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  • Writer's pictureSam MacKinnon

Knook #27: Animals Like Us

Animals Like Us Knook NZ
Animals Like Us is a new pet wellness company, creating a new grocery channel. Photo: Supplied

Two out of three New Zealand homes have a dog or a cat, and it’s said the other third want one.

But even though we love our pets, chances are we haven’t given much thought to the current quality of our pet food - or if you have, it’s been a challenge to find the right fit.

Animals Like Us is a pet wellness company. Rob Achten is co-founder and CEO, starting the company alongside Jeremy Moon (founder of Icebreaker, where he and Rob first worked together) and Craig Hickson.

Says Rob, “Our purpose is to nurture beautiful relationships between humans and their pets. Our name sums that up. There’s a bit of a double meaning there - humans are animals too so our animals are like us, and also our animals like us as their owners.”

I asked Rob what inspired the brand.

“I’ve always been curious about nature and how humans relate to it - in my previous roles at Icebreaker, there was a strong focus on the relationships between humans and nature. Animals Like Us addresses another area of that question about how we relate to nature.

“Jeremy and I both have pets and we wanted to know how to look after them better - we were both creating hybrid food blends because we couldn’t find anything suitable for what we wanted to give our pets.

“There’s lots of boring pet food out there. It’s traditional and has a picture of a dog or a cat on it but it doesn’t highlight what the ingredients are, why it’s good for your animal, etcetera.

“As a younger person, my approach to health was to exercise excessively and then eat whatever I wanted. As you get older, you start to think more about nutrition and being more careful about what you’re putting into your body. And then I realised that if that applies to me and my family, then it should apply to our animals – as they are part of the family too.”

Animals Like Us Rob Achten Knook NZ
Rob Achten, co-founder and CEO of Animals Like Us, with Opie and Issie. Photo: Supplied

I asked Rob how Animals Like Us got started.

“The catalyst for all of this was that I was running my own consultancy focusing on brand development and insights work. One of those projects was exploring the opportunities for pet food in the US and China. I started seeing what was happening culturally, especially across Asia: there were less families with kids, and more pets - some people were even forgoing having a partner, so the role of an animal in a household was elevated.

“I also spotted an opportunity in the supermarket channel. Pet specialty stores were crowded with lots of brands. Most consumers had accepted that products in supermarkets weren’t right for them or their pets, and would have to drive across town to their nearest pet specialty store to get what they need. A bore and not a great experience. The current supermarket offering isn’t speaking to the customer or aligned with what they want.

“About two years ago, I started working on the business plan. I formed the business with Jeremy about a year ago, as we realised it was stacking up commercially. We started with a hypothesis that ‘we think natural raw pet food is the next big thing’. We then engaged scientists to put some hard science behind it, rather than operating off a hunch there was an opportunity here. We wanted to ensure it was a nutritionally complete, natural and a tasty recipe.

“We don’t want to own manufacturing - we don’t want to be controlled by what ingredients we have left over to dictate what we will make more of. So we’ve engaged contract manufacturers to make the product itself using our recipes and we can focus on our strengths as a team in brand, product and sales.

“We know we want to be consumer led. We’re wanting to solve problems for the consumer and build an authentic brand. Being consumer-led has meant we have a huge interest in insights to ensure we meet customer needs.

“We’ve sat in customers’ living rooms and talked for an hour and a half to understand their pet care habits. We’ve tested and iterated from there to build an MVP quickly. We’ve got product in front of them so we weren’t just showing them pictures. It’s much easier to get true insights if you have a physical product to share with them.”

Animals Like Us Knook NZ

I asked Rob what challenges he’s faced in building the business.

“I’m an ideas person - it’s a journey from the idea itself through to getting it actioned,” says Rob.

“Food is technical and complex - executing manufacturing of the product and managing supply chains are a real challenge outside of my area of expertise. I’m very fortunate to have experienced people either side of me in terms of areas of expertise - Craig is an expert on processing and food technology, and Jeremy’s expertise all relates to building a strong customer and brand experience. It’s definitely been more comforting to have a team tackling this together.

“I’ve also learnt that developing formulations and then actually getting them made are separate processes. My learning from that is how do we try to complete those processes in parallel rather than one after the other.”

I asked Rob what challenges and opportunities COVID has presented to their company as they get started.

“For ourselves, we were running a lean start-up, so it didn’t impact us too much. It made us super focused and accelerated our progress.

“It enabled us to work differently and collaborate. I’m in Hawke’s Bay, Jeremy is in Auckland. We were already trying to think about how we can reach customers offshore and work well as a team - we’ve been surprised at how well that’s all come together.

“And the biggest opportunity or advantage has been that the whole thing has really focused us as a company on one thing - launching our premium pet food brand into NZ grocery. It’s quite easy to get distracted when you’re passionate and pumped up on this new project, but COVID has brought the whole project into focus which has been amazing.”

I asked Rob what advice he’d give to someone looking to develop an idea.

“I’ve already mentioned how great it is to have experienced people on either side of me. It’s important to have a team that brings areas of expertise you don’t have to the table.

“But I’ve also been struck by how much the original idea has evolved as we’ve progressed. So I think it’s really key to remain open minded - don’t get too fixed on your original idea.

“Starting a business, especially when you’re driven to solve a problem your customers are facing, is a puzzle. It’s all about finding out how the pieces fit together. Don’t get attached to one idea. Be clear about the customer and who you’re selling to, and be clear on your purpose, but be open-minded about how to achieve that goal. You need those anchor points but there’s so many paths to achieve the outcomes you’re looking for.”

Animals Like Us is launching in October. While they’ve got some big visions for the future of the company, Rob says, “Animals Like Us are building a new ultra-premium category in the grocery channel. It’s called Raw Made Easy – 1/3 raw freeze-dried combined with high protein meat & vege bites, There’s nothing like it in the market - it’s a world first. Our first goal is to create a hot brand in our home market, before we scale it into international markets.

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