mentor to us always advises that you can’t bank margin.

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

It’s been a lean few months as we shift to new branding and manufacturers. We’ve used this time to build up our sales pipeline and organic reach through viral content which creates a warm audience and we give them a bit of information about our brand.

One thing that we’re really working on is volume. Our sales goal is 10,000 units per SKU every six months in 2019. If we can’t hit that, then it’s time to reevaluate if that SKU is sustainable.

We’re very optimistic for the next few months though and on a personal level, we’re both happier than we have been in a long time. I’d recommend not starting a business with someone you’re close to as it will cause a lot of stress you can’t just turn off (you don’t go from where are the sales to Netflix and chill).

It was also a very tough couple of years personally. Riley lost her dad and step-dad, and my father was diagnosed with Parkinson's. We also both lost grandparents and had numerous other personal challenges we’ve had to push through.

As far as revenue, it has been very light light as we prep for our new branding and products. This past week we received verbals on $55K worth of sales and have another $780K of pipeline.

For reference on the wholesale side of things, Petsmart would be a $2.2M a year account for us. This is forecasted on each SKU selling $10 of retail sales per week. (Example if a product retails for $7 you’ll sell about 1.43 units per week of that SKU in each store.)

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Customers above everything else. If you have customers that are delighted, you will get lots in return. Repeat orders, reviews, referrals, content for social media. When you have real people and real stories, the reality is better than any fictional marketing.

Enjoy the moment. It’s very easy to stress about where you need to be or something that happened but you can only really control where you are right now. If you’re having a nice meal or at the Jays game, enjoy it. Most things can wait.

Everything matters, and nothing matters. You have to pay attention to all the details and sometimes things will be dropped but that’s ok. You can also be replaced at any time and most people will be OK with it.

Tactically we’ve learned a ton about the CPG, e-commerce, and pet industry.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I read a lot of biographies. Especifically sport biographies. I enjoy the tales of overcoming something but for the purpose of this post here are my top three books which everyone should read before starting a business. Also for marketing I really like Buffer’s podcast.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Sell something.

Way too many people have great ideas. At the end of the day, the ultimate litmus test is if someone will buy your product. Sales is one of the best skills you can learn. If you want to grow and scale, you’ll be pitching/selling for media coverage, investors, even suppliers.

Take care of yourself. Both Riley and I let our health go. You have to take care of your mental and physical well being. It might seem basic but you have to be selfish from time to time. In the past year I’ve started meditating and cycling.

Where can we go to learn more?

TreatsHappen.com

We’re on Amazon.com in the USA if you’d like to try our treats.

@treatshappen on all social medias social

Find me directly @walkerlucas on Twitter

how-two-friends-started-a-healthy-dog-treat-business

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