We spoke to five incredible founders about product development, branding and marketing, and the success stories they’ve experienced so far.
Part 3 of the series features Alex Waite, cofounder of Shameless Pets, a pet food company making delicious dog treats using upcycled ingredients. Learn how Alex and her team are combating food waste by finding a productive use for unwanted ingredients, how she’s building a brand pet parents can trust, and why entering a space dominated by big corporations can be a great idea.
Tell us a bit about Shameless Pets.
We make all-natural dog treats that are made from upcycled ingredients. We do this to help battle our food waste problems in the supply chain while providing delicious and nutritious treats to dogs.
When did you know you had something you could build a business around, as opposed to just an interesting idea?
My background is product development and I’ve always aspired to have my own brand in some regard that was mission-driven. At some point my team and I were considering food waste as a challenge that a CPG company could have an impact on.
We thought we would go into the dog food realm. We talked to people in the industry to see if this concept was worth pursuing and we learned that our pets could be a key way to solve food waste and create a great product at the same time.
What are some concrete steps you took to go from idea to product, to something that can scale?
We started with one flavor and found an ingredient we could build around, which was lobster. The seafood industry throws away a lot of lobster mince - bits of lobster that has been picked out of the shell outside of the tail. There are some suppliers already taking that mince and selling it to manufacturers for other products. So we asked, “How do we build a product around lobster?”
As the product developer, I had to figure out how we could incorporate a functional benefit for pets and make it something they like. We made a lobster and kelp combo that helps dogs keep their coats healthy.
We’re creating flavors around suppliers who were already doing something awesome in the upcycling world. We’re collaborating with them and growing together. People ask us if our upcycling strategy makes us too reliant on ingredients, but when you think about how much food is wasted before it even gets to market, it’s clear there will always be a way to work with suppliers and farmers to upcycle that waste.
Sometimes, the reason something gets thrown away is as simple the product not looking pretty enough for the shelf. It’s perfectly good, but because it doesn’t look perfect, consumers don’t want it. There’s a growing awareness of this, and several other amazing companies are working with these previously unwanted products. Brands are specifically working with growers and processors to create new added-value products from ingredients that would have been wasted otherwise.
Pet food makes sense here. Dogs love food - they don’t care if the pumpkin or lobster is ugly.
Can you share your process for gathering feedback and turning it into actionable steps for your own product development?
We have created our first five SKUs - pumpkin, blueberry, lobster, apple, and egg. Creating food for dogs is not quite the same as developing food for humans. I develop recipes in my own kitchen, and have my dog try the treats. When I go walk my dog, I ask other pet parents if I can share the treats to see if their dogs like them.
I use all natural ingredients, and there’s no fillers. We also use catchy names to drum up interest - Lobster Rollover, Pumpkin Par-tay - stuff that catches people’s interest. We talk to retailers, and they literally want to smell the food. There’s an idea that if it smells potent, the dogs will like it. Texture is key for dogs - most of biscuits on the market are crunchy, and now we’re moving toward soft-baked treats. It seems like that’s what pet owners like because it’s easier to portion control. Plus, the dogs love the softer texture.
We’re always maintaining conversations with dog owners and retailers - everything we learn will go into our future re-formulations. We’ve never been too far off - the flavor combos make sense and they’re based around what dogs already like for the most part.
All of our products have a functional benefit in terms of health because retailers are telling us that this is what people want. They’re treats, so they’re not intended to be a full source of daily nutrition, but it’s definitely an added benefit. For example, pumpkin helps digestion, and our lobster formula benefits joint health. People love their pets as if they were their kids, so this is important.
What food brands have been most influential to you?
As a team, my co founders and I look at companies like Misfit Juicery and Regrained - they’re doing great things with upcycling and tackling the problem of food waste. They’re very upfront with it. They are making food for humans, but they’re paving the way for what we do as well.
What makes your brand unique and different from your competitors?
We don’t really compare ourselves to other pet food companies. We see ourselves in the community of companies fighting food waste. We like to say that we’re green, but we’re not going to be in-your-face about it. We care about what we’re doing and we’re dedicated sourcing responsibility and being sustainable with our packaging, but we’re doing it in a way that’s not going to alienate people who might not be super into the sustainability movement. We’re just very approachable for all consumers.
Can you share the most impactful strategies you’ve used so far to market your business?
As a food product developer, I knew we would need to connect with sales and marketing side of things. I come from science, so starting out, I needed someone with the connections in sales and marketing. My team fills in those gaps.
Being a part of Branchfood has been hugely helpful for me and my company. Just the conversations and connections I’ve made there have influenced our business. For example, Ahmad Zamelli of Evergreens is working on aeroponics, and I’ve been talking to him about making a powder out of his roots as a potential nutrient-dense product. At one of the events - FoodEdge - we met a connection at H-E-B and now they’re launching a test run of our products in 60 stores.
The wider strategy is just filling the gaps in your team and putting yourself out there.
What success story are you most proud of?
It’s not a single story: how Shameless Pets came about was a series of fortunate events, which makes me feel like I’m on the right path. We’ve had challenges, but the series of events of finding the perfect team, finding great manufacturers - all of the makes me feel like we’re on to something big. H-E-B taking on a small startup has definitely been a big success, and we’re seeing where that can go.
Most pet food brands are owned by just a few massive corporations. What advice do you have to CPG startup founders entering these kinds of verticals?
I think that means there’s huge opportunity. I think society is hungry for smaller brands that are making a real difference. The perception of large brands is that they’re not always totally transparent. If you want to enter a space, I’d say just go for it and work hard to change people’s perceptions.
Even at Branchfood, we’re the only dog treat company. We’re the only ones doing this in our space. Leverage your community and just go for it. What’s cool for us is that in the pet food world, innovation is further behind than it is in CPG for human food. Big players are taking notice too - just look at General Mills’ recent acquisition of Blue Buffalo.
Given all of the recalls and even federal investigations into the quality of pet food, what do you think is the best way to build trust with pet owners, who are likely pretty skeptical of packaged pet foods?
I think asking questions is important for pet owners, and they should be doing that. For us, we’re doing everything we can do be transparent about our ingredients and being upfront about that we don’t put artificial ingredients in our products. We feel strongly that you should treat your pet food like you would your own food.
How did you make the connection between pet food and human food waste?
It was the challenge of it. It’s not really food waste - it’s nutrient-dense, usable food that gets tossed because of perceptions. My dog would eat anything. I wouldn’t feed her scraps on the ground, but she would definitely eat them if I did.
My dog is pretty shameless in what she eats. Dogs don’t care if food is ugly. That’s where the name Shameless Pets came from - pets are shameless about food. They really teach us how to be better consumers.
This interview was conducted and written by Ideometry, an all-in-one growth marketing agency helping everyone from startups to Fortune 500 companies engineer brilliant integrated campaigns, find their ideal audience, fuel their pipeline, and drive real success.
Read the rest of our “Five Food Startups Winning the Branding Battle” series: