Rei Kawano, Founder and CEO of Heed Foods, grew up in Indonesia with a passion for animal health and welfare. She moved to the United States in 2008 to attend Claremont McKenna College where she received her BS in Economics. Following graduation, Kawano received extensive international business experience spanning more than five countries including, Gree Inc. and MidPlaza Holdings in Japan. While at MidPlaza Holdings, Kawano launched MidPlaza Charitable Foundation whose mission is to eradicate the spread of rabies in Bali, Indonesia. Kawano had an urge to feed her entrepreneurial tendencies and received her MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. It was here where Kawano met fellow Heed Foods co-founder Melanie Han. Launching in January 2019, Kawano and Han founded Heed Foods with a commitment to maintaining a healthy and tasty kibble for all dogs.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Iwas always an animal lover. I grew up in a household full of animals (five dogs, three cats, one ferret) and I was taught to always love them like family. My first year of business school my family dog Mika, a Shih Tzu I considered my little sister, passed away. We were feeding her food that was terrible for her health, and we didn’t even know it. When we wanted to buy a better dry food option, the kind we knew our puppies deserved, we couldn’t find it anywhere.
That’s when I decided to start Heed Foods. My background is in consumer technology and product development in luxury goods, so it seemed natural to use those experiences to develop Heed Foods, a premium pet wellness e-commerce company delivering healthy treats and food to customers doorsteps all across the US.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
We developed a revolutionary kibble blend that was proven to show a whole host of benefits in dogs: better coat, skin, energy, etc. When we first launched, we thought surely the more benefits we share the better. We were marketing many of our value props simultaneously, but pick up was slow and we soon realized that customers didn’t really understand our product.
Customers are constantly being bombarded with products and their attention spans are incredibly short. We’re in a world where 15 second video ads are the norm and we realized we needed to emphasize just one or two of our biggest benefits to catch our customers’ attention. Now we focus on communicating the importance of gut health and how effective our product is in.
Now when people think Heed Foods, they think “Oh the dog food company that helps your pups’ poops!”
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Truly listening, caring and going above and beyond for our customers. I know most (if not all) of our customers and their dog’s names and even what issues their pups had been going through before switching to Heed. I read every single customer email, review and Instagram/Facebook comment that comes in and thats been the single most valuable resource in guiding and motivating our company.
A mentor once told me that when you first start your company, you should be doing things that aren’t scalable. We added handwritten notes to our initial deliveries and we even overnighted our deliveries across the country free of charge when there was a food shortage emergency.
All of this has paid off — we have a very strong customer retention rate and our average customer lifetime value has been growing monthly. Many pup parents are distrustful of the pet industry and for good reason. Our direct to consumer, white glove approach allows us to talk to our customers and establish ourselves as a company that pup parents can fully trust.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- When first starting out, it’s okay to do things that are inherently not scalable. I touched on this above, but to this day we do anything we can to make sure customers love us. We write personalized letters, overnight food during an emergency, anything to show that we truly care.
- Not doing anything is the biggest challenge as a CEO, but sometimes this is the best strategy. I’m obsessed with tinkering. I would constantly make changes to the website or facebook ads, even before we could collect any real data. It made it difficult to figure out which changes were effective and which weren’t.
- Upwork should be your best friend. You don’t need a large team of full time employees to succeed. When cash flow is limited and your needs are variable, websites such as Upwork are a great way to tap into a great freelance network.
- Build an A Star team, slowly. You cannot build your dream team overnight. Resumes, interviews and even the first month are not really indicative of how good a candidate will be in the long term. We try to work with someone part time first and then move them to full time once we are sure that we are a good match for each other. This has limited the sheer number of hires we’ve made, but we believe every member of our team can do double or triple the amount of work of a less vetted candidate.
- Keep it simple. Whether it be your marketing strategy or product offering, focus on 1–2 things and do it extremely well. Once you know you’ve mastered it, expand.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
A-star players are their own toughest critics and are harder on themselves when things go awry. I try not to get frustrated when things don’t go as planned (god knows this happens a lot). I’d tell them that everything is going to be alright and just try to come up with a game plan so that it doesn’t happen again. I try to limit the root causes of ‘burn out’ by ensuring the work environment is constructive.
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?
Ben Zvaifler, CEO of Pupbox. I worked for him before I started Heed and he’s guided me through every step of the process. I remember, when I was still in the ideation phase and didn’t know the first thing about making dog food, we were at this pet products trade show and he told me to go up to a random booth that sold dog food. I told him I didn’t want to because I wasn’t sure what to say and I didn’t think it would be helpful. He went up to the booth anyways and casually told them his intern wanted to start a dog food company and the guy ended up being one of my most important contacts.
To this day, he’ll sit with me for at least an hour once every quarter and go through my entire marketing stack. He’s incredibly busy and doesn’t ask for anything in return, he just sincerely wants to see me succeed.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
My goal is to make Heed Foods the #1 trusted pet wellness company. It’s also a personal goal given that Heed is my life at this point.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
Everyday we get emails about how Heed has helped their pups health and every month we see an ever growing number of returning customers. These are the things that make everything worthwhile.
I hope that through Heed, and our investment into research on the canine microbiome, I can help contribute to increasing the average lifespan of dogs, even if for just another day. The world is a lonely place, but with dogs, we can all feel so unconditionally loved!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
To reduce waste in every aspect of our lives. I hate clutter and taking out the trash, so in my personal life I’m very mindful of what I purchase and what I use, especially one-time use products such as ziplocks and paper towels. I’m that person who constantly brings around a mason jar with her in case I need it for anything!
At Heed, we’re constantly thinking of ways to minimize packaging and just focus on the essentials. Before making any decisions we ask ourselves, does this actually improve the integrity of our food? If so, do the positives outweigh the possible negative externalities (ie. increased complexity, waste). How can we simplify and minimize?
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