AUSTIN, TEXAS — Katie Spies started out making food for her dog, George, in her own kitchen. Over the course of a few years, she amassed a community of dog walking clients, enlisted nutritional expertise from veterinary experts, and created a brand to bring her homemade diets to a larger market. This mechanical engineer turned pet industry entrepreneur has her sights set on changing the way people feed their dogs, starting with the flash-frozen, real ingredient-focused, raw diets offered by her brand, Maev.
“It has been such an incredible journey, the people in this space are so kind and genuine, and we all share a common bond,” she said. “It’s uniquely an industry of good people.”
In the following Q&A, Spies shares how and why she started Maev, details the top three trends she believes will shape the future of the pet food industry, and imparts advice and encouragement to other women leaders in the pet space.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Spies: I graduated from MIT with a degree in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation, I started a social enterprise in the sustainability/recycling industry before moving on to an agriculture tech company in San Francisco. It was in the midst of the latter role that my dog, George, started experiencing mysterious health issues — ranging from seizures to fatigue and stomach upset. I tried a few medications before finally connecting the relationship between nutrition and health.
I switched George to a raw food diet, and eventually started DIYing his food at home every weekend. It was expensive, time consuming, and took up so much space in my fridge and freezer, but it was worth every penny. His health improved, the seizures stopped, his energy became much more balanced, and he even lost weight. I was so relieved to have found the root cause of his issues, and the experience was eye-opening.
Eventually, I felt like I had hit a plateau at my job and started thinking about what I wanted to do next. I decided to take a break from the corporate world and spend a few weeks as a full-time dog walker to clear my head but, before I knew it, I had spent 10 months walking dogs and getting to know the modern dog owner. I had many conversations with my clients about their dogs’ health and diet concerns. I began offering my homemade recipe to a handful of my clients and it became clear that the better-for-you pet category had a lot of gaps.
After a year of dog walking and four years of preparing DIY raw dog food out of my own kitchen, I tallied up just how many people had asked me to make my dog food recipe for them and the list topped over 600 people. It was clear that there was something there, and I decided to chase it. I finally entered the pet business in 2019 and have never looked back. It has been such an incredible journey, the people in this space are so kind and genuine, and we all share a common bond. It’s uniquely an industry of good people.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Spies: It all started very organically. First, George started having some health issues and I developed a deeper relationship with some of the local veterinarians, holistic veterinarians, and the people I knew who leaned heavily on blogs and forums to know how to DIY a healthy and balanced diet. Eventually, I worked more formally with a team of holistic vets to adjust my recipe for George’s food. At that point, I had been making his food for a year or so and knew that I was in it for the long haul. I needed some additional science.
Finally, once I saw the need for high-quality food across the pet parent community and was serious about getting Maev off the ground, I brought in a formal vet team to assess my recipes. We added functional supplements based on published peer-reviewed research, and we formalized the formula and ran additional studies to evaluate digestibility and palatability. From there, we publicly launched Maev and made high-quality dog food with real ingredients available to pet parents across the country.
Since launching Maev, we have stayed deeply connected with holistic veterinarians and, of course, our team of veterinary nutritionists to ensure we’re always providing the best food on the market. In addition, my team and I have stayed in close contact with other founders, business leaders and pet space peers who have continued to support the work our team has been doing. Each of these individuals has played an integral role in helping us to get where we are today.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Spies: In 2022, we quadrupled our subscriber base, landed an average NPS [net promoter score] of 80, and developed a cult customer base of dog owners who switched from kibble to Maev. We’re working on doing the same in 2023, and can’t wait to see the final numbers come in.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
Spies: Real Food Formats — This is by far the most important. This is the industry-speak for the concept of incorporating ingredients in their true form into pet food — moving away from rendered meals and fillers and incorporating “real” ingredients. At Maev, we’ve only ever used “real” (and human-grade) ingredients, but across the industry that isn’t the case. A lot of consumers look at ingredient lists and want protein to be the first listed ingredient, and that’s great, but I’m excited to see people scrutinize ingredient lists even further.
