Pet ownership is passé—pet parenting is now the kosher term for humans with pooches. The new lexicon is only one of the many signs of an increasingly humanised relationship between cats, dogs, and all sundry pets, and their owners.
Mitali Rao, a recent Delhi University graduate, is one such parent. Her daughter Misa, a golden labrador, had a unique problem lately—her collar was making her shed hair around her neck, leaving her coat patchy. Rao found a solution to this in a red bandana at a Heads Up For Tails (HUFT) store in the city. The nifty little piece of cloth saved Misa’s coat, besides making Rao a happy pet parent. “I did find bandanas elsewhere, but none were as quirky or of such good quality (as HUFT’s),” Rao tells Quartz.
The premium Indian pet care brand seems to have tapped in on the need for pet parents to have the very best for their children, while also driving that trend through out-of-the-box products.
For this, pet parents have given it a thumbs up.
Started 11 years ago, by Rashi Narang, as a niche brand for customised pet accessories, HUFT has grown into 27 standalone stores in prime markets in India. Its store in New Delhi’s high street Khan Market—one of the world’s most expensive real estate spaces with well-established pet stores—is a startling marker of the brand’s successful experiment in the pet care segment.
The size of the Indian pet care industry is estimated to be over Rs25,000 crore (around $347 million), according to Euromonitor International, a market research provider. It is also estimated to grow at 17% till 2024.
Given the market potential, HUFT’s success was only a matter of time. “When we started HUFT in 2008, there were hardly any boutique, premium brands. Today, there is a vibrant market for such products,” says Narang. Her brand now competes with wellness brands and services like Tail Lovers Company, Puppychino café, and the luxury dog boarding Critterati.
When Narang started the brand, she was among a handful of entrepreneurs talking about quality pet care. For her, the idea came from a personal experience at the pet store. “It was really by chance. I had just got Sara, my Labrador, and wanted to buy some nice treats for her. Nothing I found at pet stores had the quality I wanted. They were all mass-produced and rubbish,” she says.
Narang designed and created a couple of products for Sara, which also caught the eye of her friends and family. She then started participating in pet care exhibitions with four to five niche products. “People seemed excited to see my customisable accessories and I thought I could take it to retail. But at least 200 stores said no to me and it was very discouraging. But it also pushed me to create my own space for these products,” she says.
Narang wanted to create pet care accessories that she says didn’t look dirty or “disgusting” like the ones she saw in most pet stores. This posed another uphill challenge—finding the right vendors and tailors for her products. “Initially, it was hard to even convince tailors. They would simply tell me, ‘Kutton ka samaan nahi banaayenge (we will not make products for dogs).’ It really was like finding my own path in the jungle,” says Narang, now 34.
And find her path she did.
After several iterations, HUFT’s products finally hit the stores in 2008. Narang’s focus was to offer high-quality products that pet parents would love buying for their children.
For instance, when Anurag Arora, pet parent of the five-year-old boxer dog Mocha, wanted to buy winter wear for his son, he stumbled upon HUFT’s kiosk in New Delhi’s Select Citywalk mall. “Winter clothing is a necessity. But you also want your pet to look cool,” he says. “They had a really cool bomber jacket last season. I feel their design stands out and made me pick products from HUFT,” he says.
Over the years, Arora has bought toys and feeding bowls, and is now looking forward to trying some of HUFT’s personal pet care products. Parents like him spend an average of Rs5,000 a month on their pet children.
For non-pet parents, expenses incurred on mental health, orthopaedic wellness, nutrition, and exercise of pets are only concepts. For animal lovers, though, this is serious business, and they want to make the most of the money they spend.
HUFT’s customers, thus, are those who are conscious of what their pooch eats, wears and sleeps in. From organic food, cutesy leashes, collars and tags, to orthopaedic beds and age-specific nutrition, Narang says her brand now offers them products for every aspect of a dog’s life, from puppyhood to senior living.
As HUFT grew and diversified into newer products, Narang found herself looking for investors in her pet project. In 2015, a buzz had already begun around pet care in India, which was slated to be one of the fastest-growing pet industries in the world.
This was also the time Narang would have found ready venture capital (VC) investors. But she chose to go a different way. “When it came to funding, we were picky. We really believed in our brand and did not want to take the VC route, which can often be aggressive and focussed on the short-term,” she says.
Instead, she and her team handpicked high networth individuals in India who really believed in HUFT. “It was almost like we were interviewing our investors,” she laughs. In 2016, a group of HNI investors—their names undisclosed—offered $1 million in a first tranche, and another $2 million the next year. Yesterday (Sept. 12) HUFT announced it has raised another round of pre-series A funding of $10 million from undisclosed HNI investors and existing promoters.
The first two tranches helped HUFT expand its online and offline reach. Currently, its products also sell in some stores in the US and Singapore, though Narang says, at the moment, her focus is primarily on India.
HUFT was also profitable till three years ago, before its aggressive growth strategy diverted the company’s efforts to expansion, says Narang. The company clocked revenues of Rs12 crore in 2017, Rs20 crore in 2018, and Narang says the estimate for 2019 is upwards of Rs35 crore. That means an 80% year-on-year growth for a brand that is neither mass market nor inexpensive.
Though Narang says 70% of HUFT’s products are priced below Rs800, unique products like gluten-free biscuits for dogs and organic anti-tick sprays come at a premium. Not that it has stopped Indians from splurging on their beloved critters. “I would say they’re definitely more expensive than most brands, but you also don’t find that kind of quality elsewhere,” says Arora.
He is not alone. “People often want to mimic and create status symbols, which is now true of the luxury pet care segment, too,” explains Sheetal Jain, CEO and founder of Luxe Analytics, an Indian luxury market intelligence firm. “Indians want pets to reflect their own success and social mobility. So that means going taking holidays together, having matching accessories, etc,” she says.
The experiences section of HUFT’s business caters to this audience. While accessories can be customised with one’s pet’s name, the Birthday Club enables pet parents to make a day of their pet child’s special occasion. A monthly curated Wag Box delivers handpicked accessories and treats for pets every month. And spas and wellness have, of course, become par for the course.
Though Euromonitor estimates that Indian pet ownership is much lower than the world average, it is certainly on the rise—especially because of smaller families and greater disposable income. But even as the market grows, HUFT faces challenges—maintaining premium offline stores like the one in Khan market, or staying relevant in a market that’s becoming overcrowded.
For now, though, HUFT seems to be firmly placing its bets on the growth potential.