Dr. Michelle Dulake : Founder & CEO of Fera Pets

Episode 506

Dr. Michelle Dulake, founder and CEO of Fera Pets, shares her journey of starting an all-natural pet supplement company. She discusses her background as a veterinarian and her passion for holistic medicine. Dr. Dulake explains how she identified a gap in the market for effective and clean pet supplements, leading her to start Fera Pets with her friend Emily. She shares the challenges and successes of growing the company, including the acquisition by General Mills. Dr. Dulake emphasizes the importance of staying true to your why and remaining focused on your goals as a founder. So much to think about in this incredible episode. Don’t miss it! Now on this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone. It’s Kara Goldin. And welcome to the Kara Goldin show. I am so excited for my next guest, excuse the voice, I was having a little too much fun over the last few weeks on some girls trips. And so I lost my voice feeling fine, but I just definitely hopefully will have my voice throughout. But we’re not really going to be hearing from me anyways. So we’re going to hear from Dr. Michelle Dulake who is the incredible founder and CEO of a great pet brand called Fera Pets. And we’re going to hear all about this All Natural Pet supplement company that offers the highest amount of active ingredients on the market in a pet supplement brand. The company’s making an incredible splash in the pet industry and was recently acquired by General Mills in late 2023. And I just cannot even wait to hear from Dr. Michelle about everything that she’s doing with feral pets. So without further ado, before I totally lose my voice. Michelle, welcome.

Dr. Michelle Dulake 1:48
Hi, it’s so nice to see you, Kara. Thank you for having me. Super

Kara Goldin 1:52
excited to have you here too. So I think it’s just warming up more than anything else. So very, very cool. So very excited about your product. And Fera Pets, can you talk about the backstory and sort of how did you get the idea you’re a vet. So that, I guess starts there, but talk to me a little bit about what you were seeing?

