When you found or run a small business, at some point, money – both capital and cash flow – is likely to become an issue. What I’ve learnt in two years of a pet food start-up, is that being part of a business ecosystem can make all the difference.
At 55, I ditched my marketing career of 30 years (spanning senior marketing manager roles and marketing agency owner), to start a pet supplement manufacturing and ecommerce company…I was inspired by our old dogs, 22 and 19 years old at the time, and a belief in the benefit of good food – for us and our pets.
It’s now two years down the track and just on 18 months since we brought our first product to market. We now have a range of 11 products for dogs and cats and have also completed our first export order to Taiwan.
However, two weeks after we launched, it didn’t look nearly as positive. We’d formed a relationship with a contract manufacturer who did our first manufacturing run. After an allergen audit by their largest customer, they told us they wouldn’t make our product anymore. (We have shellfish and probiotic ingredients in some of our products.)
At that point, we’d only invested in product development, branding, trademarking and the like, but it’s amazing how even doing those things can chew through money. When I’d begun, I’d had no real intention of handling the manufacturing, but as I spoke to all the other contract manufacturers I could find, I realised that it was either invest in equipment and do it ourselves, or pack up and go home. I didn’t want to walk away; I was invested emotionally and financially.
Around that time, I’d also just completed an ideation and acceleration program with the local business centre. One of the business advisors encouraged me to look at some of the funding options available, and gave me a couple of contacts at Austrade and Ausindustry.
It turned out that there were no funding options available at the time to help, so I dug into some savings and set up a small manufacturing facility here in Newcastle. However, the discussions with those people – and the other people they referred me to in various government programs and the like, have proved to be critical in our further growth.
I think that it wasn’t just meeting the people and getting onto their radar; I think it also switched my mindset to be always looking for what other options there are to help me grow.
Fast forward to early last year, when COVID hit. I was trying to take the next step with an ambitious product development and hit a roadblock with expertise. I applied and was accepted for a CSIRO Kickstart Research grant to take that idea forward, using the expertise of the CSIRO’s food scientists.
That led to being invited to be part of a pilot innovation training program – Innovate to Grow – they were running for SMEs. That led to talking about contract manufacturing on another product with one of the other participants.
At about the same time I also applied for a Jobs for NSW MVP Grant. I was knocked back the first time, but I was able to have a really good discussion with an advisor about why I was rejected. I used those insights in a second application, and this time, was successful.
I also applied for the NSW government’s Going Global Program for the Korea market, and was accepted into that too. That’s not funding as such, but it’s education, and access and coaching. Already options are opening up from that.
The key tip I’d draw from all of this, is that I feel part of a big, interconnected network. It’s not always ‘free’ money as such (much of it is dollar-matched), but I’m visible, I’m being invested in, and if I can be successful, that’s good for and good for them too. We’ve all got skin in the game.