As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Anne Carlson, Founder and CEO of Jiminy’s, the industry-leading producer of sustainable dog food & treats using insect protein. Anne was named 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year in the Food and Beverage category by the American Business Awards for her work on Jiminy’s. Prior to Jiminy’s, Anne was the VP of Market Intelligence at Big Heart Pet Brands where she led Shopper Insights, Market Analytics, and Strategic Projects. Anne previously founded Secant, which she then sold to IRI, and has also worked for Accenture, Diageo and, Seagram’s. She holds a BA in Political Science, Economics, and Mathematics from Washington University in St. Louis, as well as an MBA from NYU. Currently, Anne lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband (Eric), daughter (Boothe), and two pups (Tuco & Timber).
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
Well, I’ve been in the consumer-packaged goods industry for my entire career. I’ve realized along the way that my experience as a woman in business — beginning with consulting, moving into industry, and then starting a couple of companies — has always given me a little bit of separation from the norm. A lot of times I’d be the only woman in a meeting. Luckily, I think this prepared me for Jiminy’s. Using an alternative protein most people had first encountered as a novelty joke (think chocolate-covered ants) means you’re taking on the changing of mindsets. Not easy. Yet my belief that insect protein can lead us to a better world through sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction intertwined with my experience as a woman in business helps me to push past that added challenge. In a way, I’m glad for the extra work as it’s provided the extra armor necessary for this big step. It’s made me ready for the moment.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I was looking for a sustainable protein for pet food and one day I drew a picture of different proteins. I had traditional proteins on one half of the page and alternative proteins on the other half. So, there were drawings of kelp and cattle and chickens, etc. all over the page. Then I drew a cricket. It stayed with me. Not long after, I came across a UN study proposing insects as a solution to world hunger. Putting the two together gave me Bingo! By the way, don’t play my mom in Bingo — I don’t know how she does it, but she will win.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take-aways’ you learned from that?
As everyone says, the mistake wasn’t funny at the time. And it’s very true. In early 2019, we did an inventory of treats and realized boxes from our first production run had been placed behind newer product. So, we had shipped new product ahead of our older product which was now getting close to its expiration date. Trying not to panic, I brainstormed with my husband (who works with me on Jiminy’s) and we thought it a good opportunity to get our treats into people’s hands and their dogs’ mouths. We’d use social media for a giveaway of the treats. Win-win, right?
We quickly start the giveaway and we’re watching it closely at first because if we reached 1000 units (back then it was honestly more a question of “if,” not “when”), we would then shut it down. On the first evening, we gave away about 50 units. Then 150 more units were claimed the following day, so I’m thinking we’ll just run it for a few days. Well, the day after that I’m at an offsite meeting and I get a text from a colleague telling me our website’s down. “Oh no, the giveaway!” and sure enough, it had exploded. There had been so much activity that our website tapped out. Several THOUSANDS of units later (and we were really happy people wanted our treats), we had dodged a social media bullet. The lesson: never turn your back on the internet.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Dr. Ian Dunbar of Sirius Dog Training has been an enormous help. We were on a panel in Palo Alto a few years ago lamenting that we couldn’t have any wine since we’d be driving back to our homes soon. We found that we both lived in Berkeley within walking distance from each other. He’s serious about what he does but makes it fun too. He’s advised us on what makes an excellent training treat and we’ve made some training videos together. In one he helped two little girls train their new puppy. The puppy was 10 weeks old and I’m still amazed at how fast he was able to get it to follow commands. He has a gift.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I can go back to the very beginning. Pre-Jiminy’s, I met with Bill Reed for lunch to discuss his idea for a sustainable protein source for dog treats. He didn’t know anything about the pet industry, so he wanted to pick my brain. The restaurant was next to a Petco, so we walked the floor afterward and I pointed out brands and categories to illustrate how the industry worked. He thought the industry was nuts. There were thousands of brands and products with not much to differentiate each one. To him, it was a lot of the same. On top of that, I broke the news that his product — a treat using grass-fed beef — wouldn’t be sustainable at all.
