K9 Cuisine Feasts on Success, Helps Homeless Pets

by Mary Haight on April 20, 2010

Anthony Holloway of K9 Cuisine graciously accepted my request for an e-mail interview. If you haven’t heard of this Southern Illinois company before, take a look at the website and you’ll get4537287677_cf088288c5_m[1] an idea of the rapid-fire growth that has taken place in just a couple of years; all in the midst of the worst economy in our lifetime. He tells us his story of how K9 Cuisine has beat the odds on success in hard times.

I understand that you came to this business in 2007 because you were consistently disappointed with quality and service provided by your local and internet food purchases.  What were you looking for and how did you want to design a company to answer the unmet needs you saw in the marketplace?

That is correct. I was looking for a consistent supply of food, my yellow lab, Daisy, could eat without getting sick.  She had specific requirements and was highly allergic to grains. In the rural area where we live the nearest store to buy premium dog food was 70 miles away. What we needed was frequently out of stock. We tried buying online and the delivery was very erratic. One time delivery would be a week and the next time it would be five or six weeks. When we had a question or a problem with delivery, there was no one to talk to. No one answered the phone and email responses were as erratic as the shipping. In addition, their shipping charges were outrageous.

With K9 Cuisine I set out to change all of that. My number one goal was to create a transparent site for our customers. I wanted to offer free shipping. We would ship orders the same day they were received. We would answer the phone.  If an item happened to be out of stock the site would accurately communicate the stock levels to the customer before they placed an order.  We would also remove all the risk from ordering online. We would have a 100% no questions asked money back guarantee. If for any reason a customer wanted to return a product, we would take it back even if it was open. We would pick it up at no charge to the customer and bring it back for a full refund. It is free shipping both ways if needed.

What’s your business model and why did you choose it?

My business model is an online retailer of super premium dog food.  I chose the internet because we live in a rural community and I thought there were others in my situation that either had to drive long distances to buy dog food or had to deal with the same merchants on the internet.

Who’s your typical customer, and how has this evolved over the years?

Our typical customer is female, urban, and professional. This was a bit of a surprise because when we first started. I thought it was the challenge of distance I was trying to solve. I had no idea it was really convenience. With regard to how our customer has changed I am not sure it really has. The demographic described above is the main stay of K9Cuisine.com. We are however reaching a broader audience now.

How many brands do you carry and what are your guidelines for offering them to your customers?

The number of brands is always changing. It seems we are always adding new products. I think we have over 100 brands now and really no end in sight.  We have around 30 criteria we look at before we add a food. It is a pretty lengthy process. However we do not sell foods that contain corn, wheat, soy, glutens, by-products, artificial preservatives, or artificial colors.  This narrows things down a lot. We then look at other criteria. You can get an idea from our dog food-rating tool on the site.  There are fewer restrictions on treats but we are still rather selective.

What are your top three best sellers, and what seems to be trending in pet food now?  We hear a lot about raw food, meaty bones, freeze-dried and dehydrated foods – what does this niche look like from your perspective?

Our top three brands are Horizon Legacy, Eagle Holistic Select, and Addiction Pet Foods. We also sell a lot of Nature’s Variety raw as well.

I think there is an overall trend toward natural products. This is not just in dog food but also across many markets. With dog foods there are many new grain free products hitting the market now as well. Consumers are becoming more and more sophisticated about the contents of their dog’s food.

We see a lot of growth in the raw and dehydrated sector. This is really the best of the best, when it comes to quality. Many of our customers demand the best and these products fit well.

Since food is so competitive, how long did it take to turn a profit? To what do you attribute your fast growth?

We were profitable early on, about 6 months, but we run a really lean operation. I think our growth is directly related to the level of service we provide.  We have very good relationships with our customers. We consistently deliver value to the customer.

Please describe your growth rate, and tell us what has made the biggest bottom line difference during the last couple of years?

The first 12 months we grew at 50% per month. We doubled our sales every other month. That rate has slowed and we are now growing 5-10% per month.  I do not think there is any single thing that has made a huge impact. It is really the sum of many things done correctly and consistently. I think consistency is very important.

What have you done to create an immediate response system when a problem arises?

We respond to customers very quickly. I am very proud of that aspect of our customer service. Emails are usually answered within the hour. All of our employees that have customer contact carry a Blackberry.  They will answer customer inquiries even when we are closed. We utilize live chat with much success. We have our own trained customer service reps answering our phones.  People who can actually answer pet food related questions and solve customer problems.  We give our CS staff broad latitude to solve problems for customers immediately. We have won many, many, brand advocates and great word of mouth simply because of the way we handle problems.

At what point did you get into social media marketing and what was your goal when you started? How did you organize it all? So many businesses seem confused as to how to use social media properly. How did you overcome the pitfalls?

I was always looking for ways to connect with customers. I think that is really the single biggest challenge for online companies. I was just trying to figure it all out. I saw the potential of social media but really did not have a clue how to pull it all together. I am not sure exactly how but I stumbled across Shama Hyder. She runs a consulting firm in Dallas called Marketing Zen 

Shama helped me with Facebook and the blog. She also pushed very hard for me to get on Twitter. I resisted for a long time. Honestly, Shama dragged me kicking and screaming to Twitter. I really did not see the benefits at first and I was already very busy. It is really kind of funny because now I really enjoy Twitter more than all of the other social media initiatives we have done.  It is an excellent tool for branding and connecting with other like-minded people. In terms of branding it is far better than Facebook or a blog.

