Startup founder shifts from snow removal to pet toys

· The Pulse

Sheldon Zhang had never given much thought to the pet-product industry. On the face of it, it seems pretty different from Yardly, the home services company he co-founded in 2015 and sold last summer.

But then he was approached by Eddie Li, the founder and former CEO of Injoya, a Michigan company that creates enrichment toys like snuffle mats for dogs. Li pitched the idea of a business-to-business marketplace for pet products, and that piqued Zhang's interest.

"We decided with his pet-industry experience and my experience in the marketplace, we can build a pet-product marketplace," Zhang told Taproot.

And so the two men founded Preet, an online wholesaler that allows independent brands selling pet supplies to list their products in hopes of grabbing the attention of store owners and groomers across North America.

Li had spent years working in the industry, "witnessing firsthand how inefficient it is" to get products into stores through a combination of trade shows, sales reps, and distributors, Zhang said.

"This is an industry that could benefit from a marketplace in the middle that connects all the pieces," he observed.

There's definitely a need, said Hillary Sweet, co-founder and CEO of Kidney-Chek, an Edmonton-area company that helps pet owners monitor the health of their cats and dogs.

"I think that there's a unique opportunity in this space to really provide a pet-focused, high-end experience for both the manufacturers like myself and then also the retailers," she told Taproot, noting that it's important for it to be user-friendly for the businesses involved.

A sample of dog toys for sale on the Preet website, shaped like an artichoke, a pizza, a lotus flower, a cookie, and a four-leaf mat

Preet's website is live now, representing products from a few vendors, including co-founder and CEO Eddie Li's first company, Injoya. (Preet)

Selling directly to pet owners would put Preet in competition with traditional brick-and-mortar retailers and e-commerce sites. Rather, it aims to connect smaller creators of pet products and independent retailers.

"We decided that we want to empower these retailers and support them in having these neighbourhood stores," Zhang said. "Most of our work is tailored around their needs, rather than the consumers."

Preet already has close to 20 brands listed on its website and is launching to its waitlist of about 1,000 retailers across North America in batches over the next month, Zhang said. Retailers can join for free right now; Preet takes a cut from each sale it facilitates.

While the first phase of development is focused on the marketplace, Preet has plans to develop software-as-a-service tools and fintech products "to further empower the brands and retailers in the future," Zhang added. That gets the company a little closer to the interests Zhang expressed shortly after selling Yardly.

They've worked hard to connect with sellers and retailers in large, American markets from the get-go "because we don't want to miss the marketing opportunity by being cautious," he said.

It helps that he and Li are both second-time business owners, giving them a better handle on scaling up early on. They were able to get off the ground quickly with help from contacts in Silicon Valley, including UpHonest Capital, which Zhang thanked for making the connections that made Preet possible. A funding announcement is coming soon, he said.

"Our progress is similar to what I accomplished in Yardly in a couple of years," he said, noting the challenges of scaling up a business that depends on labour and is affected by the seasons. Preet won't face those kinds of hurdles.

"This time, the approach is very much different. We will become much less limited by seasonality, by climate, or by geography," he said. "We're building a unicorn new business. We wouldn't settle for anything less."

Meanwhile, Yardly continues to connect homeowners in need of lawn care and snow removal with service providers. The company, which operates in several cities across Canada, recently hired Lazina Mckenzie to be its vice-president.