founder

FluentPet Founder Leo Trottier on Giving Animals a Voice

Introduction

Animal rescue organizations reported an increase in adoptions ranging somewhere between 15% to 40% in 2020. According to Rover.com, around 93% of these adopters said that their “pandemic pet” improved their mental or physical wellbeing during quarantine. And 90% of dogs adopted during the pandemic are still living with their new families. All of these new pets only increase humans’ interest in getting closer to their furry friends.

FluentPet is a new way for owners to improve communication with their pets. Informed by discoveries in cognitive science, FluentPet helps owners teach their pets how to “talk” by pressing buttons associated with words. We reached out to company founder and CEO Leo Trottier to hear more about the company’s origins and its future plans.

Note: This interview was conducted over phone and email. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Zee Zhong

In your own words, how would you describe your company?

Leo Trottier

FluentPet is a company dedicated to realizing the potential of the animals we live with. We currently do this by selling tools that give people new ways to communicate with the dogs and cats in their lives, and our strong sales serve to support rigorous research into the phenomenon of interspecies communication.

Zee Zhong

What inspired you to take the leap and start this company?

Leo Trottier

In 2010, Microsoft released the Kinect, a depth camera that made it into millions of homes. The “aha moment” was the realization that this kind of consumer depth camera was really the first computer interface appropriate for use by dogs and cats. Combined with the fact that most homes have broadband internet access, fast computers, large displays, and excellent audio systems, all of which sit idle while people are away, this meant that every home had the potential to become a fun, interactive, and dynamic place for the dogs and cats who would have otherwise been stuck there all day. In addition, the behavior data that we would acquire from millions of these systems and the discoveries that would be involved in building computer games for dogs would each open up entirely new horizons in our understanding of how other minds work and provide clear and present demonstrations of their potential. It felt as though our offering was something that needed to exist.

Zee Zhong

Who is on your team and how did you come together?

Leo Trottier

The core team is myself, founder and CEO; Jelmer Tiete, our lead engineer; and Kellie Marks, manager of the How.TheyCanTalk.org community. Jelmer and I started working together in 2019, when we were open-sourcing the computer games we had built for CleverPet. He had been an early CleverPet customer and loved the hardware we’d built, and we soon started collaborating. Kellie joined the team in August 2020. She had previously been at Nokia and Microsoft, but when I was reintroduced to her, she was running a dog daycare.

Zee Zhong

How is FluentPet transforming the pet learning industry?

Leo Trottier

We think FluentPet is helping to create the new category of “intelligent pet” by combining community, social media, software, and science to successfully demonstrate new capabilities in the animals we live with. We’ve partnered with a leading academic research lab, and we are working with other leaders in the interspecies communication community to help make public the data that we’re collecting.

Zee Zhong

What is your marketing strategy and how is it working out so far?

Leo Trottier

We have a community-first marketing strategy in which we find and nurture individuals who can act as “guides” who post success with FluentPet buttons to social media, earning a commission when customers click on the links they provide. To this end, we’ve recruited a large portion of the most successful online button users, including @whataboutbunny, who has nearly 1 million followers on Instagram and over 7 million followers on TikTok, and this approach has led to sales since launch of more than $6 million. We’re also grateful for the attention we’ve received in the press, with dozens of articles in venues such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among others.

Zee Zhong

What does the competitive landscape look like, and how do you differentiate?

Leo Trottier

There are now a number of companies copying our product itself, but none have built out a base of guides (what others call “affiliates”), an online community, a significant online e-commerce page, or comprehensive instructions on how to be successful in teaching buttons. We’re also the only product on the market to use a hexagonal shape for organizing talking buttons, a distinctive aspect of our design that we have filed extensive intellectual property protection around. 

Zee Zhong

How do you intend to use the money you raise this round to scale the business?

Leo Trottier

Funds raised will go to research and development, marketing, and scientific research. We are pushing to aggressively grow and expand by releasing multiple new products in the first half of 2022, including connected hardware that will integrate with the FluentPet mobile app. We will also be hiring a seasoned marketer who is able to pull together a team able to 10x FluentPet’s revenue. Lastly, we will use a portion of our raise to directly fund the team of four on-staff FluentPet researchers, who are applying rigorous experimental techniques to the question of what dogs and others are “doing” when they touch buttons.

Zee Zhong

What do you want potential investors to know about you and/or your company?

Leo Trottier

We are cash flow positive and have seen sustained monthly growth exceeding 10% since June. We have been able to fund research and development of multiple entirely new products and a new mobile app out of free cash flow. The reason we’ve been able to do this is through a disciplined approach to keeping product costs down (and margins healthy) as well as successfully avoiding performance marketing ad spend. 

Zee Zhong

As you think about the business 5-10 years down the road, what do you see exit opportunities looking like? Have you set any future goals for the company?

Leo Trottier

Our goal is to grow the company as quickly as possible, expanding our offerings beyond our current product line into a range of connected intelligent pet products throughout the home. We have already sold kits to over 50,000 customers, and I believe we could see FluentPet in over 1 million homes in 2023. Further down the line, we see opportunities for liquidity from private equity, a special purpose acquisition company partnership, or a potential partnership with one of the large pet brands. 

We look forward to seeing where Leo and his team take the company. FluentPet is currently raising on Republic.

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