Chippin's Haley Russell Started a cricket farm in her backyard & launched the future of pet food
Updated: Jun 26
Today on the show we’re learning from Haley Russell, co-founder of Chippin the pet food biz for dogs.
Chippin creates high quality pet foods that reduce the eco pawprint by developing products from all-natural proteins such as insects, overpopulated fish and algae while also being science-backed with traceable nutrition.
In this episode we’re covering how she stated a cricket farm in her back yard, a big pivot she made early on based on a eureka moment and how she’s approaching growth today.
And if you haven’t heard me going on and on about the book launch - I’m surprised! Mark Feb 28th in your mind and diary because that’s launch wee and that’s when our launch week celebration kicks in! You can keep in the loop with us via our free industry newsletter at femalestartupclub.com.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Haley! Hi, welcome to the show. Hi! Thanks so much for having me.
00:02:34Edit I'm so excited to dig into your story today. I'm such a dog lover. I'm just like this person that's become so weirdly obsessed with my dog that I'm just like what is life without her? So I feel like I'm talking to a fellow super dog lover. Yeah, you absolutely are. It's our fur babies. Um What is your dog's name, sweetie! She's like a tiny tiny chihuahua and she's just like a bundle of joy. Oh my goodness, love that. I actually read what your dog and your co founders dog's name was like ren. And but I've forgotten the other one. I've Wren was the inspiration for the company. So she's golden doodle who upon showing interest in eating crickets just served as a spark of inspiration to eventually create what is now Chippin. Um And then I adopted and then I adopted a pity mix named Kingfisher about three years ago.
00:03:38Edit And so all the dogs in my family are named after birds. Oh, I love that, love that. Tell me about Chippin. Tell me about the brand and the ethos behind the brand. It's all about Chippin in and doing something that's really great for your pet or four legged family member and the planet. And so really started inspired by this experience of not being able to find a pet food that was high quality, super tasty and eco friendly. And I just thought it was crazy that we've seen so much momentum around plant based foods for people. We've seen really a transformation and consumer products in general when it comes to shoes or apparel or even cleaning goods. And then when I was looking at pet food options on the market, there really wasn't innovation um, that delivered on great food. That's also great for the planet. And so that was a personal experience.
00:04:40Edit And then when I found out that if you're considering all of our USA pets, I'm based here in the US um, as their own country. 180 million cats and dogs. Uh, if you look at the meat, they rank fifth in global meat consumption. And so then it became not only an individual challenge, but also this massive global challenge really. That is so crazy and it makes so I mean it makes so much sense in general, but I can't believe I never really thought about that because I don't eat meat And I'm so excited about the future of, you know, lab grown meat and you know what's coming? Like the innovation that's coming out in the food space in general. Food tech is so cool. But I've never actually thought too much about what she eats in her kibble. That's so weird. Yeah, It's really, it's kind of crazy. And that's, that's in part why there hasn't been innovation because it's something that once people realize it, then there's sort of this, wow moment of, oh my gosh, this is insane.
00:05:46Edit Why didn't I think of anything? But so much of the marketing around pet food has centered on your dog as this wild animal with wolves on the packaging. And so there's sort of this assumption of, okay, well my dog's gonna eat big game for dinner and we found a way to deliver on that protein need while using 80% plus less resources. Gosh, that's amazing. I love that. I want to rewind to, you know, what got you thinking about this business in the first place and what got you thinking about crickets in the first place and like, you know, why this, where does your entrepreneurial story like really get started? Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things that I realized I didn't mention, but the way that we go about creating these eco friendly pet foods is we tap into all natural proteins like insects. So we have cricket protein based dog treats. Um, algae California grown spirulina.
