Katie McCarron of Portland Pet Food Company: “Don’t ever forget retail! “

Don’t ever forget retail! 2020 propelled so many brands into an ecommerce strategy, including us, but it’s crucial not to forget the businesses that supported your company from the start. Throughout the pandemic, when retailers were struggling, we did everything we could to support them — promoting them on social, offering special deals, etc., while simultaneously thriving […]

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Don’t ever forget retail! 2020 propelled so many brands into an ecommerce strategy, including us, but it’s crucial not to forget the businesses that supported your company from the start. Throughout the pandemic, when retailers were struggling, we did everything we could to support them — promoting them on social, offering special deals, etc., while simultaneously thriving ourselves online. The retailers appreciated it and because of it, our relationships have grown stronger. Even if foot traffic is down right now, we are confident that in-person shopping will bounce back and knowing that stores provide a more intimate shopping experience, it’s something we don’t want to ever miss out on!

As a part of my series called “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie McCarron, founder of Portland Pet Food Company, a manufacturer of human-grade dog meals and treats with ingredients sourced in the USA. Portland Pet Food Company’s mission is to provide pets with the same quality food that their owners eat. Founded in 2014, Katie launched the business out of the love for her aging Standard Poodle, Rosie.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Absolutely! For me, it’s not a question of what brought me to this career path — it’s who. I spent most of my professional career focused on human nutrition, primarily conducting research that bridged nutrition with healthcare administration and education. Throughout it all, Rosie, my Standard Poodle, was by my side. By the time I’d launched and sold a successful business to an S&P 500 company, Rosie had reached her senior years at age 14, and her health was starting to decline. I was devastated when our vet said that she may only have a few more months of life left. She had lost her appetite and I could see her declining rapidly from poor nutrition. She was prescribed a prescription diet and we tried various kibbles, wet food, raw, etc., but what good was any of it if she wouldn’t eat it?!

So, I put all of my time, focus and nutrition background into helping Rosie — and the most important thing she needed was to start eating again. I began cooking for Rosie at home using only ingredients that I’d find at local farmers markets and natural grocery stores, and Rosie loved it. She lived for two more years eating only Portland Pet Food Company meals and is the real founder of the company. Though Rosie has been gone for many years now, I’m still immensely grateful for the extra time I was able to be with her. One day, I decided that every dog parent should get the opportunity to spend as many years with their dogs as possible, so I launched a pet food company featuring the exact recipes I’d been giving Rosie! As of today, we’ve been selling our products for more than 6 years!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The most interesting stories come from the outpouring of messages from consumers expressing their appreciation for extending their dog’s life. I have found that the simple act of eating by a dog to be the most rewarding and interesting part of my journey while pursuing an alternative option to processed dog food. We have made eating such a complex issue for humans and have seemed to have passed this along to feeding animals. Sometimes a simple solution is all we need to make a difference…

I have been meaning to send this for a while, but I just wanted to say thank you for your dog food. I have a 15+ year old Beagle mix named Huckleberry, who I’ve had since he was 15 weeks old. He has been a voracious eater all his life (I’ve always had to make sure nothing even remotely edible was within his reach), until this past year when the side effects of some medications he’s on impacted his appetite. I spent several months (under direction from his vet) earlier this year trying various tactics to get him to eat again, but nothing worked for more than a few days — it seemed likely that most food was making him nauseated, so he would eat it for a few days and then not want it anymore. There were weeks where I was literally opening his mouth and putting food in his throat just so I knew he was getting some nutrition in him. I happened upon the packets of Portland Pet Food at my local Whole Foods and decided on a whim to give them a try. For about three months now, he has been eating so much more consistently. I cycle through the various flavors that are available there (chicken & yams, beef & rice, and pork & potatoes), mixed with his dry food, and though I still do have days where he doesn’t want to finish his food, they are fewer and further between than earlier this year. I don’t know how much longer Huck has left in this life, but I am confident that your product has made these last few months easier on him and likely extended his life. So thank you for this — I think you’ve given me a longer time to spend with Huck in the twilight of his life, which has been especially appreciated during this pandemic.”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It’s tough to name just one! Definitely my husband and two children — I wouldn’t have been able to launch PPFC and be where we are today without their help. My son, who graduated from college the year that I launched the business, was instrumental in helping develop our products, cooking and baking, and he continues to support us today between his duties as a medical resident in LA. My husband, instrumental with our investor relationships, was a supporter from day one and was given the title “Hound Dog” as he did a bit of everything in the early days. Lastly, my daughter lended a hand from day one selling at local farmers markets. Today she helps lead our brand, works on customer retention strategies and assists me with sales.

