Lisa Hennessey is the founder of Your Pet Chef, a company that makes personalized dog food and treats with the goal of improving the overall health of dogs through nutrition. Though she works with the owners of healthy dogs, her customers are primarily the owners of dogs with medical conditions and allergies. Lisa attributes the success of Your Pet Chef to her positive intentions. “I’m a firm believer that if you do good, it will come back,” she said. “This business really touches people in a way I never thought it would. People hug me when I deliver food. I feel like by helping people, it comes back to me.”
Why did you start your business?
I’ve always had collies, like Lassie. One of our dogs was diagnosed with a disease called degenerative myelopathy, which means the nerve endings in the dog’s hind end start to die. Dogs with this disease are not in pain, but they’re immobile. My vet asked if I’d be willing to make a special diet for our dog that a research veterinarian had created. I said, “Of course.” I made the food for her, and I never thought she would eat it because it smelled like dirt. It had so many ingredients in it that I had never used before. She gobbled it up, and it actually helped slow the progression of the disease.
About four years ago, I lost my job. I had a C-level job, a big job. I thought, “I’m going to turn 50 in one month. Now is the time for me to try out this business idea and see if it’s going to work.”
How did you get the funds to get going?
I used personal savings to get started. I’ve invested my retirement money into the company. I look at it as investing in myself, so I can’t lose!
Have you heard of business credit?
Yes, though I’ve used my personal credit for business expenses. I actually didn’t have personal credit cards for a really long time. A few months ago, I decided to open a card because I’ve been getting a lot of orders from subscription box companies, which are much larger than I’m used to. I needed to have funds to buy the raw materials for those orders upfront.
I haven’t applied for a credit card yet for Your Pet Chef. I’m getting there, because my average daily balance is getting higher and higher in both PayPal and my bank account. I plan to open a credit card for the business, I just haven’t done it yet.
Managing the Business
What’s most challenging about running your business?
Lately, it’s hard to stay motivated. I know every small business owner goes through that. There’s some days you love every minute of it, and there’s some days that you just can’t lift your head off the pillow. For me, when I do deliveries and get to talk to people and pet the dog, it’s a very nourishing thing for me – It revitalizes why I’m doing what I’m doing. I really make a point of doing that when I’m feeling like I just can’t make another bar of food or pipe another treat.
Also, the struggle to find new business is challenging. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it makes you second-guess yourself. You can really take it personally, and it gets you down.
It can also be lonely working for yourself. Like today, I’ve only talked to you and the people I’ve delivered to. Sometimes I feel like I might be talking a little too long to the cashier in the grocery store! Sometimes I miss going in to the office and saying, “Hey, did you see that TV show last night?”
How do you finance your business to manage cash flow or growth?
I do it on a week-by-week basis. When I deliver to a customer, payment is due to me. I make sure all my invoices are done and the money is deposited, then I know what I have for the next week and what I need to pay my people.
Do you use trade credit from your vendors or suppliers?
Yes. My largest supplier is for food, and that’s all pay-as-you-go, which is standard in the industry. My second-largest vendor, my freeze-drying service, is on 30-day terms. I would say half of the companies I work with are pay-on-delivery, and the other half are 30-day terms.
What’s the biggest mistake you made early on?
I buy a lot of classes that are very unnecessary. My background is in purchasing, operations, and manufacturing. I’m atypical of an entrepreneur, because most people come from sales and marketing. That’s not my strong point, so I buy a lot of classes and invest in things like that, which are a huge waste of time.
When I launched Your Pet Shop, I had an entirely different product than what I have now. I had to realize that people weren’t buying what I was selling. I went back to the people who were buying and asked them what they like and don’t like so I could rethink this. I re-launched with a different product, which is what I have today. My dad always said, “You have to put your ego in your back pocket.” That’s what I had to do because I didn’t know what was best, so I had to let my customers tell me what was best.
What’s the smartest thing you did in your first year?
I have a background in manufacturing and production. People always ask, “Is your company scalable?” The answer to that for me is, “yes.” It’s very easy for me to scale, because all my production processes are set up to simply go from my home to a place to mass production in a very short order. That’s just how I think, so I have everything set up as a very small manufacturing cell. It’s very easy to expand upon or duplicate. I’ve really done that well, and that’s what has helped set me apart, because other people don’t have that manufacturing experience.
I have two employees now. As the employees started, it’s been easy for them to understand what we do and handle it on their own. We’re able to get people up to speed pretty quickly because of how I’ve set up the manufacturing.
What’s the most rewarding thing about owning a business?
For me, it’s to see how much better the dogs look after eating my food. Sometimes they’re leaner, or their coat is shinier, or their teeth are whiter. As I keep seeing them, I continue to see them improve. It’s really rewarding to me.
Being able to solve a problem for people is really rewarding to me, too. If a dog had a chronic ailment and now they don’t, their owner is very appreciative. Their “thank yous” go a long way. I just had an email from a customer the other day that said, “There’s been another pet food recall. I can’t even tell you how glad I am that I don’t have to worry about that any more. Thank you.” It was nice, and it made me feel good.
What does the future look like for your business?
My big goal for this year is to land BarkBox. That is a huge order and huge exposure for the company.
What advice do you have for someone starting a business?
You have to really want it and you have to be willing to work hard for it. Working hard is different than working smart. You have to really put in quality time to get out the quality. You could work an 18-hour day, but if you’re not working on the right things that are going to grow the business, it doesn’t matter. You have to figure out what those right things are pretty quickly.
You have to make a business plan and really work it. Spend the time upfront to put the work in. I did, and I used the business plan pretty hardcore for the first 18 months. It really helped keep me on target.
You have to be willing to take risks and change. That’s hard sometimes, because of your ego. I am a big risk taker. I actually have to tone it down sometimes, because I have a hard time saying “no” to opportunities that are not part of the core business.