Pet Insight caught up with Chris Bessent, founder of the supplement company Herbsmith to discuss what encouraged Bessent to work in the pet industry and how the company differentiates from other pet supplement manufacturers.
PI: What influenced you to work in the pet industry?
CB: The reason I was interested in getting into the pet industry was really out of a want to extend my knowledge further than the patients I could see everyday. I would see patients six and a half days of the week and then as many patients as I could in a day, and I felt that I had a number of really wonderful herbal formulas that were very safe, easy to use, easy to understand and easy to apply. There are a number of really wonderful retailers in this area of Wisconsin, and I felt that by partnering with really good holistically-minded independent retailers I could extend my positive influence to more animals in my lifetime than by just practicing veterinary medicine. So that really is where it came from – I had been using herbs in practice for 20-plus years and knew how to apply them, how safe they were and how well they worked. I felt like if I got it out to the world by partnering with good retailers, I could have a positive effect on more dogs and more cats than I would ever physically be able to see in my lifetime. It really has come true. It really has been an amazing partnership. Everyday someone calls and says my pet is better than it has ever been because of our supplements, and I think that’s fabulous because I’ve never even met that dog but yet my knowledge has been a positive influence on his life. So that was really the root of it. At that point, I started Herbsmith. I partnered with another company that had the financial backbone to be able to take us to the global market. And then I had the knowledge, the information and the formulas and that’s how Herbsmith evolved.
PI: What prompted you to found Herbsmith?
CB: We had an over the counter line which is for holistically-minded pet retailers and then we also had a Herbsmith RX line which is for holistic veterinarians. The nice thing is I spend my day talking with other holistic veterinarians as well as holistic independent retailers. With Herbsmith we’ve been able to extend that knowledge to other holistic veterinarians as well as independent retailers so that’s really how Herbsmith was founded, and it really has been its mission to this day.
PI: How does Herbsmith differentiate from competitors?
CB: That we’re so unique. We’re a very unique company in that the formulas that we use are ones that are tried and true and have been used in our clinical practice for 20-plus years, and the ones we’ve developed from that point forward have all been formulas for products that I, as a veterinarian, felt really needed to be on the market. There wasn’t a product out there that fully addressed it. For example, micro flora is probiotics, prebiotics, digestive enzymes and stomach-soothing herbs – that’s four products that are all in one for dogs that have GI upset, which great for the average person who likely wouldn’t know which component of their pet’s GI upset is affected. My way of thinking was let’s make a product that is better than anything else that’s out there, that’s complete as physically as possible to address those issues or health concerns for dogs and do it at a price that people could afford. That’s how we look at the production of a product – is there a need for it in the market and will it do what it says it will do? And that was huge. I’m not saying other competitors don’t have veterinary influence, but that is what really drives us as a company.
PI: Who do you view as Herbsmith’s primary competition?
CB: My view of my primary competition is different than you would think. I don’t think of competition as necessarily one company squashing another, I really think of it as looking at it as a whole. Seeing it as who I’m trying to compete with are the companies that produce bad products, companies that aren’t fulfilling that need for that pet and companies that don’t produce products that have enough active ingredients. Companies that have such a small amount of active ingredients in their products, they have a tremendous amount of money to advertise and give away free stuff. In the end, who benefits? In that situation, the company does. For me, I think the individual who should benefit from any venture that we do should be the pet. So I feel who am I personally competing with? I’m competing with bad products on the market out there and trying to get good products going. If you look at it from another perspective and say who’s your primary competition as far as supplement companies go, there are some wonderful supplement companies out there, and I don’t think of them as competition, I think of them as all of us pulling in the same direction. Supplement companies like Animal Essentials – they’re a wonderful company and they produce fabulous products, and I know that their mindset is just like mine, let’s get really good products out to the market so that people have options for proactive care of their dogs and those dogs are going to need less pharmaceuticals with all the negative side effects. But if they need pharmaceuticals for surgery, good companies like ours and Animal Essentials are preparing that animal so that their foundation of health is really good so they can respond better to the pharmaceuticals or heal quicker from the surgeries.
PI: What would you consider the company’s flagship product or line?
CB: Our initial product line was the Herbsmith line of herbs that were condition specific. Herbs that addressed an animal’s problem or supported health and wellness. It really was our condition specific line. From that, we wondered what we could provide for dogs and cats to just support health and good healthy dogs and cats, and that’s where the next line of products came in.
PI: Does Herbsmith have a stronger presence in some regions more so than other regions? How is Herbsmith addressing this?
CB: Yes, absolutely. We have a great presence in the Midwest because most people in the Midwest know that all of these products came from my clinical practice and most people know me as a veterinarian. So that gives them some credibility and the spirit of Herbsmith. We don’t have as great of coverage in the far Northeast and the far Northwest, and we’re slowly but surely working our way into those markets as well. I think that word of mouth keeps spreading within independent retailers talking to each other as well as consumers talking to each other. We’ve put all of our money into really good products, so we don’t have as much money to put into tons of advertising and commercials and things like that. So it’s kind of expected that it takes a little longer to spread across the country because it’s not based upon flashy, showy things, but instead based upon results.
PI: What are some of the biggest challenges facing the overall pet industry?
CB: My personal feeling is the supplement side of the pet industry is a mantra that I’ve said over and over again, is that the industry needs differentiation between window dressing of active ingredients and therapeutic levels of active ingredients. Window dressing means that enough, for example, of glucosamine is put in the product so it has a presence in the product therefore it can be all over the package, but it’s not nearly at the level that would be beneficial to the pet. Those products compete against good supplements and there are many good ones out there that have adequate levels to actually support joint health. Therapeutic is probably not the best word to use because it implies therapy, it implies treatment, but there’s not a great word that really describes that. So is “optimal level” a word that would probably be best? Maybe. I think the pet industry for supplements needs to have some clarification there – what’s the difference between window dressing, just enough to be able to put it on the label, and what the level that is recommended to cause the effect? Window dressing is negative to the supplement industry and the independent holistic retailers. That’s why the focus of Herbsmith is education. If I can teach retailers the right amount that should be used, they can teach consumers and then if people know better, than they will buy better.
PI: How does Herbsmith work with retailers?
CB: We work really well with those wonderfully educated, holistically minded stores that have the same basic principles that Herbsmith does – that it’s all about the pet. The products that they sell need to be ones that are going to provide the effects to the pet because that’s what they deserve. Those are the retailers that we work the best with. Those are the people that are seeking knowledge and education. I would say we’re in a wonderful space in time right now where supporting health and wellness is up to the independent retailers. There’s this wonderful opportunity for retailers to support health and wellness and the ones that we work with the best are the ones that are seeking the knowledge and we’re trying to provide it. That’s where my history as a veterinarian and our mindset of a company is trying to accomplish that.