KANSAS CITY, MO. — Sustainability is top of mind for many in the pet food and treat processing industry today, including pet owners. For Anne Carlson, founder and chief executive officer of insect-based pet food and treat company Jiminy’s, sustainability is the catalyst, the path forward and the end goal not only for her company but for the industry at large.
“This industry can be a leader in sustainability and climate change and it’s not a long stretch,” she said. “I think we’re showing there’s a viable way to better our world.”
In this Women in the Pet Industry feature, Carlson shares her journey with Jiminy’s, how she keeps sustainability and transparency at the forefront, and next steps for advancing those two key goals.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Carlson: I started with a couple of major pet manufacturers and rose to vice president of market intelligence at my last stop [before Jiminy’s]. Each manufacturer had a lot of great products, but there were few that pushed boundaries. There was a lot of product refinement, but risks were kept to a minimum. That’s safe and good business in a way, but it makes it hard — if not impossible — to generate big changes from within.
Jiminy’s, on the other hand, is designed to be a disrupter within the pet world. We’re focused foremost on sustainability and have seen how our food and treats change mindsets. This industry can be a leader in sustainability and climate change and it’s not a long stretch. I think we’re showing there’s a viable way to better our world.
As far as startups go, yeah, we’re from Berkeley so I get razzed that we’re “hippy dippy,” but the reality is we’re serious and have kept it lean. For years, my house was filled with Jiminy’s products, merch and paperwork, so there was very much a hands-on feel to the company. We’ve added a lot of team members recently, but I think we still have an artisanal feel as we encourage everyone in Jiminy’s to contribute their ideas and experiences. Ultimately, you should make use of your company’s biggest resource – the smart people you’ve hired.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Carlson: Throughout my career I’ve spent a lot of time understanding consumers and the marketplace for consumer and pet products. At my last job, I spearheaded a project that we called the “Demand Landscape.” My focus was to find the white space, the opportunities where consumer demands or needs existed but weren’t served by a product or service. It was certainly good training for Jiminy’s!
Fast forward to today where the world is inundated by horrible weather events. These events are scary, but they’re also an opportunity. Can we do something within the pet industry to make the situation better? My search for a solution led me to read a UN study on food shortages and how insects could be a solution to world hunger. Given my background, I instantly thought of insects as a pet food protein. Considering how little land and water they need, along with how much nutritious protein they produce, and it’s almost as if crickets were engineered to be a food source.
“It’s exciting to think about what we may learn about insect protein tomorrow, next week, next year,” Carlson said. “The field is wide open.”
We’re exploring the science and we learned a couple of years ago that using cricket protein makes our food and treats prebiotic. It’s exciting to think about what we may learn about insect protein tomorrow, next week, next year. The field is wide open.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Carlson: This is easy. The biggest challenge is getting the market to accept insects as a viable protein. I can’t thank the consumers enough! They’ve taken Jiminy’s into their homes and entrusted us to feed their pets. They’re looking past the noise and embracing sustainability and see us as a solution. Our retailers and distributors deserve a load of thanks, too. It takes guts to show faith in an unknown product that makes big promises. Fortunately, we’re delivering.
PFP: What is top-of-mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
Carlson: We’re embracing the new on several fronts. We’ve wanted to use recyclable packaging since day one and we’ve finally found the proper material. Our next manufacturing run will introduce the new bags. It’s an important piece of Jiminy’s mission and solves one of our biggest concerns – the stream of plastic that is suffocating the world. We’re adding a wet food later this year along with several other products, so our customers will have lots of flavors and forms to choose from. We’re busy.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Carlson: I was very proud of winning Best New-to-Market Pet Food and Treats at last year’s SuperZoo [for Jiminy’s Cricket Crave and Good Grub Dog Food]. To me, it was not only an acknowledgement that we have a terrific dog food, but that the issue of sustainability should be center stage. As a startup, we were completely thrown by the news. A new team member’s eyes went as big as saucers when she heard we had won and what it meant. I started laughing – it was just an overwhelming and happy moment. The important thing though is that the award meant Jiminy’s — and sustainability — had arrived.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Carlson: Look for a product or service that helps. How can you make a pet and pet owner’s life better? If you can identify the need and match it with the right product, you’ve brought real value to the pet space. More products isn’t enough anymore. We need more purposeful products, so let’s make all our collective energy and ideas count the most.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Carlson: It’s going to sound corny, but the pet industry has heart. I mean it’s a group of animal lovers creating products for those animals. I probably see dozens of images or videos of dogs and cats in the course of a day and that’s actually a part of my work. I think that says it all.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
Carlson: Natural, nutrition and, well, sustainability. All three are very important as they have a direct effect on your pet’s health. It may sound self-serving, but I think sustainability is the most important by a good margin. The earth is under a terrific strain and there’s no longer the luxury of pretending business as usual will fix the environment. Natural and nutrition have been with us for a while, but the news there is the growth and strength of both. Neither is going away, and they both have a strong influence on a pet owners’ decisions. That’s great news for all interested parties – the manufacturers, retailers, pet owners and, yes, pets.
PFP: Just for fun, do you consider yourself a dog person or a cat person? Or, if you have pets of your own, tell us a little bit about them.
Carlson: I love both cats and dogs, but have had more dogs, so it would be hard to argue that I’m a cat person. The two dogs I have now — Timber and Tuco — are almost complete opposites. Timber is a merle Great Dane and he’s the goofball athlete without a clue. Tuco is a black lab mix and he’s sensitive to a fault. He’ll pick up on your mood instantly. Timber picks up on whatever Tuco senses, but I don’t think Timber knows why he’s suddenly concerned – he’s just taking cues.
Timber is also an amazing swimmer. We spend a lot of time at the Cosumnes River and when Timber paddles past you there, it’s like backcountry swimming with the seals. Tuco will come to the water too, but he’ll only go undercarriage deep. At the least, it’s efficient!
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Carlson: It’s simple – keep your momentum going toward your North Star. For me, sustainability is the goal and it guides every decision I make with Jiminy’s. It’s an enormous advantage to have clarity here. You’re not fumbling around and can instead make quick, definitive decisions. You’re less likely to be tempted by all sorts of distractions. For instance, I’ve been offered the chance to get cheaper ingredients, but their origin was less than ideal and that would have complicated our story and mission. Because I knew what our brand stands for, it was an easy decision to say no.
Your North Star eliminates the clutter, and you’ll have more time and energy for those decisions that demand a lot of concentration and input. Time is the enemy; know where you’re heading and the clock will be on your side.
Anne Carlson has contributed her expertise to several topics covered by Pet Food Processing. Find more insights from Carlson in our articles on sustainable ingredient sourcing, strategies for establishing brand loyalty, tips for building resilient businesses, and exploring alternative proteins.
Read more articles in our Women in the Pet Industry series.