Tell us what it was like starting your own business and some of the early challenges you faced?
I was twenty-seven years old when I first started the company, which felt quite grown up at the time but now I look back, I think I might have just been a kid! I didn’t initially plan to create a big company. I was just trying to feed my own dog better food but quickly realized the difference that a fresher, whole food diet could make and decided to turn it into a local business. Once I’d decided to commercialize the idea, the most important thing to me was to make it stand apart from the crowd, and I chose being Human Grade as a clear, tangible way to differentiate from the rest of the industry and really define our quality standards in a way that people could understand, relative to conventional, feed-grade pet food.
Of course, the pet food industry itself wasn’t really set up to deal with a truly Human Grade company and that led to some real regulatory challenges in the early days. As I began increasing distribution, objections began popping up about the term Human Grade on our product labels! The state of New Mexico refused to grant me a license unless I could get a Statement of No Objection from the FDA.
That had never been done by any pet food company before, and kicked off a rather long journey of documenting our entire supply chain, harvesting, production, transportation, storage and handing, to demonstrate that every single element of our food maintained ‘edible’ status, or a true human food standard. This process wasn’t made any easier by the fact that only a few weeks before, I’d given birth to first daughter and let’s just say she wasn’t great at taking naps! I was running the company from home with just one part time employee and had only managed to take 4 days maternity leave, which definitely wasn’t an ideal scenario.
However, in the end we prevailed. A whole new standard for the pet food industry was established and I proudly received my Statement of No Objection from the FDA, which I then used to facilitate our licenses in each new state…..until it came to Ohio! They flat-out refused to register any pet food product that was labeled Human Grade and said the FDA approval carried no weight in their state. We eventually ended up in Court, and the judged ruled in the end that The Honest Kitchen had a right to truthful commercial free speech, which was a huge win for us (and the many anxious customers in that state, who’d been driving over state lines to buy The Honest Kitchen for their dogs)!
Is this how you thought things would turn out?
I’m a pretty intuitive person and I did always feel, right from day one, that The Honest Kitchen was meant to be. Even through our initial challenges in creating and defining the Human Grade standard, I knew we were doing the right thing and there had to be away to make it happen because I’d put such a tremendous amount of work into establishing our supply chain and production.
Many of our friends questioned the idea of The Honest Kitchen when we were first getting started. Some didn’t dig the name and others couldn’t see the point of trying to make a dog food that was more confusing! But I just had this mindset that if you make a good product, it will eventually succeed.
With all that said, I don’t think I ever imagined that we’d become so widely recognized across the industry, or so popular with pet parents in every corner of the continent! As we’ve evolved in recent years, we’ve introduced new form factors that make the world of Human Grade accessible to even wider audiences so the momentum just continues and our foods become even more deeply rooted as mainstays of more and more pets’ food bowls.
Word of mouth was always (and still continues to be) one of the most important drivers of our business. We’re fortunate to have products that really do yield tangible results and of course this leads our customers to tell their friends and neighbors at the dog park, and so it continues. I truly believe that if you do the right thing in business, success will follow.
What are some of your current responsibilities with the company?
My current role is Founder and Chief Integrity Officer. I was CEO up until a couple of years ago, when I made the decision to focus more on our daughters and to achieve a better work-life balance. Honestly, being Chief Integrity Officer allows me to take responsibility for the parts of the business that I’m most passionate about – making sure we follow our true north and uphold our standards when it comes to sourcing, production, sustainability, social-environmental issues, looking after our people, and also being our company’s spokesperson.
A core principal at The Honest Kitchen is always making decisions we’re proud of, always doing what we say and saying what we do by having integrity at the heart of everything we do.
What else do you do outside of The Honest Kitchen?
I love all animals, and grew up riding horses. I now ride with our daughters several times a week. I also love hiking, cooking and spending time at our farm, where we have a lot of work to do restoring the pastures from decades of livestock over-grazing by previous owners.
I’m also a mentor for several other female founders and CEO’s, which I absolutely love. It’s great to be able to give back to the female business community and maintain the ‘startup mentality’ which is so important and exciting – and essential to propagate even for established brands like The Honest Kitchen, in order to continue acting as industry ‘disruptors’.
What advice would you offer other women who are thinking about starting their own business?
I think the most essential thing is to be truly passionate about what you’re setting out to do. If you have that fire in your belly, you can accomplish so much because it doesn’t even feel like work, it’s all consuming, with ideas buzzing while out walking the dog, in the shower, preparing dinner and everything in between. That constant passion allows lucid solutions to challenges to percolate and helps maintain a continuous forward momentum. If you’re not passionate about your idea, I don’t think that energy is as strong and I’ve seen several startups grind to a halt as a result.
The second thing is learning to strike a balance between commitment and compromise. By that, I mean being fully and unwaveringly committed to your central idea and the core standards you intend to uphold as you bring it to life, but also not being SO stubborn that you get hung up and can’t move at all. It’s essential to have a certain amount of flexibility and a nimble mindset in order to keep the business dynamic and prevent stagnation.
Finally, I don’t think starting your own business is necessarily about being ‘fearless’. Fear is normal and healthy and provides the adrenaline needed for decision-making under pressure and for critically thinking about how to solve problems; being fully aware of risks without getting paralyzed by them. For me, it’s about facing challenges without being spineless; having inner grit, and taking opportunities with eyes wide open.
What was your first ever job and how did it impact your later working life or work ethic?
Other than babysitting, my first job was waitressing in a country pub in the UK (where I grew up) at the age of fifteen. I really haven’t stopped working since then, and at one point in college I had five different part time jobs and am proud to say that one of them was at the local McDonalds, which was an incredibly busy non-stop tourist location in the town of Stratford Upon Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace! At the risk of sounding old, I think a lot of kids nowadays feel they’re above doing a job like fast food, but it can teach you SO much about thinking on your feet, multi-tasking, being a team player, empathy, and how to treat customers with a smile every time - and the quality of humility should never be underestimated.
What does the future hold for The Honest Kitchen?
We’ve got a lot of exciting things ahead! This year, it’s finally, officially, the Year of the Cat and we’re eagerly anticipating a completely re-vamped, multi-format cat line with wet, dry and dehydrated foods as well as fun new treats - something for every finicky feline!
Big picture, for me, the goal is to ensure we continue to stay true to our roots as we grow and evolve as a brand, and to use our scale to raise the bar even further for ourselves and our industry. That means even more conscientious sourcing, broadening our business with female and minority owned and operated suppliers, and continuing to innovate new and differentiated products that are inspired by human food trends.