Dr. Michelle Dulake 2:13
Yeah. So you know, ever since I was a little girl, I definitely loved animals, I always wanted to be close to them. My parents said, even when I was a little toddler, I’d see a German Shepherd barking at me. And I’d still want to go over there and give it a hug. So I’ve always been obsessed with animals. And so I did my undergrad at UC Davis went to veterinary school at Western University in California. And when I came out to practicing, I really started to, you know, see pet parents wanting more than just Western medicine for their pets. So I actually got really interested in holistic medicine, I went and got my acupuncture license for dogs and cats. And I started practicing acupuncture and really seeing a positive difference in in pets. I had one case that a dog fell down a flight of stairs, and she became paralyzed, and her back legs and the owner couldn’t afford doing back surgery, and she wanted to euthanize and I said, No, we cannot euthanize your dog, we have to try, you know, Eastern medicine. Let’s try some acupuncture. Yes, we can add in a little bit of a story, but let’s just try it. And so we tried acupuncture for three months, and her dog started walking, and she was just crying just like couldn’t believe her eyes. And so I just think that, you know, there’s such a lack of learning about Eastern medicine in vet school, because you’re just you’re just learning all the Western therapies, you’re learning about prescription drugs. And, and so I think that, you know, Eastern medicine has been around for centuries, you know, why not just try to incorporate it to make sure that we’re using the best of both worlds to really promote longevity and pets lives. And so I looked on the market to see if there were any supplements that had, you know, Chinese herbs and things like that to help with, in conjunction with my acupuncture. And I really didn’t see a brand that I liked that had effective dosing, organic herbs, no fillers, things like that, that I really wanted for my pet parents. And so when I did see that on the market, I reached out to my good friend, Emily, who we’ve been friends for over 25 years, she was actually already working in the pet space. And we’ve always kind of bonded over our love for pets, and we always kind of wanted to do something in the pet space together. And so we decided to start our own supplement brand, kind of, you know, not really knowing much about it were like, let’s just create something and see what happens. And so I was still working full time as a vet. She was working for her other job and we just, you know, went out. We found suppliers, we found manufacturers, everything that I create is custom formulated. We don’t you know, reach out to any manufacturers and say let’s just do whatever white label formula you have. No, I’m handpicking each ingredient because of my vet background, I can have effective dosing and making sure that you know the product is really clean and so I Based on our catalog off of the cases that I was seeing in the vet clinic, you know, I’m not just creating random products, and I’m not here to make hundreds of skew that are very confusing for the pet owner, I really want to make a curated catalog that really will make a difference in the pets lives. So back in 2017, when we started out, I actually thought, Okay, everybody, really the top concern is hip and joints like arthritis, you know, everybody wants to treat arthritis. So I thought at that time, okay, everybody has a soft shoe. So we actually launched a soft shoe, I had been doing soft shoe back in 2017. And, you know, things were fine. I was still working in clinics, and, but then I just realized, like, really isn’t true, like who I am and what I want, you know, what I want to do. And so we decided to kind of pivot and we created only powders, no fillers. So we only have powders, capsules and oils now to really make sure that they’re getting the right amount of milligrams in the dosing that we have. And so we, you know, then created our first our first powdered product, which was our prebiotic, and probiotic together, and it was the only USDA Organic prebiotic probiotic on market for for dogs and cats back in the day. So, in 2018, when that came out, you know, we really started to see pet parents really interested in in gut health. And, you know, we all know that the immune system is really big in the gut, 70% of our immune system is in the gut. So probiotics and gut health is essential for the immune system. And it really connects with the rest of the body, it affects your your mood, your brain that affects you know, your your kidneys, your liver. So I think that interest in gut health has been growing since since we started and it really just resonates with with people. So we came up with that. And then each year, kind of after that, we came out with one or two products. And, you know, it takes me time to really launch a product, I want to make sure that it’s like perfect, the ingredients are good, the effecting is right. It’s palatable for our pets. So, you know, we slowly kind of came out with one to two products here. And mind you like we are bootstrapping everything, we are barely paying ourselves anything. We are shipping things from our house in our garage. Like, it’s all all the fun stuff that all the founders do, you know, and I’m a vet, and I’m trying to learn how to do marketing. And I’m starting an influencer program. And I’m just like, sending products like please like repost, you know, like, share the Word. And so we kind of grew through this like influencer, community that we built over the past six years, and now we have hundreds of influencers on this waitlist that are just waiting to, like, try our product and wanting to work with us. So we really have like a loyal influencer community. And, and I also had to learn, you know, Google ads, Facebook ads, Amazon, like, like chewy stuff, like, it’s been a wild ride to kind of learn all that stuff. But, you know, it’s kind of gotten us, it’s gotten us to where we are today. And, you know, about 2020, in 2020, I realized that, you know, I’m not sure that I can keep working in clinics while while running this company. So I actually found out that I was pregnant in 2020, like the week of lockdown of the shutdown. And I remember, as an essential worker, I went to the vet clinic, and, you know, masks were not in effect yet. And someone coughed on me. And I was like, I don’t know what COVID is, I don’t know how scary this is. And I had just had a miscarriage, like, a couple months before, so I was very anxious. So I said, this is, this is a sign this is, this is the time, I’m going to go all in on Fera Pets, and just focus on ecommerce. And so that’s what we did. We just went all in in 2020, we both quit our daytime jobs. And that’s kind of when we really noticed that, you know, we were growing and people were really interested in we were getting a really good feedback. And so in 2022, you know, we still weren’t really looking for an investor. I mean, people would reach out to us we were we were profitable every year, we didn’t really need the money, but to really grow. We, we were open to it, you know. And so we had we found a women, one woman investor, who was, you know, introduced to us and we thought she was the perfect fit. So she came on and 2022 and then that really allowed us to really grow our team and kind of take her to the next level. And so the following year to 2023 we had our first trade show, and we went to global Pet Expo in Orlando, and it was a huge success. We had tons of investors wanting to work with us and that is actually where we met General Mills, their venture their venture arm. And so they have two different types of venture arms. One is 301 Inc, which is more of a minority investment arm and then they have gold metal ventures, which is majority or acquiring 100%. So when we first met with with them, it was the 301 things, you know, sides so we thought okay, they want to do in a minority investment. And then the more that we got to talk with them, you know, we realized that it was a pretty good fit. And so we we just continued week continue to talk with them. And then they, they were the ones that said, you know, we actually think that you guys are such a good fit that we want to transfer you over to our gold medal ventures, we would like to buy you 100%. And I, at the time was not looking to sell my company, you know, I just started it six years ago, I was it, you know, we’re still in the infancy age. And so I said, you know, I have to think about and obviously, there are big companies to huge corporation, they have these nine, they have nine brands that are making over a billion dollars, like, I’m like, what, you know, what are they going to do to us? Like, what, how is this going to work, and I was very skeptical in the beginning. But I feel like a lot of a lot of our values aligned. And, you know, we after getting to know them, I think it I was just excited to learn that we shared very similar values, and that we were very much aligned. And so the things that they were looking for in in a supplement brand, was, I think,

