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Calmer second time around: Jeremy Moon

The Exit Interview

The founder of Icebreaker reveals what he learnt from his first global venture that he’s applying to his new one, Animals Like Us.


Fiona Rotherham

Jeremy Moon

Jeremy Moon founded clothing manufacturer Icebreaker in 1995 in his mid-twenties with just $25,000. It made garments from New Zealand merino wool, sourced under long-term contracts with local farmers. 

In 2018, he sold Icebreaker for $288 million to NYSE-listed VF Corporation – the company behind brands like The North Face, Vans and Timberland (Moon personally received $95 million).

After the sale Moon had an “overwhelming sense of relief”, relieved of the daily pressures of helping run a global company with multimillion-dollar revenues and thousands of staff across multiple countries. “I was kind of in shock for about a year because everything I had was tied to the business.”

A few years before the sale, Moon realised he’d achieved all three goals he set with Icebreaker: build an international brand from New Zealand, create a natural alternative to synthetics, and disrupt the outdoor industry away from plastics.

The problem was the entity relied on him rather than being driven by its own ethos, mission and purpose.

“I had to, for my own sanity and for the good of the business, start finding a way to withdraw myself from my reliance on the business for identity and sense of purpose. I had to try and unwind that and unwind its dependence on me.”

Former Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe initially joined as Icebreaker’s executive chair, then took the helm in 2014 from Moon, who swapped into the executive chair position, and of creative director. 

“After going through half my cellar with him eventually I convinced him he’d be a much better CEO than me. I was scared of being the entrepreneur that held on too long and I’d seen some great businesses fall flat for that reason.”

The pair worked out a plan to operate the business more effectively with additional structures and disciplines, strengthened the team, and clarified three-year brand and product strategies that improved performance.

“If I’d suddenly said ‘right, I’ve had enough, I’m going to sell it’ that would have been a big mistake because there were a lot of things we needed to put in place in order for it to be a really attractive business. Otherwise, it would have been loaded with risk.”

After a much-needed break and time spent with his young family, Moon teamed up again with Rob Achten, who had been vice-president of product for Icebreaker, and Progressive Meats founder Craig Hickson to found premium pet food manufacturer Animals Like Us in 2019.

Caffeine asked Moon what he learnt from his first global business that he’s taken into his second.

Where did the idea for premium pet food come from?

Rob said to me ‘I’ve just come back from China and you should see what’s happening with the pet industry over there. It’s absolutely exploding, it’s such an exciting industry and rich with innovation’. Then after the Covid lockdowns everyone went crazy for their animals. My background was in cultural anthropology and consumer behaviour and I thought it was fascinating these relationships between people and their animals were being redefined. 

Whenever there is change in consumer behaviour I get really excited because suddenly there is something happening at a societal level that historic businesses don’t really understand, so there are all kinds of gaps and opportunities that get revealed.

I love taking a natural New Zealand product, like meat in this case as opposed to superfine merino wool, and when I looked at the pet food brands I thought they are so fuddy-duddy and look like they were designed in the 90s. The insight work we did was that people were treating their animals much more like children, so we thought ‘they’re like us, they’re part of the family’ so that’s why we called it Animals Like Us.

Did it matter that you didn’t know anything about pet food?

We thought we knew nothing about dog food and didn't know how to make it, and don’t worry we can find that out; we don’t have a product in mind, don’t worry we can work that out; don’t have a brand, don’t worry, we can work that out. 

We just started with, pet food is an exciting space to be in and we were well qualified from New Zealand to do that, so let’s work it out. 

What were your first steps?

We did 18 months of prototyping and development. All the food was brown – brown biscuits. We used to get cornflakes when we were kids and they were brown and then Mum started buying muesli and it was really exciting. So how could we make a petfood that was like muesli instead of cornflakes? One of our insights was that overseas customers in particular were obsessed with how it looked and how it smelled, and that’s when we started experimenting and taking raw whole food and organs, and mixing it with a high-protein meat biscuit that we created. 

We then went back to China and the US and did digital consumer testing, which you can do now quite affordably. NZTE was great. They paid for half the market and insight work, and we worked out how to make the product exciting, tested prototypes of our brand and packaging, and people got it. The Americans needed a bit more help getting it but that was fine. We had too many messages, so we simplified the message and refined the packaging.  Our focus then turned to learning how to make this stuff. 

We started with a product market idea – we can make it look like muesli, we can use whole foods, we can freeze dry, it can be super-nutritious as we worked with a team of scientists at Massey which were amazing; we knew it was the best product out there and we thought we had a cool brand. 

But how do you get it to the consumer? Where are people buying? Rather than go into the first store and try and sell it we thought what have we learned? The big thing that VF [that acquired Icebreaker] taught me was to be very intentional about your channel strategy. They talked a lot about where to play and how to win. 

