LOS ANGELES — Vital Pet Life started as a “side gig” for Founder Donie Yamamoto in 2017. She has since transformed the brand into a full-time endeavor with the goal of addressing common pet health issues through sustainable, transparent and effective products. Yamamoto leverages her previous experience as an entrepreneur, as well as her participation in various industry communities, to fuel her small business’s ongoing growth.
“As I opened a business, I quickly learned through experience that women entrepreneurs are tenacious, empathetic, pioneering, gritty and vulnerable,” she said. “We have strong emotional intelligence, which makes us natural founders, managers and coaches.”
In the following Q&A, Yamamoto shares how she started Vital Pet Life and overcame recent challenges, as well as her proudest accomplishments, growth plans, and advice for other women leaders.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Yamamoto: Vital Pet Life is a pet wellness brand started in 2017 by my husband Kyle and me.
I was born and raised in the Philippines. I was an entrepreneur before moving to the United States. I was in the fashion industry and thought that once I moved to the United States, I would continue my career in fashion. While I was in production to start my clothing business, I became anxious about not having enough money coming in during production, so I began researching how to earn extra income and stumbled upon an e-commerce business webinar. Through the webinar I learned how to start an e-commerce business and, coupled with my knowledge of sourcing and production from fashion, I had the confidence to try it out. I had found salmon oil for our dog Tuxedo and thought about bottling it and starting a company. It was definitely a side gig while I worked on my fashion line. Soon, I realized that my pet brand was overtaking my fashion brand and the flow was there for Vital Pet Life. It became an obvious pivot for us to focus full time on VPL.
I’ve always been an animal lover, owned dogs and been passionate about researching and finding the best products to help them thrive. This curiosity about which supplements and foods are the most nutritious and which best support pets is reflected in everything that we formulate at VPL. It’s rooted in the mission of asking how we can help them live their best lives.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Yamamoto: We got our start in the pet industry by accident, not intentionally. Our dog Tuxedo was the reason we started Vital Pet Life. When we first got him, his coat and skin were extremely dry, uncomfortable and itchy. I did a deep dive into researching sustainable solutions to relieve him and discovered the healing powers of salmon oil. I ordered it and then gave some to friends and family with pets to see if they liked it as well. Healing Tuxedo was the inspiration for starting Vital Pet Life.
In the Philippines, there are a lot of street dogs roaming around the community with no one thinking they need to be rescued or cared for. As a child, it always disturbed me and made my heart hurt that I couldn’t do anything for these animals. These memories surfaced again as I began to contemplate starting a pet wellness brand, asking myself why I felt so strongly about helping animals. A big part of our company is giving back to local rescue shelters. Specifically, we partner with Wags & Walk, a Los Angeles-based rescue shelter.
We also have a Slack channel for our 5-star reviews. It is a constant thread. At any time, we can jump on and see reviews and pictures sent in from our customers telling us why they use our products and how their pet’s problem was solved. This is why we started Vital Pet Life — to make a real difference.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Yamamoto: The supply chain issues that began with the start of the pandemic have been both an obstacle and an opportunity. Because it was just my husband and me (with a few contractors), we were in the trenches with all the supply chain hurdles, but we’re fortunate to have very close relationships with our suppliers, which has helped us.
The pandemic also gave us time to reach out and connect with all our customers in the Vital Pet Life community. I think this is what differentiates us from big box pet brands. Kyle and I are directly involved in every decision and move made at our company.
Our intention is to be mindful with the products we bring to market. We purposely do not fill shelves with a multitude of products.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Yamamoto: Being part of the Inc. 5000 has been an honor and a validation. It allowed us to join a group of 4,999 other brands, with whom we’re able to create relationships. Having an opportunity to share and learn strategies and tips on growing our brands has been instrumental for us these past two years while on the Inc. 5000 list. Being part of diverse professional communities is critical to our growth and expansion.
Vital Pet Life ranked No. 348 on the Inc. 5000 2021 list, with a three-year growth rate of 1,364%.
Our brand has grown by remaining innovative, small and flexible. These are at the core of our success and enable us to remain true to what is meaningful to us, which is sustainability, transparency and traceability. We’re choosing to partner with people and companies that raise us up and enlighten us. For instance, we’re working with a new Canadian supplier for our fish oils, ensuring we offer truly traceable oils that are sustainable. Our Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification is part of our commitment to effect positive change, and proof that sustainable fishing is possible. Seafood is a changing and evolving industry. It’s crucial for us to stay abreast with the latest technology and information in order to create responsible, clean and sustainable products.
Additionally, I’m proud to be a certified member of Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). WBENC provides a resource for me with events, networking, supplier experts, as well as providing financial information on how to grow my brand through financing and loans. WBENC is also a community in which we share new trends, challenges we’ve encountered and specific strategies that worked for us in building our brands. Because I’m a small, family-run business and work out of my home, being part of a variety of professional communities has been an integral part of my growth. I’m determined to take pet wellness to the next level.
PFP: What is top of mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
Yamamoto: Sustainability and transparency; not just where our ingredients are sourced, but by whom, painting a picture of how the sourcing positively impacts the climate.
Additionally, in the next five years we’re hoping to expand in different marketplaces – not just on Amazon, but also focusing on other e-commerce platforms and brick-and-mortar stores in the United States and North American markets. Our goal this year is to get into at least two brick-and-mortar stores.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
Yamamoto: Transparency, sustainability and trust.
Last year was all about risk management for us as we dug deeper into the seafood industry. Shortages of key ingredients — like the Wild Alaskan salmon we use for our fish oils — have forced us to keep sustainability in mind as we work to understand how climate affects supply and demand. We’re really focusing on how we can be more sustainable moving forward, and being aligned with a fishery that will help us reach our goals is important.
Transparency is very important to us — animals and pets are family, and we have a responsibility to make sure that what we’re putting in our bottles is what we say it is. Being partners with MSC really helps with traceability. We’re small, but we’re very ambitious.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Yamamoto: The pet industry offers many opportunities to make an impact and do great things for others. I’m honored to be part of a community and industry that changes lives not just for pets and animals, but also for humans. Our pets mean so much to us, showering us with their love, empathy, kindness and intuition. I feel so grateful to give back to them by creating clean products that support and help them thrive.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Yamamoto: Follow your passion. There are so many different and fascinating avenues to explore in the pet industry. I’ve found that in researching sustainability with both our fish oils and our packaging, we’ve discovered incredibly insightful sources and resources that have taken us on new and exciting paths.
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.
Yamamoto: My husband Kyle and I have a terrier-mix named Tuxedo, so, at the moment, we’re dog people. But that said, we love cats too. My dog Tuxedo was the reason we started Vital Pet Life. He has a big personality and is our brand mascot too.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Yamamoto: Stay true to who you are. Growing up in a patriarchal society, entrepreneurship for young women was not encouraged. As I opened a business, I quickly learned through experience that women entrepreneurs are tenacious, empathetic, pioneering, gritty and vulnerable. We have strong emotional intelligence, which makes us natural founders, managers and coaches. As a female entrepreneur, I try to lift up other women in any industry. Female empowerment is important in building a strong brand.
Donie Yamamoto founded Vital Pet Life with her husband, Kyle, in April 2017. She started her career in the fashion industry in the Philippines, where she took her first steps in entrepreneurialism. After moving to the United States in 2012, Yamamoto turned to pet industry e-commerce as a “side gig” to supplement her fashion business. By 2017, she had turned her side hustle into a full-time business of her own. Vital Pet Life offers several supplement products for dogs and cats, including salmon oil, liquid glucosamine and, most recently, a mobility powder supplement.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.