Dogs get plenty of love in the pet food world, but cats don’t always seem to be on equal standing. There are plenty of options for all, but it can’t be denied that there are more dog food shelves than cat food shelves out there, and not just because the dog food bags are bigger.
“Most of the pet industry began by developing food and products for dogs, and then later expanded to cats and other pets,” says Matt Michaelson, co-founder and CEO of Smalls, a cat-centric pet food subscription and delivery company. “That means so many of the formats and functions in the pet food industry are borrowed from that dog-first approach.”
Smalls has gone in a different direction, taking a cat-first approach to everything the company does and aiming to “embrace cats’ weirdness and, in doing so, elevate how people think and interact with them.”
Sales success for Smalls
Smalls entered the market from the subscription and delivery angle, offering an online ordering process that helps cat owners analyze their pet’s nutritional needs. Owners first answer questions about their cat’s size, build, health goals, habits, preferred foods and flavors. Within a week of ordering the resulting customized options, a sampler box is shipped to the owner’s home so the cat(s) in question can decide what they prefer. Then owners go back online to make any changes to their subscription for future deliveries.
Smalls Co-founders Calvin Bohn (left) and Matt Michaelson (right) have big plans for bringing cats into the pet food spotlight. (Cats pictured: Rescues PomPomPurr the black cat and Kanga the black and white cat, from New York City-based Cat Castle.) | Courtesy Smalls
The business formula is working, as Smalls has been growing extremely quickly with sales on pace to triple from 2018 to 2019, according to Michaelson.
“Since launching an assortment of human-grade wet food recipes (Chicken, Turkey and Beef), we’ve released assortments of freeze-dried raw dry food recipes (Duck, Turkey and Chicken) and high-protein kibble recipes (Chicken, Fish and Turkey), as well as freeze-dried chicken giblet treats,” says Michaelson. “We are also working on launching a sustainably sourced wild Alaskan Pollock Fish recipe to our core wet food range.”
The kibble recipes have had particular formulation work put into them in order to provide the most nutritionally complete options possible to an animal well-known for not receiving enough moisture in its diet.
“Our kibble is one of the highest protein-based kibbles on the market,” says Michaelson. “Kibble is notoriously difficult to make healthy because it lacks moisture, one of the most important features of good cat food. Our approach was to maximize everything else to make the kibble as healthy as possible, and that starts with abundant high-quality protein. Each of our recipes has fresh meat as the first ingredient and dried meat as the second, and we pushed our formulator to the brink in terms of how much protein is in the kibble.”
The company offers wet, freeze-dried raw and kibble cat food options for all breeds and life stages. | Courtesy Smalls
Educating cat owners — and the market
According to Michaelson, there is a significant educational drive behind Smalls’ business strategy, as the company has made a point to try to bring cats out of the “crazy cat lady” shadows and into the limelight alongside dogs.
“Most cat owners don’t understand what their cats need nutritionally or behaviorally,” he says. “The science is dense and hard to understand. The more we can teach people about cats and their needs and in turn design innovative and elegant solutions, the faster we’ll grow.”
Many of the challenges the business is facing have to do with this lack of education and Smalls’ determination to bridge the gap.
“At a product level, let’s just say that cats have preferences,” says Michaelson. “While most folks chalk this up to cats being irrationally fussy, the truth is that cats are cautious about what they consume. Their need to get comfortable with what they’re eating needs to be better understood. Cats also appreciate variety and newness in what they’re eating. This, again, is not fussiness but an evolutionary trait to ensure a balanced diet. All of these eating behaviors make for a tricky cat customer, but our job is to help our human customers understand these traits and design products that ensure cats are getting the nutrition they need.”
At a cultural level, Smalls is on a mission to elevate cats and cat people.
“Being a cat person comes with a set of social stigmas that usually amount to being a weirdo,” says Michaelson. “We think the world would be a little better if more people were embracing their inner weirdos and fewer people were following the pack. We believe that if we accomplish this, not only will we live in a better world but we’ll live in a world that’s better for cats.”
The future of Smalls
Cats will continue to be Smalls’ focus for the foreseeable future, according to Michaelson, and the trends shaping the industry will maintain at the forefront of the company’s growth.
“We’re seeing a lot of the same things that most companies are seeing,” says Michaelson. “A shift to online, premiumization and more care and attention placed on ingredients. Beyond those, we expect that modern branding and design will be key to grabbing the attention of millennials. We also expect to see a stronger push toward transparency. Pet owners, and in particular the naturally skeptical cat owners we speak to most, are distrustful of the industry.”
Smalls hopes that staying the course and even expanding to other areas of cat care will continue to engender trust between its products and the cat owners it wants to reach.
“Continuing to innovate our food products to be as cat-first as possible [is our main opportunity],” says Michaelson. “One example is we are developing a version of our human-grade wet food recipes to work as kibble. We are also excited to consider the holistic well-being of cats and apply the same cat-first approach to other areas such as care and play. We are forming a team of cat behaviorists to join the team of cat nutritionists as part of this process.
“Cats have important needs beyond just nutrition,” he says. “We are looking across all areas of cat health and well-being, and considering expanding into other categories such as litter, grooming, toys and durable goods.”
Mostly, Michaelson wants to get the message out that cats and their owners deserve the same respect and consideration that dogs and their owners have always received.
“Cats are weird, but weird is wonderful,” he says.
Headquarters: New York, New York, USA
Officers: Matt Michaelson, co-founder and CEO; Calvin Bohn, co-founder and COO
Website/Social Media: www.smallsforsmalls.com; @smallsforcats on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
Notable: While it’s true that the Smalls name implies that cats are the “smalls” and humans are the “bigs,” the real story behind the name is that the kitchen where we made our food for the first year was right on the corner of the Marcy Projects, where rapper Biggie Smalls grew up.