Every episode we talk to founders and leaders at some of the most exciting DTC brands in the world. We discuss their vision, how they launched, and how they are growing their brand.
In this episode, we talk with Vino Jeyapalan, CEO and Founder of Kabo, a company that brings human-grade dog food to dog owners.
Vino and team are on a mission to improve the life of dogs. It’s personal for him because his first dog, Kabo, passed away. That got him and his co-founder searching for answers—what influence do owners have on the lifespan of their dogs.
Research shows that more fresh dog food, and an increase activity, reduces a dog’s chance for cancer, and increases a their life significantly.
Questions turned into intentional research. They started sending out surveys to understand whether human-grade dog food was something people wanted.
The moment they made the first sale is when it all become real for Kabo. Getting to that first sale took a lot so of manual and unscalable work. They searched on Instagram for dog owners in their city, and then they sent direct messages to each one. Tedious, but it helped them bring in their first purchase.
Kabo takes a personalized approach to buying dog food. Because this is new for most people, getting the messaging right takes time. Understanding your consumer and iterating on product are the most important things to focus on as you launch a brand.
There’s a lot that goes into the customer experience at Kabo. A large part of that is done up front—they ask for information about the dog, so that they can suggest the best meal plan. Another large part of the experience is customer support. They make it easy for customers to get in touch and chat with a team member. Those are things that make it hard for “big kibble” to cut into their market.
Grow at all costs isn’t an option. They’re looking to scale in a way that maintains their unit economics.
What are some hard decisions they’ve made? Saying no to dog owners and dogs in markets that they can’t support.
Learn more about Kabo at kabo.co
Thank you for listening!
Today, we’re talking to Vino Jeyapalan. He’s worked at Facebook where he spent a lot of time helping e-commerce brands grow their businesses through direct response. He was also named to Marketing Mags 30 under 30 list a couple of years ago. And now, he’s joining us as the founder and CEO of Kabo, a company on a mission to bring fresh, human-grade dog food to dog owners. Welcome, Vino.
Vino: Thank you for having me.
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Kabo?
Vino: Yeah, I think you put quite well there. But our objective here at Kabo is to produce high-quality, human grade, freshly cooked dog food. That’s with the objective of improving the life of every single dog.
This mission to improve the life of dogs is personal to you. It hits home.
Yeah, definitely. So, the first dog I adopted with one of my co-founders was a fluffy little chow chow named Kabo. And unfortunately, like many dogs, there comes a point when they leave our lives.
And we did a bit of Googling and rapid research to try and figure out why are certain breeds prone to cancer, what kind of influence does food have on a dog’s lifespan, activity, all these types of things to try and figure out why this is occurring to our pets and what kind of influence do we have as owners?
And that’s really what kind of got us started, in terms of trying to figure out how we build a pet food company that consumers can trust that’ll provide the best option for their pets.
In a Facebook post you made earlier this year, you cite a 2003 report by two Belgian doctors that had some pretty interesting findings.
Vino: Yeah. So, I think the interesting thing was almost like the first point I was trying to figure out why is the lifespan limited to what it is and it has a little bit of research showing that there’s an influence on it.
And there were a few studies and one of the Belgian studies showed that by increasing like a fresh food diet and activity, that you could almost increase the average lifespan of a dog for about 32 months, I believe, was what they found in that study.
There was even another study done at Purdue University that showed that we can easily reduce the risk of cancer in dogs by just adding a few leafy greens like three times a week in their diet.
So, you know what these two studies they’re probably the more prevalent ones out there. My number one question was, the evidence is pretty clear as to what kind of impact we can make with just providing fresh food to our pets. The question then became, “Why are we doing it right now?”
And where we’re focused on is to try to fill that gap and ensure that the product that we provide is taking advantage of this type of information to provide the best product for customers.
From the moment your dog passed to the launch of Kabo, what were some of the things that spurred you to action? Because a lot of ideas stay as ideas and people don’t execute on them. So, what was different for you that you were able to launch this product?
Vino: Yeah, it’s definitely a question. And I think like many other entrepreneurs, you kind of get into this mental whirlwind of every problem you come across, you think you need to build a solution for it.
In this case, I think it was we kind of went through a grievance period and for pretty much most 2018 was really the development of this company.
And a lot of it at that stage is just more or less riffing ideas with the co-founders around, “Why is this problem occurring?” We all are dog owners and my other co-founders still have their dog. So, it’s kind of asking them their perspective around this.
And I think the point it goes to becoming company is you take that level of curiosity and it starts to form a little bit more in a logical base sense. So, originally, it was just us asking questions amongst each other, then it was us sending it around a type form survey to our friends, then it was us conducting a survey of over 400 Canadians to see how do they feed their dogs, how much they’re spending, what do they look for in a brand, what are the words that resonate with them? And that level of research kind of just slowly grew over time.
