As a kid, animals were a constant presence for Daniel Rotman. His family had the usual household pets, but also turtles, rabbits, and even a goat in the backyard. Not exactly a common sight in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

But it was a cat named Gingi that stole Rotman’s heart. A gift from his sister on his 10th birthday, Gingi was by Rotman’s side from junior high all the way through college. When Gingi was 15, and Rotman 25, her health took a sudden and unexpected turn. Gingi’s passing left a mark, of course, but little did Rotman realize that she would one day spark a business idea.

After grad school and a wide-ranging early career in business, politics, and philanthropy, Rotman found himself back in LA in 2015. Flashing back to Gingi’s experience, he came up with the concept for PrettyLitter—a lightweight kitty litter that changes colors if a cat is having health issues, in hopes of catching them early.

Fast forward to today, PrettyLitter is a fast-growing, direct-to-consumer brand capturing a bigger and bigger share of the $3 billion kitty litter market and the broader $90 billion pet-supply market. While dogs tend to get the limelight, Rotman saw an overlooked opportunity. He was quick to point out that when he started the business, there were 95 million pet cats in the United States compared to 88 million dogs, 40% of households owned a cat, and 50% of those with cats had more than one, while most dog households only had one.

And while COVID-19 has brought the expected work/life challenges for Rotman and his team, sales continue to soar, with consumers looking for as many home delivery options as possible and an increasing openness to new brands.

We recently caught up with Rotman to learn more about PrettyLitter’s growth path and his advice to other founders during pandemic and beyond.

So this all started with Gingi.

She lived a good long life. But at the very end, she went from being her normal, sweet, affectionate self and became lethargic. She stopped eating almost overnight. She went to the vet, and after some extensive testing, she had a terminal illness. I spent the next six months trying to extend her life and quality of life. I found that experience to be really disheartening. I found out from the vet that this was a very common occurrence. By nature, cats are stoic. They hide illness. So owners might be unaware until it’s too late.

How did Gingi’s process lead to the idea for a “smart” kitty litter?

I thought it was interesting, that as often as the vet would do blood diagnosis, he was interested in urinary analysis too. It’s a very important indicator. It got the lightbulbs going in my head: What can I do to help cat owners? Which, by the way, is 40 percent of the U.S. population. What can we do to help cat owners be more proactive in their cats’ health?

Then I thought, what can we do to turn the litter box into a lifesaver, a health-monitoring early-detection tool? Inspired by the idea of litmus tests, I set out to create a litter that would have health indicators, as well as any presence of blood. And if anything is out of the ordinary, the litter would turn to a different color when the cat pees.

You’re the kind of entrepreneur who saw something wrong in the marketplace and decided to build upon it. Sure, kitty litter has existed forever, but why not make it more useful? How has PrettyLitter resonated?

The concept of it is digestible—the litter changes color, that totally makes sense. It’s a concept that can be easily understood, the impact is obvious, it just seems like a no-brainer. It’s addressing a product that is a true pain point. Beyond health monitoring, I was not interested in making PrettyLitter some niche product. I wanted to take on the litter category, in which there are a lot of big players. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry alone. And it’s been a category lacking in innovation and lacking in disruption. To me, here’s this product that is an open toilet in people's homes. Everyone disdains kitty litter, and yet, when you go through the aisle, it’s a very underwhelming event.

I saw an opportunity there. So, in addition to the health monitoring, we wanted to make this super lightweight. It was the first direct-to-consumer delivery kitty litter. The reason it didn’t exist, it was just too heavy. A month’s supply can weigh 28 pounds. But we were able to create PrettyLitter almost 60% lighter, so that allowed us to make it light enough to ship directly. Similar to razors for men, feminie hygiene products, it’s a staple that you need. We made it virtually dust free, too, with odor controls. Most importantly, we created kitty litter that will tell you if your cat is sick before your cat tells you.

I love cats too, which can feel like a controversial statement, because dogs always get top billing. You saw that as an opportunity.

All the attention goes to dogs. Here are cat owners representing 40% of the U.S. population, but cats are always looked at as the stepchild of pets. Why isn’t there a better representation? If everyone else wants to focus on dogs, that’s fine by us.

2020 obviously took a sharp turn for all of us. How has the pandemic affected PrettyLitter and how did you keep moving forward?

We had set up our 2020 and 2021 plans already. PrettyLitter was on track in Q1 to hit our goal. Also, PrettyLitter keeps a surplus supply in our warehouses, so if there was a pop in demand for our product or, for example—I don’t know—a global pandemic shuts down the world, we were ready.

We were on track for doing what we were doing. What ended up happening as a result of COVID, a product like PrettyLitter that is delivered to your door, a pet health product, a household essential, obviously we saw a noticeable increase in demand. Kitty litter being delivered is essential these days. Like toilet paper, people started to hoard pet supplies. It made more sense than ever for those who were curious to try it too. Fortunately, we’ve been able to meet that demand.

What’s your advice to other founders who continue to find their way amid all this?

For those who find themselves in the fortunate position to meet the needs of consumers right now, I think there is a fundamental question everyone is asking: How much should we be focused on growth versus cash flow and spend?

I think they should be focused on a healthy balance. There is room for companies that make a product in demand now. You want to be able to accelerate the growth where you can. But there's a lot of unknowns now. So how you spend your cash now will impact the next few months.

We want to be cognizant of whether this is the same kind of customer as pre-COVID. What’s their behavior and interaction going to be with our company? Are the customers you have now going to be the customers down the road?

I suggest erring on the side of conservative, because if you’re still able to be near or at the goal you had at the beginning of the year, that’s all that much more remarkable.

My advice is, if you’re still able to accomplish that original goal, while being thoughtful about your cash flow, that’s a better position to be in, because if you’re still near that goal, that will be all the more impressive and notable accomplishment. If you were still able to do X growth even after COVID, it will be all the more accomplishment.

In almost every conversation I have these days, I make a point of asking the same question: Forget business for a minute. How are you doing as a person?

I feel concerned for my mother. I’m concerned that she’s in the age population that is particularly vulnerable to this virus. I’m making sure that she’s staying indoors. I feel stir crazy a little bit. The sun is shining and I’m trying to take advantage of that. I’m trying to take care of my psychological health. I write, I meditate, I’m trying new activities. It’s an uncomfortable position to be in. It weighs on me. As does my father, who lives abroad. We’re OK, we stay in touch, we FaceTime all the time. With my friends, we have happy hours. We have trivia games we play together. Doing my best to get outside with the mask on. We’ll get through it.

With my team, we do a lot of things through Zoom to stay connected. Every Friday, we do a happy hour. We’ve had three birthday parties with cake shipped to their door. We’re trying to stay as connected as possible. We got some things from the office, replicating it at their homes. Plants like we have in the office. We bought them comfortable chairs. We did everything to keep them comfortable. We have a mandate that all meetings have to be through video. We’re still at work, we’re still showing up, we’re still working hard.

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