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 is quick to point out that there are 95 million pet cats in the United States compared to 88 million dogs, 40% of households own a cat, 50% of those with cats have more than one, while most dog households only have one. The BAM portfolio company recently introduced a food line as well.
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.
Founder + CEO, Alchemy 43
“Starting a company is basically synonymous with uncertainty. You never know what's around the next corner. It's the reason I love it so much and it's also the reason that it's so difficult. This moment looks like that, but exponentially bigger. So many things outside our sphere of control.
So it presents a new type of challenge for a CEO—instead of running a company, we now pivot to minimizing fallout. Making sure our company survives this and that our employees have a job to return to has become the primary focus of my days. It's actually interesting work. It's challenging in a novel way. In order to stay in the right mindset for this type of work, it's been very important to me to stay connected to people, friends, and family, as well as colleagues. Also, daily exercise and mental breaks in the evenings, which seem to involve a lot of baking.”
Co-Founder and CTO, PathSpot
“Right now, life is uneasy. As entrepreneurs, we're used to life being ‘hard.’ We're always hustling to close the next sale, push the next product milestone, recruit the next member of our team, or raise the next funding round. When we want better results, we can always put in more hours, go the extra mile, or push a little harder. When things are hard, just work harder and they get easier. But suddenly, that mantra feels flipped. Budgets are frozen, conferences are cancelled, and businesses are closed. There are new (temporary) roadblocks that we can't simply run through—there is a sense of ‘prepare and wait’ sweeping the startup landscape.
PathSpot is a system that validates hand-washing frequency and effectiveness, with a company mission of reducing the transmission of illness. Before COVID-19, a large part of our routine was education—generating awareness of our product and explaining why handwashing was the most effective way to reduce illness. Now, the problem has entirely changed. Handwashing is more searched and more discussed than it ever has been before. We're suddenly adapting to the new challenges of reduced and frozen budgets in our target market, and how to support a highly in-person, face-to-face industry with a hardware product, while fully remote and socially distancing. As we face new problems, our team is working around the clock to support our quickly growing customers with their hand-hygiene needs, and utilizing our data to try to prepare the restaurant community and public to have the tools necessary for handwashing tracking and efficacy, as consumers and employees are more aware, educated, and focused on transmission of illness.”
Co-CEO, Harper Wilde
“Life is a series of dichotomies. On one hand, I feel very lucky that those closest to me are safe and healthy. On the other hand, I have a deep sadness for the turmoil and loss that permeates daily life. I have confidence in the incredible team at Harper Wilde and our ability to rise to this unprecedented occasion, while also having concern about the unknown unknowns, which seem to have multiplied over the past few weeks.
Being a founder has, in some ways, prepared me for this emotional rollercoaster, where high highs and low lows are often felt in the same hour or even in the same moment. I'm trying right now to make space to acknowledge all of these contradicting thoughts and then push them aside to focus on what's right in front of me.”
Founder and CEO, Elliot
“Life as an entrepreneur, and human being, has never looked or felt more real. Due to today's circumstances, life's forced us all to take a hard look at reality and revisit what's important. While life's challenging, I'm grateful to have a team that's proven to be able to operate under duress, make decisions, and find solutions to complex problems. Moreover, appreciative in having investors that believe in our ability to persevere. For me, my life looks simpler and in many ways more genuine, given I'm using COVID-19 as an opportunity to strengthen key relationships and just get back to the basics. In short, life looks different, but sometimes different is good.”
Co-Founder + CEO, Mented Cosmetics
“Right now, my life looks a lot calmer than it did a month ago. Prior to quarantine, I commuted from Philly to New York every day, traveled pretty frequently for work, and spent most of my free time exploring new restaurants in Philly, where my husband and I moved less than a year ago. These days, I mostly travel up and down my stairs and occasionally to my terrace.