00:06:51Edit Um, and then also overpopulated species. So we have both a dog food and treats that are made from wild caught silver carp that we source from waterways in the Kentucky area. So entrepreneurial journey started very early. I've always had an interest in creating my own businesses. Even as a young kid, I was making little belt businesses or camps or whatever I could do. I liked the idea of creating something new, building it from the ground up and enjoyed navigating the uncertainty while also solving problems. And so I started my career in finance after school, spent a couple of years at a bank. Um then shifted to working in the food and beverage space uh, in a variety of different roles, generally operational. And I have always been really passionate about food food systems, thinking about the impact of our food choices because really it's one of those things, especially when you're looking at um the climate emergency that we're in today, you can make a difference In 30 minutes by choosing a more eco friendly meal.
00:08:14Edit Whereas it's really challenging maybe to get a new car for instance. And so I've always seen food as a powerful thing from a nutrition and environmental perspective and so as super interesting protein and my brother mentioned to me that there were some cricket protein bar companies. Um, so this was a little while ago and I just did a deep dive and on cricket protein, I've never heard about cricket protein before. That's incredible. There was the food and agriculture organization came out with, I think it was a 2016 report in which they declared insects as very promising for food and feed. And it was the most downloaded report ever in their history. And it spurred this mini boom, at least here in the US and little insect based companies on the CPG side and then also on the supplier side.
00:09:16Edit And so I was tracking it and played my own little part and then ended up. I was in business school and I got a handful of grants from the University of pennsylvania and made my own little cricket farm where I was partnering with entomologists and bug experts. Wait, wait, let's pause here. I've got so many questions. First question is, were you originally thinking about this as a food source for humans before it became what it is today? Yes, I originally didn't have, I did not have a plan, but I knew that I knew that protein and the way that it is made is a problem. There are so many animal welfare issues really passionate about that. Um, there are a lot of human health issues with the amount of um animal proteins consumed. And so I knew that I was interested in changing the food system and that protein was the area of focus and I started somewhere and for me that was working on a little cricket farm.
00:10:25Edit And so you you say that you had a grant or you wanna grant. Sorry, how did you win it? And how much did you win? It was while I was in business school. And so the first one was a $5,000 grant that I applied for is I'm in a written application and a little video of myself talking about the potential of insect based protein For people. Um and how two billion people worldwide need insects. And then with that $5,000, I purchased all the equipment that I needed and set up this little cricket farm and started to work with partners and making it something real. Can you talk me through like can you paint a picture of what a cricket farm looks like? Like how big are we talking? Obviously they're tiny. Is this a really small scale setup or is this like you've taken over like your parents backyard? And you've got like a whole dwelling out there. We're we're talking a relatively small space.
00:11:28Edit But I as most entrepreneurs do you look to inspiration from other industries. So I borrowed from the cannabis industry and got a really large tent had the ability to regulate temperature, humidity airflow, like everything that you need to create a happy and healthy environment for um crickets which are naturally um swarming species and you know, they have very specific conditions under which they thrive. Um And so it was, you know, probably I'm horrible with square footage but it was it was sizable, you could five people could stand within the farm and then we had a vertical setup with kind of three different layers um And a lot of happy chirping crickets oh my gosh that is so cool and something I have just never heard about in my life, I love it.
00:12:31Edit So what happens you build this farm at your house, so I build the farm, it goes great. But ultimately what I realized is I am not a cricket farmer and this is gonna be a big lift for me to scale this. Um And I see that there are other suppliers that are ramping up there doing an awesome job and ultimately what I take away is that this is um a more humane way of um harvesting protein. It's something that I was comfortable with and it led to this moment where my golden doodle ran um I saw wanted to eat a cricket. Um and that then put me on the course for thinking about canceled. Oh my gosh okay I have one more question about the cricket situation before we can move on to the next part of your story about how you're actually building the brand at this point.
00:13:37Edit One more question is are you like creating recipes in your kitchen with crickets. Like and you guys just like eating crickets at every meal. What's the situation I want to know. It was it was more of a research and development kind of setup so I ended up applying for a U. S. D. A small business innovation research grants um and was a finalist for that. Um so it was it was more of a learning experience and then we did we did harvest a handful of them, never sold them to other folks but then harvested some and did some sampling. And and that ultimately led to this realization that people were having challenges from a psychological standpoint and eating insects given the way that we're socialized to fear them. And um and that it's a great form of protein and there's no hesitation when it comes to pets and it's so high quality and so hey maybe there's this win all around where we can think about reimagining the whole pet foods food chain and uh tap into different forms of protein to do that.