So, for us, it was almost like a step by step process through all of 2018 to really understand just beyond the initial idea and to say, “Is this something that people really want?” And then in the later half of 2018 go into 2019 is really around, “Okay, now how do we do this?”
At what point did you realize that you had a brand; like this is a real company. We’re on track to launch this thing?
Vino: Probably the moment we had our first customer, I think.
Selling to your first customer. What did that take?
Vino: Yeah. So, I think from my background and my co-founder’s background, we primarily worked at Facebook, growing and influencing the development of a lot of DTC brands here in Canada and globally. And as well, my co-founder has a lot of experience working a lot with retail brands. What we’ve seen is obviously our strong background in paid acquisition.
But the approach of this company was a little bit different and we wanted to find our customers in the most organic way possible. And it took a lot of thinking to think about as a pet owner, where are we spending most of our time digitally?
And one of the things that we realized was as a pet owner, I think you could probably attest this, is that if you have a friend that has a pet, that is most likely a photo of that pet on their Instagram account.
So, we thought that would be a great place to start. And simply put, we just went on Instagram and search the #toronto and #dog and manually direct messaged about 50 or so people that had a public account and had a photo of a dog and we assumed that they were in Toronto, based on the locations they were in and try to convince them, through direct messaging, about this new company. And from that, we were able to get our first few customers.
You went on Instagram, directly message dog owners. You looked for #dog, looked for dog owners in area and that’s how you got your first couple of customers.
Vino: Yeah. So, we specifically chose like unscalable methods because the idea here is that the objective of what we’re doing is very clear to us, but how can we convey that to customers? And this is almost like a true testament where you can’t really hide behind an ad or a video. You want to make sure that the messaging is concise and that we have an understanding of what that is. And once you do, it actually helps us build out what our acquisition strategy looks like.
Let’s talk about messaging for a little bit. When you launched the people grasp your messaging right away, did they understand what you did, your value proposition or did it take a little bit of work?
Vino: I think it definitely takes a bit of time, whether it’s us or any other brand, when you’re trying to bring new value proposition to market.
I think the reality is the way that food is currently being bought is of a different human behavior. So, people are just buying a giant bag of food, maybe feeding a couple of scoops, filling the bowl, see if their dog’s full or not and that’s really the process of how it occurs.
With us, because we have information that we’re collecting from the user around their dog and ensuring that we’re calculating the right caloric intake required for that life stage, there is a bit of a new process. So, there was a bit of learning around how do we optimize our online funnel to ensure that the consumer is getting what they need and then we’re getting the information of what we need in order to provide them the solution.
You have a quiz that you take the dog owners through so that they know exactly how much and what food to get.
Vino: Yeah. Yeah. So, simply put, for us, we’re not in the business of just providing the best solution. We want to make sure that consumers understand how to utilize it and as easily as possible.
So, for us, it’s really important to understand information around the dog, because what we’ve realized from our research is that depending on the weight all the way to the activity level, all these things influence how much a dog should be eating. And right now, most of that information probably comes from a visit to the vet, which is not a cheap expenditure for a consumer to learn about how much they should be feeding their dog.
But to us, it was very clear that the information was available that we could essentially take this, put it into an algorithm of our own and be able to calculate the caloric intake required for each dog and provide that as a value add to the consumer to say, “Hey, these are the pack sizes that you need on a daily basis versus another consumer who might have something that differentiates it.”
How are you explaining your vision, what’s important to you, your values to new employees? What’s that process look like?
Vino: Yeah, I think one thing that’s resonates a lot with a lot of our earlier employees is probably overall mission of making the lives of pets better. So, typically, we are attracting people who are dog owners and that really makes it probably 10 times easier when you’re trying to explain what we’re doing and why we’re so committed to helping dogs.
But quite simply, I think what really resonates with our employees and as well as our customers is the fact that we see a lot of the holes that exist in the industry right now. So, there’s a lack of trust, a lot lack of transparency, and we feel that that’s the opportunity where we want to build a brand. And really, that’s where our culture revolves around as well.
When you launched, what do you think was the most important thing that you had to get right? Was it product? Was a brand? Was it logistics? Was it shipping, et cetera? What was the most important thing to you focus on?
Vino: I think leading up to the launch, it was definitely (one) understanding our consumer. So, seeing what are the biggest pain points? How do we communicate what we’re trying to do to that specific cohort of customers?
And then the second piece is really the product. So, we’re always in an ongoing phase of iterating on the product and collaborating with the smartest possible pet nutritionist to figure out how do we improve the formulation? How do we further offer customization? How do we address issues that we know that are occurring in pets, but are not being addressed by food at the current moment? So, I think those two things were really the most important focuses for us in the beginning of the launch.
