You don't need to be a vet to know that a 1.5kg Chihuahua isn’t going to need the same food as a 80kg Great Dane.
But while most pet owners tend to focus on portion sizes, few will take into account the different nutritional needs of each breed.
“Like parents with their children, owners and their dogs have particular requirements,” says James Davidson, co-founder of Tails.com.
And considering that different breeds can be prone to certain diseases, the right nutrition can help keep your pooch healthier for longer.
For example, Labradors are prone to arthritis, so the Tails boss advises that they should have high levels of glucosamine and chondroitin in their diet to prevent the condition. Age is also a factor – a puppy needs higher levels of fat, protein, and omega three in its food than an adult dog.
Despite our experience, we still deluded ourselves on our genius-ness on the product
“Dogs eat the same food everyday, so if you get it wrong, it compounds and affects on their health,” says Davidson. “Like humans, if you eat too much salt every day, it’s likely you’ll eventually get heart disease.”
And given that a whopping half of pet dogs in the UK are overweight, millions of owners should be thinking about improving their pups’ feeding habits.
But it can be difficult enough to make sure that we humans get a balanced diet. Doing the same for our dogs isn’t exactly a walk in the park – particularly if you’re also taking into account factors like activeness, gender, and weight.
So Tails has come bounding in to do just that. You enter a load of information about your pet via the website, and the company uses an algorithm, which has been developed using data from published research, to identify the right food blend for your dog.
While the core of the business is the dog biscuits, known as kibbles, the company also sells wet food and treats, tweaking the proportions to make a tailored meal plan. And the more data that Tails gathers, the more personalised its plans can be.
The business doesn’t just serve the pedigree market either – prices aren’t too dissimilar from what you’d expect to pay in a supermarket. Depending on the size of the dog, prices for a month’s worth of food range between £9 and £55.
Davidson – who strikes me as a straight-talking, no-nonsense kind of person – assures me that the firm can be very “precise”, updating the meal plan over time as the dog’s needs change.
It wasn’t easy though, and he admits that it took four months for him and two of his fellow co-founders (Graham Bosher and Joe Inglis, who have both now left the firm) to come up with a business model that worked.
“When Joe, who is a vet, came up with the idea, it made total sense why this could be better for both the dog and the owner, but it was really hard to do. How do you make bespoke food every month at an affordable price for the average dog owner?”
Of course, technology has a huge role to play in bringing down the cost, but it also helps that Davidson – who spent years running the supply chain at Innocent Drinks – knows how to turn an idea into an on-the-shelf product.
“We’d all run businesses before, so we knew what we had to do to minimise the risk of failure,” he says. “We realised that if we did everything ourselves rather than outsourcing to a manufacturer, we could offer a better product.”
Barking up the wrong tree
Despite efforts to minimise risk, Davidson is honest, explaining that, just three months after launching, they were close to winding up the business.
“Despite our experience, we still deluded ourselves on our genius-ness on the product.” He admits that, rather than focusing on customer service, the team was in a “product bubble”.
Early on, Tails was haemorrhaging new customers, who were disappointed that they weren’t able to easily control their subscription online.
As a result, it started to cost the company more to acquire customers than it was getting in return.
“Graham had raised £5m in a seed round, so he was worried we were going to lose all of this money. We had £3m left and he felt we should wind up the business, and give the rest back to shareholders at a loss.”
But Davidson, who spent weeks gathering feedback from customers, was resolute that they could make the business work. In November 2014, the two co-founders pitched their different perspectives to the top 25 shareholders, and let them vote on whether to wind up the business. All but one backed Davidson.
He describes this as a “seminal moment in the history of Tails”, because it pushed the team to really take ownership – and, of course, they adapted the software so that customers could tweak their orders. Davidson now accepts that “even a perfect system is not going to work in an imperfect world”.
They call it puppy love
Tails has come leaps and bounds since those early struggles, and last year, Nestle bought a majority share in the firm to help it expand overseas,
Four years on, the company now has 120,000 customers, who regularly rave about the improvements they see in their pups.
The numbers speak for themselves: Britain truly is a nation of dog lovers.