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Maev founder Katie Spies on going from dog walker to pet food CEO

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Maev is a startup that believes dogs should be eating as well as humans.

The company first hit the market in 2020 and has been steadily growing ever since. For its first year in business, it was faced with the problem of selling out of products. This led it to bulk up its manufacturing and raise a $9 million round of funding. Now, Maev founder and CEO Katie Spies says the company sees sales growth of about 15% month-over-month. She joined the Modern Retail Podcast and spoke about the company’s growth and the overall premium pet food market.

Spies doesn’t have a background in pet nutrition, but she did work as a dog walker to learn the ins and outs of what pet owners need.

“I spent a year as a dog product dog walker,” Spies said. “And I was getting to know a lot of consumers and figuring out what their headaches were.”

This time on the street with dozens of dogs helped Spies coalesce on a business plan for Maev; the company would sell human-grade dog food online. After two years of beta testing and figuring out the proper product line and formulas, Maev hit the market in late 2020.

It was a good time to launch a dog food brand. During the first year of the pandemic, one in four Americans got a dog, Spies said. “Pet ownership skyrocketed, and more and more people started purchasing pet products and grocery products online,” she said. So Maev didn’t so much have a problem finding customers. Instead, the problem was in making sure it could keep its supply chain going and get products to customers.

“The trouble was really just keeping inventory on the shelves in our facility and running a facility to continue producing product, despite Covid happening in the world,” Spies said.

This meant that Maev had to go from working in a test kitchen in New York to expanding to a contract manufacturer who could handle its demand.

Now, Spies says the plan is to grow even more. While Maev is still only available online, Spies has her eyes on some new retail channels. “We started with just our own e-commerce site,” Spies said, but “moving into [online] marketplaces is next on our list.”

Here are a few highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

Getting consumer insights as a dog walker
“We spent two years in beta. We were working with veterinarian nutritionists and iterating on the actual formula of our first product. Prior to officially starting Maeve, I spent a year as a dog product dog walker. And I was getting to know a lot of consumers and figuring out what their headaches were. And I also just needed a break from my job and wanted to be outside walking dogs. And so we had this great beta group. For two years, we were in beta, shipping product to consumers, getting tons of feedback and working with veterinary nutritionists to improve the formula.”

On launching during the pandemic
“When we first launched, during those first few months of Covid, times were really scary and there was a lot of uncertainty. People didn’t know what was happening in the economy, and we didn’t know if consumer spending would be impacted by Covid and the macro climate. It was difficult just to keep our manufacturing facility up and running. Because it was a scary time in the world pre-vaccine, we didn’t know how to keep people safe and what the right protocol was. So for the first month or two, there was just a lot of uncertainty. And it made it difficult to actually celebrate the launch. But by around June and July [2020], we started selling through product extremely quickly. And we had built processes to keep our manufacturing up and running safely. Throughout that first summer of Covid, we had this bittersweet problem of selling through product really quickly [while] getting to know customers who really wanted the product. And more and more dog owners were shopping online, so we had no trouble finding customers and no trouble marketing to customers. The trouble was really just keeping inventory on the shelves in our facility and running a facility to continue producing product, despite Covid happening in the world.”

Maev’s guerrilla marketing strategy
“We think about the paid marketing channels as table stakes. We don’t want to rely too heavily on them, but we do need them. We know that they work. So we definitely use Facebook and Google. And we’ve leaned into TikTok recently, and that’s been working really well, especially for pet content and people who are on TikTok with a dog. And then we found that going back to our roots of guerrilla marketing is really interesting for our community. When we first launched, we were doing a lot of wheat paste and posting in New York, and building a community of people on an email list who are willing to beta test. It worked really well with just posters in the city. We recently ran a wheat-paste-in-the-wild campaign, and it was really great at actually activating communities. People are back on the streets; they’re not stuck inside, they’re going outdoors with their pet. And so that’s been working well, too. And it couples with the paid marketing, making it a little more efficient.”