Anne Carlson is the founder and CEO of Jiminy's an all natural dog treats made with cricket protein.
Although they are a small company and a start-up, they are a leader in sustainable solutions for pets. Their most important project was to establish cricket protein a safe and digestible for dogs.
Was it a lightbulb moment or gradual moment to start Jiminy’s?
Let me say it was an LED lightbulb moment. I had worked for one of the big pet companies and was looking for a new project with purpose. Creating tasty and healthy pet food is great, but can we do better and offer more? It didn’t take much searching to focus on climate change and I quickly realized pets could potentially have a bigger impact than people in one respect. Pets eat their food and sometimes also get treats – but it’s all unsustainable. If pet food and treats were sustainable, then you’re impacting 80-90% of the dog’s total. And in the U.S. our dogs consume over 36 billion pounds of protein a year – that’s a big number by anyone’s standards.
That LED lightbulb went off when I read a UN study pointing to insects as an answer to world hunger. That spurred us to make some dog treats to see whether dogs would like this new protein source AND to give us some time to do all of the important studies we thought necessary before developing a complete and balanced food.
How did you get your first three customers?
I personally walked into local pet stores in the Bay Area. Talk about being completely out of my comfort zone! I’d never been in that kind of selling role before and am sure I was awkward as hell. My saving grace was probably my earnest belief in what I was doing and that somehow showed through my stumbling.
How did you validate the idea?
My very first question was “will the dogs like this?” I ordered some dry roasted crickets online and lined my dogs up for some serious taste-tests. A couple of puddles of drool later (for any non-dog owners, drool = love), I knew we had a shot.
Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?
A bunch. As I mentioned, I had worked in the pet industry prior to starting Jiminy’s. I was VP of Market Intelligence, which gave me a deep understanding of pet parents and market trends. I’d also started and sold a company earlier in my career – so I knew that game too (although I’m realizing that developing and selling a company is a bit like giving birth – you somehow forget the really hard parts and are actually willing to do it again).
Have you raised any money? How much?
We’ve raised two friends and family rounds, and intend to do our first price round at the end of this year.
What regulatory approvals did you have to go through?
One of the most important projects that we did as a company – and it certainly separates us - was to establish cricket protein as safe and digestible for dogs.
We worked with the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to define the process and a panel of experts recently certified that cricket protein is GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) for dogs.
Who is your target demographic?
Our customer base is mostly comprised of millennials who have become the largest segment of pet owners. They care deeply about the choices they make for themselves and their beloved pets; including food content, origin, sustainability, and humane practices. Plus—they are willing to pay more to support companies that deliver on these demands. Jiminy’s is perfectly positioned for this new mindset as conscious consumption is at the center of everything that Jiminy’s stands for.
What is the funniest/most strange customer request you’ve had?
Well, we’re selling cricket protein products, so we get lots of questions and comments that most other pet companies couldn’t even dream up. Some of them are pretty salty. I’ve actually started a list of the funniest comments that will eventually go into a book. I guess one of the funny requests was a very earnest request for us to make hedgehog food. I didn’t even know that hedgehogs were pets – much less what they eat! (My guess is the hedgehog pet food business is a pretty small market).
How did you fund the idea initially?
When I first put the concept together, I asked an old high school friend to take a look at my pitch deck. He had successfully started a couple of companies at that point. He helped me tune the presentation and when we were done, he said put me down for a unit. That initial $25K enabled us to make our first batch of dog treats.
Where did you meet your co-founder/founding team?
During my decision process while on my own, I met Bill, who had recently sold a grass-fed beef business. He still had access to grass fed beef and he approached me to lead a sustainable pet company that would use that beef. At that point though I had already decided that I wanted to work toward climate change solutions, and so we met for lunch and then went to a Petco together.
As I walked him through the store, he had a bit of an epiphany about the pet industry’s size and scope. I also told him that while I loved the idea of a sustainable pet business, I didn’t think cows would ever be the answer. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots to get to where we stand now.
Any tips for finding first employees?
If you are married or in a relationship, take a look at your significant other – do they have skills you can use? I recruited my husband, so our household is all in!