Being forced to slow down so significantly has given me a lot of time to focus on what's most important to me. I've rediscovered how much I love to learn (I've been learning three to four songs a week on piano), gossip (I've been having nightly FaceTime calls with my girls), and go for long walks. I've also been amazed at how resilient our team has been. We've launched a new product, hosted a fantastic Instagram Live, tested multiple new promotions—and they haven't skipped a beat. As weird of a time as it's been, I'm grateful for all of the little lessons that have come with it.”
Co-Founder, Great Jones
“It's a powerful time to be in the business of home cooking. We're very fortunate to be experiencing a continued surge in demand for Great Jones products, and we've expanded our services and content to give further support to home cooks. We've extended the hours for Potline—our free text service for real-time recipe advice—and we've leveraged our partnerships to host a daily cooking tutorial on Instagram. Recent participants include Dominique Ansel and Erin McDowell.
On a personal note, Maddy and I are leading daily standups with our team, as well as enjoying bi-weekly digital happy hours, where we can connect and check in on each other emotionally.”
“As an early-stage, high-risk consumer startup, chaos has been the norm for us. Without the ability to adapt quickly or even pivot, we would've shut down a long time ago. That being said, our terminal values, the core of what we're trying to change in the world, haven't budged at all. I think that's critical. You have to clearly delineate your terminal and instrumental values—the things you should be stubborn about and the things you should be radically open-minded about.”
Co-Founder and CEO
“The biggest change for us, operationally, was transitioning to a remote-working culture. In March, as COVID started unfolding in the U.S., we had to sit down and dedicate time to creating a system in which my team would keep the open communication and creativity flowing, even when we are not sitting next to each other. Setting those parameters since the get-go was extremely effective, because in a world with so much uncertainty, my team knew exactly what to expect and how we would operate during
“We obviously didn’t anticipate in March that we would not be back in the office for so long. However, the structure that we set up has naturally evolved over time. One thing that has been noticeable is how important it is to have a team with high EQ, or emotional intelligence. I’m extremely happy with the way my team has adapted to the new normal—and open communication has been key during this process.”
“Like many other early-stage companies, Kanga has moved to a fully remote work model. We’ve adapted in two major ways: The first is operational and the second is psychological. Operationally, we are now focused on asynchronous work. Daily, we do remote standups posted in Slack at the start of the workday, spend our Monday planning, and check in on Thursday, but the majority of the work is done whenever employees are most effective.
“I've noticed some of our developers commit late at night, others work frequently on weekends, but ultimately team members work in a manner that is most efficient to them. I made a conscious decision to move everyone to New York for our first year in business, which not only fostered a sense of belonging but also immense trust. This trust is essential, so team members know everyone is working hard and will get tasks done, so the company can succeed.
“Maintaining that sense of belonging is the reason for that second change. The pandemic has been incredibly stressful for everyone, and it's important for every employee to know their team members are there to support them. Having a constant temperature check on team psychology is necessary. We spend a lot of extra time on how we are feeling, and everyone on the team has a one-on-one catch-up about work and life with every teammate, every other week. Also, we have a special channel in Slack where we post how we're feeling every one or two weeks. This personal status report is called the ‘PPPM,’ which stands for ‘Progress People Problems Me.’ Finally, we do a virtual team happy hour every Friday afternoon where we play online versions of board games that promote team bonding, such as Spyfall, Code Names, or Mafia.”
Co-Founder and CEO
“During the crisis, NestEgg has had an important role in our customers’ lives, to help them operate in the new normal. We helped renters stay in their homes during financial hardship, and we added reliability to our rental owners’ income during an unpredictable time. These stresses will leave an echo long after the event itself is behind us, and our customers will feel renewed urgency around managing their properties efficiently online. We're focused on that need by pivoting our roadmap around optimizing NOI and cash flow for rental owners.