00:14:51Edit So you have this Eureka moment, you've got the realization what are the kind of next steps to getting this brand up and running? Like how do you start building this business? It was not immediate. I I had the realization I had a full time consulting job lined up with a really awesome company was in business school. And so it wasn't one of those stories where I had the moment and then immediately I was running and we're scaling chip in, it definitely was a little bit more of, I knew there was something there, I um was interested in pursuing it and um, so I kind of slowly than started to mock up in my home kitchen, some dog treats made from cricket protein um, and tested them out and wanted to make sure that it was viable product that people would actually be interested and willing to make sure their dogs. And then I also invested up front a ton of time talking to veterinarians, um, an animal nutrition scientists because this is something totally new and so before ever going to market with a product which we went to market with our first product, um late 2019 started working at like full time and went full steam ahead in advance of that, spent a ton of time talking with people to ensure this truly was a science back source of protein that is just awesome from a nutritional perspective and when you say like you were, you know, going out there and trying to like prove out the concept by talking to people like how are we trying to prove out the concept?
00:16:34Edit How are you finding out that other dog owners were interested? There was a lot of on the ground hustle and as any entrepreneur does, we still are, but in those early stages and I mocked up some early cricket treats in my kitchen and then I created versions a through e and would go to some dog parks, um sample there, see what people, how people responded, See how dogs responded. And then I also um, through a network of friends and friends of friends would run around and drop off samples to their apartments because dog parks are actually really challenging to get a good read because they're so, the dogs are so overstimulated. Um, so yeah, so drop off product people would then record on there cam on their phones, um, how the dog responded which version they liked better. And so I just started to get feedback um, in a pretty basic way, but it provided really clear insight into what people liked when it came to texture, selling points and anything from the shape of the treats so that a dog can eat it comfortably.
00:17:55Edit Oh my gosh, yeah, I didn't think of the shape and also, I imagine smell would come into it too. Sometimes my dog has things that I'm like, this stinks like she cannot have it in the house. That is one of our, the biggest selling points. And one of the huge reasons why people stick around with chip in is it smells great and it doesn't leave your hands with an icky, stinky residue. And so you can't see insects and, and now we have a vegan treat and treatment from a fish protein, but we started with the cricket protein. Um, so there's no discussed factor in the dog treat itself. Yeah, I was reading your um, Amazon reviews the plenty, plenty five star Amazon reviews and I kept seeing that coming up, which I thought was really interesting. You said a moment ago that you were doing, you know, it's like um, iteration a through to e at this point. Are you, you know, funding this through your savings?
00:18:57Edit Is it not expensive at all to do this? What's the kind of money piece of the puzzle in the early days? This was very early prototyping and I, After moving on from the small scale cricket farm, um, then did some additional pitches. So I did a startup pitch circuit and um, was able to get our first around 70 k or so um, and funding from grants that we used to continue to iterate on the product and ultimately get our first trial run with a co manufacturer. Um, and even our first mini product run um, also at that same car manufacturer and like when you say many products run, how many units are you talking that you are able to kind of launch with Just a couple of 1000 like a small amount.
00:19:59Edit I mean there's still a lot, Yeah, it's still a lot. It's a lot to sell a few 1000 things. Yeah, well dog treat. It's, it's so around 10 bucks. So um, we can get on the ground and sell through them pretty quickly. Unpredictability is part of what makes starting and growing a business both exciting and terrifying from the next loan payment to your next big sale or your next acquisition finding predictability and business is about as likely as finding a last minute valentine's day dinner reservation unlikely hubspot Crm platform is here to help grow and scale with you through uncertainty. So you can spend your time getting to that dinner reservation, hub, sports reporting dashboard is like your crystal ball giving you a bird's eye view on your marketing, your sales and customer service performance. So you can get ahead of any issues before they happen. Lead rotation and automation takes on operational sales tasks so your team can focus on customer needs and shared inboxes, make incoming chats and emails easy to manage and scale for the whole team, learn more about how a hubspot Crm platform can help your business grow better at hubspot dot com, how do you then go from, you know then until now, like if we're thinking about the key milestones of your journey, like how do you launch the brand out into the world, how do you start getting people to notice you and become interested?
00:21:27Edit Because I also imagine there is still a bit of an education piece to this puzzle um and getting people to be like, oh that's new and different, What's the journey like? There's absolutely a big time education process and it's been interesting because with the cricket protein treats, there had been some basic education already done because people knew about it for themselves generally. Um but as we've launched new products like this overpopulated silver carp food and um jerky treats, uh, the education part of things has just been huge. And so, um, couple of, I guess to start with the milestone note and then we could talk a little bit more about customer education and kind of how we share out our story, you know, one from the prototype started with just two flavors of a tree, had that. Um, and what we did was uh, set up a series of events.
00:22:29Edit So we would go to at the time, coworking spaces just just before the pandemic hit a different world. It was a, it was a different world completely. Um, so we were just getting going right before the pandemic hit. So we had some coworking spaces, um, distribution through a handful of pet specialty shops. Um, like really we just hit the pavement to get distribution out in the real world, recognizing that digital acquisition is so expensive and also, um, can be challenging to get that really loyal customer. And so started with on the ground distribution. And then what we did was we had our own social media. So we're on instagram at chip in time, Tiktok kind of hadn't quite blown up yet. Um, and we started to build out her falling and really, really made sure to talk to anybody that was engaging with us.
00:23:34Edit And so, um, one of the things about our brand is it's very community centered, We're all in this together, we're all chipping in to try to make a difference in the world. And so um that comes through in kind of every touch point of the experience, whether it be our social media presence or um customer care on our website. And so one of the things that really helped us accelerate digitally was getting to know people that had any bit of interest in what we were doing. Um and ultimately we ended up building these kind of casual conversations into a palm basseterre program, which is kind of like an ambassador program. Um but it's a bunch of dog parents and their dogs who are sharing out what we're doing and that was just huge for us to start to create like some social media buzz, build out content and then also educate other folks and what we're doing through people that were amplifying our message when you say you were like engaging with someone and trying to have conversations with anyone who showed interest to you.
00:24:52Edit What does that actually mean? Was that like going into the D. M. S and like switching a conversation from a comment to the DMZ and being like, hey, so you have a dog or or is there something else? It means going into D. M. S. And having a really direct conversation with people, I love that, so cool and I just feel like I'm part of this WhatsApp group of dog owners in my area and it's just like such a little, you know cult group because we're all just like so like share any information, you know share all the things. I feel like dog people really stick together well yeah and also nutrition can be very confusing and so that is one of the value adds to, of getting to know people that are interested in the product and then for people right now, I mean we only have so many products, so also we try to get to know people for whom like they're looking for something and maybe we don't offer it now, but it helps us then develop with that future product Road map looks like I'm just really having a lot of high touch conversations and so from kind of like building out that, focusing on community, building out your ambassador program to say today, what are the kinds of things in your marketing mix that are really driving your acquisition and that are kind of like really working for you.
00:26:14Edit Besides that kind of like community building. It's been really interesting because I think when you look at the pet food space, the sales channels are very fragmented and so unlike a maybe human deed ASI company or you can just launch on your own website and stay only there, you have a differentiated product, pet is a little bit different because you have Chewie where so many different foods and treats are sold amazon is become a major platform and then you have a lot of different pet stores and so people cross channel shop a lot for pet. Um and so it's that and us having to play in a couple different channels has actually also translated to us having a pretty diversified mix of ways in which um we're also connecting with people reaching out to them and then acquiring them.