they were looking for a vet founded company, not really vet, they don’t want products that are like that. Approved, they wanted a product that was that created that formulated, just because now we’re more effective dosing and things like that. But they were also just looking for things for our company to do really do the right thing. So, you know, we also follow like human supplement trends closely, I stay very up to date with innovative, innovative and effective ingredients, we are very, you know, you have to have safety and compliance. And so it was very obvious to them that they needed a brand that was approved by the NSC, which is the National Animal supplement Council. And so we get reduced, regularly audited by them every other year, and we bear the NSEC on all of our products. So that was definitely a must have. And we’re also very transparent as a brand. It’s a huge part of our our identity. And so on our website, we actually share where all of our ingredients are sourced, we have a COA lookup tool where customers can actually type in the lot number, and they can actually see, you know, what third party testing, we have heavy metals, microbials, things like that. So they have visibility into all of that to make sure that it’s their safety and potency. And so I think that they were also looking for a brand that had sustainability at the forefront of their mind. And so we are very passionate about passionate about sustainability. We really make it at the forefront of all of our decisions. And we are accredited members of the pet sustainability coalition. And we had to go through a testing and some, you know, accreditation program to get that. And we actually launched our first impact report last year. And because of that they made us a top performer for 2023. So that also was a part of it. And then I think they just really wanted to find founders who were just really passionate and authentic about why they were doing what they were doing, not just like, here’s what we do and how we do it. But the why behind it. Yeah, it really came across to them that they wanted, you know, a pet brand that had founders who truly believed in the products and didn’t just, you know, create the brand to make to make money because that’s what people do. They know that the pet space is hot. And they’re joining in because they know that they can make, you know some money. And that’s just not how me and Emily started, we really saw a gap in the market. And that’s really why we started Faro was because we knew we could make a difference. So that’s kind of us it was a

Kara Goldin 13:29
no, I love it. Thank you so much. So was it just you and Emily, and were there other people involved when you were? I guess when you were first starting you were doing everything in addition to practice having your own practice. But how big did your team ultimately get before you guys were acquired?

Dr. Michelle Dulake 13:48
Yeah, so it was just me and Emily for the first five years, which is really insane to think about. And then then when we first got our investor in 2022, we hired for roles. I should take that back when we it was just me and Emily, we did have a social media manager that lived in Canada and a customer service rep that lived in Mexico City, but they were you know what, they weren’t full time employees. And then when I brought on the investor, we hired four full time employees. So there were six of us plus two plus two, you know, part time so

Kara Goldin 14:27
pretty. So pretty lean team all the way till the end. That’s That’s amazing. So were you surprised as a vet? I mean, obviously you had seen some of these supplements. I’m sure some of the pet owners would come to you and say, you know, should I get my pets these products or were you kind of surprised at the how limited it was and like how clean some of the products that were out there. I I found when I was launching my company hint that’s what I I was like, oh, you know, I’m not looking for those products. So I just hadn’t really paid attention as much to the industry. But I was like, shocked at how many things in my case, were calling themselves water when they weren’t water at all, they had tons of sugar, and they were probably closer to like a juice drink more soda than they were water. But were you pretty surprised at the stuff that they were putting in that didn’t really need to be in some of these products.

Dr. Michelle Dulake 15:28
Yeah, I was very shocked by you know, the fillers that were in the soft shoes, and also, the dosage things, they really frustrated me, I mean, people are spending tons of money on for their pets thinking that these these products are going to make a difference, when I look at the dosing, and it’s not even half of what it should be to actually make a difference. So I think that’s what frustrated me the most, I’m like, Oh, these pet parents, they don’t know. And they’re just buying these products, and there’s just like a quarter of what should be in there. So like, it’s just a waste of money at this point, you know, so I felt really passionate about making sure that the dosing was really effective, and that the products had, you know, the best viability or viability to really be absorbed and make a difference. And so I don’t know, I just I just came into the space thinking I want to do everything right, I want to make sure that everything is as clean as possible, and making sure that they’re really going to make a difference for the pet. And I think that that’s that came across to our customers and to General Mills and all the other investors that we talked to. And so it’s it’s just been a great journey, because now that people can see how authentic we are to the why we’re doing it. It’s just, I just see such potential growth for us, especially now with General Mills behind us. You know, I just really want it to get into the homes of all pet parents in America. And I really think you’re gonna help us help us do that.

Kara Goldin 16:52
That’s amazing. So when you first launched, you talked about the pre and probiotic product, but how many skews did you actually have initially

Dr. Michelle Dulake 17:02
initial so we before pre General Mills, we only had about actually. So up until last year, we have 18 skews Now, last year, at last year was a big year after we got that for initial investor, we launched eight products last year, which was a lot when I think back I’m like, oh, eight wasn’t that was a lot. And before before that, it was only about 10. So 10 products and five years, which you know, was pretty, pretty good actually, for just me and Emily, I feel you know, so and I really just try to look at the body systems and like how I can effectively make a difference. So you have dogs with, you know, heart murmurs and heart disease. So I really wanted to create that cardiac disease, that cardiac support, you know, you have dogs with skin issues, and even like arthritis, so I wanted to make fish oil for skin support, but also anti inflammatory for joints. So there’s, I look at each body system, I think, Okay, what’s the best natural way to approach this body system? And that’s kind of how we created each each SKU that’s

Kara Goldin 18:09
so interesting. And so do like, literally divided when, when you’re looking at dogs, like which products are best best for them? Is that how you look at it like the hip versus cardiac versus like skin issues? Or can you actually divide it into like three different, you know, types of animals? I guess?

Dr. Michelle Dulake 18:29
Yeah, you can look at it by breed. Definitely. So like, usually, it’s larger breeds that need hip and joint support. And then you have, you know, different breeds, like Cavalier, I don’t know if you if you know what a Cavalier King Charles is, but, you know, over 50% of them have a heart murmur by the time they reach the age of six. So I really, you know, made this and that would that breed in mind and so, there’s, there’s all different types of products that we have, you know, we have hip and joint visual for skin and CO we have our probiotic for gut, we have our mushroom line, which I’m very, very obsessed with, because mushrooms are like trending on the human side. And we came out with this in 2021, and it is just booming. And mushrooms are huge, huge for immune support, but they’re also really just great for all different body systems, they can really positively affect your liver, your your gut, your brain, they work as adaptogens and they really just find what is needed in your body and they can really make a difference there. So I’ve had you know, I was at a vet conference just yesterday and a random that came up to me and said, You know, I started using your product on the mushroom blend on my dog and my dog has mast cell tumors and he gets them all the time every month and I have to go and do surgically remove the mast cell tumors so I was looking for an immune product and I came across you know your mushroom blend and and ever since I started giving it my dog has not had one mast cell and I’m just like, you know, it just this is a natural option that is They’re, and we just need to get the word out about it that this is there are natural ways to help, you know, promote different body systems. And so I think mushrooms are great. And we have our bladder support. We have liver support, calming, you know, calming is a huge one. And then we actually came out with a topper line last year, which is goat milk based. So it’s a goat milk powder, but we actually added active ingredients to make it easier to give your pets supplements so it’s very palatable, it tastes like cheese, pets love the goat milk, and people are getting really creative on how they’re giving supplements with their pets. So they’re either you know, just putting the powder on their food, or they’re mixing it with water and making it into goat milk, or they’re putting it into like a freezer like silicone tree, and then they’ll freeze it and give it as like a treat later, people are getting very, you know, into different ways of giving their pets, supplements and just treats in general. So it’s a very fun, an exciting time to be a pet parent also, because you’re really involved in like how you feed your pet. And it’s exciting. You’re like bonding with your pet, you know, giving them you know, fun things. So I’m just really excited for where the pet spaces, the pet supplement space is going, and how much we’re going to grow and make a difference in pets lives.

