DTC Pioneer Olivia Canlas, Meowbox

Pet marketing services agency Bigeye’s podcast features Olivia Canlas, the co-founder and CEO of Meowbox, a pawpular direct-to-consumer cat treat and toy subscription. Olivia shares how she first had the idea for Meowbox and why social media has been purrfect for growing the brand. Olivia talks candidly about challenges during COVID, the importance of being part of an extended network of female entrepreneurs, and brainstorming pawsitively ameowzing creative box themes.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Today’s episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS provides another chance to hear a conversation with direct-to-consumer pioneer, Olivia Canlas, the co-founder and CEO of Meowbox. Olivia’s advice on building a community around her products and insights on the use of influencer marketing reflect topics we’ll be covering in Bigeye’s upcoming exclusive report, Retail Disrupted: What Shoppers Want From Brands Today. And in a couple of weeks, we’ll be talking with Olivia again, along with other guests in the direct-to-consumer space to mark the 100th episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS. But for now, enjoy this encore of a conversation with Olivia Canlas.

You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us today. Over the past decade, a new type of business has disrupted retail. From Warby Parker, which sells eyeglasses and contact lenses to Everlane clothing, Casper mattresses, and The Honest Company for baby and beauty products, these companies all have one thing in common: they sell directly to consumers. Their ability to forge one-to-one relationships with their customers and capture valuable first-party data that is impossible via traditional retail is a unique advantage of the direct-to-consumer model. I am excited to welcome a pioneer in the direct-to-consumer space to this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS. Launched in 2013 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Meowbox delivers boxes of toys and food treats to cat owners across Canada and the US as a monthly or bi-monthly subscription. With operations in Portland, Oregon too, the company has been featured in Buzzfeed, New York Magazine, Vogue, The Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal, and InStyle magazine. And most recently, the New York Times Wirecutter picked Meowbox as the best cat subscription box. The Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Meowbox is Olivia Canlas, who is joining us today from her office in Vancouver. Welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS, Olivia!

Olivia Canlas: Thank you so much. I’m very excited for our conversation today.

Adrian Tennant: Thank you. So, first of all, Olivia, can you tell us a little more about what Meowbox is?

Olivia Canlas: Of course. So I’d like to think of Meowbox as monthly deliveries of cat happiness. So it is a box full of themed cat toys and treats that we choose exclusively for our subscribers. And we deliver that monthly or bi-monthly, in the subscription model.

Adrian Tennant: Now, back in 2013, when you launched Meowbox, direct-to-consumer wasn’t nearly as well established as a business model, as it is today. What inspired you to start a subscription box for cat owners?

Olivia Canlas: I was a subscription box customer, maybe two or three years before I thought of the idea of Meowbox. I was a subscriber to cosmetics, so I knew that that was something that appealed to me, to my friends, people in a similar demographic as I was. And so I was aware of the concept of subscription boxes, but specifically like the moment where I thought, you know, “What there needs to be a Meowbox in this world” was when I started getting targeted on my Facebook for a dog subscription box. And I thought, you know what, instead of just ignoring it, thinking, well, that doesn’t apply to me. I don’t have a dog. I wondered – because I’m more of a cat person – I wonder if there was a box for cats and upon my initial research, there wasn’t a box that was dedicated just to cat parents.

Adrian Tennant: Now clearly the business is successful now, but looking back, do you think being a woman meant that you faced additional challenges as an entrepreneur?

Olivia Canlas: You know, I like to think that everything that I do and that I did, to build the company it’s not tied to gender in any way, but, I didn’t look at my gender as something that was going to hold me back from succeeding, but in reality, there were a few moments where I was reminded that maybe I might be viewed a little bit differently in terms of, you know, male versus female, business leaders. And one example that I can think of was I was at a trade show once looking for some new product with my co-founder who’s male, and, a handful of times the brand representatives would initiate the conversation, speaking to him. instead of me, as if just automatically thinking that he was the one who was the decision-maker. I wasn’t, like offended or insulted, but it was definitely something that I noticed at the time and just sort of little things like that. I mean, very easy for me to step in and let them know I was the one who was doing the product selection. so it could have just been like a subconscious, behavior of people to expect maybe that it was the male who was in charge of making the decisions.