I think the one huge pitfall is often marketers see social media as just another channel to deliver a one-way message to potential customers.  When in fact these tactics turn many people off.  They can also seriously damage your online reputation and brand. We luckily avoided this mistake with Shama’s help.  The beauty of social media is that it is a two way exchange that is wide open for everyone to see.

I would also like to make a point about many companies that do not use social media. Often the stated reason for not using social media is the desire to “control the message”. I find this very funny and very flawed. People/customers are already talking and using social media. When companies ignore their customers on social media sites they are not controlling anything. In fact they are completely out of control with no hope of influencing the discussion. I like the analogy of sticking your head in the sand.  Just because these companies do not hear the online chatter about their brand does not mean it does not exist. 

Have your goals changed at all and how has your social media community helped grow your bottom line? 

I do not think my goals have changed per se. I always thought if we were to have any success online we would have to personalize the experience. Social media fits that need very well. It is very transparent. Everyone can see how we help customers and how we answer questions. I do not see it as a sales tool.  We will soon be implementing more tools on the K9Cuisine.com to encourage more dialog between the K9 Cuisine people and users of the site. We hope to get our technical and web site development people engaged in the conversation. The purpose of this is to get web site improvements through development and in front of customers faster. Hopefully this will take some of the guesswork out of new features and site improvements. 

I came across a great story about your good works by Vet blogger Dr. V  where you gave a very generous donation of and paid shipping for a couple of skids of pet food to a group in California Dr. V had blogged about and is involved with. This seems anything but typical if I may say so, and it sounded as if you had a really good time doing that.  Do you have a giving program for your company, or is this something you prefer to keep open to opportunities as they arise?

First of all I think Dr V is a pretty special person. She is very dedicated to helping the rescue effort. At the same time she is a full time vet is a very busy practice. She is also a mom. Dr V is truly an inspiration to me. Her Pawcurious blog is is also very funny. I love her irreverent style. She can be a bit sarcastic which I find very entertaining.

Another online friend Dr Janet Tobiassen Crosby DVM @AboutVetMed introduced me to Dr V. She said she had a friend, Dr V, who had this blog and was doing a blogathon to raise money for a local shelter. I was not exactly sure what a blogathon was but rescue and shelters are very special to me. Volunteers generally run them. The volunteers are passionate about animal welfare. Much of their work goes unnoticed and for the most part unappreciated.

Anyway, Dr. Tobiassen asked if I would take a look and wanted to know if there was anything we could do to participate. When I looked at the Pawcurious blog, Dr V was writing about the blogathon and she was looking for ideas for hourly posts. She was planning to write a post every hour for 24 hours.  I thought it would be funny and attract attention to the fundraiser if Dr V ate dog food.  There was a lot of back and forth between the two of us on Twitter. A bunch of other peeps got involved and we just had a great time goading Dr V into eating dog food online.  As it turned out the blogathon was a huge success. Dr V was able to raise over $2,250 with the blogathon and K9 Cuisine matched that amount for a total of $4,500 .

After the completion of the blogathon I was talking to Dr V and told her if she ever needed help please let me know. I would like to help further if I could. She then told me about some other work she was doing that was very dear to her heart. She told me about the Humane Society of Tijuana HSTJ. She said a group of veterinarians go to TJ and put on free spay & neuter clinics. The people they are helping cannot afford to pay and the problem is immense. The program is all-volunteer, no paid staff, no fundraising budget, no permanent facilities. However the things they are able to do with little or no resources was impressive. What she described just resonated deeply with me.  I instantly wanted to help. I decided to send dog food that would be given to the families that brought their dogs to the clinic.

With regard to a giving policy we do not have one. Rescue is very dear to me. When we do give I try to make sure the donation gets to the individual in need. I would much rather donate to a dog food bank or donate directly to individuals rather than to larger organizations with expenses to cover or big marketing budgets. 

What’s been the biggest surprise in your business during this downturn?

I think the biggest surprise was K9 Cuisine continued to grow during one of the worst economic downturns in US history. I am also amazed at the individual sacrifices some of our customers make to do the best they can for their pets.  

What are your goals for growth? Do you have any private label products you might be offering soon?

I have given up on setting growth goals long ago. I am always wrong. However, I would be surprised if we do not double sales again this year. My goal for the business is to continue to scale customer service as we grow and to continue to improve the customer experience. I feel like if we can successfully do those two things our business will naturally grow.

Thanks for the interview, Anthony. You’ve got a great business and rescue animals are lucky to have such a dedicated advocate.

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  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by doggybytes: K9 Cuisine Feasts on Success, Helps Homeless Pets http://bit.ly/cbm6rg via @dancingdogblog…

  2. […] We just spent a couple of days with Anthony and Kate of @K9cuisine. If you (a) feed your pet and (b) forgot what real customer service feels like you need to order your food from their website. The news story is how they got started in the business and their advocacy for rescue animals. You can read Anthony’s interview with @DancingDogBlog here. […]

  3. […] Anthony Holloway is no stranger to this blog, and is well-reputed in the pet industry – more importantly, his customers *love* him! And they tell all their friends about his service:) […]

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