Like many innovators starting out, BarkBox cofounder and CEO Matt Meeker was a man looking to solve his own problem. And his problem was a Great Dane named Hugo.
“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.”
Dogs like bully sticks of course – but Meeker felt a lacking. He could provide his dog with good food and medical care; but that wasn’t exactly bringing the job to either of their lives so much as it was highlighting the injustice. Parents have Disney and Legoland – Meeker reasoned – dog parents should have those things too.
And so the idea for BarkBox was born. The monthly subscription service that serves up treats, toys and wonder for one’s canine companion in an attempt to create what Meeker called “Disney in a box” for dogs.
The concept, he noted, was pretty simple. The world is full of brilliant, fun, original products for all kinds of dogs. The problem is supply, it is access. Unless one has an awful lot of time on their hands to patrol the shelves of independent pet stores nationwide, the odds are one will be picking from the same set of options on offer at the big-box pet store.
BarkBox takes that out of the equation. It does the discovery for the dog owner and then uses that to tap into the greater good, making the dog happy.
“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.”
Those fun somethings vary quite widely. The site’s AI works hard to customize the experience for subscribers using a dog's breed, location and previous orders as its guideposts. But there are theme favorites. In April, baseball-shaped dog cookies celebrated the opening of baseball season. For Chinese New Year dogs got a takeout container plush toy with stuffed dumplings just waiting to be chewed into piles of torn fluff.
Dogs, and their owners, as it turns out, are looking for reasons to hang out and celebrate together, Meeker noted, something that actually came as a surprise during the business’ early days.
“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 Meeker turned out to be wrong because there was a community waiting to be built.
Building A Community
As it turns out, there are hundreds of thousands of people looking for bark boxes to call their own, pushing the firm to around $100 million in sales. And that enthusiasm for their first product pushed BarkBox to expand more than its user base in its early days; it’s also shifted its brand.
BarkBox has since become BARK., because these days it’s more than a subscription service. It’s also an eCommerce site (BarkShop) and a blog for dog life enthusiasts (BarkPost). Those have been fairly notable success stories. BarkPost, for example, draws more than 10 million views a month, mostly on the strength of inspirational dog stories and adorable pictures.
Less successful have been enterprises like BarkCare, a concierge vet service that offered house calls in New York and San Francisco starting at $199. That service made a fleeting market appearance in 2013-14 before quietly fading out. Pet owners were more enthused to pay $20 a month for treats and toys delivered regularly than they were for paying hundreds for a veterinary house call (even though that house call was sometimes made by a vet on a white BarkCare-branded moped).
But BarkBox – now BARK continues to forge forward, firm in the belief that its subscription service for pet owners was its starting point in the market, not the end of its journey. It continues on in the Disney for Dogs (and their owners) vision it has been pursing for some years, with a focus on building the Bark community. The particularly dedicated can even go and see dog-themed stand-up comedy, because Bark even sponsors open mike events.
And if stand-up seems a little out of the box for a company best known for its commitment to cutting-edge dog treats, it should be noted that BarkBeta (yup, that is what it calls its R&D department) has a lot of vision for what’s next.
Some of that is expected, an expansion of its eCommerce site to give dog owners more a la carte access to goods they might not easily find in other outlets.
And some of that is less expected, like BarkAir, a charted jet service that would allow travelers to be with their pets in the sky. The company is also reportedly working on a service that allows owners to track their dogs genetic lineage.
“We want to stay ambitious,” Meeker says.