00:27:19Edit And so a couple of things that have been pretty interesting, maybe that are a little bit different is we've really been leaning into affiliates and so you can think about things like top 10 best dog foods or best eco friendly products for um new dog moms and that's been a way where we've been able to get the word out with a permanent placement um and a controlled customer acquisition cost. That's been really exciting and interesting for us. So like through online publications you mean? Mhm. Yeah, that's so interesting. I had someone tell me that recently on the show, how does that actually work? Do you just, you know, determine who you think would be a good fit and you're just like cold outreach or you have someone who specifically manages that for you? We have a teammate who is very focused on affiliates. Um but it's a combination. He had knows some affiliates and then some of it is a lot of knocking on doors, right?
00:28:23Edit That's so interesting virtually. Yeah, we've got it. And so for you, like you obviously have your e commerce site, you're in pet stores? I think I read your in a few 100 pet stores nationwide and then your other channel is amazon. Are there any other channels in the mix or they're kind of your key ones? We have an interesting base of aecom marketplaces in addition to traditional retail doors that have been awesome ways to reach our target customer. And so we've partnered with Grove collaborative recently. Do you know that? I don't know what that is? Please tell me. Okay. Growth collaborative is based in California and they have an eco friendly marketplace started with cleaning goods, um, distributed nationwide. Really big base of people on boarded and a heavy focus on subscription and were the first pet food brand, um, that they're launching with.
00:29:29Edit And so we just launched a couple of months ago, that's been really huge as we're creating a category um, with them on their platform and we found that it's been fantastic from a broader awareness perspective as well. And then in line with that kind of partnership which is a bit bigger. We're also working with a handful of smaller that ego eco focused marketplaces that are online and some um, fast delivery services like fast af I see and what about things like or what's the, I don't know much about this. So you know, I don't know how it goes, but what about working with vets and like partnering with those kind of like professionals? Is that something that's on the roadmap already exists or you know, it's not a vibe. It certainly exists for us from the perspective of product development, we have a board certified veterinarian who reviews all of our products and is on contract with us, which is pretty extraordinary for a small brand like ourselves.
00:30:40Edit Um And so dr Beth hamper is somebody um we're thrilled to work with. Um and then in addition to her, we have a handful, a pretty a group of veterinarians that love chip in and we'll share it with their customers. One of the things that's a little bit of a challenge is smaller brand, is that a lot of veterinary clinics are actually owned by much bigger pet food companies. And so there's a crazy competitive dynamic where yes, they also know that it's a great acquisition channel and so for us it's impossible for us to distribute our food in many places where a much bigger player is um is backing the clinic. Oh my gosh, I didn't know that that's I don't I feel like that should be disclosed because you would think that's an interesting point, but we have a lot of veterinarians that absolutely love chip in and then working with a board certified veterinary nutritionist is just huge.
00:31:53Edit Yeah, I bet how big is the company now, like what's your kind of like set up at the moment? We're still a small team. Um, so we're a little under 10 team members and then we do a handful of different partnerships as we're doing different events or collaborations, um but we've kept it um pretty close as we've started to scale. I love it. What is the best and worst advice you've ever received? I don't know if I want to share the worst advice, I think when I received bad advice I try to just block it out immediately, my approach is to just ignore it. Um since we talked a ton about crickets today, one of the funny and bad piece of advice I received at one point in time was that I should not pursue chipping at all, and I should just become a cricket broker.
00:32:59Edit Oh my God, that was, that was comical looking back. So, um, worst advice was to not start chipping, yikes. Yeah, so for any early entrepreneurs, um forget the naysayers and just move forward, and if you have conviction in your idea, um, make it happen. Um, best advice. Um, one thing that I found in the beginning stages of starting chip in was I would temper some of my ambitions for the company or maybe even undersell myself at different points in time. And so I think as people assisted me with how to pitch the company um to any number of folks, whether it be a big retailer or um, investors, um really just conveying confidence in yourself and the idea that you have and going big with the story is really critical and I've had a handful of people mentor me and helped guide me to share the best version that we possibly could of where this company can go.
