With 5.7 million Australian households owning at least one pet, Animal Medicines Australia (AMA) estimated that households spent $12.2 billion on pet products and services in 2016, up 42 percent since 2013.
Leveraging Australia’s love of our furry friends is pet care brand Rufus & Coco, which is this year celebrating its 10th birthday.
Having owned more than 40 pets over the years, founder Anneke van den Broek said she often struggled to find high quality, natural products.
After years spent working for the likes of Blackmores as marketing director and in senior roles at Bonds and Apparel Group, van den Broek knew she wanted to run her own business, so decided to fill the gap in the market herself.
“My first business plan was drawn up on a cocktail napkin in Bali,” she said.
From here, van den Broek spent more than 12 months developing the business before launch, working to research the market, develop the brand personality and positioning in collaboration with creative agencies, and to produce the first range of products, a collection of vitamins and supplements.
“When I launched Rufus & Coco, there was a growing trend of pet humanisation, which hasn’t slowed down. People were seeking products for their pets that were as good as those they would buy for themselves, however there was no brand on the market that filled this gap,” van den Broek explained.
“We set out to create a distinct ‘best of breed’ range, providing innovative and best-quality products with distinct branding. We are also one of few cross-category brands in this industry where we supply almost everything except food for pets; we have fashionable leads, toys, health products, grooming products, training aids, and more.”
Though she knew Rufus & Coco was filling a gap in the market, it wasn’t so easy for van den Broek to convince others of the fact, with the brand rejected by Woolworths three times before it secured ranging.
“Persistence and belief in your product is essential to survival in small business. It wasn’t until a Woolworths buyer found us at a trade show in Germany and invited us to pitch a fourth time that we successfully became a supermarket brand,” van den Broek said.
While the journey of founding and running the business has been difficult – it “has taught me so much about the value of persistence and resilience as a person,” van den Broek said – many of van den Broek’s toughest moments have centered around people.
“Firstly, myself in learning to ignore my critical inner voice. Then, finding and convincing manufacturers, distributors, retailers to take a chance on an unknown brand with nothing but a dream to sell was a very humbling and difficult process,” she said.
Building the right team is also “a constant process”, even a decade in.
“I’ve had to focus on finding unicorns who truly share my vision, and who can stand on the hill with me at one moment and get down and personally sew the grass seeds the next. Moving from the corporate world with huge teams to just a handful of really great people has been an adjustment, but such a worthwhile one,” van den Broek said.
Having come from the corporate world, van den Broek said she started the business with a big business mindset. This global vision saw Rufus & Coco bring on a distributor from Hong Kong in its second year of operations, but despite the early win, van den Broek said the company’s export journey hasn’t been an easy ride.
“With a very small team it has often felt like currencies, logistics and legalities would get the best of us. But driven by tenacity, we have travelled the world, we have built trade show stands by hand, we have talked through the night to customers via Skype, and we have learnt the hard way to really understand a market inside and out before launch,” she said.
The tenacity paid off: the company last month launched into almost 1,500 PetSmart stores across the USA.
Van den Broek was also recently accepted into the EY Winning Women program, an executive education program that identifies a select group of high-potential women entrepreneurs whose businesses show real potential to scale, and then helps them do it.
“With the Rufus & Coco brand poised on the cusp of a step-change in sales and distribution growth, I believe that the EY Winning Women program will assist the business as it takes its next steps,” she said.
Beyond growing sales, van den Broek is also focused on advocating for the rights of pet owners.
Rufus & Coco recently partnered with the Australian Pet Welfare Foundation, an organisation that, among other things, aims to reduce unnecessary euthanasia in Australian pounds to zero percent. Five percent of sales from the brand’s toy range are donated to the Foundation.
The two organisations have also launched a campaign to help change rental laws across Australia so pets are welcome; research they conducted found one in five pet owners have given up a pet or left with with a friend or family member because they were unable to find pet-friendly accommodation.
Image: Anneke van den Broek. Source: Supplied.