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Episodes > Season 3 Episode 25

Campfire Treats Hit Subscribe podcast cover

How Campfire Treats prioritizes doing the right thing

Marko Wittich, President & Co-Founder, Campfire Treats

What's in this episode?

On this episode…

We’re chatting with Marko Wittich, President & Co-Founder of Campfire Treats, the makers of healthy, all-natural dog treats and chews.

Marko shares with us where the idea for the business came from, as well as the numerous lessons they learned about running a DTC business in their first year.

We then dive into why subscriptions were a perfect fit for Campfire Treats and how they benefit both the customer and the merchant in a variety of ways.

Lastly, Marko shares the brands philosophy of doing the right thing, through ethically sourcing ingredients and their sustainability efforts.

There’s a lot to get to so let’s get started!

Connect with Marko on LinkedIn. Check out Campfire Treats.

Episode transcript

Scott Meiklejohn: Marko, thank you so much for joining us.

Marko Wittich: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Scotty.

Scott Meiklejohn: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and a little bit about Campfire Treats?

Marko Wittich: I sure can. My name is Marko, I'm originally from Germany, as most people figure out in the first seconds of me talking... My background is business-to-business, so over the last 10-plus years before starting Campfire Treats, I was running companies and large organizations in technical environment. Now it's Campfire Treats, all-natural dog treats.

Scott Meiklejohn: How did this idea for Campfire Treats start? When did it start percolating in your head?

Marko Wittich: It all came along with our dog, a vizsla, Pippa, she's by now 10 years old and when we were looking for food and treats for her, we didn't really like what we've seen. So lots of chemicals in there, lots of additives, preservatives, and we felt that it is not really necessary. And so we started making treats for her by ourselves, using our small kitchen dehydrator, basically making non-spiced jerky for her out of premium meats, like we eat ourselves. She loves them, the dogs of friends and neighbors love them and that eventually sparked this idea, maybe there's a market for [inaudible 00:01:37] really high-end treats. Then we digged into it and shortly after the idea of starting Campfire Treats was born.

Scott Meiklejohn: I remember you talking about, in our pre-call, you just took a look at the back of a brand-name dog food and you just didn't even recognize some of the ingredients in here, just chemical after chemical.

Marko Wittich: That's quite true. If you look at standard dog food, it reads like a science book. It doesn't really read like food, and food you should recognize, it should just be meats and fruits and veggies or whatever you're eating or whatever you're giving to your dog, it should not read like a science project. And we are a nation of dog lovers. There are more than 80 million dogs in the U.S., that is almost the population of Germany, to put it in contrast, and still, our standards are among the lowest in the world.
So, it's just not right, that at least was our feeling. And so we jumped into it and started to research and started to toy around with the idea. And that was in... I think it was somewhere in the end of first quarter 17 when we really started to get serious about it, and it took us three quarters of a year to get everything prepped up. So mostly focused on all-around rules, regulations, making sure that we can make the treats in the way we want them, that we get shelf stability, lots and lots of discussions with food laboratories, to get things tested and retested and triple-tested and all that. And yeah, we went live during the last days of 2017. That is-

Scott Meiklejohn: I remember you talking about that first year of being live and I loved this quote that you said, "You just don't know what you don't know." I chose the nicer quote aside from you saying, "The first year was a total disaster."

Marko Wittich: Yeah. Yeah. We were either the non-unusual entrepreneurs or we were the exact entrepreneurs. So we came in as total outsiders and we, my wife, Stevie and I, so we were in our forties, we had no previous professional pet food experience, we had zero direct-to-consumer experience and we had absolutely no ecommerce experience. And during these nine months, I just mentioned before going live, we put a lot of focus around pet food. We wanted to make sure that we really got the product right and we did. Direct-to-consumer... We expected as our focus was, and still is almost exclusively online, that it will be very anonymous, that not a lot will happen in terms of interaction with customers. Wrong, very wrong, very wrong, at least when you're in a pet environment or a dog environment.
So we had lots and lots of interaction with customers, we got feedback on the product, we heard stories about dietary issues with dogs, what they can eat, what they can't eat, we heard loving stories about pets and previous pets and got photos, got videos, got phone calls and it was almost like we expanded our family with some real loyal customers. And so that helped us a lot to get around the direct-to-consumer part, not in a professional way but in a way that we were able to listen to people and took advantage of the feedback we got.

Scott Meiklejohn: Totally.

Marko Wittich: And that was a fantastic learning curve and still is, so we really, really appreciate that part. But, as I mentioned in our pre-talk, the true disaster was ecommerce simply due to the fact that I thought that is maybe the easiest part out of the three elements. And so focus on the product, the direct-to-consumer as a learning part and ecommerce... Bad, bad, bad surprise.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yeah.

Marko Wittich: And yeah, as you said, the real struggle was not knowing what I didn't know, and that is a dire situation to be in because when you don't know what is causing the problem, they're all these agencies which are suddenly popping up offering a gazillion services, but you don't know if that is a good agency or a bad agency, if you're-

Scott Meiklejohn: Over-priced.

Marko Wittich: ...just being ripped off.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yeah. Totally.

Marko Wittich: If they even know what they're talking... Price points, nothing. And yeah, it was a long list. So we had technical issues, we had navigational issues, we did not show up in Google search results.

Scott Meiklejohn: Sure. Yep.

Marko Wittich: And yeah, you name it, it was our problem and-

Scott Meiklejohn: I think it's... Oh, sorry, keep going.

Marko Wittich: Yeah. It was just a very, very, very frustrating time and it took us almost a year to figure things out.

Scott Meiklejohn: Well, yeah, it's just like you mentioned, you have the product figured out, you've got this experience figured out but then it's that you switched the flip and then you're like, why aren't customers finding us? We want to meet them where they are but why aren't they able to find us? So-

Marko Wittich: And-

Scott Meiklejohn: ...yeah, what was the solution for you there? I remember you talking about it, how you eventually started to get there.

Marko Wittich: Yeah. It was wild times. I, per accident, ended up in a group of Australian female entrepreneurs and they were focused all around search engine optimization and the lady who's running that group, she's amazing. So she's well known in Australia and probably beyond that. And so that group helped me to get on track and so fixing website issues and really becoming visible within Google.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yep.

Marko Wittich: And totally trivial things for those who are in the industry but for us it was a nightmare. And eventually, we started building up a little tech stack as well, so adding reviews, obviously, you need those for direct-to-consumer business, then email marketing, which isn't that super, or at least wasn't that super important in the previous industries I worked in, adding text and email to it and obviously subscriptions. And especially subscriptions turned out to be one of the probably best investments in technology we could have added to our website.

Scott Meiklejohn: I really liked the origin of your subscription program and it's all centered around this paradigm shift you had of, oh, we really got to focus on this communication with our customers, that feedback. And so you had mentioned, I'd love for you to tell the story, but a loyal customer just reached out to you and inquired about subscriptions.

Marko Wittich: Absolutely. It was a loyal customer who had ordered numerous times from us before and she just said, "Marko, my days are too busy and so I don't really want to spend time on reordering and reordering and reordering again, or even worse forgetting to order and my two doodles are out of treats. And so have you thought about subscriptions?" And I said, "To be honest, no, I have not, but let me look into that." And so eight weeks later we went live with Recharge. And-

Scott Meiklejohn: Oh, I love to hear that. It is funny it's... I was just going to say food and bev, these perishable things, dog treats... Those are things that when you run out and then you're like, oh no, I have to run to the store, it's just so inconvenient. So it totally makes sense.

Marko Wittich: It makes perfect sense and we have subscription windows between two and eight weeks and that seems to cater for everybody's needs. And that's working perfectly.

Scott Meiklejohn: Oh, that's so good to hear.

Marko Wittich: And subscriptions are outgrowing our overall growth, ever since we launched subscriptions and it's been nothing but perfect for us and for our customers, obviously, too.

Scott Meiklejohn: Have you noticed anything... And speaking of establishing these relationships with customers, has subscriptions helped that grow because there's so many more multiple contact points with them?

Marko Wittich: Absolutely. So typically, or, yeah, I would say almost typically a customer starts off with one or two orders without subscribing-

Scott Meiklejohn: Totally, yep.

Marko Wittich: ...just to test things out. So, want to see a product, want to see how their dogs react... Once they feel comfortable, they jump right into subscriptions and typically starting off with just one or two products and then eventually expanding. And you see that people are changing the treats and chews and adding and removing and just playing around with it and changing things to keep their dogs excited. And along with that, we get a lot of feedback from our customers and so, many of the products we're making today are based on customers' feedback. So, "Oh, no, my dog is allergic to chicken," which unfortunately is a pretty big issue, especially with pit bulls and pit bull mixes. And so, "Can't you add turkey?"
"Sure." So we looked for turkeys and added turkey product and then, "Okay, my dog really loves to chew, what about bully sticks? Can you make bully sticks?" "We don't know, but we'll look into it if we can make them," and trial and error and we added bully sticks. Totally odorless bully sticks from California cattle and people love them, dogs love them. And another thing is...
That was again, in the very, very early days, a lady reached out and she was looking for treats for her disabled husband who was a veteran and she asked for a veteran discount and I said, "Never really thought about it." But then she told us her story and we thought it makes a lot of sense adding a veteran's discount and again, a couple of weeks later we introduced a veteran's discount, so 15% off, lifetime, for our current and previous service members. And all just listening to customers and it's partly touching, it's definitely, always fun... Well, mostly fun, sometimes it's hard. What you get in feedback if you goof things up but it's always learning and that is what keeps us growing and what we really, really enjoy.

Scott Meiklejohn: It sounds obvious, but it is just one of the best north stars and it's listening to your customers, asking for feedback and hearing from them.

Marko Wittich: It absolutely is and as I said initially, it came as a total surprise. So my online ordering behavior so far has always been, I look at things and click on buy and end of story. I barely reach out to any businesses, at least not to online businesses, but very, very different in the dog world.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yeah, of course.

Marko Wittich: And it's amazing.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yeah. From the business side of things, how have subscriptions been able to help you guys grow and optimize the business? I'm thinking in terms of recurring revenue. We hear from a lot of merchants, being able to forecast out that we know some of this is going to come in is just so beneficial to thinking about how we can continue to plan for future quarters. Have you found that in your own experience?

Marko Wittich: Absolutely. It is, first of all, part of the business, which is growing faster than our one-to-one or individual transactions, so that is good. The planning horizon is amazing for us because as you said, we can forecast future business. It just adds stability to everything, it just puts in the foundation for the next couple of months. We know what to expect and we know who are our 20% who are bringing in the business because 80/20 applies to pretty much every aspect of any business and no different to us. So it's these 20% of our core customers who are bringing in the business and quite often we know their stories, we see their planned out subscriptions and that is just awesome. Awesome for them, fantastic for us and I could not think of really running our business without it.

Scott Meiklejohn: Love to hear that. Yeah, it is mutually beneficial, helps the customer, helps the merchants, so that's great to hear. I was-

Marko Wittich: And it's easy and convenient-

Scott Meiklejohn: Oh please, yeah.

Marko Wittich: It's easy and convenient for everybody. You just log in, you add your products, if you have a one-off purchase, you can add it too, no problem whatsoever. Modify, change at any time, no hooks in there, no risk in there.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yeah.

Marko Wittich: And in addition to that, we are offering a little saving to our customers as well, which they happily take.

Scott Meiklejohn: Of course. Oh yeah.

Marko Wittich: And so it's absolutely the perfect win-win for everybody.