“Today, we are seeing 100% rent collection success rate versus the wider industry benchmark of 70-80% and we added $1.4M in rent business in the last 30 days alone. We recognized that landlords and tenants tend to have very different personal financial situations, but today's paradigm for renting forces them to commit to a single shared process that often only works for one party. As a landlord, you want rent from your tenants on the 1st, because that's when all your loans and other expenses are due, but many tenants get paid weekly or rely on disability checks that are sent mid-month, so coming up with the first big rent payment at the beginning of the month is difficult for them to budget to and sets them up for failure. The landlord-tenant relationship becomes very transactional and adversarial.
“We totally restructured this by decoupling when the landlord gets paid from when tenants pay. NestEgg pays rental owners up front on the 1st, and residents have flexible 30 day terms to pay us anytime throughout the month. They can split rent with roommates, pay across multiple payment methods, and even make installments. Especially now, it’s a win-win.”
Co-Founder and CEO
“The health, economic, environmental, and social crises we have faced in 2020 have led to an unprecedented amount of stress, anxiety, insomnia, physical pain, and other health challenges. WTHN's mission is to help our clients thrive with both mental and physical well-being. Given our unique offerings of time-tested, science-backed healing therapies—acupuncture, cupping, acupressure, herbal medicine, and more—we are focusing on the best ways to support our community members and their health during this time.
“In late May, acupuncture was designated an essential health service by the State of New York, enabling us to re-open our New York City acupuncture studio, and we have done so with the safety of our team and clients as our highest priority and a heightened sense of urgency around our mission to provide safe, natural, and effective healing. (More on how that experience can be found here and our rigorous sanitization protocols here.) Given the changes in our client base—primarily the large numbers that have left New York either permanently or temporarily since COVID began—we are focusing on rebuilding the base and finding innovative ways to connect with new clients, including partnerships with other businesses/brands as well as referrals from other healthcare providers. There is an increased sense of urgency around the power of preventative medicine and people are thinking about how to stay healthy more than ever before.
"We have doubled down on our digital efforts, including launching virtual healing sessions that are 1x1 telehealth consultations with an acupuncturist for guided acupressure, stretching, herbal consultations, breathwork, and more—so we will continue offering that option to our clients that may need to stay home longer.”
Co-Founder and CEO
“At Sleek, we are reinventing the way people wait in lines. Much long before COVID-19 broke out, we were already envisioning a future where you could step into a venue— and not only instantly know of the wait times, but also choose to have your phone hold your spot in the line.
“As the world grapples with COVID-19, we initially paused to see how our customers' needs evolved in this new normal. Given safety is a topmost priority for businesses to stay open, not having to wait in lines is now a necessity versus a nice-to-have. And lines have come to exponentially grow by six times given the social distancing.
“We re-adjusted our focus from the live-events market and are assisting essential businesses with our core technology to keep the community safe, from grocery stores to food trucks, and now have added tens of thousands of new businesses as customers. You can check out our COVID-focused product offering here.”
Founder and CEO
“Even under normal circumstances, building a new business requires a somewhat contradictory combination of focus and flexibility. That’s especially true now with uncertainty in every aspect of life and business. There are a few key elements that help us operate and succeed in this new ‘normal.’
“Fluid communications are essential. We accomplish this with frequent huddles that keep everyone in sync. When we were thrust into a remote work mode in March, we immediately put in place all-hands stand-ups every morning to align around the priorities of the day, twice weekly virtual happy hours to stay connected and have fun, plus the usual sprint planning and demo days. I can honestly say we have more effective and focused communication now than ever before.
“The ability to compartmentalize and focus on the task at hand is also essential, and this applies to both filtering out the chaos of the world and also successful multitasking. I think the team finds our work a reprieve from the stressors of the world—I know I do. Usually it’s the other way around, right?
“And last but not least, it’s essential to have a high degree of comfort with ambiguity, which we screen for as part of our hiring process. We’re blessed with a seasoned, mature team—we take the curves and ups and downs together, with logic and without emotion.”