Natural entrepreneurs Melissa and Sean Little used to spend their days in an English classroom. Now, as co-owners of Little Eatz: Pet and People Treats, the husband-wife duo has traded in teaching for baking. But they haven't concocted any ordinary all-natural cookie. The small start-up debuted at Natural Products Expo East 2011 and had everyone wondering, "Is this a dog treat or people food?"
Answer: cookies for people, safe for pets! Inspired by their food-loving pug, Winston, the cookies come in three flavors and are all baked, packed, shipped and distributed by the Littles. In just a year, Little Eatz is now stocking 60 stores in their home state of Kentucky and beyond. Get their thoughts on natural dog treat domination in the U.S., plus small business tips for marketing tactics and ways to reduce shipping costs.
newhope360: How did you come up with the idea for the company?
Sean: When we first got our pug Winston (he's 3-years-old now) we hadn't owned a pet since we were both kids. We noticed how food motivated he was. He wanted everything that we were eating. We found ourselves sharing foods with him and came to find out that many of those foods weren't safe or healthy. We wanted to come up with an all-natural product we could still share with him, so we started playing around with recipes and researching ingredients safe for dogs.
Melissa: We came up with the idea in 2009 and in February of 2010 we got into our local natural store that has a lot of Kentucky-proud products. Before we approached them we gave it out to friends and family. We tried various recipes mostly on Winston—he was our main focus group!
Sean: We researched hours and hours of recipes. It took us a full month of trying to bring the concept to reality. The product is an all natural cookie that's healthy and has great ingredients, but is also meant to be shared.
newhope360: So are your cookies dog treats or people food?
Melissa: It's not like a milk bone dog treat. It's a cookie that people can enjoy, but that dogs can also eat and owners can feel safe about giving it to them. It is people food. Sometimes people get a little, "Oh my gosh, am I eating dog food?" but it's not dog food. It's good, healthy wholesome food—which is what you want to feed your dog anyway because they are like a member of the family. Once people taste it they realize, "Oh wow, this is sweet, crunchy, it tastes like a cookie should!" You probably wouldn't purchase it if you didn't have a dog. It definitely is a pet product.
newhope360: How are you funding your venture?
Melissa: Any way we can, right? [laughs] We were lucky enough to get a micro loan of $20,000 from our local government as part of a revitalization effort for our local economy. We've mostly been using that money.
newhope360: How many employees do you have?
Sean: It's currently just us. We do contract services out for our web design and graphic design. Eventually we would like to grow to the point where we'd have people to help us.
newhope360: Describe your typical workday.
Melissa: We currently are baking everything in our shop in downtown Louisville. We usually get up, check our emails and have a little meeting to go over what we need to get done that day. Then we go down to our shop and spend anywhere from five up to nine and 10 hours down there, depending on how many orders we have to get done. We have a rule that we don't watch TV or play around on the Internet from nine to nine—we try to only focus on business. We noticed we were wasting a lot of time on other things. That rule has really helped us a lot.
newhope360: So what does Winston do during the day? How does he earn his keep in the company?
Melissa: He's our inspiration and our muse. He gets to spend a lot of time on the couch and a lot of time eating because he's our taste tester. His grandparents come over and watch him a lot and take him for walks if we've been down at the shop all day. And of course he gets his picture taken for our website and Facebook page.
But he doesn't need a bigger ego; he's already spoiled! He wants to sit in his certain spot on the couch. I recently switched his food and he only ate the pieces he wanted. He is a lot like a child. We don't have much of a hard time treating him like a human because he acts just like that.
newhope360: How has his personality influenced how you market the product?
Melissa: We wanted to have a playful, fun, whimsical product. That's exactly how Winston is. He is very food motivated but pugs in general are just happy, little dogs. He's always smiling. If you look at our logo, it's the concept of the person and the dog together. Pugs are really people dogs, and that whole human-animal bond went into [our product].
newhope360: Where are you sold?
Melissa: We're in about 60 stores. Local chains and our local Whole Foods Market and lots of independent stores throughout our region like in Indiana, Chicago and Tennessee. We made some contacts through our shows [Editor's note: Natural Products Expo East, for example, where we met Little Eatz!] but mostly we're in independent stores.
newhope360: What money-saving tips do you have for packaging and distributing your product to so many stores?
