Q&A: Chris Lee and Ryan Black, founders of Buddy Bites, on the challenges of running a startup and feeding HK’s dog shelters
Identifying a gap in the market for online subscription services in Hong Kong, Buddy Bites founders and long-time friends, Chris Lee and Ryan Black’s unique vision for the company has seen it grow from strength to strength since its conception last year.
With Chris’ background in Financial Services, Ryan’s background in Commercial Property (with an MBA!) and a shared love of canine companions, this door-to-door subscription dog food service has gone from strength-to-strength, donating 1kg of dog food for every 2kg sold. Partnering with dog shelter’s across Hong Kong, Buddy Bites has admirably been able to cover the costs of all dog food at Catherine’s Puppies, with the hopes of being able to expand this partnership and eventually be able to work with and provide food for all animal shelters in Hong Kong.
Keen to know more, we chatted with the entrepreneurs behind the bags of kibble to hear how they overcame the challenges of instigating a startup in Hong Kong, managing supply chain and deliveries amidst Covid-19, and what’s next for Buddy Bites…
Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you both end up in the world of dog food and subscription-based products? What was the motivation behind the model?
Chris: Oddly enough, neither Ryan nor I have worked within the pet food industry previously. I have always worked within Financial Services and Ryan’s background is Commercial Property. We have been friends for years through playing rugby together at HKFC and got chatting about starting a business together. Ryan had recently completed an MBA and felt that Hong Kong lifestyle is incredibly well suited to online subscription services, so it was just about finding the best product to apply this to. I adopted two rescue pups from Catherine’s Puppies some time ago, Nacho and Nala. One night whilst round at mine for dinner, Ryan noticed a huge bag of dog food propped up in our kitchen and we got talking about how inconvenient it is stocking up on dog food in HK…..and we went from there.
Ryan: Once we had the concept and had figured out a business model that would allow the business to grow whilst also helping the shelters, it was just about finding the right experts to assist us in the areas we were – admittedly – not! Our aim from the very beginning was to go beyond what is required by law in HK (very little!) and to make sure that at every turn, we were doing things the ‘right way’. Veterinary input from day one was absolutely crucial.
What does an ‘average’ work day look like for you both?
Ryan: Well the good news is we’re incredibly busy! We have recently made our first hire, Vera, as the workload just became too much – certainly no complaint! She has been a fantastic addition to the team and has taken over the day-to-day operations and social media marketing.
Chris: This frees up our time to work on the new products we are adding this year, meet with other HK businesses looking for ways to collaborate and whenever possible, get out to the shelters – both our current partner (Catherine’s Puppies) and our upcoming partners, to be announced very soon!
What’s some of the key challenges you encountered during the conception and rollout of Buddy Bites?
Chris: I think the biggest challenge, as for many businesses, has been managing supply chain and deliveries, amidst Covid-19 obstacles. Buddy Bites is all about convenience and not having to worry about your food turning up, so we have had to keep a very close eye on the logistics to make sure nobody is disappointed!
Ryan: Yeah, transportation in general has led to some sleepless nights! But, we are in the process of moving to a European supplier, as they are able to cater for our expansion of products in to a variety of kibbles as well as treats and dental chews. They are AAFCO regulated so we are 100 percent comfortable with them and excited to launch our new products!
How do you think the pet industry will evolve in Hong Kong? Do you see there being a big demand for other subscription-based pet services?
Ryan: We honestly believe that there will be an increased shift to online shopping and subscription services within the pet industry. If you consider that only 5 percent of dog food is bought online in HK, compared to 70 percent+ in the UK and US, we have a long way to go!
Chris: Subscriptions make sense. Dogs eat the same amount every month. After a bit of trial and error, you can figure out when you will run out and arrange for the next bag to arrive pretty much to the day! It removes it completely from your to-do list, which is such a value add when living in HK with a busy lifestyle.
Ryan: We like to think that through a Buddy Bites subscription, we take what is ordinarily a mundane afterthought and turn it in to a nice surprise for your pet. We personalize the food bags with your pup’s name and we also include monthly treats, surprises and giveaways to make the process fun and inclusive.
A big draw for customers is of course that for every 2kg of food sold, 1kg of food is donated to dog shelters in Hong Kong. Was this always an initiative that you wanted to incorporate in to the business?
Chris: 100 percent. This was what it was really all about, from the very beginning. When we were sat on my roof in March last year, planning to set up a business, we had no clue that it would take off in the way it has. We wanted to try something out, whilst giving back to the shelters and if it led to something bigger then great!
Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. With Chris having adopted Nacho & Nala from Catherine’s Puppies, it was a no-brainer that we start there. But, we will be announcing our second shelter partner in the next couple of weeks and with plans to keep adding shelters, our target remains to feed all sheltered dogs in Hong Kong.
When you’re not working on Buddy Bites, what are your other passions? Where would we find you on an average weekend in Hong Kong?
Ryan: It may sound strange, but Buddy Bites is at that incredibly exciting stage of growth where it takes up our weekends as well, but we don’t consider it to be ‘work’. The last few weekends have been spent at Sai Kung dog-friendly pop-up, DB Market, handing out free samples at various dog parks, or catching up on what we have happening in the week ahead.
Chris: If Buddy Bites was not around, I am sure you’d find us at HKFC…. purely in a supportive role these days, we’ve both finally embraced retirement. Or getting out and enjoying HK, hiking, beaches etc. The more I speak to family and friends in the UK, the luckier I feel to have it all available to us through this era of lockdowns and restrictions.
Tell us, what’s next for Buddy Bites?
Chris: We are taking it one shelter at a time. We are covering Catherine’s Puppies’ food completely now and we aim to be doing the same for our second shelter partner within the next 5-6 months. Then it will be time to add shelter number three. And so on.
Ryan: Fortunately, the support we have had from our existing customers has put us in a great position to add more products and variety for our customers along the way. So we will continue to create a community around the brand and hope that there is plenty of fun to be had along the way.
By Lexi Davey, Managing Editor, Lifestyle Asia