In this interview with Ivan Retzignac, he talks about starting his business almost 5 years after writing his original business plan. How did Ivan go from having a background in finance to starting a company in the pets/health industry? Find out in our chat below.
Ivan Retzignac is the co-founder of MedicAnimal and this is his story.
Hi Ivan, Thanks for doing this. How are you doing today?
Hi Joseph, doing great. I’m happy to have this opportunity to share my experience at MedicAnimal with your readers and hope it will motivate other entrepreneurs to start new ventures.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
I’m 38, married with three young kids. Until starting MedicAnimal, my background was strictly in finance. I studied Economics in University, worked in equity research for a few years, and in 2000 I had the opportunity to join a US venture capital fund at the peak of the internet boom.
I got to see the peak and much of the aftermath of the busting of the “bubble”, which was probably one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had with respect to starting a business. I went back to business school and got my MBA from Columbia Business School and in the summer between my two years of MBA I interned at Goldman Sachs in London, on the Sales & Trading floor.
I got a job offer to join GS at the end of the summer so when I went back to Columbia for my second year, I took a year-long course which was a sort of incubator, where I wrote the business plan for MedicAnimal and started working on the business.
However, after graduating, I had tens of thousands of dollars of debt to pay off and so I decided to take the job at GS, where I first traded Credit Derivatives and ultimately Commodities. It wasn’t until almost 4 years of being at GS that I started MedicAnimal…almost 5 years after writing the business plan.
How did the idea for MedicAnimal come about?
The idea for MedicAnimal actually came from when I was working in venture capital in the US. I came across several US online retailers of pet medicines that had started in the mid and late 1990s and realised that the space was quite attractive for a number of reasons, even in the context of the dot-com crash. In bought stock in one of the companies, which was publicly traded and as I learned more about the industry and the company grew, I made a great return on my investment and decided that it was worth exploring further.
What made you think of getting involved in this space?
The main reason for starting MedicAnimal was that I felt that all the online businesses in this space that already existed were flawed in one major way: As they were selling products that are typically only sold by veterinarians, they focused their energy on growing at the expense of vets, by vilifying them or making customers choose between purchasing products more cheaply with them or through the vet. I thought that there needed to be an alternative that did not alienate the vet but rather served as a complementary service to the care that vets provide.
When I wrote the business plan for MedicAnimal, it was a plan based on a vet-centric approach to the market and also focused on Europe as opposed to the US. As I mentioned though, almost 5 years passed from when I wrote the business plan to when Andrew Bucher, my business partner, and I started the business.
We started it because we saw that the UK was evolving in the same way that the US had evolved, where purely commercial and arguably anti-vet sites were popping up and we saw an opportunity to offer an alternative business model that if successful could be more sustainable and positive for the entire sector.
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
Wow, the early days were really tough but extremely exciting and energising! Not everyone is hardwired to be a founder of a business and I’m not sure that I am but I was lucky enough to come across my business partner, Andrew, who was a vet and shared the idealistic “vet-friendly” focus that made MedicAnimal different but more importantly was much more the typical entrepreneur than I was. We hit it off almost immediately and realised that we were perfect complements of each other but shared the same values and vision.
I thought I was quite optimistic, tenacious and energetic until I met Andrew, who was much more so. We split what is typically the “founder” role in two, where he took care of the product, suppliers and operations, and I looked after the finance, strategy and marketing. What made the early days easier was the fact that there were two of us: one was always there to pick the other up when we were feeling very low or kick the others’ ass when productivity or enthusiasm dropped and the workload wasn’t nearly as overwhelming. Until then I wasn’t a big advocate of partnerships but in retrospect, it seems a much more sensible way of starting a business.
What is MedicAnimal? And what are you trying to solve with it?
MedicAnimal is an online retailer of all the products that domesticated animals may need to live long, healthy lives. We focus on diet, preventative health care, accessories, and medicines (both prescription and non-prescription)…basically a “Boots” or a “Whole Foods” equivalent for the domesticated animal (we have quite a lot of equine and farm animal clients) space. Typically these products are only sold by vets and are not available in pet shops or supermarkets, so the basic problem is one of convenience: customers often but don’t always know that they could be taking better care of their pets by buying and using these products but the main problem is that it’s inconvenient to always have to make a trip to the vet clinic to buy these products.
Consider how often you would use toothpaste if you could only buy it at your dentists’ clinic. So we offer the greatest range of products, online, delivered free of charge, direct to the customers’ home. We buy in very large quantities, much larger than single or even group of vet clinics and pass those savings back to the consumer, which is increasingly important in the context of an economic downturn.
How have you been able to fund it?
We’ve always been very well funded, which has arguably been a competitive advantage for us but it was all possible because we have always been extremely focused on building a long-term, sustainable and market leading business, let me explain: First, the business plan wasn’t one of a “quick flip” or a lottery ticket, we really thought hard about how we solved the problems of all the stake-holders in our industry and how we could add a great deal of value their businesses over the long term.
Second, we focused as large a geographic market as possible, in our case, all of Western Europe.
Third, we hired the absolutely best team possible and gave away whatever equity was necessary to bring those people on board.
Fourth, we built for scale – every time we did something we asked whether we would do it differently if there was 10x more volume involved and asked whether we should be doing things that way from the start and if not, at what point we would begin changing processes so that we could grow without too much of a hitch.
Finally, we “burnt our ships” – we invested all our own money, quit all other jobs/opportunities and focused full-time on MedicAnimal. In short, we funded the business more easily because we were able to prove to potential investors that we were focused on 1) creating long-term value in the industry; 2) attacking the largest possible market; 3) with the best possible team; and 4) strategy/processes/tools that could scale; and that 5) we were “all-in” at a personal, financial and professional level – this last element was probably the most important.
What sorts of advice do you having for entrepreneurs looking to raise money for their start-ups?
Apart from the 5 points I just mentioned: First, don’t start a business for a better lifestyle because it’s usually the opposite.
Second, don’t worry too much about valuations or how much money you want to make – if you’re successful (and we’re not there yet either, by the way) then it will come and in the meantime accept that you’ll live the life of a dirt-poor entrepreneur, cutting costs wherever possible and often not even drawing a salary.
Third, focus on creating value for others – show how what you’re trying to do is going to create value for as many other people and businesses as possible, beginning with your suppliers and customers.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
Because we had waited, planned, worked and thought so long and hard about MedicAnimal before starting the business, actually pulling the trigger (putting the site online) was nothing less than a moment of ecstasy. It was probably magnified by the fact that my wife and I had a baby that same week. Everything felt incredible, it was finally happening…and it was a huge release. That feeling hasn’t really gone away for me or for Andrew since but for sure it comes and goes in waves and very soon after the first few months, the excitement was overshadowed by the sheer amount of work and mind-numbing monotony of much of our daily tasks at the time, including packing every single order into boxes and standing in line at the post office every night to mail them.
One of the greatest benefits of having a partner in the venture is that we feed off each other’s excitement and we’re able to keep it going longer and more often. Another great benefit is that it’s rare for entrepreneurs to take the time to reflect on what has been achieved and enjoy the process and with another person to share it with it’s great fun to have a drink and discuss our progress and what challenges we’re excited to tackle.
How did you initially get traction?
In ecommerce, in my opinion, there’s no substitute to addressing a screaming consumer demand. In the end our business is all about making products that customers want to buy more accessible and removing all potential obstacles to maximise convenience. We gained traction quickly and early on by seeing this need in the market and realising that the main obstacle in the past for companies in our space was that in their effort to stimulate sales they alienated vets, the gatekeepers of our sector.
Doing so meant that they were inherently making the purchase process more difficult for the customer. We saw this strategy as an obstacle to convenience and something that needed to be addressed but in the early stages, it was a long-term bet, not one that we could see immediate benefits of.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
Focus on building the best possible team and ensuring we have adequate funding to execute our business plan.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
Knowing that we have been a small contributor in effecting a change in the veterinary and pet health sector. The idea that we are making the lives of millions of people better by helping them understand how they can take better care of what is often the most important being in their lives is a worthy endeavour.
What should we be expecting from yourself and the MedicAnimal team for 2013?
This year we will be profitable, which is a difficult task for a company that has been so long and so intensely focused on growth. It’s important to us only in as much as it’s proof that a more inclusive and positive business model can be the winning model in our space, rather than a ruthlessly commercial one that disregards the veterinary profession.
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
1) You’ll never have the perfect idea or execution. Pick a space or sector, ensure it has enough attractive elements to create a business and just focus on answering all the questions that point to how you can create value in the industry.
2) Don’t do it for the money. If you’re successful it will come, if you’re focused only on that element it often will not. So focus on building something and do it for the pleasure of the problem you are solving and the experience.
3) Build the best possible team and go all-in.