Sean: In any small business—when you start out—you're doing pretty much everything. One of our accounts in Louisville has 16 stores and a warehouse we have to deliver to. We literally have to pack our product up in our RV and take it to the warehouse and load it onto their pallet.
If you spend a little time researching several different companies to get a gauge on pricing, for example, if you're using labels for your packaging or you're getting your packaging designed, you can always find a fair price on that stuff. Many times people feel like they have to have the best or the most expensive [packaging] but you really don't have to do that. It's a daily battle for us to watch how much money we're spending and what we're spending it on. We don't even have smartphones. [laughs] There are so many ways to save money, and you don't need to be something that you're not or need to spend all of this money in areas where it's not going to matter to the quality of the product.
Melissa: For example, we mostly use the U.S. Post Office because they have the best rates and they offer free boxes. Instead of us purchasing boxes and having our logo put on them, we use their free boxes. And really nobody looks at the box after they open it anyway. Shipping I know kills small businesses. It was killing us until we started using the Post Office and it's really helped a lot.
Sean: We were also able to broker a deal with our website designer where he receives a percentage of the profits of our online sales. He's able to maintain our website for that. Essentially, we didn't have to put up $5,000 to $10,000 dollars for our website because we could cut a deal like that.
newhope360: What has been the most helpful piece of advice you've received about starting your own company?
Sean: I know it's sort of cliché, but really to believe in yourself. Believe in the product and know that every day brings a new challenge and a new obstacle. Melissa and I have an inside joke between us about, "Every day there's a reason to quit." If you go into a small business without having that unlimited faith in yourself and your product you're going to have a tough time. Learning that very early on has helped us get to the point where we are now. That's something you don't ever forget. No matter how small or big you are, there are always going to be challenges and you really have to have the belief that you're going to make it, and that what you're doing is worthwhile.
newhope360: Are you interested in being in a retailer like Walmart?
Sean: Our goal is really to be in a natural pet or foods store. That's a better fit for our product.
Melissa: We're afraid that if we go through a Walmart-type store we'd lose some of the quality. The quality's really important because we treat Winston like a member of the family and we don't ever want to lose that. We've heard some stories that sometimes that happens when you get to be that big. We definitely want to have a presence in the natural market.
newhope360: What marketing tactics work well for your product?
Melissa: The two main things are demoing to get our story out there and also sampling because people love free stuff. As far as advertising, we have a lot of good local, independently-run magazines and they usually have pretty good rates. We seem to have gotten a really good response from that. We did an online ad through a national magazine and we had not even one sale from that. But we've done extremely well with the local, free [for consumers] magazines.
newhope360: Do you think Groupon, LivingSocial, Google Deals, etc. are helpful for small businesses? Would you consider doing a deal like that?
Sean: For a restaurant, it seems very effective. For a product like us, I think it’s a bit trickier.
Melissa: It would be more beneficial if the store that we're in did it, as opposed to us, to get people into an actual retail location. Personally, we've bought a lot of them, but I don't think it would be a good thing for [our business] to do.
newhope360: Where do you envision your company five years from now?
Melissa: We hope to be a national brand. We hope to be the pet treat that people turn to when they think of a good wholesome treat to share with their pets. We hope to expand the line in some way. We're always working on other flavors, perhaps even do a line that complements what we do now as far as dog shirts or collars. But mainly just to be a national pet brand that people know it's made in the U.S. That's really important to us, no matter how big we get.
newhope360: Gluten free's huge right now—is that something you're considering as a new product?
Melissa: Yes! That's actually what we're working on.
Sean: That's something we anticipate on developing in the next year or so. If we had to develop one product based on what our customers wanted from us that would be it. We've had such a big response as far as, "Well, my dog has allergies and I only give them these certain types of treats," or "I myself am vegan or gluten-free."
Melissa: We actually haven't advertised them as vegan as well as we should. That maybe has more to do with the part of the country we're in though—the South. It's KFC headquarters. But vegan and vegetarians are very important to us, too.