Whether or not you own a dog, you know that Terri Rockovich, Michael Kim and Sameer Mehta are on to something. The trio were employees number two, four and 14 at online mattress maker Casper, a company that effectively wrote the playbook on direct-to-consumer marketing. (Which New Yorkers with a Casper didn’t use the promo code “subway”?*) Now they’re launching Jinx, a direct-to-consumer dog food brand that they say is designed for “modern” dogs and their owners.
“We all have a deep appreciation for building something from scratch, and we wanted to do something that we were passionate about, obviously,” Rockovich, a dog owner and Jinx’s CEO, tells AFN.
That passion was dog food.
“We felt like the [pet food] industry was too antiquated,” she explains. “All of the consumer packaged goods brands are saying the same thing, positioning our animals as wolf-like creatures. Nothing really spoke to us.”
Jinx’s mission is about fueling “Modern Doghood” (that’s trademarked). The team announced Jinx in a buzz-word heavy press release describing the concept: “proprietary formulas” of “nutritionally comprehensive and calorically balanced kibble and treat lines” that are “specifically formulated” for “our fur babies” (not wolves). It calls itself the first “digitally native” pet food line that’s cutting out the guesswork of what dogs want to eat through “D2D” or “Direct-to-Dog Marketing” (that’s trademarked too).
Jinx has lined up an all-star cast of investors who are eating up the concept: Will Smith, Michael Strahan, rapper NAS and singer Halsey, among others. Venture capital firms Initialized Capital — that’s Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian’s firm — Align Ventures, Brand Foundry, Sinai Ventures, Wheelhouse Group, &vest and NQV8 have also invested in the company’s $5.7 million seed funding round.
Jinx isn’t really about dogs, though. It’s about the people who own dogs. Specifically, Millennial dog owners.
Millennial pet parenting
A lot of research has been done on the peculiar Millennial generation, particularly US-based Millennials. They’re driven by their passions and values. They’re saturated in student-loan debt. They put off marriage, children and home-buying, in part because they’re saturated in student loan debt. They’re burnt out. They’re lonely. They don’t have sex. They don’t go out.
With that confluence of issues, it’s perhaps no wonder that Millennials are also a peculiar kind of pet owner. Four-legged companions are the new two-legged friends, partners, and children for a generation of late-20- and mid-30-somethings missing (or opting out of) traditional relationships and life milestones.
“I’ve delayed milestones in lieu of having fur babies,” Rockovich says. “It’s not just a traditional human-dog relationship. There’s more intimacy there.”
For that, Rockovich says it feels “wholly justified” to read all of the ingredients in the food she gives her dogs; to spend her disposable income indulging them, including her “picky eater”; and to pay more for convenience.
Rockovich fits the norm for Millennial pet owners, who invest in their pets’ wellbeing as they do their own, paying premiums for all-natural and organic food, for playdates and exercise (via on-demand dog walking apps), for clothes and toys. Millennial pet owners are both boutique brand loyalists and avid online pet supply shoppers. They even comparison shop for doggy DNA test kits, take their dogs along for Napa Valley wine tastings, and commission painted portraits of their animals (Rockovich says hers is hanging in the entryway of her home).
And they represent an enormous consumer force: Millennials account for 25% of the US population but 41% of pet owners.
This is what the Jinx team knows (firsthand) and what it’s building its brand around.
Feeding the modern, sedentary dog
Product-wise, Jinx’s forthcoming line of dog food is tailor-made for urban dogs, who often live in small apartments and may only get out a couple of times a day. (The company’s press release notes that 56% of America’s 90 million dogs are “overweight”.)
Jinx has been working with a team of scientists and nutritionists to formulate recipes for less-active and inactive dogs. It’s not exactly a diet dog food, explains Rockovich. “It’s just about complete and balanced nutrition [that is] more relatable and relevant to the animals we have.”
As for the “Direct-to-Dog Marketing,” there’s a scientific process behind the gimmicky lingo. Jinx uses “scent tests” to explore the types of foods dogs like. Rockovich explains that scent tests are a more accurate way to explore dogs’ palates than taste tests because a dog’s sense of taste is less refined. Jinx conducts its tests both in the lab and via small scale product testing with a sample of its target customers. The team has made some surprising discoveries in the process.
“We’re all led to believe that dogs are these fierce carnivores, but they’re really attracted to fruits and vegetables, like mangoes and super-fruits,” observes Rockovich. “That’s not something I thought we’d learn through our research.”
For Rockovich and her co-founders, the decision to build Jinx was based on wanting to see their animals reflected in the products sold on grocery pet food aisles. That said, Jinx isn’t planning to go the retail route for now. All of its products will be sold online, on a subscription basis, starting in January 2020, before making an appearance in retail aisles.
That approach is true to Jinx’s Millennial roots, of course; it’s also a way for the company to differentiate itself in a “noisy” but traditional market, much the way Casper did when it launched online mattress sales, says Rockovich.
“We are constantly pulling from the Casper playbook,” she says. “Trying to be a challenger brand in an enormous industry, you have to focus on what you stand for.”
*Turns out AFN’s editor didn’t use it. Awkward.