What was the feedback like in those early days on the dog food itself?
Vino: I think it was — Well, in the initial batches, once we were able to get the formulation completed by our nutritionist and complete lab testing’s and go through that process, the initial testers are really just ourselves and our pets.
We were following certain recipes online that you could find, whether it’s on YouTube for homemade diets that are a little bit more simple, but we realized that by working through the process and developing an actual product development structure, we were able to really ensure that we were providing whole food diets. And the first place where we wanted to go test it is amongst ourselves and amongst our pets and our friends.
So, once we saw the great feedback there, obviously ensuring that the food meets standards of AFCO and other regulatory bodies, the first real paying customer, I remember getting that message and then just being so excited and saying like, “How can I reorder?” And that’s really what almost gave us the idea of saying that food is such a staple that this should be a subscription-based business and not just a one off, “Hey, here is something that makes you feel good that you did to your dog for a week. This is something that you actually need to commit to for your dog’s lifespan.”
That’s incredible. When I looked up Kabo, the reviews were incredible. It’s five stars across the board. People are loving the product. Tell me a little bit about the buying experience, from end to end. So, for the moment, I come to the site and I do the quiz and I place an order to the moment I get that box and I open it. How are you thinking about that?
Vino: Yeah, I think one of the most important things that we’ve learned about the entire experience is the customer’s confidence and just reassure it. So, we do a lot from the beginning of the process. From when they give us information about their dog, they feel like they’re getting this personalized approach that they’ve never received before.
And that’s a lot due to technology. So, we’re able to communicate that. We’re able to figure out information that normally would require them to get it elsewhere and ensure that the product that they’re getting is catered towards them. And that gives them a huge level of comfort.
The secondary piece is actually a little bit more manual and it requires a lot of human interaction. And that’s almost like the customer experience aspect. So, naturally, consumers will have questions. This is something new. This is a new user behavior that we’re creating and that takes time. So, for us, it’s really just being able to respond to customers at a fast rate, ensuring that we’re just a phone call away or a message or an email.
And I think that’s what really gives them that assurance that we’re not just another pet food brand that doesn’t have a face or identity or doesn’t have the ability to put their name out there to show you that we want your trust and we have this transparency. So, that end-to-end experience really starts with what we’ve built and almost ends off with ourselves.
Do you think that level of personalization and care that you just mentioned, do you think that makes it very, very hard for “big cable” as you referred to them, to cut into your market?
Vino: Yes, I think what’s always difficult of the incumbents is going to be trying to adjust to what the, let’s say, that the mass populous has moved towards.
And I think it’s pretty evident to see that customization is playing a huge part in the way that consumer products are moving. I think the idea is that a blanketed approach no longer works. We now have the ability to operationalize around the customization request. So, people are looking for both.
I think the reality is this being a bigger company in a larger structure is moving as fast as nimble, doesn’t come quite as easily as it does for a startup. So, that gives us the advantage. And you know we’re fast movers. So, it ends up going at a pace that I feel that a lot of what we call “big cable” can’t keep up with.
When you launched, how were you thinking about marketing the product? I know you mentioned that you did a lot of unscalable things like direct messaging dog owners through Instagram. What are some other channels that you are taking advantage of to get this thing launched?
Vino: Yeah. So, it spans from anywhere offline to online marketing. I think one of the benefits that you have is an early stage company is trying to understand what that impact looks like, even though a lot of the times, the results will be significant enough for you to make a hypothesis around whether or not that channel is going to be a large contributing factor to your marketing mix. The importance is still that you try and figure out what that value is.
So, we’ve done everything from offline activations at dog parks, all the way to a paid acquisition campaigns that you’d find on social media or through search.
How are you thinking about changing that over time?
Vino: Yeah, I think the main thing that we’re trying to do is like really paint out what our customer journey is. In the beginning, it’s probably quite simple. It’s a first impression or interaction with our brand, “Okay, I get the concept and I’ll convert.” Over time, that becomes more difficult because you’re reaching more people and that messaging does not relay as well.
So, it’s trying to understand what that looks like. So, is it a consumer sees an ad online, goes to the dog park, gets a sample of our product, tries it out and converts? Or is it you know, they see an ad, seven days later they get a referral and then another week later, maybe they convert.
So, that the window is what we’re really trying to figure out. And once we have an idea of that, it’s really trying to paint out that customer journey and try and figure out what are those contributing channels that get us to that end piece. And that mix will be anything from digital to offline.
At one point, you manage the largest Facebook advertising budget in Canada. How much do you think that’s helping you now with Kabo?
Vino: Definitely a lot. I think it’s helped a lot in my career in the past, specifically been focused on growth-based roles where the objective here is always around customer acquisition.