Adrian Tennant: Now I mentioned in the introduction that Meowbox serves cat owners in Canada and the United States. Do you have customers in any other countries?

Olivia Canlas: In the earlier stages of Meowbox, we did offer Meowbox to the UK, as we were kind of testing out the markets. so we were able to tell from our social media insights where our audience was located, so US and then Canada, and then the UK, and then I think Australia after that. So, we dipped a toe in, into the UK waters and we did run into some issues with just getting stuff over the border, in terms of the VAT that they have there – the VAT, it’s like an additional tax to claim your packages from overseas. So that experience wasn’t something that we wanted our customers to have to deal with. We just want to deliver the Meowbox – you get it, you open up, not have to deal with paying an additional fee on top of what you already paid. So instead of focusing our efforts on continuing to enter the UK market, we decided to reel it back and focus on our more local customers. I mean, there’s so many households with cats in Canada and the US that we have yet to reach. And we want the experience to be dialed in where there isn’t that additional fee or step to have to claim your, Meowbox.

Adrian Tennant: Meowboxes each contain themed, curated collection of cat toys and treats. How far in advance do you have to plan the theme and the contents of each box to allow for sourcing products and manufacturers?

Olivia Canlas: This is a great question. It’s evolved a lot since we started. We used to plan one month ahead of time. And now, I think currently we are planning our April box. So, quite a few months ahead of time, in order to make sure our products are designed properly, we go through all the samples, all the other sort of different, contributors to what goes into the box. We have to make sure that it’s all timed well, our products, if they come from overseas, they need time to ship to us, go through customs, and get delivered to our warehouse. So it’s changed a lot since the beginning, since we’ve increased our volume, we need more time to prepare for each month.

Adrian Tennant: How do you come up with the ideas for the theming of each box?

Olivia Canlas: It used to be a lot easier, at the beginning when it was just the start and we had, we’re fresh with ideas. Like, you know, it was actually difficult to choose from all of our ideas and narrow it down to just 12 in a year. And now that we’ve been doing themes for a number of years, we also take into consideration what’s been popular. It kind of narrows down our choices. Cause I feel like we did our favorites right away and then, had to figure out, “Okay, how do we make the next year even better when we already did our favorite ones this previous year?” So what we like to do is actually, send that request out to our audience on social media, our current subscribers and ask them, for what they love to see in the box. So sometimes it’s like your classic themes, of course, like winter holidays and Halloween, Valentine’s Day. Those are the staples that we’ll likely repeat each year. But then in between all those major holidays and events, I mean it depends like some years it’s going to lean towards, I mean, like for example, this year with COVID everyone at home, some of the themes suggestions are like sort of tied to that. So things in the home, you know, for example, a lot of us have been staying in and taking up hobbies like gardening, baking. And so sort of things like that that are trending also help us choose what kinds of themes to do. And then like I had mentioned there’s our classic themes, separate from the holidays, but we’ve done sort of a camping theme one year and we did repeat, a similar theme to camping another year because the first time we did it, it was so popular.

Adrian Tennant: What have been some of your customers’ favorite individual cat toys or treats so far?

Olivia Canlas: That’s another great question. We love to know, so that we can continue to deliver toys that have similar characteristics to that. And so specifically, very popular, one of them is a little wool snake toy, so it’s just kind of like a thin, lightweight, sort of wavy shaped wool toy. It’s narrow, and I think the reason why it’s so popular is, just the cats can grab it in their mouth really easily and it’s lightweight so they can carry it around and toss it in the air. I would say that’s kind of one of our most number one requested toys. But also, kind of more unique toy that we offer is made of a material called silvervine, which is sort of similar to catnip in terms of, it kind of brings out like excitement, out of your cat. But if your cat doesn’t react to catnip, they will most likely react to silvervine and even more intensely. So that type of toy has been extremely popular as well.