Novel Form-Factors — Similar to real food formats, novel form-factor foods are breaking the mold of what dog food should look like. We’ve always believed that healthier foods shouldn’t be harder, more inconvenient, messier and less appetizing. I’m excited to see more innovation around making healthy options as easy as kibble, like what we’ve done at Maev.
Efficacy and Science — More consumers are looking for efficacy as the grading scale of whether a diet works for them or not. Not all diets are efficacious, and not all diets have the same effect for every dog. We’ve seen the push for efficacy driving some segments of human nutrition and supplements, and I’m excited to see how it changes shopping behaviors and values in the pet space.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Spies: There’s so much here. People are developing more and more curiosity, and that is a huge accomplishment to celebrate. I think that people don’t realize pet food is a big, big business in the United States.
“The pet market is three to five times larger than any of those other massive consumer markets, which makes it a large, meaningful, corporate playground,” Spies said.
In total, the US pet market is over $100 billion. As a comparison, let’s look at the total market size of a few other consumer categories — the US mattress market is just $16 billion, the entirety of the US skin care market is $20 billion, and the total size of the glasses and eyewear market is only $36 billion. The pet market is three to five times larger than any of those other massive consumer markets, which makes it a large, meaningful, corporate playground.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Spies: The people you hire and partner with are some of the most important decisions you make in the business (and sometimes the most expensive mistakes).
Find your support system and make time for things you know you need to do outside of work. Running a business can be an extremely lonely job. Find your people, ideally those who are outside of your company, and know the things that help you stay sane, de-stress, and feel connected and like yourself. Make time for those things every month.
Your competitors will copy you; they’ll copy your best ads, your best landing pages, your best product designs and your best headlines. It’s aggravating and crazy-making and there’s not much you can do to prevent it. Try to take it in stride and know that as long as they’re copying you, you’ll always be ahead.
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.
Spies: I’m pro-cat, but definitely more of a dog person. I currently have two very funny, unique dogs: George (who is 9 and a half years old) and Winnie (who is 2 years old). George is my OG, ride or die. He’s been with me through so much, and I adopted him when I was just a few years out of college. George is a 14-lb Italian Greyhound who enjoys being fully submerged under covers, short walks or brief sprints in the park, hates squirrels and is my shadow.
When I first rescued George, he really came everywhere with me. We walked to coffee every morning, made it to the dog beach (Fort Funston) most weekends, and he influenced my every decision. Nine years later, he’s slowed down, but hasn’t lost any of his mischievous, unique sense of self. He has two modes — one is asleep, the other is stubborn and opinionated, but mostly wanting to sit next to you, wanting to be under a blanket, or his feud with the squirrels. He’s lived in San Francisco, Oakland, Boston, Cambridge, SoHo, Brooklyn and Austin, racking up airline miles and building quite the closet of dog sweaters, boots, raincoats and snow attire along the way.
Winnie is my second dog. She is a sweetheart… as long as you don’t spook her when she’s sleeping. Winnie is a 2-year-old greyhound rescue. She’s the perfect mix of elegant and awkward. If Jennifer Lawrence were a dog, she would be a Winnie. Winnie looks like she would be the most graceful thing on the planet, but in real life she is lanky, socially anxious and a little clumsy. She has nailed the art of puppy dog eyes and she is a deeply sensitive soul. She loves sprinting laps around the park, oddly takes after her brother when it comes to being buried under the covers, and she wants to stand between your legs or immediately behind you whenever meeting new people.
Before Winnie, I rescued a very special Doberman named Boone, who tragically passed away a few years ago at just 6 years old. He was the easiest, gentlest dog I’ve ever known. When I met Win, there was something so obviously Boone-like about her, and I knew she was the one.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Spies: Keep pushing and be proud of what you’re working on. You are driven, passionate, you know your customer, and you are tenacious.
Katie Spies held several corporate roles in the sustainability sector before realizing a personal project to improve her dog’s health was also a timely business opportunity. She launched Maev in 2018, based on her experience cooking dog food in her kitchen at home and input from veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists. Following her bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Spies went on to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Harvard Business School.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.