Kara Goldin 21:13
I love it. So i i Always naturally assumed that this was primarily made for dogs. But is this good for cats as well? Yeah,

Dr. Michelle Dulake 21:23
so all of our powdered products are for cats. The only one that is for dogs is our hip and joint soft tissue. Which you know, we haven’t made any more soft cheese after that we may in the future, because that we have that we’re looking into ways to make a good soft shoe with better inactive ingredients. So that may be in the future. But all of our powders and oils are for dogs and cats. And there are cat owners love the goat no toppers, they love the mushroom, they love the fish oil, the probiotics. I mean, you know, I think cat owners are we need it, we need to watch them closely. Because they they really care about their pets, their cats too. And they they’re gonna start supplements to their cats. So I love it. It’s a good steak.

Kara Goldin 22:05
So when you started selling you were selling online initially, were you also selling in vet offices? How did you get the word out about what you were doing?

Dr. Michelle Dulake 22:14
Yeah, so we were mainly ecommerce, so over 70% of pet owners, they only buy supplements online. And I think it’s because with supplements, it’s not like you’re going to a pet store and you’d like to see a cute treat or like a fun treat or, or toy. And it’s like a quick buy. I think with supplements, people need multiple touchpoints before they are bought into the idea of what they’re actually buying. So a lot of people they see things online, and then they kind of have to come back to it a couple times. So 90% of our business is actually ecommerce which I think actually General Mills like because they knew that that’s where people were buying pet supplements. And so getting out the word out there on E commerce I think influencers have a really big part of this, if you can, actually when the trust not just like work with, you know, a couple influencers here and there. We got a lot of influencer work with us just because they loved our products and they were posting for free. It’s just word of mouth. And so I think word of mouth is huge. If you’re hearing from a friend or if you’re hearing from, you know, a family member, and even some vets like they will they will just spread the word. And that’s kind of how we got known. It was very organic in the in the beginning because our our products just really resonated with people. And then after that it’s kind of I don’t know, I think we kind of also got lucky with timing with the probiotic because our probiotic really grow on Amazon like, like, I don’t really have like a magic reason why it did well, I know that the formula is good, and the product is great. And probiotics are, you know, big, but we really started to grow on Amazon for our probiotics. And so I think, you know, doing certain advertising to on Amazon, and Facebook and Google those type of things like that helped us but I really want to give a big, you know, thank you to the all the influencers that we work with that just trusted us from the beginning, I’ll give a shout out to one of our favorite influencers. dog named Stella. She has been with us from the beginning. And she loves our products and we love her and she definitely helped us a lot out in the beginning.

Kara Goldin 24:15
I love it. So what were some of the biggest obstacles you faced when you were first getting Farrah out there?

