Michael Goldman was the second hire at The Farmer’s Dog, a 100% human-grade dog food subscription service.
You are the Senior Manager of Special Projects. Briefly explain to us your responsibilities in this role?
The most accurate representation of my role over the years is depicted in High Growth Handbook by Elad Gill. He had this role at Twitter and Google, he calls it the wolf, which was essentially an early stage employee that gap-fills on positions that are open and then hires out on that role as the company grows.
So, my role has changed from helping stand up our Ops team, to web design, to being our first product manager.
Currently, I function as one of our PMs on our Product team and help develop new business initiatives.
You were one of the earliest employees at the Farmer’s Dog, and have been a part of the company though its series B Round, which was the largest in history for a Pet Startup. What has been a particular inflection point along this journey that stands out to you?
I would say the biggest inflection point was when we no longer had to constrain our growth because of operational capacity. For a long time, there was a fair level of uncertainty whether any given week we could produce enough food to satisfy the growth we were having. Oftentimes, we had to take breaks with growth to slow things to make sure we were at a steady state.
Once our operations were unlocked to a point where we could grow as freely and quickly as we wanted to, we saw a huge shift in our mentality.
Like most DTC categories, pet food has become crowded and more specialized. For example, DTC cat-food startup smalls recently raised $9M Series A round, and the no-meat dog food company Wild Earth raised $11M in series A funding a year ago. How are you adapting to this market fragmentation?
Pet food is a really large market and it’s not a winner-take-all industry. With something that is so personal like pet food, there can be a lot of players, each having a unique conversation with customers.
Every dog owner believes they are feeding their pet the best food that they can, so it’s really all about education and forging authentic relationships with customers. Focusing on a niche can definitely help streamline that conversation, which is where you see more fragmentation. Examples in this are in companies focused on dogs vs. cats in the DTC space. For us, it’s really about making sure that we keep our focus on creating the best possible experience for our customers. I think this comes from a confidence in our product and in knowing what fresh pet food can do for dog’s lives.
At the end of the day, I think more about the incumbents that are doing $1bn+ revenue in pet food than DTC competitors when framing all of the work we have left to do.
Why DTC and why the subscription model?
The cool thing about our business is it’s not your typical ‘DTC lipstick on a pig’. For many businesses, DTC is this cool new business model to hack distribution, but for us, we leverage the model to provide a better product than you can at retail. We use questionnaires and customize portions to each customer specifically, and so that doesn’t work in stores.
The subscription model is aimed to remove as much of the headache for caring for your pets as possible. Our mission of taking the incredible love people have for their pets and turning it into uncomplicated care. From a customer standpoint, subscription makes it easier because you know you don’t have to worry about buying pet food. Unlike meal kits, dogs don’t eat out and don’t have changes in feeding behavior, so we know the day you would run out of pet food and can send food prior to then, which makes inventory management much easier.
Another interesting development in the DTC space is the rise of private labels as legacy companies have improved their branding. Do you see this as a legitimate threat in the pet food category?
The thing about pets is that people have a super personal relationship with their pets. Companies have done their own take on private label, but it really serves a different need than our product. The conversation with customers and messages we are sending is much more authentic. Customers often have the same distrust with these large companies as they do with previous incumbents in the pet industry.
Where do you see white space in the pet food category?
I think there is real opportunity in more niche pet categories. Other animals like reptiles are growing among younger demographics which will be exciting to see. I also think cell cultured products could be interesting, but I think the new types of ‘pets’ emerging have the most immediate potential.
What other spaces excite you?
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the next phase of consumer brands. I think creators will definitely continue to play an increasing role in the space and those with the strongest relationships with their audiences will be able to be really successful in monetizing.
Cell culture meat is also something that I find super interesting – I am doing a bunch of research into it.
What do you think is the most important part of a business to get right first?
Good question. I think what separated us versus our competitors was that we were bootstrapped for a year and half. Our founders Jonathan [Regev] and Brett [Podolsky] would go to dog parks and acquire customers on the streets of New York City. They would constantly talk to customers and cooked and fulfilled the products themselves. Because of this, we were able to develop a perspective of what customers want and build based on understanding the customer’s needs at the deepest level.
And you can see it in our messaging. It doesn’t look like it was written by a DTC branding agency, but by someone who really knows their customer.
Along the way, executing on the trust you develop is massive. When you get a customer in a subscription business they are signing up for a level of trust and providing a certain standard of service is huge, but a deep deep understanding of the customer was the most important thing.
The Farmer’s Dog has a very strong marketing presence –everything from Subway ads to TV commercials. Given the rising prices of social media advertising, do you think brands will focus more on these traditional forms of marketing?
Definitely. Any brand these days is going to be doing a fair amount of experimental marketing in their channels — we are constantly trying out new channels to see where we can meet our customers’ most efficiently. We have done this work in the last few years so that we have a really robust marketing channel mix that we can tap into.
For pretty much all brands trying to scale online that aren’t going the retail approach –- which is another way –- scaling a diverse marketing mix is a pretty important thing.
What advice would you give an early stage company consumer company?
Just tying it back to the original answer, understanding the customer is key. It really is extremely easy to jump to solutions (and it is far more fun), but to understand what are the actual problems we are solving in our business, and who are our customers – it is going to yield a much better product that is much more authentic.
What is the last:
TV show you binged?
2) Movie you watched?
Children of Men.
Song you listened to?
Brazil by Declan McKenna.
Podcast you listened to?
Venture Stories hosted by Erik Torenberg.
Book you read?
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai.
Up next: Brian Spears, Co-founder & CEO of New Age Meats.