On a bad day, many parents have mentally wished Disney out of existence. There’s only so many times a reasonable adult can be forced to listen to the soundtrack from the movie “Frozen” before he or she wants to punch the next person in a tiara they see — no matter how old (or young) that tiara-wearer happens to be.
But Disney rage is a transitory and fleeting thing for most parents because no matter how momentarily sick of princesses, pirates, superheroes or singing snowmen one may momentarily become, Disney can do something that is actually magical: they can make almost any child happy. And parents will put up with anything (and pay any amount) for that.
Dog owners are not dissimilar to parents in this way, BarkBox cofounder and CEO Matt Meeker told MPD CEO Karen Webster in a recent interview, a lesson he learned five years ago when he became a pet parent.
“I have a Great Dane named Hugo, which is fairly rare in New York City. When I got him, I just wanted to make him happy because I was, and am, obsessed with him. And every day I thought about what I can do to make this enormous dog happy. And I would go to pet stores to find that right thing, and pretty much every day I came home with the [same] bully stick.”
The dog was probably fine with that, Meeker told Webster, but it was totally unsatisfying as an owner. He suspected that there was probably a wonderful world of things things out there for Great Danes that Hugo was being deprived of because he didn’t know where to find them.
And he realized that being a dog parent was kind of like being a regular parent in a world without Disney.
“The basics are out there when it comes to food and medical care. But there was no element of joy. It would be like having a human child in a world with no Disney or no Legoland — no fun, no joy and no ability to do anything cool with your kids.”
So Meeker dug deeper and found, quite to his surprise, there was actually a lot of joy out there. It just wasn’t easy to find.
“I found thousands and thousands of great manufacturers making toys and treats that I had no way of discovering without a lot of research. And I wanted to help other dog owners discover great things for their dogs and personalized things for their dog. And so BarkBox was born.”
And BarkBox has taken off. What started out as a three-option platform (for small, medium or large dogs) has morphed into a platform with 200,000 subscribers receiving over 100 box types per month.
“I thought I was the only person who felt this way about their dog. I sort of expected to be sending 10 boxes a month to the 10 craziest, most fanatical dog parents out there. That would have been just fine, by the way, as long as my dog was getting good stuff.”
But the market was bigger than that. Because as Meeker found out, lots of people feel the same way he does about their dogs — and that market was rather underserved.
BarkBox serves that market through a subscription service that each month sends dog owners a different and distinct goody box.
“There are tens of thousands of independent vendors out there in the dog space producing really, really cool stuff. We are three and half years into this and haven’t repeated a single product.”
Those boxes are not one size fits all, however, and are instead tailored to the individual pet.
“We learn more and more about your dog over time and get more and more accustomed to your dogs needs and likes,” Meeker told Webster. “There are a lot of factors we pick up from you by feedback and things that we learn by the breed of your dog, where you live in the country and time of year.”
And those products are heavily curated — first by BarkBox’s human staff at trade shows, then by their “in-office” canine companions and then finally by their network of hundreds of testing dogs who receive free boxes in return for in-depth feedback on every item in the box.
Meeker says this allows their platform to give dog owners something that is hard to find — genuinely unique products.
“[The pet supplies business] is a tough business to be in. There are so many really cool brands, but they aren’t getting into shops — they’re just stocking a handful of really, really big brands. That leaves all these undiscovered vendors out there, and even in a local, independently owned place, you are still seeing what you see in the big box store, but the price isn’t quite as low.”
But BarkBox is in more than the business of selling goods. Meeker says that a big part of the service is really that injection of joy into the life of a dog owner and their pet.
“We thought it was a discovery product, but we also discovered along the way that discovery is only part of the appeal. Once you get one BarkBox and open it with your dog, the products and things on the inside are icing; the real cake is opening that box with your dog and getting to do something fun [with them] for 30 to 60 minutes.”
And in that sense, Meeker told Webster, BarkBox is emulating the House of Mouse in how it conceives of the business it is in.
“We want to bring consumers and their dogs closer together [in a way] that makes you and the dog happy. Disney is a very inspirational company in that way; they do it through every avenue, and that is a great corollary for us in the dog world.”
A world that, Meeker said, BarkBox is expanding. They’re currently developing the BarkPost platform, which will be the “all things canine” media. [We secretly hope that this leads to the eventual end of the feline domination of internet videos — but we at PYMNTS are dog people.]
BarkBox has also expanded into BarkLive, or events for dogs and their owners. Those events include an adorable-sounding puppy prom, surfing contests and parties.
And BarkBox is also committed to making the experience faster. A few months ago, it took them 45 days to get a box into the paws of a new subscriber. Now it is just three, and by the end of the summer, it will be less than one in New York City.
Normally when you hear that something is going to the dogs, it is an insult. But in BarkBox’s case they think eCommerce’s problem is that it is not going to the dogs — and that’s a problem they can fix and hope others can learn from.