How a Leeds entrepreneur is planning to turn his petcare brand into a global name
Make flea treatment sexy – that was the brief that Jonny Gould gave to a London design agency when he launched his new online petcare subscription company, Itch, in the summer of 2019.
Against the odds, the creatives came up trumps, delivering eye-catching straplines such as “We see a flea, we Whippets backside”, and “Eat Shih-tzu and die, fleas”. One, “Treat your bitch with Itch”, was even referred to the Advertising Standards Authority following a single complaint, which was not upheld but helped boost Itch’s profile.
The brand went from zero to 24 per cent awareness amongst its target audience, and has enjoyed the kind of growth that sets investors’ tails wagging.
The Leeds-based business now employs 70 people, turns over £12m a year, and is set to launch in the US and mainland Europe in 2022. Last month, Barclays named it the UK’s Scale-up Entrepreneur of the Year.
“We’ve disrupted what was a very stagnant, pharmaceutical-led, white-coat space in flea treatment and worming treatment for dogs and cats – and it’s fun!” Gould told The Yorkshire Post from his office in Beeston.
Itch was born out of Gould’s other online firm, Monster Pet Supplies, whose biggest-selling item was a flea treatment that was just about to come off patent. He jumped at the opportunity and immediately cast around for a manufacturer that could make an own-brand version.
“Quite a few of them laughed me out the door,” he says. “And a few even asked me to write them a cheque for a million euros in order to open up a project.”
Eventually, he had another stroke of luck with Chanelle, Ireland’s biggest homegrown pharmaceutical company. The multinational is owned by Galway businessman Michael Burke and is named after his daughter, Chanelle, who was a dragon on the Irish Dragon’s Den and is married to legendary jockey Sir AP McCoy.
“They were opening a new plant in Ireland, so I flew over and told Lady Chanelle, ‘Look, I need your help. I need you to tell your dad that this is a great idea’ – and she did just that. So then I got a call to say, ‘We’re willing to give you a go. We usually don’t do this kind of stuff, but we like what you’re saying’.
“Roll on a couple of years and I’ve bought four or five million pipettes from them. So it was a good judgement call on their behalf, and I was quite proud of the way we got the gig. It was good fortune, good tactics, good timing – all those things just fell together nicely.”
Having raised £5m at launch in seed funding from Seedcamp and YYX Capital, Itch has moved well beyond just flea treatment, and is now repositioning itself as a “holistic 360-degree pet wellness business”.
“Take my own dog, Scooby,” says Gould. “We know everything about him: his age, his breed, his health condition, what flea treatment we should be giving him – so as you check out on the website, we’ve done all that thinking for you.
“And we talk to Scooby at every stage of his life, through push notifications via the app or emails. We proactively help all our subscribers with anything they may need, other than serious treatment, from ears to dental, to supplements, and we’ve got more products coming down the pipeline.
“So I started off solving a problem with fleas, but now as an Itch subscriber, I receive Scooby’s food, treatment for itchy ears, dental toothpaste and finger-brush, and even have access to a video vet. So there’s no need now for me to have to go anywhere else, because everything is wrapped up within Itch – and I can manage it all through an app.”
The company has even created a pet insurance product, Itch Insure, which is underwritten by French firm Cardif Pinnacle.
“The more proactive you are in taking care of your dog or cat, the more discount we give you off your premium,” says Gould. “There’s no-one else with this business model – that’s the absolute golden nugget in what we’re doing.”
One of the keys to the company’s success so far, says Gould, is the team behind it. His co-founders include direct-to-consumer entrepreneur James Cox (co-founder of Simba Sleep) and expert marketer Charlotte Harper (ex-CMO at Zoopla). The fourth founder is his own brother, Adam, a lawyer who left Gordons in Leeds to work with Jonny at Monster.
“It’s great knowing that you’ve got your blood brother there, making sure all the legal and venture capital side of things is taken care of,” says Gould, whose contribution to Itch is its creative spark – it was his idea – and entrepreneurial drive.
“I’ve always been wheeler-dealing. It’s in my DNA,” he says. “Itch is a lovely mix of a bit of madness in myself and a bit of control and sensible professionalism in my brother.”
The other factor in Itch’s rapid expansion has been its almost unlimited potential for growth, says Gould. The UK cat and dog food market is worth £2.7bn, according to PFMA Market Data, and research by Mintel shows the pet care market is set to reach £2.1bn by 2023.
“That’s the bit people really get excited about,” he says. “Wherever there are dogs and cats in this world, and I can get licences – which is not easy, but we’ve got them in Europe and for every state in the US, so it is possible – that is the scale potential here. Texas alone has more pets than the entire UK, so we really haven’t even touched the sides yet. There are half a billion pets in the world, so the scale potential is phenomenal.”
Little wonder, then, that he’s “obsessed” with the brand he’s created, and believes it could become a household name.
“I love the brand. It is so unique. People are looking at the word Itch not to mean ‘itch’, but rather as a brand now, and for me that gives us a great edge over anyone and anything else out there.
“My brother is the sensible one and will say, ‘Jonny, chill out. You can’t just go and launch in America’. But why not? Why not be a big global brand?
“I’m just focusing on Itch 100 per cent now, and I’m very much gunning for a unicorn-status business, born out of Beeston.”
CV: Jonny Gould
Born in Leeds in 1975, Jonny Gould went to Allerton High and Airedale and Wharfedale College. He took a BSc in Management Sciences from UMIST, writing a dissertation on the World Wide Web and teaching himself to code.
Offered a job as a merchant banker at Morgan Stanley in London, he lasted 24 hours before deciding to set up web developer Leaf International.
In 2010 he founded e-commerce retailer Monster Pet Supplies, which now turns over £12m a year.
In July 2019 he co-founded online petcare subscription firm Itch, which has already grown bigger than Monster.
He still lives in Leeds and is a Leeds United season ticket holder.