We did want to work together and that prompted us to search for an idea that would be sustainable. The hard part was multiple — the space barely existed, there weren’t a lot of sustainable options AND we would have to prove through science that a chosen protein works for dogs. We focused on crickets, of course, but the cherry on top is then convincing stores and consumers of cricket protein’s value. That’s a mountain of hard times.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The consequences of not finding sustainable food sources are so dire that you can’t separate them from the drive to continue. Both are a must. Every day’s news — rising oceans, worsening storm damage, drought, etc. — provides fuel for that drive. I’m amazed that we’re so slow to recognize this problem’s importance. You’d think food scarcity on a global level would make people shake in their boots, but I haven’t seen it yet. I will say — given the feedback we’ve received on Jiminy’s social media and in-person — that there are now glimmers of understanding of sustainability’s necessity.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We’re on a sharp upswing. From day one, we’ve been on a steady upswing, but it was somewhat flat back then. Now, with widening awareness, the ride has ratcheted up in speed, so it’s more fun. We have the happy problem of a backorder on our 10lbs bags of food. There’s a production run about to go, and it can’t start soon enough. Going through the early stages with little positive awareness of insect protein has definitely toughened me up. I don’t think it’ll get any harder than trying to convince a skeptical dog owner that a cricket is delicious, nutritious, sustainable, fights climate change, and can help with their dog’s allergies. It almost does sound unbelievable — but it’s all true!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Uh, we’re using crickets and black soldier fly larvae as our protein. Sorry, but that’s the easiest of your questions! I don’t have a story — it’s more like an anecdote but it does illustrate our experience with insect protein. From the beginning, the most common response I’ve gotten — from manufacturers, consumers, stores, distributors, you name it — is “Wait, what?” Even today, try calling any kibble manufacturer (except our manufacturers!) and tell them you want to use cricket protein in a dog treat and I’d bet there’s a good chance and you’ll hear “Wait, what?” in response.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Stay healthy. You’ll need the energy from beginning to end. I finally bought a Peloton bike and it’s been a revelation. I sleep better, I have more energy and I just feel stronger throughout the day. It’s a huge factor when you have day after day filled with meetings as well as confronting challenges that might not give you much warning. The funny thing is that previously I didn’t ride bikes in the wild as much as I would’ve liked. I’d taken to heart that broken arms and legs aren’t a good look for a CEO. Biking in place is more my speed.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I hope it doesn’t sound too off-putting but Jiminy’s success brings goodness to the world. We’re going to go from 7 billion people on the planet to 9.7 billion by 2050. Where are you going to get enough water and land to feed everyone? Jiminy’s has saved 116 million gallons of water this year because we use insect protein instead of traditional proteins. According to the USDA and the U.N., an acre of land to raise cattle for slaughter yields 20 pounds of usable protein. It’s completely inefficient. From peer-reviewed estimates supplied by the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, an acre of land used to raise grubs can produce more than 130,000 pounds of protein per year. Manufacturing a food that takes full advantage of precious farmland — along with the reduction of greenhouse gases and the humane treatment of animals — fills me with confidence that we’re bringing goodness to the world. Pet owners feeding Jiminy’s to their dogs can also feel good about the food’s protein source and know they’re helping to solve a tremendous problem. Jiminy’s brings optimism and real results.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Follow your “North Star.” It will keep you on course when you might lose your way. Early on we tried a recyclable bag, but it didn’t work. We loved the idea but couldn’t get the bag to look as good as our original bag. What was our North Star? It wasn’t making bags. It’s making dog food and treats that combat climate change. Because our protein is unusual, we need to present Jiminy’s products in their best light to consumers. If we’re not selling the food and treats, then we’re not combatting climate change, so we went back to our original material. We’ll revisit a recyclable bag. They’re important and seem to be getting better rapidly.
- Articulate your Vision of the Future. I’ve refined it as we’ve gone along, but it contains the same ideas from the start.
- Map out the road.
- Be Flexible. Nothing ever happens in a straight line. We had a recipe that we developed for our treats and, in our first test run, our co-packer forgot to put one of the ingredients in the treat. Well, we tested the treat with the dogs just for kicks, and they absolutely loved it. Instead of sticking to the original plan, we went forward with the “mistake” and used the forgotten ingredient in our next treat.
- Have Confidence. You’ve gone this far — trust in your strengths. Be self-aware and know when to ask for help.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
We’ve hit a growth stage new to us and have recently added people to our team. It’s a leap and it’s exciting to see new faces and feed off their enthusiasm for Jiminy’s. That said, I need to remember that they haven’t experienced yet all the trials and successes we’ve had in 3+ years. Those experiences are important to make good decisions for the company going forward — they’re the lumps taken that have made us better. We’ll try to get them familiar with that journey, but I know their journey will never be exactly the same. It’s important to let them own their projects, to back off and trust the reasons why we’ve hired them. We’re bringing in a lot of brainpower, so it’ll keep me from getting lost in the weeds. I’m eager to focus even more on the big picture. There’s also a lot of investment still to be locked in and I’d also like to investigate further all the benefits of insect protein for pets. That’s just a huge expenditure of time and focus.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something; you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
To go back to the example of the recyclable bag, it should have worked in the abstract. We were using the same manufacturer of our earlier bag and they had done an excellent job with it. They were confident and had experience and knowledge, so it seemed destined to work out fine. Yet abstract is abstract is abstract. It’s info that can help find a great starting point, and it can also offer a way forward, but you can’t wall yourself within it. NASA has teams of scientists and engineers along with the very best hardware and they’re constantly adjusting their plans. For example, a Jupiter probe making its way to that planet learns a comet is close. NASA will change it up and adjust its route to take some photos. They didn’t plan on that comet, but they’ll pounce on the new data and improve a given mission. Regarding Jiminy’s, if I had known while planning our social media rollout years ago that Tik Tok was going to be so big now, I would’ve accounted for it strategically to take better advantage. But the info I had at the time didn’t account for Tik Tok’s emergence. It’s certainly here now though and we’re adjusting to it on the fly. Early indications point to insect protein resonating within the community. It’s a young, smart, and aware group that knows full well the environmental issues facing them. We need to embrace flexibility to keep up.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’m enmeshed in a movement! We’re hoping Jiminy’s sparks a recognition that insect protein can solve world hunger. We think pets are a perfect introduction. It’s painless for the owners — your pet doesn’t care where the protein came from, they just want it to taste good. But that’s not the endgame with insect protein. We’ve been calling ourselves “The Gateway Bug” and it encapsulates our mission perfectly. Jiminy’s is a first step to create comfort and familiarity with insect protein, so people may take the next step and eat insect protein themselves. The amount of land and water saved would create a tectonic positive shift in the planet’s health. We can rid ourselves of food scarcity. There is another movement, however, that also intrigues me. It’s The Trillion Trees Project. I love the simplicity of planting enough trees to scrub our atmosphere of greenhouse gases. Again, it’s painless and I do really like trees — they’re home to lots of bugs! So, full circle.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
If they haven’t had enough already, there are so many ways! There’s always new news on the Jiminy’s website — www.jiminys.com — as well as Jiminy’s social media accounts: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn
And finally, my side project The Climate Change Diet is on Instagram