I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is that with paid acquisition, you can always push it to whatever limit. But it’s a bigger understanding of trying to say, how do you make the unit economics of this work so that you could do a feasible way?
I think the advantage I get is from being able to see it across so many different brands and assist so many different brands tell that story. It really gives me the confidence and expertise in my team that in order to go into that avenue.
Vino, in light of what’s going on in the tech space, in particular, the grow-at-all-costs mentality. What’s your approach to growing Kabo?
Vino: Definitely not grow at all costs. I think the main premise here is with DTC or a consumer product, whatever you want to call it. The main objective is to start how you can scale in a way that still makes your unit economics work. So, that’s always going to be the backbone of our philosophy around how we push for an acquisition.
Have you changed your thought or your position around fundraising at all since you’ve launched?
Vino: Yeah, I think there definitely is a place for fundraising. It really depends on the business. And consumer product companies, it can be tricky. So, I think the approach is really is on a per case basis.
For ourselves, we have done a bit of a pre-seed or aged around like whatever you’d like to call it and it’s got a specific focus around getting us to a certain stage. And I think it is a great value add.
Since you launched, what’s the most painful business decision you’ve had to make?
Vino: That’s a good question. I think probably the difficult aspects of it is not being able to service customers as fast as we’d like to. So, even though there’s a lot of focus around growth, I think there’s a big focus around do we have the foundation to support growth at a higher scale?
So, we’ll have customers from — We even have people from Germany reaching out, asking about our product. So, I think it’s hard to say no to those customers and hard to say no to even across Canada when our initial focus was just at the time launching in Toronto. So, I’d always say like that’s the hardest part of saying no to dogs.
It’s hard to balance because you want to serve people, but at the same time, you want to serve them well. And it’s hard to balance both of those. What’s something you’ve done really well that you’re proud of, that if you were to launch another brand, you would do the exact same thing?
Vino: Oh, that’s a good question. I’d say I really like the approach of how we went about with Kabo; like the very customer-focused approach around how we understand our community. We really went out to talk to our customers to figure out like, before even jumping from idea to product, it was really around like, “Let’s see what people are concerned about. Let’s see what they think the right solution is.”
So, if I were to think, going back to stage one and doing this all over again, it’d really just go back to consumers again and trying to take whatever the hypotheses I have and talking to consumers and figuring out if things align on their end as well.
Why do you think it’s important for some brands to skip their maybe channel partners and sell directly to consumers?
Vino: Primarily because we’ve seen a huge shift in how human behavior is for purchasing items. I think it’s been pretty evident for at least a decent amount of time that consumers don’t want to like go to a pet store and like specifically have to go to a retail store that only sells pet food to go grab a giant bag, lug it, put it in your car (if you have one) or travel to the subway to bring it to your dog.
So, when you start to see these kind of like huge gaps, that’s really the importance of where that efficiency aspect comes to it.
But another important aspect is as well as like providing value add, beyond just operational efficiency. So, beyond just being able to create a better supply chain or cutting out a certain process for a consumer, there needs to be a better product at the end of the day. That brings them to your brand and keeps them with your brand.
What’s something that you believe about launching or managing a brand that most people would disagree with you?
Vino: I think the interesting part is actually it comes by this book a few friends of mine wrote called Get Together. And I think it’s like people feel that building a brand and a community is almost magical; that people somehow with nice design and a cool looking website or logo will eventually congregate around your brand and talk about and engage with it.
And that’s not really what is true. What you’re really required, in terms of building community, is cultivating people to come together to provide contribution to your brand, to your product, to provide feedback and almost have this collaborative environment.
So, I’d say that’s probably the biggest aspect around building a brand or a community. It’s that it requires a bit of work and conscious focus.
You’re absolutely right. It takes a lot more than a logo, colors, website to build a brand. You do need community participation.
Vino, what was the last DTC purchase that you made? What was the last brand that you purchased from?
Vino: That is a good question. I’d say the last brand I probably purchased from, other than just Kabo itself, we did adopt another dog. So, he’s on our own subscription of dog food.
I’m a big advocate of Harry’s. I’ve got quite the beard.
Very nice. And if we had to have another founder on the show, who would you like to hear from?
Vino: I think there’s an interesting founder who I worked with at Facebook. His name is Kenny Li-Yong and he’s the founder of Refer, a cosmetic makeup brush brand.
Very nice. So, we’ll try to get in touch with him and get him on the show. If you’re a dog owner or you have dogs in your care, visit kabo.co. That’s Kabo (K-A-B-O).co and check out what Vino and team have been building.
Thanks for joining us today, Vino.
Vino: Awesome, thanks.
Thank you for listening. This is the DTC Growth Show.
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