Firstly, we looked at whether to sell through stores or sell direct: B2C or B2B2C. When we looked at the direct businesses…that whole business model was becoming out of favour. People are realising it's actually really hard to build a customer base. We thought, we know and like wholesale and in supermarkets there’s definitely a gap because they only had cheap stuff and in pet stores there’s definitely a gap because they had cheap stuff or really expensive stuff. We found the space in the middle. 

We did two formulations. One was a very good product, which could be the best in supermarkets, which has a 30 percent raw component. We pitched it to Foodstuffs…..people say how scary supermarkets are but they were fantastic and when we had proof of concept we went to Countdown as well. We got a really good mass distribution product and then we did a premium version which was 50 percent raw and went to specialty stores and they sold like hotcakes. 

We learned that from Nike; they have good, better, best products and stratify the product system by channel. That’s the where to play, how to win. Winning in grocery is totally different to winning in pet specialty, so we had to do all the consumer insight work and understand the customer base and what it takes to win in those channels. We then replicated that model in Australia with Woolworths earlier this year.

Where is next?

We have a great New Zealand/Australia distribution plan and that’s going to continue to grow and build a really strong brand, a really good company. But to build a great company, we have to be successful in offshore markets because New Zealand and Australia, for what we want to do, aren't big enough.

With Icebreaker I started selling in Canada, and small parts of Europe because they were friendly and spoke good English. I started in small markets and then suddenly we were in 12 countries within two years and then 20 and then 30 and then we had our own retail stores, we were selling online, and we were supplying all these different outdoor stores. And we were working in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere and designing three seasons in advance. 

It was mind-blisteringly complex and I said I’m never doing that again. We’re going to keep a very focused product line, we’re only going to work in two channels – grocery and specialty – and we’re going to put all our bets in a couple of markets: China and the US.

But because we’re a small company, we really want to win in one, not sell a bit of stuff and then move to another and sell a bit of stuff. It’s really hard to win in a market – to go from zero to $100 million in three or four years. 

The US market is about US$50 billion for dog food alone, not even cat food. We thought the US market is huge and they speak English and we get it and we’ve done business there before … so we’re putting all our resources behind the US and then we’ll continue to understand and monitor China. We won’t go there until we feel like it’s going to be friendlier in five years, not less friendly. At the moment, our bet is it’s going to be less friendly in five years in China and when you make a big investment, you can’t undo that.

When are you going to the US?

2024. We’re taking orders now and are starting in specialty just because the market is so massive. We have individual customers in specialty that are three times the size of Foodstuffs.

How are you funding that? Are you looking for external funding?

No, we have no external funding. Craig, Rob and I are three roughly equal shareholders.

Are you also keeping the product mix much more narrow?

We’ve done a lot of work on how to have enough choice to meet our customers’ needs without having many SKUs [stock keeping units] or having many pack sizes, because most businesses run out of cash because they have too much tied up in inventory and debtors. We’re trying to keep our number of SKUs pretty lean: two pack sizes, three flavours, two variants, which is really different to Icebreaker, which has 1,200 different stock sizes every season. 

So the big lesson is do your homework before you go offshore?

Consumer research and channel research – what is the size of that US$50 billion? How much is sold in grocery and how much in pet specialty? How do you segment the pet specialty store? What brands are selling what, where? 

When we did that, we found really big gaps. When we did sales by price point there was this whole price point, which isn’t being addressed. Rob set up this amazing piece of consumer research and it cost about $12,000 for a sample size of 100 consumers from our four biggest potential customers. We did digital surveys and they did a video and gave us feedback about the product concept. We got all these quotes and we used them to go back to the buyers and say ‘hey, this is what your customers are saying about the product’ and that was really powerful. 

Nick Mowbray from Zuru has really taught me a lot about how to be really persuasive in a sales pitch, and the one takeout is to know the market better than the buyers by having everything you say backed up by data and consumer insights. We did that. It probably cost an extra $30,000 or so to buy all the data and stuff but we thought we’d rather invest that money before we’ve delivered any product and go in totally prepared against the 10 pitches that are going to define our whole future than kick the wheels because the upside, the return on that investment, is tens of millions.

Does your Icebreaker success make it easier when pitching for the new venture?  

On the first round with Icebreaker there was such a blind passion, that’s what persuaded people. My conviction was so emotional and so deep that they thought, ‘I’ll back this guy’. Now it’s a completely different pitch – it’s very calm, it’s very focused, and it’s like ‘these guys actually know what they’re doing’. Any objection and we’ve got an answer. We’ve been through the wringer so many times with business we’re quite unflappable now. It’s different and no one is better – as you get older, you get calmer and more focused, but you trade off that wild, youthful exuberance and your ability to work all day and night. 

What is your ultimate goal with Animals Like Us?

I want to build a really successful international brand from New Zealand, using a New Zealand raw material that we’re really proud of, and which has global impact. This impact is around improving the quality of animals’ lives. 


Fiona Rotherham

Fiona Rotherham has worked at numerous business publications as editor, co-editor and senior journalist. Her passion for startups was sparked while working at former entrepreneur magazine Unlimited of which she was also editor.

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