Scott Meiklejohn: Speaking of those customers... And when you, yourself are thinking of the business, going back to looking at the label on the dog food and seeing things you didn't recognize, I would love to chat to you about... We were talking in our pre-call about ethical sourcing and sustainability, but let's focus on ethical sourcing first because I know that's near and dear to your hearts because not only do you want to find good food, you want to make sure that these animals, that the people that are contributing these ingredients, were treated fairly and ethically.

Marko Wittich: Yeah. It's another part of our evolutionary development of the business. So when we started off it was clear that we will only use human-grade ingredients. So just food items, we would eat ourselves, maybe cut the bully stick. But even there, we don't source from overseas, we don't source from dodgy suppliers, everything is as local as possible and in any case... So within the U.S. but the vast majority [inaudible 00:18:18] proximity here in Northern California. One day I read an article about chicken farming and I learned 9 billion chickens are bred in the U.S. for food every year, 9 billion.
And that was a surprisingly large number but even more surprising for me was the slaughter age of a chicken. And I'm not sure if I mentioned that in our pre-call, it's around eight weeks and that means most fruit and vegetables grow slower. And I personally find that not really right because these are overbred breeds, they're brought up in factory farms, 99% of all chickens never see daylight in their life and probably the best day in their life is the day they will eventually be slaughtered. And only 1% is of the chickens that live in an environment which is species appropriate. And it is just not right. It might be belief... We're making products for pet lovers, we're making products for dog lovers and we can't make that on the expense of other animals.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yes.

Marko Wittich: A dog is a carnivore, so yes, they will eat meat, but on purposely accepting that the animals are having a horrible life, we use for our treats, not acceptable.
So we joined the Better Chicken Commitment, that is a global initiative to improve the life of chickens in general. And that was our starting point, with that we got in touch with organizations being involved in animal welfare and continuously kept on educating ourselves and we discussed that back and forth and that, okay, the Better Chicken Commitment is just, we promise that we will transition to well-treated animals sometime in the future and we [inaudible 00:20:51] that that's just not good enough for us. We want to have a third party certifying that we actually do what we're talking about and so we reached out to Global Animal Partnership, which is the leading animal welfare organization when it comes to animals for food in North America, and went through a certification process. And today all of our chicken products, all of our turkey products and selected beef products are certified by them.
It's an ongoing process, we still have some gaps in our supplies but we are on the path to transition to exclusively well-treated farm animals, the way it should be. It's an ongoing development and we just want to have things in line with our beliefs and the beliefs of our customers too. They're highly appreciating what we're doing here because they're all animal lovers and when you provide a little bit of background information, what's happening in the industry, people are very, very often just shocked.

Scott Meiklejohn: I think that's very admirable and to be committed to that path that you spoke about, I loved your quote from a pre-call where you mentioned, "We're just trying to do the right thing," and to think about... It could be easy, it could be cost-saving to turn a blind eye, to just be willfully ignorant because there is some sort of financial benefit. But I think it's just so admirable to say, no, that's not right, we don't want to run our business like that. We want to be able to know that we're doing at least the right things, that we can continue on this path. I think it's great.

Marko Wittich: Yeah, thank you. I think it's exactly like you said, it's easy to take shortcuts but at the end we're animal lovers, we're dog lovers and that includes, at the end, all animals. And we feel that we bear a special responsibility for animals which are bred for food or for their meat and so there is no reason not to make sure that they're having an as good living as possible. And the benefits to that is the food is so much more nutritious.

Scott Meiklejohn: Of course, yeah.

Marko Wittich: It's better tasting and [inaudible 00:23:31] and many of our customers are making blind tastes with their dogs, giving them our treats and giving them other treats and we only, only heard dogs always go for our treats and we believe it's the ingredients and to freshness. And so we feel we are on the right path there and just in line with our hearts as well.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yeah. It's so important, the values, connecting with their customers through shared values, I think that's wonderful. Speaking of another shared value, I know you chatted about being from California, seeing recently over the last couple of years the wildfires that are growing and having this feeling as a business owner that you wanted to do more for the environment, so I'd love for you to speak about that... Some things that you guys have done to try and help out with sustainability efforts.