00:34:25Edit And that's something where once you start to do that, I think the excitement and momentum just builds for yourself and your teammates, um, and other people can sense it. And so I think it's like, really don't undersell yourself. I love that. That's so cool, definitely Dream Big, definitely set big, juicy, ambitious goals and take the action to get their amazing, thank you so much for both of those. Thanks for listening to this amazing episode. We are testing out something new here for the next while and we're splitting up each episode into two parts, the main interview part and then the six quick questions part to make them easier to listen to. So that's part one done, tune into part 2 to hear the six quick questions.
So question number one is, what's your wife? Why are you doing what you're doing? I am really excited and passionate about the ability to drive positive change as we call it P A W and I saw that there was this huge problem and nobody was doing anything about it and so I wanted to give it a go and figured why not me?
00:01:12Edit Exactly why not. You love that, I love that feeling well, I'm not feeling like um you know what I'm saying, that thing, Question number two is what has been the number one marketing moment so far. The launch of our daily food was fantastic. We were able to really bring together media. We had a feature and Forbes are pa ambassadors shared out the launch of this wild cut oven baked food overall social channels and we had this awesome landing page about the next wave of pet food and so I think the world oceans day June 2021 for us was a moment in which we really brought together all of our learnings and put them on display in one single day. That is so super cool.
00:02:14Edit And I love that you did it on one of those days that you can also like continue to celebrate you know, throughout your life, very special. Exactly. What's your go to business resource when it comes to book podcast or newsletter. I am a big fan of crowdsourcing and tapping into a variety of resources. So I love talking to other founders. Um, and so one thing that is my go to is, if I see somebody that I think is doing something really interesting, I will always reach out to them and try to get a one on one conversation. I love that networking is so key, So cute Question number four is how do you win the day? What's your AM or PM rituals and habits that keep you feeling happy and productive and motivated. I start every day by walking my dog, Kingfisher and I go on a walk. I try not to look at my phone before that walk. So I have a no technology start to the day and time to move enjoy, experience nature bond with my dog and then wait, wait, wait, don't tell me you're going for walks in the morning at negative six degrees or 20.
00:03:34Edit I think you said 20 F degrees. That's like he needs to walk, no matter what? It's, it's very cold here. He's more 50, lb so he can't just stand my partner. He has to go out. He has to go out. You get some cold therapy. That's what you're saying. You have cold. It's almost the equivalent of going into a freezing cold body a body of water. Oh my gosh, sorry, I cut you up. Please continue. No, I mean that's the big one trying to try to start without technology, move my body, spend time with animals. Eat great food. Um, for myself as well. I love it. All the good for the soul stuff. Question #5 is what is the worst money you've ever spent in the business, small or large? The worst money, we've definitely made a handful of mistakes. Um, I am not somebody who likes to dwell on things and always take it as a lesson learned and and move forward.
00:04:42Edit Um, I think it's so it's worse money to me is something where you don't get any learnings and there's just nothing productive that comes out of it. So I feel like recently some of our, some of some facebook money spent, Maybe it's the worst money that hasn't been productive. I hate that for you. That, that can be a real, a real stinker. And question number six, last question is what's been a major fail or mistake that you can share and how did you deal with it? I think it's an entrepreneur. One of the things that I've learned that this is the first time that I am starting a company. I worked at early stage companies and so I tried to always take whatever I could that I didn't like about my past experience and avoid that to the best of my ability and starting chipping. Um, but being the one in the founder seat, I've really, really realized the pace at which you need to act is so fast and I think this is not specific, but I think one of the biggest things that can say that maybe helps from an advice standpoint is if something is not right, if it's your packaging or if it's a contractor that you're working with and it's not going well.
00:06:06Edit Acting quickly has been one of my biggest learnings because it is rare that it gets better, it's usually just gonna get worse and so you need to just take action and move forward. You don't want to be impulsive, but I have learned much more so how to identify a problem and act swiftly because you don't have time to lose Amen. I also love the word swiftly when you think about it, it's a great word, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show today and share your journey. I am so grateful. Thank you so much.