Did you run any companies prior?
I’ve had a really crazy zig-zagging career. I founded and led two businesses prior to starting Jiminy’s (after starting my career in consulting and working for big companies in between the startups). The first startup that I led was relatively low risk because it was fully funded by a big company out of their “New Business Ventures” group. I self-funded my second start up and sold that business to Information Resources. Each startup addressed a void in the marketplace – very different businesses – but there are a lot of similarities in getting each company up and running.
What motivated you to start your own business?
I wanted to take on climate change and to change the conversation in the pet industry. It’s about making a real difference - creating a truly sustainable alternative to what exists in the market today without sacrifice.
If we switch a dog from a chicken protein diet to a cricket protein diet, we save 480,000 gallons of water a year with that one dog. That’s just the water savings – the greenhouse gas reduction is even more impressive – just harder to visualize.
What were your family and friends first thoughts on your company?
Well, a lot of jokes at the beginning. I have one friend who now calls me “cricket girl.” Mostly they’ve been unbelievably supportive – even if I occasionally have them try some of the other cricket protein products that are out there. They really liked the cookie mix. I have friends who’ve invested in the company and others who give our treats out to every dog they pass.
What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?
Personally, it’s very clear. If the world doesn’t make changes, there won’t be enough food to feed people and pets on this planet. I’m committed to educating people on the big and small things they can do to fight the global climate crisis. Through Jiminy’s, I’ve provided a sustainable choice for pets yet, there is more to be done. I believe we will continue to see consumers support businesses like ours who strive to make a difference and buy our products not as a novelty, but as their go-to brand.
Do you hve any advice for someone just starting out?
- First, know your purpose.
- Second, you need to be flexible.
We make dog treats and food, but our purpose is to help combat climate change. Flexibility is a must-have attribute as nothing ever happens in a straight line. When we were developing a new treat, our co-packer forgot to include one of the ingredients. Thankfully, we tested the treat with the dogs and they loved it. Instead of upending production, we went forward with the “mistake” and used the forgotten ingredient in our next treat formula.
What has driven the most sales?
We’ve definitely leaned in on Facebook, but the biggest measurable impact has come from mainstream press. Just recently there was an article in New York Magazine and the title of the article was “My Dog Loves These Cricket Treats More Than She Loves Me.”
They mentioned one of our training treats in the article and that treat sold out in less than 24 hours! We didn’t even know what was happening at the beginning and then someone forwarded the article to me – wow!
What is stopping you being 3x the size you are now?
At this stage, it’s building awareness and educating consumers. That takes money. There’s no doubt that our story resonates with consumers, we just need to get the information in front of them.
How do you protect yourself from competition?
Although we’re a small company and a start-up, we’re a leader in sustainable solutions for pets. Within our category, we’re spearheading the studies and proving out the efficacy for dogs while sharing those learning with consumers and retailers as we go. That’s a lot to take on and you could argue those resources could be used elsewhere – marketing, physical displays, etc. - to great effect too. Embracing science is our way of giving back, creating trust in our brand, and it has the added benefit of elevating us over the competition.
What are your favorite books?
I love the book Drawdown edited by Paul Hawkin. It was written by a coalition of researchers and scientists to identify realistic solutions to climate change. The title “Drawdown” is hopeful – identifying that point when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere peak and begin to decline. This book sits on my desk and I turn to it when I need inspiration. I’ve also sent copies to friends and family because I believe it really is that important!
What are your favorite podcasts?
I actually listen to a lot of podcasts! Whenever I’m driving I’ve got on 'The Rewatchables’ or ‘How I Built This’. There are so many interesting podcasts these days. Some of them really stick with you – I find myself googling for images the next day because the topic is still in my head.
What are the next products you’re working on?
We have a new dog treat (this time with a different insect protein) that will be out by the end of the summer. We’re also planning to add cat food next year. Talk about biologically appropriate.
Where do you see the company in 5 years?
In five years, Jiminy’s will be the brand that anchors the “Better World” category in pet stores – delicious, nutritious, sustainable, humane and hypoallergenic.