Marko Wittich: Yeah and another thing based on observation, what's happening around us and a little bit of research, so where we live, we're living at the foothills of Sierra Nevada, at the border of the Sacramento Valley... So summer temperatures here are in, well above 100. We've seen many record summers since we moved to the U.S., since we moved to that area, so temperature is rising, we're living in one of the worst droughts in the history of California. And we see our oceans not really being in [inaudible 00:25:10] shape. And that's the same time with our growing business, we've seen more and more plastic moving through our facility because right now we can't get around plastic packaging to protect our food items but it, again, didn't feel right.
So we looked at where can we eliminate plastic and first thing was obviously shipping. There is no need to close a shipping box with this plastic tape, there is no need for bubble wrap. You can do that with paper tape, you can use paper for cushioning, it's not costing a penny more and in fact, a paper tape is temper proof and opposite to a plastic tape, not costing more. And so we transitioned to that, but maybe one step back, why we really started to become critical about plastic?
So plastic is mega convenient because it's cheap, it's durable, it's suitable for so many things from medical devices to the bag of chips, so the bag of dog food to protect the content. But at the same time, right now, I think it's 400 million tons of plastic being produced annually and the forecast is that number will double over the next, I don't know, 10 years or so if I'm not mistaken. And plastic isn't that super old, so at least my grandparents hardly had any plastic products around them and the pet food industry in the U.S., 300 million pounds of multilayer plastic per year, which is basically non-recyclable. And talking about recycling, your guess on how much plastic gets recycled?

Scott Meiklejohn: I was trying to find this fact because I wrote about actual recycling packaging materials for your business, so you tell me the answer because I'm going to say like 5%, what is it?

Marko Wittich: It's less than 10%, Scotty.

Scott Meiklejohn: Oh, God.

Marko Wittich: And that makes plastics the most widespread pollutant on our planet. And plastic can be found everywhere, at the bottom of the sea, on the highest mountains... There is no country, there is no continent, plastic is everywhere and it's increasingly polluting food chains. And recent studies earlier this year has first time proven nanoplastic particles in human bloodstreams and human organs and that ratio can't be healthy. And so we said, we need to do something about it and so besides effort in eliminating plastic, as I mentioned, for example, in packaging materials, we looked for other ways we can support things. And so we came across a company named Repurposed Global and they are super active in helping to remove plastic from the environment. And so we got a partnership with them and we are now paying them to collect as much plastic as we are using in our operations.
So from incoming plastic packages our supplies are using or plastic we use as part of the production process, so boxes with [inaudible 00:29:06] are made out of plastic. And so we calculate that in, we calculate our product packaging in and so the total sum of what we use is being collected. And so as [inaudible 00:29:20], we are getting to a zero and so we are an officially plastic neutral certified brand.
It's not a perfect solution but it's a stopgap solution. And the only solution we see so far until there is really fully biodegradable plastic available, which can do the job. And again, it feels like doing the right thing here and it fits to what we're doing. So we're all-natural, we're making handcrafted products, we're making it in the U.S., we're taking care of animal welfare and we're trying to protect our environment as good as we can. And that is the foundation of what we're doing today and it all evolved over time and will probably keep on evolving. And that is a [inaudible 00:30:18], lots of it is just discoveries by ourselves, feedback from our customers and just trying to keep the eyes open to keep on going.

Scott Meiklejohn: When I was writing this article about sustainable packaging, one of the things that shook me was plastic can decompose, it just takes 500 to 1,000,000 years to do so. Let's say, either 500,000 or... We're just ridiculous, just to think about all that floating around. The more we make, the longer it takes to leave our earth. So, if you're listening to this and you're thinking, I would like to do this, but again, I'm trying to keep costs cheap, I'm trying to think about how to keep this business running... Just like you said, it's just about being on the path, just thinking about it for the future, thinking about the tiniest ways that you can contribute to helping your company be more sustainable, as long as you're doing that then you're doing the right thing. So as you said, it's a process that evolves and just be working towards doing the right thing.

