After over two decades of working nine to five in offices, Chris O'Brien decided to start a new business that combined his talents. Rooted in his family background and his love of dogs, The Dog Cake Co, a bakery for dogs, launched in July 2021. After six months of research and endless experiments, he discovered that starting a business producing dog treats is more time intensive and costly than a traditional bakery targeted at human customers. Chris found that while he was busy baking his products, he also needed to devote time to marketing, cash flow and business planning. Chris realised he needed help, and after approaching EnterprisingYou was introduced to business coach Paul Norris. With Paul’s support and the programme’s networking opportunities, Chris is ready to take his business to the next level.
We chatted with Chris about his journey from behind the desk to running his own unique business.
How did you start your business?
My interest in baking was deeply rooted in my childhood. My granddad was a baker, and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my nan when I was a kid. I used to work in various restaurants before I was 19 but changed my career path to be an office worker as most of my friends chose a desk job, but still baked for my family in the 20 years I worked behind a desk. In October 2020 I was made redundant and as I had both the time and money, I decided to pursue a life as a professional baker.
However, even just in Manchester, hundreds of bakeries exist. No matter how hard I tried to get a market stall, it seemed impossible as there were already ten bakeries in front of me that had already applied.
Around that time, it was coming up to my dog's first birthday, so I searched online to see if I could find a birthday cake for him. Although there were plenty of choices, they either didn’t look good or were full of artificial colours, flavours and preservatives, which is not healthy for dogs. Under such circumstances, I decided to bake the cake myself. Later, when I applied for a local cafe's market stall at a fundraising event, they said they already had a bakery, but they were open to having a bakery for dogs. I gave it a go and made £300 in one day. The interest showed me a demand for this venture and convinced me to start the business. My path to being a baker is different, but I’m so glad I don’t need to compete with all the bakeries.
What are the significant challenges you faced when you started your business?
From the very beginning, I approached it differently from others. I took my recipes that worked for people, removed everything unsafe for dogs and practised, researched and experimented relentlessly for the first six months. Everything from butter, sugar and oil to raising agents needed to be removed and replacements tested. I also decided to go without artificial colouring, so I had to test every fruit and vegetable I used for colour. Although it might limit the colours I can use, the ingredients chosen are because they're beneficial to the dog.
There is a legal requirement that we laboratory test all our products to ensure they're suitable for dogs. This cost is included in the price for every new product we launch. In addition, to prepare for a product recall, you must maintain a log of the ingredients and other information for up to two years; you can imagine the relevant paperwork is enormous. Setting up a bakery for dogs is much more costly and time-consuming than a bakery for humans.
How did you hear about the EnterprisingYou, and what are the programme benefits for your business?
I initially joined StartSmart, another programme offered by the Hub. After StartSmart ended in March 2022, the Festival of Enterprise took place. This event was a great networking opportunity, and I made multiple business leads and connections at the event. At the Festival of Enterprise, I met Paul Norris, the business coach of EnterprisingYou there. He helped me enrol on the programme and bring my business to the next level.
Due to the heavy burden of product development and legal compliance, it might be easy for a small enterprise to overlook some of the essential aspects of the business.
For example, among other issues, I hadn't touched my cash flow forecast for eight months. It wasn't until questioned by Paul that I realised I was not in control of those things.
We were better prepared for the issues we encountered just two weeks into the programme. We’ve established our standard operating procedures by putting various processes down on paper. It put us in a stronger position when I started contacting larger businesses. We can provide complete documentation to them, making their job easier. It provided us with several selling points we did not have or did not necessarily realise. In addition, by revisiting and reconsidering the processes I‘d been using, I’ve been able to streamline and even automate certain parts of the process. That helped me bring down the operating cost.
Before joining the programme, the business covered Greater Manchester and Cheshire. This negatively affected our marketing as we were trying to cover an area too large. In the process, we have restructured our business and marketing content by concentrating our efforts on the city centre. After an adjustment, I'm seeing a much higher engagement whilst producing less content, which takes some pressure off that side of things.
As this is my first time as a business owner, it's very beneficial to speak to experienced people, whether other business owners or people like Paul. They help boost our confidence by saying, "yes, this is definitely the right way to go."
Chris O'Brien, The Dog Cake Co
What does the future hold for your business?
One of the biggest problems I’m currently facing is that we get contacted by people all over the country who want us to send them cakes. I can’t send the cakes by post as they are too delicate. Special delivery is not an option as the cost is too high and not feasible. Nobody will pay £100 for delivery. So I'm not losing business; I needed a way to keep these customers. I've created "bake your own kits" that we’ll be launching before the end of the year, where I put all the dry ingredients together for the customer. Along with the kit there are instructions and online tutorials so they can make the cakes themselves. The "bake your own kits" will help us break through our business's geographical barriers.
We’ve also launched a plant-based dog ice cream that is proving extremely popular, again focusing on quality, natural ingredients.
You can find out more about Chris and his business here: