Nick Molina was out of shape.
It was 2018, and the longtime Miami entrepreneur was already on his fifth startup. It was starting to show.
“I was struggling with my weight and reaching my fitness goals,” said Molina, 52.
So he decided to hire a nutrition coach, who created a personalized health plan. And that, he said, made a huge difference.
A look at his two rescue mutts, Shorty and Barkley, sparked a question — and a business idea: What if dogs could benefit from the same approach?
“I realized that while human nutrition had advanced leaps and bounds over last couple of decades, pet nutrition has remained unchanged since the ‘50s,” he said. “Having gone through a personal health transformation, I was very in tune with what it took for me to do that.”
In a stroke, Molina’s sixth startup, Hungry Bark, was born. Today, through the Hungry Bark website, dog owners seeking to help their pets reach their own peak performance can use an algorithm that takes a dog’s size, age, breed, and habits to determine what it should be consuming.
With dog adoptions at an all-time high thanks to COVID, now is a prime time to start a dog business. According to the Wall Street Journal, American pet owners will spend nearly $100 billion in 2020 on furry loved ones.
“You’ve got a pet space growing by leaps and bounds, and you’ve got a pet food space within that space, and there’s a huge void for personalized nutrition,” Molina said.
Molina has spent a career in the direct-sales business. He co-founded Let’s Talk Cellular, at one point the largest retailer of cellular- and wireless-phone systems in the U.S. Let’s Talk went public in 1997 and filed for bankruptcy in 2000. It was purchased out of Chapter 11 by Nextel for $32 million in 2001.
Molina went on to form four other web-based companies, including a vaping group that was acquired by publicly traded Turning Point Brands at a $24 million valuation in 2018.
Molina acknowledged that creating an online startup in 2020 is very different than in the Wild West days of the dot-com era. Even in the pet space.
“The first two words that come to mind are [Dania Beach-based] Chewy and Amazon,” he said. “So the question was, do I really want to come in where they have customers and branding? How do we differentiate ourselves? The clear answer was personalized nutrition.”
Even a timely and unique idea needs a messaging plan. For online and offline firms alike, marketing now almost exclusively consists of paid search results, social media advertising, and email marketing.
Still, Molina has been able to raise more than $2.1 million to get the idea off the ground.
Hungry Bark makes money through a la carte sales and subscriptions. A 4-pound bag of chicken-based kibble starts at $19.99; 24-pound bags cost $68.79. Hungry Bark also recommends supplements and protein mix-ins; the former range from $23.99 to $31.99 per container, and the latter $13.59 to $18.39 per 5-ounce or 6-ounce bag. A subscription gets you 20% off those costs.
Hungry Bark also sells goods in exact quantities —something Molina says many other companies don’t do.
“If your dog needs exactly 58 chews or supplements, we’ll send you exactly 58,” he said. “It’s the next level of customization, so you don’t have to buy four 12-lb bags.”
Molina declined to discuss financials, but said sales and subscriber growth have been doubling month-on-month for the past six months. The company has customers in all 50 states.
The company currently has eight employees, all remote workers; half are located in South Florida.
Reviews of Hungry Bark have been mostly favorable. K9ofMine.com, a dog care website, called Hungry Bark “a great option for dogs and owners who prefer dry food, but still want a customizable food for their pooch,” though noted it’s not for dog owners who prefer fresh pet food.
And website We’re All About Pets said that while Hungry Bark may be more expensive in some cases, “Simply put, it’s worth it to spend a little more to give your dog a high-quality diet that provides for his nutritional needs through healthy, wholesome ingredients.”
Hungry Bark products are only available through its website, HungryBark.com. The goal is to turn dog owners into loyal users.
“Our job is to communicate the importance of personalized nutrition,” Molina said. “Once they can see what it does for their dog, then we’ve got them.”