How a love of dogs made this business thrive

SME catches up with Mark Hirschel and Jo Amit, pictured above, of HOWND, an ethical, award-winning pet care company

Tell us why you set up HOWND? What exactly do you do?

Our shared love of dogs and a passion for innovation inspired us to set up HOWND (albeit under a different name at the time). We were already working in the pet industry in the food sector, and would often get asked if we stocked natural pet care products.  After some research, we discovered there was a gap in the market for a quirky, ethical, natural pet care brand, and we launched our first range of dog grooming products at the end of 2013. Our range of cruelty-free fragrances quickly caught the attention of the pet care trade and dog groomers, as well as the press.  We soon realised that we had an opportunity to create high quality, all-natural products that would be different from anything that was already available in the pet care sector.  Our goal was to disrupt the dog grooming market with premium, but sensibly priced products that were vegan and cruelty-free certified, and would appeal to dog groomers and the public alike.

You’re proud of your innovative approach. How has that shown itself?

We’re really proud of our innovative approach but not complacent.  We are always striving to create different and better products that are aligned with our ethical ethos. One of our latest products, all seasons Hemp by HOWND Skin, Nose and Paw Balm with added SPF is a case in point.  We wanted to create something that was made with ethically sourced vegan ingredients that would offer sun protection as well as protect a dog’s soft pads from ice and salted pavements in the winter months. Since its launch, Hemp by HOWND has been an instant hit with trade and consumers alike. We specifically did not want to use beeswax because we were concerned about reports of cruel practices, specifically on commercial bee farms. This was our greatest challenge, as beeswax is the most common and cost-effective ingredient found in the majority of balms. We spent 18 months developing a vegan friendly formulation. We eventually zoned in on Candelilla wax, a sustainable shrub growing in a semi arid area in North East Mexico, and imported it. We also flew to Denmark to visit the organic farm that produces our Hemp seed oil.

Our hard work, travels and commitment to sticking to our core business values paid off and in September we received the highest accolade from the pet industry for innovation, winning the coveted PetQuip Gold, Pet Product Innovation of the Year in the accessories category. At the same awards, we also won Gold for  ‘Marketing Project of the Year’ for our annual viral initiative ‘Bring Your Dog To Work Day’ which we founded in 2014. As the balm has been such a success we are currently working on other hemp based products.

When did you begin trading and what were the challenges in the early days?

We began trading in 2013 but a year into the business we had a trademark challenge. This was a near disaster, and a tough lesson for our fledgling company. We lost five months of trading and our profit that year was very low.  We made the decision to rebrand as HOWND.  We persisted and pushed through and our loyal customer base has steadily grown. A year later our turnover was up 475% while, dog owners, professional groomers, and a handful of celebrities started using HOWND products and spreading the word on social media.  Then everything took off in 2015 when Pets at Home decided to stock our entire first range of 10 core products in all 400 stores countrywide. This has enabled us to invest in new product development and we now manufacture 24 pet care products, with plans to launch an innovative pet accessory in 2018 among other products.  In retrospect, our rebrand was the best thing that could have happened to the business.

You’ve since gone on to win some pretty impressive awards. Can you tell us what they are and how did it feel to win?

The one that we were most humbled and moved by was winning two gold awards at PetQuip this year. That was probably our proudest moment.  To have the pet industry’s support behind us really demonstrates that we are going in the right direction. As we begin to move up out of start up phase and into a growth phase,  starting to export and bringing out new products, to have industry support and to have won so many awards is a huge endorsement. It confirms to us that sticking with our beliefs of not using animal by-products and standing by our core values, to be ethical, cruelty free and to be constantly innovative and disruptive is recognition that we are doing something right.  We have won and been nominated for numerous prestigious awards, including winning 5 PetQuip awards over the past 3 years: Gold Manufacturers Award at SCOOT, and very importantly, the endorsement we received this year from The Ethical Company Organisation and the fact that we have always been accredited by Cruelty Free International.  This September we won “Best in Animal Care Products” category at Live Wire’s Innovation & Excellence Awards 2018; GHP (Global Health & Pharma) Best Natural Pet Care Company – UK & Excellence Award for Anti-Cruelty Initiatives 2017 and were shortlisted for Gift of the Year 2017; Finalists for Manufacturer of the Year at the Pet Industry Federation Awards 2017 and reached the top 50 in the PITCH 2017 the UK’s biggest small business competition.

What do you think sets you apart from the competition?

We strive to be different and we work hard to stay one step ahead. We hope that we will always be seen as pioneers, leaders rather than followers and our priority is to continue to innovate and disrupt the pet care market  both here and overseas. Also there are very few pet products worldwide that have accreditation from Cruelty Free International and endorsed by the Ethical Company Organisation.  We’re very proud of this, it is a very important and gives us impeccable credentials as we are audited every year to ensure that the whole supply chain complies with the organisations’ stringent criteria.

Where do you hope the business will be in, say, five years’ time?

In five years’ times we want to be the go to pet care brand in health and wellness for innovative, exciting, ground-breaking products. Our goal is to cement our position in the UK market and to be well established in the rest of the world.

If you had to sum up your approach to business in three words, what would they be?

Innovation, persistence, creativity.