While dog owners have plenty of direct-to-consumer options if they want to order pet food online, we haven't seen a similar wave of startups for cats. But that may be starting to change.
Earlier this year, I wrote about Cat Person, a startup backed by Harry's Labs offering a variety of cat care products, including food. And Smalls, a cat food startup that launched in 2018, is announcing today that it has raised $9 million in Series A funding.
Co-founders Matt Michaelson (CEO) and Calvin Bohn (COO) said that it's not simply a matter of taking the D2C dog food model and applying it to cats.
“The traditional sort of MO for companies in the pet care space is to do everything for dogs first,” and then expand into cat products, Bohn said.
Michaelson argued that this means companies “often overlooked the nutritional needs of cat.” In particular, he said, “We found that we needed a much broader range of products to really succeed. Cats are picky because they’re apex predators.”
So Smalls offers a variety of food options, including what it says is fresh, human-grade chicken and beef; freeze-dried chicken, turkey and duck; plus other treats (and non-food products like litter and toys).
Michaelson and Bohn started out by cooking the food in the kitchen of their New York City apartments, then moved into what was then known as Brooklyn Foodworks. Smalls now manufactures its cat food in a facility in Chicago.
They acknowledged that the cost can be a bit higher than what cat owners are used to paying — the exact comparison will depend on the brand and quality you currently buy, but after taking a quick quiz on the Smalls website, I was offered subscription plans that cost around $3 or $4 per cat per day. Michaelson noted that “retention is not correlated to income” (so Smalls customers aren't just wealthy cat owners), and he argued that investing healthy food for your cat could save money down the road
“We don’t have studies to say that yet, but at the same time, you would naturally assume eating better food is going to be a good investment in yourself,” he said.
Bohn added that when cat owners switch to Smalls, they quickly notice the difference: “Within weeks, their cats were sleeping better at night, their coats were more lustrous, their stool smelled better.” (Journalists who tried it out seem to agree.)
The Series A brings Smalls' total funding to $12 million. It was led by Left Lane Capital (whose partner Jason Fiedler previously invested in The Farmer's Dog), with participation from Founder Collective and Companion Fund.
“While we've seen a proliferation of highly successful healthy dog food brands, the cat food market has remained completely ignored,” Fiedler said in a statement. “Smalls has successfully developed a brand, product mix, supply chain and customer experience that is specifically optimized for cats that no one else has.”
Michaelson said Smalls currently has “several thousand” active subscribers, up 4x year-over-year. And while the pandemic has created some supply chain challenges, it also led to “a huge rise in pet adoption,” as well as convincing some owners that they should look for alternatives to their local pet store.
“Because we're seeing this big movement towards the direct-to-consumer side of things with COVID, it's really an opportunity to lean into that and grow faster,” he said.