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“Why a founder should hire a great CEO” With Shawn Buckley, of JustFoodForDogs

Founders — hire a great CEO. What makes you a great founder is very different from what makes a great CEO. The second smartest decision I have made in this company is to hire a young man that is a real CEO and let him do his work (second only to my decision of starting the business […]


Founders — hire a great CEO. What makes you a great founder is very different from what makes a great CEO. The second smartest decision I have made in this company is to hire a young man that is a real CEO and let him do his work (second only to my decision of starting the business in the first place 🙂


I had the pleasure to interview Shawn Buckley, of JustFoodForDogs. JustFoodForDogs specializes in making fresh, healthy food for dogs.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I love dogs and wanted to start a company that could genuinely help them live longer, healthier lives. JustFoodForDogs is a mission driven company and while lot’s of people say that these days… in our case it is VERY true. I found out what was allowed to be in dog food and asked myself that age old entrepreneurial question… is there a better way? The answer was to invent an entirely new category of pet food — USDA certified ingredients for people (in other words; real food like we eat) but nutritionally balanced for dogs. It’s made fresh in Kitchens open to the public and humans can eat any of our food if they want to try it. It’s sold refrigerated or frozen. People just put it in the bowl and dogs love it.

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

I had a chance run in with the CEO of a multi-billion dollar restaurant food supply company some years back. I asked him what he thought would happen to his business if 20–30% of the $28B a year dog and cat food business converted from “feed grade” ingredients (nothing he sells) to “human grade” ingredients (what he sells to me) and I saw the lightbulb go on. “It would be a game changer” he said.

Well, it’s starting to happen. We now purchase (literally) millions of pounds of chicken breast, ground beef, etc every year and we are largest purchaser of human grade ground venison in the United States!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Almost everything we did in the beginning was a mistake 🙂 Especially the way we laid out our first Kitchen open to the public. If you’re a restaurant or sandwich shop or coffee place you have a standard layout and standard equipment that is manufactured for your purpose. In our case all of that had to be worked out by us. Whether it’s the explanation our architect gave cities when we presented plans for a “dog kitchen” (they had no idea if USDA or Dept of Agriculture or the Health dept were in charge!) or the seemingly simple mechanisms on the shelf of grocery store freezers that push products forward as people select them (ice cream, frozen dinners, etc) it all had to be altered or invented altogether by us. (That architect has now been on our permanent staff for over a year because others just can’t do what he did and the learning curve is too slopped for our speed).

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

We have (no exaggeration) over a thousand letters from the public saying that we changed or even saved their dog’s life. (We also have many from veterinarians saying the same). We sell daily diets for healthy dogs but we also have the country’s only line of prescription food made from real food (as opposed to dry kibble or canned food) and we are the only organization that makes custom meals from blood work and other vet provided data for dogs and cats that are very ill or in hospital.

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

We are about to announce two significant pieces of research done on our products — one was done at Western University College of Veterinary Medicine and the other was done at University of Illinois Department of Animal Sciences. We believe it will be as good for dogs (and our business) as the year-long study done on our daily diets by two universities and published in a highly respected scientific journal wherein our food was shown to boost the cells in the immune system.

What advice would you give to other C-Suite executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Founders — hire a great CEO. What makes you a great founder is very different from what makes a great CEO. The second smartest decision I have made in this company is to hire a young man that is a real CEO and let him do his work (second only to my decision of starting the business in the first place 🙂

How do you define “Leadership”?

A willingness to argue for the best final outcome (as opposed to arguing to “win” the argument)

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?

For me there are many but if I had to pick one I would choose my business partner and friend Julian Mack,
who made a private investment in my company about a year after I started and has been a brilliant advisor ever since. Like me, he and his wife are major dog rescue advocates and together we created a foundation to benefit senior and handicapped dogs.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

JustFoodForDogs gives cash and product to rescue organizations and as mentioned above — some of the partners of company purchased a piece of property in Laguna Beach, Ca upon which we are having a state of the art facility built for senior and disabled dogs.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

#1 would be… you are not a CEO. You are a founder and your contribution is important but it is different from running the operation.

#2 Not all private equity is evil 🙂 (LCatterton made an investment in our company 2 years ago and I think the world of them).

#3 It’s ok to lead an organization and simply be who you really are as opposed to being “CEO like”. Not for everyone but if it feels right it’s perfectly ok.

#4 It’s an old axiom but if you start wondering whether or not you have the right person in a senior position… let them go — for the benefit of everyone. The question alone provides the answer.

You are a person of great 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. 🙂

Obviously this is specific (but true) to my work and my passion but I genuinely believe if our company of (now 250) team members can change the way we feed our pets we will improve not only the length and quality of life for them but potentially for people as well.

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

A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.

I have always, I guess intuitively, believed that there is more to be learned from errors than successes and this quote helps me remember the point.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 🙂

GREAT question. Or should I say opportunity 🙂

May as well go big. I have always been a Richard Branson fan and needless to say, having 30 min with him would be both phenomenal and, likely, inspiring.

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