Dr. Michelle Dulake 24:25
I think, for me, it was it was more on a personal level. I think, you know, it’s always hard to like start a company and you know, you don’t really know where you’re going and you’re just kind of seeing what you know, the day to day brings, and you’re just learning how to do to how to create an E commerce company. But I think on top of that, you know, I also was growing my own family. And so I had I’ve had two kids since I started Fera Pets, and I think for me it was it’s, it’s and I still struggle with it daily. You know, like the split of time between like my kids and like work and how you know, and when I’m not able to be at certain kids events, it really gets me I feel so like guilty, and I’m from trying to try and to really work on that. But I think when you’re a mom, and you’re also trying to grow a company, you you feel like you can’t give 100% either, if that, you know, so, I think that that has been the biggest struggle for me is just trying to try and to be 100% of both, but not feeling like you are actually able to do your best at both. But I’m trying to give myself grace and be like, you’re doing fine, you’re doing just fine. Your, your kids are fine, like, you know, and it’s all about a village and, you know, having grandparents or grandparents around has really helped. But I think, you know, personally, I think that that’s, that’s probably been the hardest thing. But you know, at the end of the day, I tell myself, my kids are going to see, you know, hardworking mom that, you know, is really, you know, figuring out her dream and reaching her dreams. And hopefully that will make them I’ll be a good role model for them one day. So

Kara Goldin 26:08
I started our company, the day I got the first bottle on the shelf, I had my fourth child, so I totally get it starting a new company with young kids. I think once they start going into kindergarten, you get you have like a little bit more time to do things. But you know, as they grow up, you’re absolutely right. They see you as you know, somebody who’s doing it, and who is actually doing incredible things for animals. I mean, who wouldn’t want a mom that does that? I mean, that’s, that’s absolutely. So wonderful. So when you look back on an advice for founders, like thinking about, you know, those really challenging times that you’re thinking, I don’t know if this is going to work or not, why am I doing this anyway, maybe I should just go stay being a VAT and be a mom and not actually develop an entire company and potentially get it acquired? I mean, that’s just such a daunting task. But like, what would you say is your best advice? Like what does that voice need to be telling you if you’re a founder, thinking about, you know, to keep going, like, what do you have to keep saying to yourself,

Dr. Michelle Dulake 27:25
I think you just really have to remember the why, you know, why are you doing this not, not thinking about like, today is hard, because you’re gonna have so many days that are hard, and you want to throw in the towel and you’re like, This is not this is not worth it. You know, like, so many things are going wrong. You have supply chain issues, you have, you know, ecommerce issues in your listing, there’s just a lot of things that can go can go wrong. And I think if you remember why you’re doing it, and for me, it was obviously helping pets to have a longer and healthier life. And really, you know, I became a vet because I wanted to help the pets in my clinic. But now I can actually reach more pets this way by getting into more homes and really benefiting their lives. And so just go back to why are you doing this and it just stay really true to yourself. And you know, you have to, you can’t really look, you obviously have to know your competitors and know what’s going on around you. But I really kind of stuck and like focused I focused on what I was doing. I didn’t let like loud noise get get to me and so because if you keep looking around, you know, if you care too much about what others are saying or doing you know, it’s gonna get to you. So you really just have to stay focused. And just focus on the why. And just just keep going and I think you know, people are going to be able to see if if you know how authentic you are to your story and how how much you’re truly passionate about something and, and good things will come your way. If you just continue to work hard, keep your head down. Just keep going and stay true to yourself and it will be okay.

Kara Goldin 29:01
I love that advice. So Dr. Michelle do Lake who is the founder and CEO of Fera Pets, thank you so much. And I’m such a huge fan. The products are amazing. Everyone needs to try them. So thank you again, Michelle.

Dr. Michelle Dulake 29:16
Thank you.

Kara Goldin 29:17
Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. If you would, please give us a review and feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit and of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin. I would love to hear from you too. So feel free to DM me. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen or pick up a copy of my Wall Street Journal, best selling book undaunted, where I share more about my journey including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday Wednesday and Friday thanks for listening and goodbye for now