Adrian Tennant: I’m guessing research and development for Meowbox is more fun than other product categories. And on your website, you list your cats, Harvey, and Zach, as Co-Chief Feline Officers. Now, do you test new products you’re considering for Meowbox with your own fur babies?

Olivia Canlas: Yes, absolutely. Most of us that work for Meowbox have cats. So we take turns in bringing a toy samples home to test out on our cats. And they really are the ones who are the tie-breakers, if we’re not sure which toy will be more popular or more well-liked – take it home, see what the cats say. And we go with that.

Adrian Tennant: I love it – a focus group of felines (laughter) Now we’ve talked about the theming of each Meowbox. The visual design of each box is really unique and your social media posts also capture a really fun sensibility with lots of catty word-play. Do you have an in-house creative team?

Olivia Canlas: So we have a little bit of both, when it comes to, what we share on our social media and the voice that we use, across those platforms,that’s in house. And it’s kind of an extension of our personality. So if we’re being cheeky and playful, sharing things that we think are funny, that’s us,that’s the personality of our team and of our social media manager. That’s like a direct link of like what our sense of humor is and what we find interesting in the cat world. And, in terms of our toy design, we work with a partner who helps bring our theme ideas to life in illustrations, and we select sort of what is translating best for us, for the theme that we chose. And amongst our group of people who work at Meowbox, we also have a group of us who are very creative in terms of illustrating and coming up with visual ideas. So it’s kind of a mix of people contributing, but we’re all very like-minded in terms of like we’re, you know, lighthearted and we like to sort of lean on sort of like a cheekier side of things, which seems to be received very well by, by our audience.

Adrian Tennant: Now many established direct-to-consumer brands initially acquire customers through social media. How does Meowbox typically attract new customers?

Olivia Canlas: The most effective way that we have found is yes, it’s associated with social media. I mean, especially even during this time, the past, I’d say five to six months, people are spending a lot more time at home, which means that they have more time to, be closer to their cats, perhaps take more photos of their cats, perhaps want to provide something more for their cats, like Meowbox. So there’s been a lot of social sharing. so that organically, well, it helps us, showcase our product to more people. Our community does that for us and with us. And also we’ve leaned very heavy working with influencers, on social media as well, and sending lots of boxes out, and them sharing the word as well of what Meowbox is.

Adrian Tennant: What have been some of your most successful customer acquisition programs for Meowbox, would you say?

Olivia Canlas: I would say number one consistently from the beginning is for us to be working with influencers and affiliates. So that would probably be our most successful, most consistent. If we had zero spend or very close to nothing to spend on marketing, I would never stop doing that.

Adrian Tennant: Hmmm.

Olivia Canlas: Yes. And then in terms of beyond that… I would say one of our best ways of bringing in customers and increasing our awareness is through email marketing. So bringing in people who are interested in what we have to say, and letting them know when we have something new, what our new themes are, or just like fun information that we want to share to our cat community.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

Adrian Tennant: Today’s shoppers are more informed, connected, and demanding than ever before.

Michael R. Solomon: A lot of people who never would have thought to order groceries online have seen the light. And I guess they’re going to continue to do that.

Paige Garrett: When it comes to influencers’ recommendations and the way that you as a consumer feel connected to that influencer, it’s very similar to getting a recommendation from a family member or friend.

Adrian Tennant: The widespread adoption of online shopping during the pandemic has heightened consumer expectations and challenged retailers to re-imagine the customer experience to entice people back to physical stores.

Dana Cassell: It’s clear that customer habits have solidified. And to me, that means the digital conversion funnel needs to be working well from top to bottom and your organization needs to know what levers to pull to convert better step to step.

Doug Stephens: E-commerce is growing exponentially faster on a percentage basis than physical retail. And so it’s quite likely that as early as 2033, we may find that 50 or more percent of our consumption is being performed online and or by subscription.

