With a novel range of connectable dog toys, Dublin startup K9Connectables is aiming to take a bite out of the £100 million UK dog toy market.
Backed by a recent €550,00 funding round, the company is also chasing the even larger €711m UK dog treat market with a range of low-calorie dental treats which are designed to fit into the toys.
Since setting up in 2016, the company has launched three different types of toys and a range of four snacks, developing sales to 500 stores in Ireland and the UK.
Using funding provided by Connolly’s Red Mills dog food manufacturers and Enterprise Ireland, it is now adding ten new products to its range and is set to release the first of these in May.
Founder and CEO James McIlvenna is an industrial designer who designed LED light fixtures for a Chinese company until his dog ate his wedding album. Deciding that his dog needed more stimulation, he designed some toys for him and got them 3D printed.
Discovering that most existing toys were quite rudimentary, he set out to develop something more complex which would challenge his dog and enable them to hunt and work for food.
Making the toys connectable was the difference – dogs have to break them apart to get their reward. I worked with dog behaviour experts veterinary professionals and a team of dog owners and we printed and tested over 100 prototypes before we were happy with the design.
Although making dog toys started out as a hobby, he saw potential for a business, carried out market research and put together a business plan.
In 2016 he, his wife Lauren McIlvenna who worked in marketing, and 3D printing engineer Diarmuid Kelly set up the company and applied for patents and trademarks on the first product securing €50,000 in funding from Enterprise Ireland. They found a Chinese manufacturer to produce 600 toys for them.
"Looking at 600 toys in the spare bedroom I worried that we wouldn’t be able to sell them but with the magic of social media they sold quickly and we ordered more," said Mr McIlvenna adding that they had sold 30,000 toys by the end of the 2017.
In the beginning, sales were mostly online, but when Mr McIlvenna got a positive response from his local pet store, he began ringing pet stores around the country, building up a customer base.
By 2018, sales were going so well and Mr McIlvinna gave up his existing job to devote his full attention to selling dog toys, focusing his efforts on the very sizable UK market.
It was in 2018 that he developed the connectable toy concept further by getting Connolly’s Red Mills to manufacture bone-shaped treats, which can be used in conjunction with the toys.
Finding two distributors in the UK Mr McIlvenna got an account with a large UK Chain, Pet’s Corner which has 150 stores.
Because dog owners spend more on dog treats than on toys, he says the K9 dog treats have proved very significant for the company. "Customers buy six to ten bags at a time and since we launched them 18 months ago we have sold 50,000 bags."
By 2019 all three founders were working full time in K9 which now has 60% of sales in the UK and 20% Ireland, with smaller level of exports to Denmark, France, Holland and New Zealand.
The next step in 2019 was fundraising which was needed to develop the brand and the product range. "Competing against international brands with hundreds of products, we wanted to make our brand more significant."
They used the €550,000 funding to take on two additional staff and to invest in R&D to create ten new products.
The first of these, called the Kibble Connector, is set for launch in May while another, which promotes dental hygiene, will be released later. "We plan to launch three products in the summer and another three in the autumn," said Mr Mc Ilvenna adding that K9’s goal is to achieve a turnover of €1 million this year.