When Matt and Meg Meyer demo their The Bear & The Rat: Cool Treats for Dogs yogurt, one of two things happens: 1. People are incredibly bummed that it's not ice cream for them, or 2. They say, "Dog yogurt? What's that?"
The Bear & The Rat was inspired by Matt's childhood family ice cream outing with their dog on Sundays. After a few licks of a cone, however, his family's pet would become sick. So Matt and wife Meg set out to preserve this family ritual and make it healthier for their best friends with fur. The result is natural dog yogurt with probiotics, a consumer head-turner that hit dog boutiques and Denver-area Whole Foods Market shelves this year.
But despite education hurdles in this relatively new category of animal nutrition, the two-year-old company is going strong in the Denver, Colo., area as the married duo prepares for their first Natural Products Expo West. Here's how their brand went from kitchen prototype to beloved dog treat, plus their advice for owning a business with your spouse.
newhope360: You had the idea to create this product for a while (since childhood, really), but what prompted you to actually start the business?
Meg: I went to an entrepreneur conference in New York in April 2010, and I heard the co-founder of Twitter talk about this technology called Square, which allowed for mobile credit card transactions for small businesses. We were thinking we would sell our products at dog parks, and I remember calling Matt and saying, "This technology now exists so we're going to do The Bear & The Rat!" I came back from New York and gave my notice to the company I was working for at the time.
We debuted at the Cherry Creek Farmers Market [in Denver] two months later. That was our market research phase. That's where we learned that we had a viable product that people bought and really liked. At that time, we had our certificate from the Department of Agriculture and were making the dog yogurt from our kitchen.
Matt: Making it in really small batches!
newhope360: How did you go from proof of concept to major dog yogurt production?
Matt: Meg was researching and she came across Boulder Ice Cream's co-packing operation. It seemed the natural route to go. We saw the love they put into their ice cream, just like we did in our kitchen.
Meg: I was calling a whole bunch of suppliers and trying to figure out where we'd get the ingredients and how much they were going to cost, and Boulder Ice Cream was really great because they already had that figured out and being a larger account they could get better prices than we could. They also told us who we should print our packaging with. We looked at them as a huge mentor. A friend of mine did the design and the identity work of the packaging. It took us from August 2010 to May 2011 to launch our product.
newhope360: Who is your customer?
Matt: We're first and foremost for dogs. We get a lot of disappointed faces thinking it's an ice cream for people! But we're definitely for dogs and for people who love dogs—people who appreciate that dogs really like to be considered part of the family.
Meg: So many of our target customers love their dogs so much they show us pictures on their phone, or they'll share a video of their dog having the yogurt on our Facebook page. Matt's right, it really is dog lovers and people who believe [dogs] are part of the family.
newhope360: Do you want to stay in the natural channel or do you see yourself in, say, a PetSmart?
Matt: We have a place in our hearts for independent dog boutiques and natural stores, and Whole Foods—they've been really good to us.
Meg: We do see ourselves in some conventional grocery stores, such as a King Soopers, because we're a natural alternative to Purina's Frosty Paws. We're also in Skoops Eatery [an ice cream shop] in Capitol Hill, and we do a really big volume there. They sell our stuff like hot cakes! That's definitely a channel we'll be exploring in depth this coming year.
newhope360: How did you land on your brand's name, "The Bear & The Rat?"
Matt: It was almost like putting on your shoes. It just came out. We knew it was about our two dogs. We were making it for them: Laika our Rat Terrier and Quimby, our Lhasa Apso.
Meg: We had wanted to open up a little ice cream shop, but it would be ice cream for dogs and we'd call it The Bear & The Rat: An Animal Ice Creamery. Like Matt said, there was no debate about it.
Matt: There were many incarnations of how we wanted to do this product, but the name was always there.
Meg: We do always have to explain our name. People say, "Why is The Rat in your name?" But when we explain that The Rat is a Rat Terrier and The Bear is a Lhasa Apso who looks and growls like a bear, they think it's cute and they understand we really love our animals. It all comes to life for them.
newhope360: How big of a role do your dogs play in the product (other than its namesake?)
Meg: We have a Willy Wonka bulk of ideas on where we want to take this brand. But Laika and Quimby always have to give their stamp of approval. We joke that Quimby is the Canine Engagement Officer and Laika is the Chief Eating Officer, and they have the last bark!
newhope360: What is your biggest competition?