Adrian Tennant: Retail Disrupted: What U.S. Shoppers Want From Brands Today, a new report from Bigeye. Coming soon.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. We’re talking to Olivia Canlas, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the direct-to-consumer cat treats and toys subscription service, Meowbox. Olivia, you also have ongoing customer engagement programs like the Supermeowdel Cat Club. Can you tell us how those work?

Olivia Canlas: Can you tell that we’re really good with cat puns? So specifically, that group, we built that as a place for our cat community to share, to share photos, to ask questions, and we find that cat people, and I’m a cat person myself with Zach and Harvey, we love to talk about our cats. Just any sort of like invitation to share information or stories or photos about our cats. Like we love to do it. You mentioned my cat’s names and it just sort of like, sort of lights me up. I don’t know what it is. I guess we love our animals so much. And so that group is built for our cat community to post photos of their cats. Just know, no one’s judging, there’s not necessarily like a rhyme or reason. We do encourage engagement when we ask a question, like show us a photo of what your cat is doing right now and everyone wants to share, and we’re happy to see those photos. I think that’s kind of part of why we were able to grow so quickly at the beginning too – it’s just, people want to share photos of their cats.

Adrian Tennant: You created an annual event called MeowFest. What is it? And how did you arrive at the idea?

Olivia Canlas:  So MeowFest is our way of bringing our online community, offline and to gather in-person to network with each other, talk about their cats in person, put a name to a face for friends that you’ve perhaps made on Instagram, or someone who you’ve seen post photos of their cats on Facebook. So aside from bringing cat people together in person in one place, it’s also, one of our sort of larger sources of, donating and giving back to the cat community. So each event we choose a small handful of local cat shelters to donate proceeds to show that’s live and in-person we would have an assortment of vendors in a marketplace where people can shop for all their cat-themed goodies and cat toys. We also invite knowledgeable cat influencers in our space to come speak about cat care, rescue, those kinds of topics that are important to us. And we also have cat celebrities that we bring in for people to have like a little meet and greet photo session with as well.

Adrian Tennant: That sounds a lot of fun. Now, looking to the future, how do you see Meowbox evolving over the next two to three years?

Olivia Canlas: Our plan is to continue with the momentum of the growth that we’re experiencing, and throughout everything that we’re learning and discovering, we’re just hoping to continue to become, you know, more and more in tune with what our customers want, you know, to continue to be nimble as the market changes, but we’re experiencing, some really impressive growth right now. And the plan is to keep growing, keep going, find ways to make our customers happier, keep them with us longer, you know, provide to them what they’re looking for and just keep growing. Our goal is to reach as many cats in as many households as possible.

Adrian Tennant: Are there any emerging tools, technologies, or social apps that you foresee influencing the way that you connect with your customers or ways that you conduct your business in the future?

Olivia Canlas: Yes. We are spending more time on building our TikTok account and good news that it’s still TikTok is going to stick around for a little bit longer. But I’ve always been a huge fan of jumping onto any of the social platforms that are trending and that seem interesting. And, TikTok has been a lot of fun for us and something that we’re currently working on to build right now.

Adrian Tennant: I saw one of your social posts that mentioned ideas for a new creative project. So I want to ask you the same question you asked cat parents. Olivia, what is the craziest, wackiest most extraordinary, creative, quirky, and or wow-worthy thing that you have done out of love for your fur babies?

