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Meet the maker of the first human-grade raw dog food brand

June 5, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC

Nearly a quarter of all U.S. households acquired a dog during the pandemic, and many of those pet owners—especially younger pet parents—are willing to research and spend more on their pup’s kibble and treats.

Katie Spies, founder and CEO of Maev, is striving connect with modern dog owners—especially millennial and Generation Z consumers—who, she believes, think differently about the roles of both dogs and food in their lives.

Launched in 2020 and touted to be the first human-grade raw dog food brand, Maev has served more than 4 million meals in that time. During the first quarter of 2022, it doubled its subscriber base when it served 1 million meals during that timeframe. Among the most popular products in Maev’s portfolio are the Bone Broth Toppers and Daily Vitamin Bars.

Spies recently shared more with Fortune about the booming pet wellness industry.

Maev founder Katie Spies.
Courtesy of Maev

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Fortune: Can you share a bit about your professional background prior to launching Maev?

My background is in industrial design and engineering; I’ve always been a product person and have always had side projects. While earning my undergraduate degrees—mechanical, civil, and environmental—from MIT, I discovered my love of startups while scaling what was initially a 3D-printing side project into a 13-employee business in India.

After graduating from MIT, I moved to San Francisco to join the product team at the Climate Corporation, an agriculture-tech startup, where I was responsible for all user experience and product design across the site, Android, and iOS applications. The company eventually got acquired for $1 billion and grew from 45 people to 1,400 people in three years.

After three years of growth, I decided I needed a break to find my next venture, and wanted to move back to the early stages. To clear my head, I started dog-walking using peer-to-peer walking apps and spent 10 months as a full-time dog walker in the Bay Area before heading to Boston to start my MBA at Harvard Business School.

The pet wellness and food space has never been busier than it is now. What inspired you to launch Maev?

Back in 2015, I rescued an Italian Greyhound named George. Shortly afterward, he started to have seizures and my veterinarians couldn’t figure out the cause. We tried everything: medications, changing environments, and elimination diets. Eventually we started evaluating his nutrition, and a light bulb went off. Despite spending so much of my career thinking about food systems, I had never thought twice about what we were feeding our pets. We always just fed our dogs “pet food.” I didn’t have a reason to question it.

Once I changed his diet to raw food, the seizures stopped. I watched his health improve within about 30 days. His digestion, energy, and behavior improved dramatically, but I couldn’t find a dog food sold in stores that matched the checklist I got from our vet—with clean ingredients and raw nutrition: no fillers, low carbs, moderate fats—so I ended up making it myself.

Ultimately, I didn’t realize for another three years that this was the business I needed to build. While I was dog-walking, I was still DIYing George’s diet, and making food for other dog owners who needed something better and couldn’t find it. I would deliver raw food on weekends and charge people on Venmo, and spent my days getting to know our now target customer.

In 2018, it occurred to me that this industry has a massive problem—not just that 80% of dogs in the U.S. are sick (60% are overweight, 30% have mobility issues, 30% struggle with anxiety, and 25% of all vet visits are due to coat and skin illness), but that brands are out of touch with consumers; healthier foods exist but they’re way harder to adopt (they require thawing, scooping, prep work, extra time, and they’re more expensive). The healthiest diet for dogs (a minimally processed raw diet) is the least accessible diet. The information behind what products are truly healthy or even just which products contain fillers is not readily accessible, so I set out to build something category-redefining to change that.

Most industrial designers or mechanical engineers don’t spend their days designing food products, but that’s part of the problem. In this category, the user experience of the food and the brand identity are both afterthoughts. We design our products at Maev the way we would design a new hardware device or an app or a piece of furniture— intentionally so that every thoughtful detail makes sense for the end users (the human and the dog).

Maev says it is lowering the barrier to entry for raw dog food—a nutrient-rich, less-processed diet—which has historically been more complicated to adopt.
Courtesy of Maev

Given that humans can’t (or shouldn’t) eat (most) dog food, it can’t be easy to get the just the right recipe that is both healthy and tasty for dogs. (Even if some people say dogs will eat “anything,” dog owners know this isn’t completely true.) That has to be even harder for developing shelf-stable raw dog food. What was the research and development process like for developing Maev’s daily vitamin bars?

As someone with a dog that is a picky eater, I knew how important user testing was. We were always designing the product with three consumers in mind: the pickiest eater dogs; the humans who would store, pour, portion, and understand the food; and the nutritionists who would evaluate its efficacy.

We spent three years in research and development with our team of veterinary nutritionists to perfect the ideal raw food recipe, meeting the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for all life stages. We shipped thousands of dogs the food throughout the three years and ran a variety of digestibility and palatability tests.

While raw food was in R&D, our beta testers would regularly voice requests and pain points, which is how our Daily Vitamin Bars and Bone Broth products were born. Dog owners would request that we ship an extra box with just the supplements that we included in our Raw Food, and we learned of their desire for a daily supplement. We similarly spent two years in R&D to perfect the vitamin bar formula and worked with our team of veterinary nutritionists to incorporate functional ingredients and nutraceuticals based on peer reviewed research proving their efficacy. Our Vitamin Bars are individually wrapped in compostable pouches so you can easily take one on the go (making it easy to remember daily feeding). The design of a bar itself was chosen because dogs typically don’t take well to pills.

One of the biggest factors that has guided our research and development from day one is customer feedback; I take at least five calls a week with customers to discuss their experience, and it’s one of the highlights in my day-to-day schedule.

How is the company funded? Is it self-funded or have you reached out to investors? What has the financing process been like?

Maev is a fast-growing, venture-backed startup, but I bootstrapped the business through most of our R&D phase, raising our pre-seed round in late 2019. We’ve raised three rounds of venture funding to date, bringing well-known institutional investors like VMG and Springdale Ventures to the team.

As a direct-to-consumer startup that launched during a global pandemic, we were born in an era more focused on profitability and sustainability than most of our DTC pet competitors. Profitability is a huge component of our culture, and we’re on track to become profitable in the near future—not an easy feat for a DTC [consumer packaged goods] business. We will raise a milestone round in late 2022 to further fuel growth, team expansion, and product development.

Maev’s new bundles create tailored solutions for pups like The Senior Dog, The Puppy, The Gassy Dog, and The Itchy Dog.
Courtesy of Maev

Looking forward over the next five years, how do you want to grow Maev? Are you interested in adding additional products or services? Or expanding to different kinds of pets…say, cats?

Among other exciting expansion initiatives, we’re really looking forward to expanding our product portfolio; our goal is to be a trusted brand for dog essentials, especially product categories that are currently lacking in healthy, well-made options.

This spring, we launched tailored bundles, a line of product bundles providing actionable health solutions for eight of the most common health needs. Each bundle features a combination of science-based nutrition products to address needs, including The Small Dog, The Reactive Dog, The Gassy Dog, etc. We’re also excited to introduce a new raw food product in the coming months, as well as a puppy-specific product.

As for cats, they’re always on our mind…

This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.