Matt Meeker is obsessed with his 130-pound Great Dane, Hugo–so obsessed that he turned his quest for finding cool dog toys for Hugo into a business. And not just any business, but a multimillion-dollar one that sends BarkBox subscription care packages to dogs and their owners each month.
But the company is more than just care packages and chew toys. Meeker and his cofounders Henrik Werdelin and Carly Strife see their business, Bark & Co., as the Disney of the doggie world. Now comprised of three companies–BarkBox, BarkPost (the Buzzfeed of the dog world), and the retail store, BarkShop–Bark & Co. plans to add at least one new business to its roster each year and has plenty of ideas in the pipeline.
Meeker, CEO of the company, is no stranger to the startup world. By the time he decided to launch BarkBox in 2011, he’d already founded a handful of startups, including Meetup.com in 2001. Meeker spoke with Fast Company about Bark & Co.’s launch, growth, and the setbacks he’s learned from along the way.
The first startup Meeker launched in 2000 was a hardware company that never got off the ground. After 18 months, the company had successfully raised $15 million in funding, but never released a single product. “We made a huge amount of mistakes,” he says. “I learned a lot about what not to do in those 18 months.”
One of those lessons was not to rush into raising money before you have a viable business in place. Often the impulse is there to generate as much buzz and financial support as possible when getting started, but that can quickly backfire, Meeker has learned. In that first business, he and his cofounders hired too many people, and spent too much time talking about what they wanted to do without taking enough action.
With BarkBox, he took a very different approach. “We wanted to stay true to having a sustainable model–something that’s always in our control,” he says. “It’s much easier to raise money when you don’t need it.”
BarkBox began as a side project, while Meeker was an entrepreneur-in-residence at the venture-capital firm Polaris Partners. He’d just adopted Hugo as a puppy, and noticed the local pet shop in his Brooklyn neighborhood had a limited selection of dog toys and treats.
When he had the idea for a subscription-based service that delivers monthly treats and toys to dog owners, he talked it over with Werdelin, who he’d met six months before at Summit Series, and the two sketched out a website prototype. They were just playing around. “I very quickly spun up the original idea for BarkBox and spun it out into the world,” says Meeker. “The intention wasn’t, ‘Let’s build a company and raise venture capital.'”
They didn’t launch the site right away. Instead, Meeker started to show it to friends on his cell phone, and once a handful of people expressed interest, he set up a Square account and started to sign up subscribers–all without a live website to show for the company. After two months, he’d signed up nearly 50 people and realized he must be onto something.
That’s when Meeker and Werdelin brought Strife on to help run the business, launching the site and building partnerships with vendors. But it all started with a very lean startup approach–getting the idea out to people and testing it to see if it worked–a big part of the Bark & Co. ethos to this day. “We want to get it in front of real customers as soon as possible,” says Meeker.
BarkBox quickly grew from 49 subscribers in December 2011 to 15,000 a year later, to 100,000 in December 2013. By then, the company had raised $6.7 million in funding and started to look into ways to expand the business beyond just BarkBox.
Meeker, Werdelin, and Strife began to experiment with new business ideas, launching BarkPost, BarkBuddy, and BarkShop as offshoot companies. But not all their attempts at branching out have been a success. Early on, they had the idea for a dog-shaped paperclip they hoped would sell in office-supply stores and give the brand wider recognition. But while they saw the idea through to store shelves, the undertaking proved to be a nightmare, complete with a manufacturing facility that burned to the ground twice and a maze of packaging and distribution hangups that proved to be a major headache. Still, Meeker was glad to have gone through all that trouble.
The paperclip fiasco was a primer for the ins and outs of manufacturing and helped lead to BarkMade, the newest branch of the business, which manufactures its own toys.
Other business offshoots like BarkCare, a virtual dog-focused veterinary service, and BarkBuddy, the Tinder for dog rescues, are great ideas, but haven’t been turned into viable business models yet. Still, Meeker doesn’t let those kinks stall the company’s progress. “You start with a kernel of an idea that isn’t right itself, but it teaches you some other things,” he says.
On any given day, Bark & Co. has upwards of 35 potential new business ideas in its pipeline, says Meeker, an undertaking that Werdelin oversees. Once he feels an idea is ready, Werdelin pitches it to the team.
Meeker treats these ideas the way an investor might treat a seed-stage, venture-capital pitch. Four out of five times, the pitch is rejected, but every so often a new business idea is spun out into its own company. “Henrik has a lot of freedom to dream up new products or businesses, create them on the side, and get them to a point where the company is ready to absorb them,” says Meeker. Knowing someone else is in charge of generating and testing new ideas also gives Meeker the confidence and freedom to focus on managing the company.
Lately Bark & Co. is starting to feel like a grownup company, says Meeker. In 2014, the company raised another $10.2 million and is on track to make $75 million in revenue this year. These days Meeker spends much of his time hiring and putting together a senior management team. But despite the growth, he’s relieved the company can still maintain the quirky collegial culture of its early days.
The 75-person staff follows a dog-friendly office policy, and on any given day, the BarkBox headquarters in Manhattan’s Chinatown is teeming with around 25 dogs. The team, says Meeker, is tightly knit, and it’s not unusual to find half the staff packed into someone’s apartment for a Saturday night party.
“We want to prove you can build something substantial without working 180 hours a week and without being a jerk,” says Meeker. And he wants to do that without sacrificing the laid-back atmosphere of the place. “It’s a highly inappropriate culture,” says Meeker. “There’s always the worry that you can’t keep that up. I hope we are every bit as inappropriate today as we were two years ago.”