Outside of my family, Sarah Masoni at the Oregon Food Innovation Center was a crucial individual in the launch of PPFC. We first met when she was an instructor of a class that I took for entrepreneurs looking to learn about food safety, and we later consulted about taking our meals from frozen to a shelf stable meal in a pouch. This transition was critical in our early days, and we couldn’t have done it without her expertise and network within the food science community.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Sure, as long as I can share two!

“We find comfort in those that agree with us…growth among those that don’t.” — Frank A. Clark

As an entrepreneur, you have an idea(s), and many times are faced with adversity about them. While it’s critical to carefully listen to others and the advice they give you, in the end you must make a decision to act or not act upon your own ideas. Taking a risk is the most important decision you can make and the most rewarding if you are successful — not only for you, but also for those whom your idea was to create a solution for.

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have what the hell attitude.” Julia Child

When launching PPFC, it would have been an easy choice to not move forward, as there were already many well-established pet food companies that we would be going against. However, I felt that there was a gap in the quality of food that these companies were offering, so I decided to move forward with my plan and not be hindered by the definition of “pet food” or intimidated by the industry. In fact, our definition of pet food is much different than most brands — we provide human food FOR dogs, not dog food — which has made our path more difficult at times. Our decisions about the ingredients we put in the meals has prevented us from being called full & balanced by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. But no matter what, I will always stand by my decision to offer wholesome, natural ingredients that I believe in, rather than allow a quasi-private organization to tell me what constitutes a full & balanced diet for dogs. Food intake is a very personal choice, and one diet does not fit all. Julia Child’s quote summarizes the mentality we had back in 2014 when launching a pet food company so different from everything else, and we still maintain the same ‘what the hell’ attitude that built us and continues to make us successful today!

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

We think that dogs should eat just as well as their humans do. Take a look at most pet food ingredient lists, and you’ll notice that they are stuffed with fillers, preservatives and hidden items like meat from diseased animals. Man’s best friend deserves better than that! We’re working to provide an affordable, sustainable way to feed dogs as nutritious as possible, while educating consumers about the reality of pet food widely available.

Additionally, while our rotational meals are a good option for all dogs, they particularly solve an issue for pet owners that are struggling to feed a sick or elderly dog who may have lost their sense of taste and/or smell, like Rosie did.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We were (and still are) the first company to offer a human-grade dog meal in a shelf-stable microwavable pouch with no preservatives or additives — while also remaining 100% sourced and made in the USA. While there are a few great human-grade dog food options out there, most of them have added supplements, vitamins and/or ingredients from offshore locations and are sold frozen, so they have to be stored in the freezer and thawed before mealtime. Our pouches can sit in a pantry for up to two years, be tossed in a suitcase, backpack, etc. and be quickly served, saving precious time and energy while still being delicious and healthy! For dogs that prefer a warmer meal, they can be heated in a pot of hot water or microwaved to bring out the aroma. I still recall my early discussions with a packaging supplier. They stated, “No one in the pet food industry uses “microwavable materials” in their pouches so that they can be heated. You should order foil pouches, as that is industry standard, and they are cheaper.” I responded to him “Exactly, and that is why you will provide me with a quote on a pouch that can be reheated in the microwave or in a pot of hot water, as we are not like other companies.”

When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?

Aside from the first two years where my drive was keeping Rosie alive and healthy, the overarching motivation has always been to give all pet owners the chance to feed their dog a nutritious meal. Feeding pets a palatable meal with ingredients that are human-grade and US-sourced allows them to live a healthier longer life, but most people don’t know that — nor do they know what’s in their day-to-day kibble. Pet owners deserve to make the best choice for their pets, and dogs deserve to have a healthy, tasty meal — especially when they are struggling to eat.

What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?

I continue to be driven by the fact that with human-grade food sourced from US producers, dogs will live healthier longer, happier lives! We receive so many testimonials thanking us for producing a meal that picky dogs or those suffering with an illness will eat, most of whom went through many different products before finding success with ours. Additionally, the ability to create sustainable products and work with local suppliers has grown into something that motivates us, as we’ve learned over time how poorly the pet industry has historically treated the environment we live in — and we want to do better. I always state about the ingredients “if you don’t know how to pronounce it and you don’t know what it is, why would you feed it to your dog?”

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! We’re currently working on additional formulas for human-grade meals to expand our line of products in 2021. This will include some additional baked treats, too! Our new product lines will allow people to have a more diverse selection for their dogs.

