Heidi Maskelyne worked in law for six years before she did switched careers to launch her independent online retail business ProDog Raw.
But it was the unfortunate passing of her dogs, Drago and Phoenix, between 2014-15 that became the catalyst behind her career change.
“I was devastated,” she recalled.
“I couldn’t understand it. I thought I was the most responsible dog owner ever. I believed I’d given my boys the best of everything, including the best food. So I embarked on a mission to find out why.”
Heidi discovered that despite the promises on the packaging that it was the best quality, the dry kibble food she’d been her beloved dogs had potentially been a contributor to their development of cancer.
It was this experience that brought herself and co-founders Jay and Rid together to launch Prodog Raw, with a mission to prevent other dogs from needlessly leaving before their time.
Many owners would have mourned and then eventually returned to work but Heidi explained that because they had brought so much to her life, she felt she owed them a “profound and fitting legacy.”
“I just felt so passionate (and angry) about what I had discovered,” Heidi told Retail Gazette.
“I had an internal drive that felt unstoppable. I simply couldn’t sit back and do nothing, my conscience and my heart wouldn’t allow it.
“I remember the moment that I decided I was going to launch ProDog Raw clearly, and I’ll never forget it. I was standing in my kitchen and I picked up my bag of kibble and read the ingredients. I was horrified.”
Having been a nutrition geek since a young age, Heidi knew what constituted a wholesome diet.
“It had been right there in front of me, all these years I had been carefully selecting my own diet, yet I had never really questioned or considered what I had been feeding my dog in this dry, processed food,” she said.
Heidi explained that essentially, most of the ingredients found in processed pet food simply don’t belong in a dog’s diet or body and that it isn’t natural for dogs to “eat these little brown biscuits every day of their lives”.
“At that moment, I decided my dogs deserved better. All dogs deserve better,” she said.
“I had found a gaping hole in the market. Fresh, quality, species appropriate, natural dog food – real food for real dogs. I knew I had to turn this negative into a positive.
“I wanted to make a difference and educate as many people as possible about the harm we are doing to our dogs by not feeding them a natural diet.”
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The difference between the food available at ProDog Raw compared with other pet retailers and dog food brands is the knowledge behind the products.
“I like to think that education is what sets us apart from other businesses,” Heidi explained.
“From the beginning I have been totally committed to raising awareness and helping to educate people about the benefits of a biologically appropriate, fresh, raw food diet and the direct impact on dogs living their best lives.”
An average day at ProDog has three aims: to ensure dogs get their dinner, their humans receive the best customer support possible, and that more people are educated on the benefits of raw feeding. From the packing and production teams, customer services, to marketing, social media and content creation, this core mission leads everyone.
Heidi said the most surprising part of creating the business was the speed at which it has grown.
“Although I knew there was a huge gap in the dog food market at the beginning of this journey, I didn’t imagine we would be where we are now in terms of turnover, in such a short time,” she said.
“It’s clear dog owners are becoming far more savvy.
“Raw feeding is one of the fastest growing sectors within the pet food industry in decades and we are super excited to be a part of that.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has continued to have significant effects on the retail industry thanks to the closure of non-essential retailers under various lockdowns. ProDog felt the impact like many others but only partially, since it’s mainly an online retailer.
“Our sales went up at an exponential rate,” she said.
“I know It sounds like a dream rather than a challenge, but as any business owner will know, exponential growth is fantastic as long as the infrastructure is in place to deal with it.
“Thankfully we had planned to scale in 2020 anyway, so before covid had taken steps to make sure we were ready.
“We had to adapt quickly to keep up with demand whilst also maintaining the standards we had set to provide the best customer experience possible.”
“The handle we have on production served us well; it meant that we did not experience any shortage in food during the early stages of Covid as other companies did.
“Spring 2020 was a rollercoaster, but I’m proud to say we came through it with flying colours.
“To top it off, we even won the Lloyds Small Business Award 2020 for Best Customer Experience.”
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As an independent business, ProDog Raw has to find ways to compete alongside large corporations through constant strategic innovation.
“We always do our best to keep ahead of what our customers want, stay up to date with the latest science and forge long standing collaborations with professionals who demonstrate excellence in the field of canine health and nutrition,” Heidi said.
“We invest heavily in cultivating relationships with customers, our team and our partners, making sure we continue on the leading edge scientifically and ethically.
“I always have and always will put quality before profits and place a tremendous amount of focus on ensuring our customers get that personal and human touch.”
She added that she’s closer to the front line than most other chief executives of pet food retailers or corporations, which means she is often speaking to customers, reading case studies and success stories, and even calls people to provide feeding advice.
“All of which means I know the reality of our business. As an independent, small business we can move and flex without layers of bureaucracy which allows us to respond quickly and dynamically,” Heidi said.
As the retail industry continues its march to recovery since the last lockdown, Heidi shared her secrets to running an independent and successful online retailer.
“The secret to running a successful business, especially a retail business, is knowing your market inside out and ensuring you are extremely passionate about your customers, which in our case includes the four and two-legged kind,” she said.
One that of the biggest challenges faced when launching Prodog Raw was that it offered a product that the vast majority of customers didn’t know they needed.
“If I didn’t know the industry inside out and wasn’t passionate about it I would’ve given up in year one,” Heidi explained.
“But my drive to help dogs live their best life is what has seen me through and still keeps me pushing to create the best raw dog food and supplements I can.
“Ultimately it’s my passion; therefore no matter how many barriers come up against me and no matter how many hours need to be put in, I won’t stop and I believe that is the secret to creating a successful business.”
Offering advice for budding retail entrepreneurs, Heidi said it was paramount to stay optimistic and believe, even when others doubt.
“You aren’t going to get your way every time, but if your passion is genuine, it will always shine through and eventually, it will be recognised then the results will follow,” she said.
“Whenever I do have moments of self-doubt, remembering my passion and why I am doing everything in the first place is key – to educate people on how important nutrition is for a dog’s health and wellness.”
“I just tell myself ‘It’s for the dogs Heidi’ and usually my mindset is flipped back around very fast; I dust myself off and get on with it.”
She added: “Starting a business you will have the highest of highs, but of course, the lowest of lows comes with that, and this is when the negative thoughts and doubts start creeping in.
“My experience has taught me however, that the majority of times these moments occur is when you are on the brink of turning a corner, of something momentous happening.
“Stick with it, remember your why, and you will see the hard work pay off.”