Olivia Canlas: Okay, so one of the craziest things that has happened, since I’ve had my cats in my life is, I was away on vacation, overseas, for a couple of weeks. And, the cat stayed home. I had someone come and visit them regularly, visit the house and the cats make sure they had everything they needed. And, one of the days that I was away, I got a pretty frantic emergency phone call saying that there was water flooding into all those surrounding, townhouse units that were connected to my townhouse. So, just to sort of clarify the picture. So we’re a ground level townhouse with a unit to our left, a unit to our right, and a unit behind us. And I couldn’t even understand what was going on and what that meant. And what ended up happening was that water was flooding my unit and flooding everyone else’s units around us. and we could not figure out, obviously, we didn’t leave our water on, you know, before the trip, it hadn’t been on, you know, for the first, like half of the trip. And the only thing that made sense was that one of the cats turned the water on in the kitchen sink, and turned the faucet so that the water was no longer pouring into the sink, but pouring onto the counter. And so I have no idea how long that water was on for, but it was pouring. Must’ve been hours, maybe an entire day just pouring out onto the counter, onto the floor and into all the surrounding units. And so we sent someone to turn it off and to make a long story short – my cats, I don’t know which one it was, created. I mean, probably hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of water damage to our unit and the units around us. And, so to this day, you know, I kind of walk around my building, like thinking, are you looking at me because, you know, I’m the mom of the cats that flooded your unit? And wondering if people sort of just remember me as that person. One of the comments that came up was like, “Oh, did they leave? Did she leave the tap on for the cats while she was away?” And just thinking like, “No, I didn’t, but how do I defend myself? But I still love them. You know, I still go on vacation. We’re just a little bit smarter with like where the tap is turned. Sometimes I’ll turn the water off completely, but basically, you know, my cats, they can do no wrong. They’ve done as bad as that – and I love them even more than I did the day they did that.

Adrian Tennant: Well, some cats clearly prefer fresh water from the faucet. So what are you going to do?

Olivia Canlas: I know exactly. What can I do? I can’t even be mad. They have taught me forgiveness.

Adrian Tennant: So, Olivia, what inspires you on a daily basis? Are there any journals, podcasts, or social media accounts that you follow – cat-related or not?

Olivia Canlas: My source of inspiration comes from my fellow female entrepreneurs. I have a small group of female entrepreneurs who I look up to whose businesses I follow, whose social media I follow, we’re in communication for sort of best practices or problem-solving, advice, and that kind of thing. And, it’s really blossomed and, become sort of a resource for me that I’ve come to rely on and go to, as of late. And I guess I didn’t really realize how important it was, maybe in early years to have that kind of a network of colleagues. But sort of as time goes by, I don’t know, maybe you lose a bit of your ego and, are just more open to sharing, you know, your challenges with other people, especially people who have, maybe dealt with that before, people in a similar businesses as you, and that’s kind of where my inspiration comes from. I see ladies who are running businesses that do certain things better than me, or certain things that I’ve never done before. And I’ll ask like, you know, “How can I do that? How did you reach that?” And then, and vice versa, it’s the same where there’ll be something that I’m doing really well with Meowbox. And they ask me, you know, “How did you do that? What tools did you use to reach that?” And it’s kind of just this feedback loop of all of us sharing and each of us supporting each other and just doing better and better.

Adrian Tennant: Which upcoming Meowbox projects – that you’re allowed to talk about – are you most excited about?

Olivia Canlas: Okay, let me think, what can I, what can I reveal? We have a project that’s coming up that is related to,the call out that we did for the stories you know, the wild and crazy wacky stories you asked me about that, but I can’t say what it is yet, and it will make more sense when it comes out.

Adrian Tennant: That is a great promo. So if listeners would like to learn more about Meowbox and follow you on social media, where can they find you?

Olivia Canlas: So on social media, we are @Meowbox, so that’s the same across all social media platforms. And our website is meowbox.com.

Adrian Tennant: And of course we’ll include a link to that on our website too. Olivia, thank you very much indeed for being our guest on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Olivia Canlas: Thank you so much for having me.

Adrian Tennant: My thanks to our guest this week, Olivia Canlas, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Mowbox. You can find a transcript of our conversation along with links to resources on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page, at bigeyeagency.com under “Insights.” Just click on the button marked “Podcast.” To ensure you don’t miss an episode, please consider subscribing to the show on your preferred podcast app. You can also use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Alexa Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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