The topic of this series is ‘Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue’. Congratulations! Seven figures is really a huge milestone. In your experience what was the most difficult part of being able to hit your first million-dollars in sales revenue?

The biggest challenge we have always faced is brand awareness and competing against large marketing budgets dominating the pet food industry. The food industry, whether human food or dog food, is an expensive undertaking and requires a lot of investment both in time and money. Our early growth was a grassroots movement that started with farmers markets and knocking on doors at local retailers. Slowly, customers discovered our brand and became repeat customers, spreading the word about our products. The long hours, persistence and finding your customer audience is challenging; however, stick with it knowing that once you are discovered and create brand awareness amongst a core customer base, the growth will come and makes it well worth it.

Secondly, dog food is a very habitual process — people start buying a brand for whatever reason, maybe the vet recommended it, they saw an ad on TV, or that’s what their dog ate before they were adopted. Unfortunately, pet owners rarely reevaluate the quality of their dog food unless their dog has a health issue. For us, a major challenge — and the biggest opportunity — is creating awareness of our brand and getting consumers to take a look at and reconsider what they are feeding their dogs.

Could you share the number one sales strategy that you found helpful to help you reach this milestone?

We have found that once people try our products, they fall in love with it and become a lifetime customer. Thus, the name of the game is driving the trial of that first purchase. To do this effectively, we build out trial-driving campaigns associated with each of our channels. For instance, in retail, we push trials by investing in promotions that interrupt a shopper’s journey and make them take a look at our products — like an end cap with a provocative call-to-action. Online, we have had success by combining great content with an effective promotion. Developing content that speaks directly to the individual consumer’s needs and leveraging a first-time buying promotion is all the incentive you need to get them to act fast and commit. And of course, customer testimonials are critical as the voice of the customer is of uppermost importance.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you or your team made during a sales process? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Since we are a dog food made with human-grade ingredients, I decided to take us on the road to visit human food trade shows. Early on, a buyer stopped by and asked why we were there, as they had never seen a pet product at the show in their entire buying experience. After explaining our mission and sharing about our company, the buyer proceeded to taste our treats and meals, challenging his assistant buyers to dig in too! This happens now on a regular basis when we are at trade shows…but they all love it and we’ve had no complaints so far! However, we do suggest a bit of salt and pepper!

Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Yes, we have a small sales team. At this stage, hiring third-party brokers gives us the best coverage at an affordable cost. When it comes to developing a high-performing sales team, we have found there are two critical areas. First, you need to have an aligned incentive structure to encourage the outcome you want. In the simplest form, this will be a commission structure. However, not all growth is created equally. At PPFC, we are focused on developing velocity within our existing universe of accounts and because of this, we want to reward brokers for increasing sales per store — not simply increasing sales through new placements. It is extremely important to think about expanding locally, regionally and then nationally. Let the demand drive your sales. Expanding solely through distribution can be costly to a young company. You must build trial and have repeat purchases before expanding too quickly.

Secondly — and this applies to all sales teams regardless of whether it’s in house or third-party — encouraging strong collaboration between marketing and sales is critical. If each department is working in its own silo, neither department will be able to reach full potential. We have had great success by having our marketing team join on sales calls, speak directly to brokers, and getting out in the field to understand what is resonating most with consumers — then developing the point of sale, advertising content, promotional events or other assets needed to further accelerate this growth.

Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Be willing to act fast and adapt to new market strategies! As a growing brand, you need to be able to innovate and stand out by executing novel programs. For instance, to grow our retail presence during the pandemic, we needed to be sure that we continued to drive trial and awareness in a shopping environment where customers were not browsing as much — most people tried to get in and out as quickly as possible. So, we expanded into digital foot traffic-driving campaigns to let people know about our products and where to buy them. We also began advertising on Instacart, knowing that it is a new channel for grocery “browsing.” These two strategies were quick pivots for us as the shopping landscape shifted in 2020 but were immediately fruitful!
  2. Surround yourself with people you trust and hire individuals who know more than you. How do you expect to grow if you’re limited by your own knowledge? For example, when PPFC really started to take off in late 2018 with added distribution, we promptly brought on an experienced sales manager. In 2019, an operations manager was brought in to meet our growing demand. Our goal in 2020 was not so much getting into more stores and channels but creating awareness of our brand and velocity in our current stores. By mid 2020, we knew we needed to focus on marketing, so we hired a marketing manager. All three of these individuals were brought on during crucial junctures of our growth, and there is no way we would have been as successful without them!
  3. Listen to and understand your customers. To start, you need to know who they are, then you need to know how to cater to their needs. For example, customer centricity is at the heart of what we do. Online, we want customers to sign up for our subscribe & save services, but we know it may not be the right fit for everyone. To determine who the right customer behavior is, we utilize their purchasing behavior. For instance, someone who is purchasing higher volumes or who purchases at frequent intervals would be a great option to subscribe & save, which reduces the hassle for them and saves money, so we market it to them. However, someone who purchases a couple bags of treats twice a year likely is not a good fit. Thus, we don’t send them information on the campaigns.
  4. Stay true to your go-to-market strategy and don’t be distracted by other opportunities. For example, part of our mission has always been to focus on natural grocery stores and pet specialty, not offer our products in conventional chains. Though we’ve had some enticing offers, we’ve stuck with what’s important to us — in fact, we have in the past turned down offers to be merchandised at large, conventional chains knowing it is ultimately not the right fit for us or for them at this point in our strategy.
  5. Don’t ever forget retail! 2020 propelled so many brands into an ecommerce strategy, including us, but it’s crucial not to forget the businesses that supported your company from the start. Throughout the pandemic, when retailers were struggling, we did everything we could to support them — promoting them on social, offering special deals, etc., while simultaneously thriving ourselves online. The retailers appreciated it and because of it, our relationships have grown stronger. Even if foot traffic is down right now, we are confident that in-person shopping will bounce back and knowing that stores provide a more intimate shopping experience, it’s something we don’t want to ever miss out on!

What would you advise to another business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

There are so many different things that could be done to boost sales based on the individual scenario, but ultimately, it comes down to basic arithmetic — if you want the output to change, you need to change the inputs. It’s easy to get caught up in running the same marketing activities each year when you see successive growth, but it is important to understand whether you and your team are driving that growth or whether you are merely keeping up with a growing category. Take PPFC for example — pet ownership and individual spending on pets are both skyrocketing. So, when we look at our company’s growth, we have to consider those factors and compare ourselves to the fastest-growing brands in the industry to determine if our marketing initiatives are helping or whether we’re just keeping up with the growing pet industry as a whole. If struggling to grow sales, you should stop and look at your current sales and marketing strategy. Are you building a repeat customer base? Have you reached out to your customer base and asked if you are meeting their needs? Does your product solve a problem for your customers? What is your messaging strategy? Sometimes it’s best to pause and ask yourself these questions, especially if you’re experiencing a standstill in growth.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Finding the right customer is critical to us, given we are a premium product. There are two things we have done to ensure we’re not marketing to the wrong group of customers. In retail, we maintain a strict channel strategy to only focus on pet specialty stores and the natural grocery channel. We are so committed to this strategy that we have turned down chains that were interested in our product. Thanks to this, we’ve always been highly successful in the accounts that we’re in, and we haven’t had to worry about chains or stores where our product likely wouldn’t sell as successfully. We have identified where our customers shop and target our branding to their needs.

From an online perspective, it is all about controlling messaging and using events to trigger different marketing automations. For instance, if someone has tried our meal variety pack — a purchase that includes five different meals — we know they have self-identified as a higher likelihood of being a heavy user and because of that, we want to share information about the value of subscribing and saving with us.

Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Be consistent, provide value, never stop listening to your customers, be responsive and timely in answering customer questions, and offer an easy-to use-customer experience. And of course, provide a high-quality product as advertised, and be transparent about your manufacturing process.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

The most important step is to listen to your customers and understand when, where and why the customer churn may be occurring. Custom retention strategies are just not a priority but are key to a successful business model and continued growth. It is so important to identify who your most valuable customers are, target this audience, provide education to them, and create a story that they identify with your brand. It is more than just providing a good quality product; it’s creating a sense of community around your brand. It must resonate with today’s shoppers who are looking for more than just brand loyalty.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Great question! I would want to inspire a movement that inspires people to be kind. Maybe #justsayhello could be a tagline? You never know what a person is experiencing, and a simple hello in passing someone on the street is not only a courtesy that I was brought up to live by, but a lesson in humanity by acknowledging the presence of another human being. The simplest tasks can create the greatest joy for others and for yourself — and it all starts in a simple “hello!”

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

This is an easy one for me! I would love to share a meal with Warren Buffet. He leads a simple life for someone of his wealth and gives back to his community — planning to leave most of his wealth to nonprofit organizations. I admire his values and am humbled at his business success …maybe I could learn a thing or two! I hear that he likes cheeseburgers and cherry cokes…. sounds like a great lunch to me!

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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