Dogswell scored a major coup early on by being picked up by Whole Foods Market.

Marco Giannini, the energetic 32-year-old founder and president of Dogswell, makes me feel like a lazy man. His company, which launched its first products in 2004, now has sales "over eight-figures" (over US$10 million) and growth has been "in the triple digits" in each of the past three years.

Giannini attended the University of Southern California (USA) and completed his MBA with a focus on entrepreneurial studies. In 2003, while working on his MBA, he received the Best Business Plan Award and the Marcia Israel Curley Award for excellence in entrepreneurship. The point is he's done a lot for his age.

Growing up, Giannini had a white German Shepherd that developed hip dysplasia. Giving her pills was difficult and they tended to upset her stomach, so Giannini began trying out ways to incorporate her pills into treats. That's how the seeds of Dogswell were planted.

A huge leap

Since entering the US market, Dogswell has expanded from its base of 4,000 independent pet stores and natural food stores. It scored a major coup early on by being picked up by Whole Foods Market, one of the largest retailers of natural and organic foods for people.

Dogswell currently works with over 45 pet distributors including Pet Food Experts, Animal Supply Co. and Central Garden & Pet. The company also supplies leading natural and specialty foods distributors United Natural Foods Inc., Nature's Best and Haddon House Food Products Inc. In addition, Dogswell products are available online through many third-party e-tailers of pet products, as well as the company's e-commerce website .

While many companies have expanded from petfood into treats, Dogswell is one of only a few companies to make the relatively huge leap in the other direction, according to Packaged Facts market researchers. In May 2008, Giannini's company launched a new wet petfood line, in the Happy Hips and Vitality formulas, with ingredients including "human-grade" chicken and duck, New Zealand lamb, antioxidants, "super fruits," omega fatty acids, chelated minerals and natural sources of glucosamine and chondroitin. Eventually, Giannini wants to grow the business so that 80% of sales are from petfood and 20% from treats.

Chicken jerky plus

Dogswell says it's the first company to fortify chicken jerky for dogs with supplements. Made with duck breast, lamb & rice and beef liver, in addition to the original all-natural chicken breast, Dogswell's products come in five formulas, each delivering a functional benefit:

  • Happy Hips, with glucosamine and chondroitin to help maintain healthy hips and joints;
  • Vitality , with flaxseed and vitamins to help maintain healthy eyes, skin and coat;
  • Breathies , with mint and parsley to help maintain fresh breath and healthy teeth;
  • Mellow Mut , with chamomile and lavender to help achieve a calmer demeanor; and
  • Happy Heart , with taurine, tumeric and flaxseed to help maintain a healthy heart.

Catswell cat treats launched in 2005, in Vitakitty, Happy Hips and Breathies formulas. During 2007 the company launched two new lines: Biscuits with Benefits dog biscuits and Veggie Life dog treats. Unlike most dog biscuits, Dogswell biscuits rely on meat rather than wheat or corn as their primary ingredient, while the veggie versions are enhanced with vegetables and fruits.

Cage-free chicken

The company is adamant that Dogswell and Catswell products do not contain: wheat or wheat gluten, unnecessary fillers, hormones, antibiotics, BHA or BHT, by-products, corn, artificial colors or flavors, added salt or added sugar.

Dogswell also promises it uses cage-free chickens that "are kept in spacious chicken coops where they can roam, scratch and perch as they please." Mass-produced chickens, the company notes, are stressed, "resulting in disease and stunted meat that is devoid of taste and total health value."

Keys to growth

Giannini cites the following as keys to his company's growth:

  • A simple product line;
  • Keying on benefits vs. ingredients;
  • Great employees;
  • Innovative ingredients;
  • A great sampling program-they give away 100,000 samples per month; and
  • A focus on health and wellness from employees to the pet owner and pet.

His goal is to build a sustainable petfood company with 20 salespeople (there are eight at this time).

Toughest challenges

Giannini says his toughest challenges are staying profitable, sticking to basics, having all the products go together and promoting health and wellness. He and his company seem up to the challenges.

Business basics

Headquarters: Los Angeles, California, USA
Officers: Marco Giannini, president and founder; Amanda Thompson, vice president of sales; Amy Kreutzen, vice president of marketing; Berenice Officer, chief financial officer
Brands: Dogswell Happy Hips, Vitality, Breathies, Mellow Mut and Happy Heart treats; Catswell Happy Hips, Vitakitty and Breathies; and Dogswell Happy Hips and Vitality canned foods
Distribution: In the US and Canada, Whole Foods, Wild Oats, independent pet retailers, leading natural and specialty foods distributors United Natural Foods Inc. Nature's Best and Haddon House Food Products Inc., third-party e-tailers and the company's e-commerce website
Employees: 22