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Tails.com is transforming pet food one bite at a time

Written by Eric Johansson on Monday, 11 July 2016. Posted in Scaling up, Interviews

A surreal phone call turned James Davidson’s life on its head and made him bet everything on the bespoke dog food company Tails.com. With tens of thousands of satisfied customers, it is fair to say the gamble has paid off

Tails.com is transforming pet food one bite at a time

Ask James Davidson, co-founder and CEO of Tails.com, how he got involved with the bespoke dog food company and he’ll tell you that it was barking mad. “It was such a surreal moment,” he says. “I was on the 52nd floor of the J.P. Morgan Tower in New York; at the time I received the call, Henry Kissinger was in the next meeting room.” Davidson had been in discussion about taking a role at Chia Co for four months but, on answering his phone, he heard the voice of Graham Bosher, serial entrepreneur and founder of Graze, the snack company. “He was working on a new idea with a vet named Joe Inglis and asked ‘why don’t you come and talk to us about it?’,” he recalls.

Two days and one transatlantic flight later, Davidson found himself cramped into a one-bedroom flat in Kingston watching Bosher and Inglis excitedly explain their idea. The duo wanted to sell tailor-made dog food online, cutting out the middleman in the process. Whilst Inglis had the nutritional knowhow and Bosher could draw upon his e-commerce experience, they needed someone able to organise people and operations. “And that’s where I came in,” explains Davidson.

As the former head of supply chain communications at Innocent Drinks and a life-long dog lover, he was perfectly suited for the role. And recognising a diamond in the rough, it didn’t take long to convince him. “By the end of the following day, I’d joined them,” he continues. “Ironically, Chia Co called shortly after with their final offer but they were too late.” Forgoing the high-paying job in the States, Davidson bet all he had on Tails.com.

And the gamble paid off. Today, Tails.com has tens of thousands of dogs on its books and produces kibble and wet food tailored to each specific hound’s age, breed and health issues at the company’s factory in Heathrow. With the production handled in-house and the middleman out of the picture, they have been able to bring down the price, making it not just a product for the super-rich. “You are not going to change the world of pet food if only the rich can buy it,” argues Davidson.

Having slashed prices, he became frustrated when reading an early review from a publication that didn’t believe Tails.com could pull off what it had promised. “It said that it was ‘marketing bullshit’ and that the equipment alone must cost a fortune,” says Davidson. But then he realised that the review was actually a blessing in disguise. If the reviewer couldn’t get their head around how the company could keep costs down, then their competition was probably far behind too. If no one else was making bespoke food at the same price, then Tails.com’s technical and organisational knowhow was sure to give them an edge. “That’s how we knew we could be a successful disrupter,” Davidson continues.

But the company wouldn’t have been in the position to disrupt anything if Davidson and its other seven co-founders hadn’t put a lot of hard work into the company from the beginning, a process that started in November 2013 and climaxed with the business launch in July 2014. “We did so many things during those nine months,” says Davidson. “We had to find the right facilities, the right people and build relationships with suppliers.”

However, another type of relationship proved equally important. While many startups struggle to raise money, the founders of Tails.com used their networks to easily convince a group of angel investors to invest in the venture’s seed round. “An experienced co-founding team with a social network and a track record of success makes people more likely to invest,” explains Davidson. “For instance, Graham’s experience from Graze meant he already had relationships with many investors.”

Securing cash was only half the battle though and there were still plenty of kinks for the company to work out. “You never understand everything until you go live,” says Davidson. One of the teething problems was that dogs proved to be surprisingly fussy eaters: some didn’t exactly wag their tails at the prospect of swapping familiar chow with new grub. “It is pretty demoralising to put in nine months of blood, sweat and tears for it to not work the way you wanted,” says Davidson. “At that point, it was important that we didn’t lose faith and found the energy to fix the problem.” Instead, the company solved the issue by expanding the selection of kibble available, ensuring that even the pickiest of canines could enjoy the taste and benefits of tailor-made food.

Another thing they got wrong in the early days was how eager their clientele would be to interact with them. “We thought our customers didn’t want to talk to us,” says Davidson. However, that assumption soon proved to be erroneous. The buyers of the bespoke food simply weren’t content with anonymously ordering food online but wanted advice, support and, encouragingly, to share the positive impact the food had on their dogs. Not only were the customers’ canine friends munching on the goodies, they were becoming healthier and their owners couldn’t stop themselves from telling Tails.com. “I get emails from customers every single day,” continues Davidson. “A dog is a member of the family so that improvement is a big deal for people.”

And engaging with costumers and taking their suggestions to heart in this way has enabled Tails.com to offer a service awarded with an impressive 9.7 Trustpilot ranking. Not satisfied with simply reviewing the service online, a lot of customers send the company pictures of their dogs next to bags of kibble. In fact, one of the walls on the Richmond headquarters is covered with happy snaps of canines anticipating gastronomic bliss. “It is really amazing,” he says. “Knowing that we make a difference to people’s lives is my number one energy source.”

And that knowledge is not just important to him but has proven essential for the company’s recruitment. “It is part of the reason why people want to come and work for us,” he says. “They like to sense that they are making a difference.” Chia Co’s failed attempt to net Davidson has also influenced Tails.com’s recruitment process: the CEO emphasises it’s important to hire swiftly to snatch interesting candidates. “If you like a CV, then you must do something about it quickly,” he says.

Refusing to let talent slip between its fingers has enabled Tails.com to populate its Richmond headquarters with former Amazon software engineers, Nestlé employees and nutritionists with over 20 years of experience – including the person who developed the food formula for the royal dogs. And if working with A-players like that wasn’t fetching enough for prospective employees, another perk might do the trick. “They can bring their dogs to work,” says Davidson.

With the team in place and a steadily expanding customer-base, Tails.com is now looking towards the future. “Our goal is to change the world of pet food forever, so we have ambitions to move beyond dogs,” says Davidson. A European or an American expansion may also be on the horizon but, for now, Tails.com is focusing on ensuring the high quality of their service continues. “Choosing not to do stuff and focusing on executing what you do exceptionally well is really important,” he says.

With the choice to forgo the job with Chia Co changing the course of his life, Davidson knows a thing or two about the importance of choices. Looking out at the office, at the miniature schnauzer Narla ambling around between the desks to say hello to people and at the photos on the wall, Davidson hasn’t regretted the decision for a second. “I remember sitting on a plane to Denmark to meet a supplier,” he says. “Looking out the window, I thought that this was the best job I’ve ever had because we are the masters of our destinies.” It isn’t New York but in many ways it’s much better. 

About the Author

Eric Johansson

As feature writer and resident Viking, Johansson ensures EB is filled with engaging and eclectic entrepreneurial stories. While one of our freshest faces, he has sharpened his editorial teeth by writing about business, entertainment and fitness.

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