Marko Wittich: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. And it can be done. I'm always super frustrated when we order from any of the super big companies and still packaging full of bubble wrap. Why does a box with a t-shirt in it contain bubble wrap? Why is the t-shirt again, in a plastic bag? Why is a box sealed with plastic tape? All just not necessary. And I would almost say, all just ignorance.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yep.

Marko Wittich: Good news, so very recently we've received Amazon deliveries in paper bags, first time a couple of weeks ago.

Scott Meiklejohn: Great.

Marko Wittich: And if these big guys really start moving, they can turn the wheel, they can turn the tide. For us it's just, we can create some noise but our volumes will always be insignificant. But if you can make enough noise, that our customers are becoming aware of things and demanding from the bigger guys, hey, if the small ones can do that, why can't you? Then things will eventually move and that's what we're hoping for.

Scott Meiklejohn: Something else to consider, if you're a brand listening to this and you've done that change, I would really recommend having some sort of paper insert or maybe part of your order, confirmation order, shipping notifications, to let customers know how to dispose of whatever materials they're getting. For instance, receiving a bunch of what I thought were styrofoam peanuts only to learn from a paper insert, hey, these are made of corn starch, this is how you dispose of them.

Marko Wittich: Yes.

Scott Meiklejohn: You just melt them in water, they're totally fine, you could put them down the drain. But to think that could have just been tossed in the garbage, and me being very disappointed in the brand going, oh, peanuts, really? But yeah, have that little insert just letting them know how to get rid of them, it's the way to go.

Marko Wittich: Absolutely and these things are a great invention, a couple years old by now and it's fantastic. You don't need styrofoam. You don't need it at all.

Scott Meiklejohn: Marko, after this call I'm going to send you... We have a merchant who uses mushroom packaging. It's very cool, it grows around the packaging, it's really durable... I'll send it to you after this because it's fascinating. But yeah, if you're listening, check it out.

Marko Wittich: Please do so. I love these kinds of things and that is the only way how you really get hold of these things. You need to talk to people or tumble across something but preferably hearing from other entrepreneurs, hey, I've seen something that is awesome, have you heard about it? Here's the link, have a look at it. And that is how we keep on collecting new ideas as well. But-

Scott Meiklejohn: Speaking of... Yeah. Oh, I love it. I was just

Marko Wittich: You go ahead Scotty.

Scott Meiklejohn: I was thinking about, as we wrap up the call here, speaking of giving back to a community of other entrepreneurs, we always like to ask merchants like yourself, if you were to go back to that first year and give yourself advice or to give a new merchant some advice, what would be the one thing you would say, hey, if you're starting a DTC business, consider this before you get started?

Marko Wittich: Yeah. Definitely the part I missed out... Probably an almost classical mistake for outsiders, as I was, focus on the product and too much ignorance of the others but just looking at building a good tech stack is an important part. Looking at search engine optimization because it gives you free traffic. We get thousands and thousands of visitors because we rank on the top three positions of Google for many of our important keywords. So looking into that and building the foundations at the beginning is important. In terms of tech stack, definitely email, definitely subscriptions and definitely product reviews, integrating those and thinking a little bit about that tiny little ecosystem, looking at different apps, which really seamlessly work together, that is important. I can't stress enough the importance of subscriptions, especially if you're in the food business or any other business where things need to be replenished on a relatively short frequency.

Scott Meiklejohn: Well, Marko, we've loved chatting with you today and so we just wanted to wish you and Campfire Treats and of course, Pippa, your dog, the best of luck for the rest of the year.

Marko Wittich: Well, thank you, Scotty. Thanks so much for having me, really appreciate the chat with you.

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