Meg: There is some competition in the space. But in the natural grocery chains, like Whole Foods, about 90 percent of the people I've talked to have never heard of a frozen treat for dogs at all. And in the dog channel it's probably 65 percent. A lot of people have heard about Frosty Paws, but they don't even consider it the same as our product because it doesn't have the health benefits.
Matt: People figure our product is a luxury item and a treat, but it is something that will help dogs with their digestion.
Meg: We wanted to have live and active cultures in our product because, going back to Matt's childhood story about the ice cream shop, we wanted a product that benefited dogs and didn't make them ill. We also wanted a product that looked and felt like ice cream. We didn't want it to be grainy, so we gravitated toward using yogurt as a base. That's when we consulted animal nutritionists and holistic vets on the ingredients.
newhope360: What advice do you have for getting into Whole Foods Market?
Meg: We attended the local Whole Foods symposium in May and a Naturally Boulder event the night before. The regional grocery buyer [for Whole Foods] was there and we were able to steal two minutes of his time prior to the symposium and show him our project. That was huge! That was our lucky break.
And then we just filled out the application and sent it to them, regularly followed up and finally got the clearance to be a local vendor. It really is a matter of perseverance, but there is a line—you can't be annoying! We followed up once every three weeks.
newhope360: What marketing tactics are you using to get your product sold?
Meg: We are demoing at our three stores a lot because we recognize it's the off season and it's a new product. We want to make sure that we're doing very well in the stores we're in. Then, we'll be presenting our product to all Whole Foods in the Rocky Mountain region in January when they do their pet category review.
Our Twitter accounts @LoveTheBear and @LoveTheRat are our dogs talking because they have full-fledged personalities. What we want to do in 2012 especially is leverage their personalities and use it to get the word out about our product. We're going to start ramping up videos with them, too. We'll also continue doing a bunch of demos because education is huge. Explaining the health benefits and our story is important.
[Editor's note: Get more social media tips from The Bear & The Rat]
newhope360: Describe your typical workday.
Matt: It starts with checking email, Facebook and Twitter and responding to anyone who has added us or asked a question. That's something we pay a lot of attention to.
Meg: Then I go to my day job. I have a flexible job where I can handle both during the day. I get off at 6, relax for an hour, and then from seven to 10 p.m. I work on paperwork, getting meetings set up with potential stores, trade show work and marketing. Matt handles a lot of the manufacturing and the distribution side. Right now we're distributing our own product. He also keeps track of our inventory.
Matt: On the weekends, I'm always doing demos.
newhope360: What do you enjoy most about being an entrepreneur?
Matt: I enjoy working with Meg and having the satisfaction that we're building something together that we're both really passionate about. That keeps me going.
Meg: I agree. Building a business with your husband, and also all the family members who have given us support—it's their business too. Being able to share the successes with people so close to you is super gratifying and really rewarding.
newhope360: What tips do you have for working with your spouse and living to tell about it?
Matt: Lots and lots of patience. Honestly, my biggest fear in working with Meg—and I told her this—is seeing her at her worst. We've definitely had our moments when we're not on the same page.
Meg: We just agreed that two heads are better than one, and when we're working together and everything's harmonious, we both get so much more done and it's so much more fun! Would we do it again?
Matt: Probably not! There are points where you have to take a step back and breathe for a second. But patience and understanding and always remember why you're doing it in the first place.
Meg: It's made our marriage stronger, but it's been such a crazy whirlwind ride.
newhope360: How are you preparing for Natural Products Expo West 2012?
Meg: We're trying to be zen about it. We are a startup with limited resources, so we've been scouring Craigslist and eBay ads trying to find used trade show displays. We found quite a bit and that's probably the way we'll go. We're seriously prepping! We have a good friend of ours coming with us to handle public relations and social media, and we have a couple people we're hiring to help us man the booth.
newhope360: What's the biggest lesson you've learned so far in starting up your own business?
Matt: Don't trust anyone except yourself.
Meg: He doesn't mean that negatively.
Matt: [laughs] It means to always rely on yourself, knowing that there will be people who will help you but it's ultimately up to you to get things done.
Meg: The marketing, product development and sales side is all fun to me and Matt. But what's not fun is constantly crunching the numbers. In 2012, I will be consulting my spreadsheet a lot more. Just constantly looking at the goals you set and not deviating from that is the biggest lesson learned for me.