Business Brains

Innovator | Carly Strife, co-founder of BarkBox

Posting in Cities

How to engage users online? Show interest in their dogs. Barkbox co-founder Carly Strife tells of the opportunities available in pet-focused markets.

"Here! Closer to the food carts," BarkBox co-founder Carly Strife e-mails me, "green shirt." I look up from my seat on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library, our agreed meeting place, and see a small woman in a T-shirt and jeans with a marbled brown dog at her side.

Strife's on her nightly walk with Roxy, a pit bull mix. She's left her other dog, Cooper, at home for the sake of simplifying our interview. We cross the street near Prospect Park and Roxy lunges toward the entrance. The dog's stocky shoulders arch as she strains against her leash. "She's in beast mode," Strife explains. "She's about to pounce on any squirrel she sees. Aren't you?" she asks the dog.

Beneath her dry dismissal of her dogs' quirks (she places Roxy on the autism spectrum -- "She won’t look anyone in the eyes" -- and calls Cooper "a big chunker") she clearly adores them. And she's banking her career on like-minded dog owners. Strife co-founded BarkBox as a subscription box service for dog owners in late 2011 with Henrik Werdelin and Matt Meeker. Think Birchbox but with a monthly supply of dog treats instead of makeup samples. In less than two years, the service has grown to nearly 100,000 customers, and they've recently rebranded as a dog owner-focused umbrella company called Bark & Co.

Werdelin and Meeker met earlier in 2011 and decided to found a business around their common love of canines ("Matt is crazy-obsessed with his dog," Strife explains, "and Henrik fosters a bunch of dogs.") A friend directed Strife toward them. "They knew that the subscription box business was kind of taking off," she says, "so they had the idea. But neither of them had the bandwidth to really get the company up and running. So that's where I jumped in. Really, they were like, 'Hey, come be our third, come build this business with us.'"

Strife leads Roxy down their usual trail through the park. The dog pauses regularly to squat or sniff seemingly invisible objects. Her owner waits patiently.

While 27-year-old Strife's ascent in the startup world may seem quick, she took a considered path. She spent her first three years post-college as a valuations analyst at the management consulting company Deloitte and found herself seeking a faster-paced environment.

"When I started realizing I didn't want to be there too long," she says, "I started asking around to friends who were running companies, 'What could I do that you don't want to do or you don't know how to do?' And I ended up doing a lot of finance-related things, forecasting and projections. Just to help wherever I could and be in the environment I wanted to be in."

She kept her day job at Deloitte and spent weekends at friends' startups. The unpaid work brought her new contacts and eventually a position at Uber, the taxi-hailing app. As New York City operations manager, she led their local growth strategies. The operations-heavy business prepared her well for Barkbox, a company that ships out tens of thousands of boxes filled with a new assortment of products every month.

"This is very formal," she notes of the voice recorder I've been holding next to her face as we turn onto a new path. I explain the need to make sure I get my facts right. Like her title, can I call her BarkBox's president? "Mrs. President, if you will," she retorts with a mischievous smile before clarifying that she usually sticks to the title of co-founder.

When she helped start BarkBox, Strife admits, she hadn't foreseen the company's trajectory. "Oh my god, I had no idea," she says, "I don't think any of us realized the actual opportunity in the market of dog parents and people who are just obsessed with their dogs. So much of that came after we started to see the way that people took to BarkBox and talked about it and were excited about anything we were doing. So that's kind of how the grand scheme of Bark & Co started to evolve."

In those early months, Strife went to pet stores and shopped on Amazon to find products to fill customer boxes. As the company grew, she began ordering products from small artisanal sellers, which BarkBox continues to do today. "A lot of them are excited by a 50-piece order or a 100-piece order," she says. "And when we say 5,000, 10,000, 50,000 [sized orders] to them, I can't say they shit their pants, but they shit their pants." Beyond that sales boost, Strife says inclusion in BarkBox boxes can bring a company new exposure plus useful data from BarkBox customer responses.

Strife quickly saw that customer response component as one of the most promising aspects of BarkBox. By catering to adoring dog owners, they've built a customer base eager to share their pets' experiences. Every month, the co-founders receive videos of dogs breaking into their boxes -- "Dogs just demolishing these boxes and ripping them to shreds," Strife recounts, "and you can just hear the parents in the background giggling and going nuts." And customers post pictures and reviews of their dogs with their treats online.

This online community propelled the creation of BarkPost, which Strife calls a content property. The site features curated, sharable articles and posts, under the headings of "Cute," "Funny," "Wacky," "Heartwarming" and "For the Hoomans." At about a quarter-million e-mail subscribers, it just might be the BuzzFeed for dog fanatics.

As the sky darkens, our trail begins to look less familiar. A shape moves in the bushes. "I'm not scared," Strife fake-boasts into the twilight. "But this is weird. Keep that recorder on," she jokes.

I ask Strife why she thinks her partners brought her on, largely untested, as a co-founder. "I think it was because I was eager to do whatever the hell it took," she says, plainly. "I have a lot of energy and I'm kind of like a bulldozer when it comes to doing things. I don't have a ton of experience but I like to think that I learn from my mistakes quickly and am risky enough to take them."

We turn a corner and find ourselves back on the main meadow.

Strife sees Bark & Co as an early pioneer in catering to pet owners online. "It doesn't take much to be forward-thinking in the pet industry," she says of their lack of current competitors. "Really, what we try to do is not even think about just being like a pet company, we're trying to innovate as any company. So a lot of times we look at human services that are innovative. That's how we thought of BarkCare." That’s Bark & Co's other new property, a $199 per year mobile-based service that connects users to veterinarians at any time of the day.

But her favorite part of the business remains the responses she gets from other dog owners. "I think that's like one of the best things," she tells me. "Some people write to us as their dog. They write how angry their dog is that the box hasn't come yet. It's fun, they're wild. Customers are wild."

"When this opportunity came up, my mind exploded," Strife recounts. "And the market was there and ripe for it." She says she always knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur -- she tells of a childhood venture where she and a friend re-bottled their parents' shampoos and lotions and sold them back to them -- but she's still in awe of how soon things came together.

It's only as we finish our walk that Strife admits she's operating on three hours of sleep. Bark & Co's tech and product teams transitioned the site's programming language during the quieter morning hours, and Strife woke at 2:30 a.m. to provide support. "I feel like 'The Walking Dead' -- which I love," she says of the TV show.

Strife says she stays balanced thanks to her dogs, since she has to be home enough to walk and feed them. But these days, she tells me, she only rests when she's scheduled it on her calendar. And her first task slated for tomorrow morning? Sleeping in.

Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure