Let’s set the scene.
We’re in Lyka’s human-grade kitchen in Sydney. The walls are covered with posters of puppers and their happy pawrents. A divided metal bowl lies on the table, sporting two separate recipes: in one half, lies the original turkey, quinoa and spinach recipe, in the other, a new spin on this classic favourite, featuring kale.
The doors swings open and 12-year-old Lyka bounds into the room. She sits patiently as her food bowl is placed in front of her. A member of Lyka’s kitchen team holds their breath as this recipe awaits Lyka’s signature taste test. The kitchen team member is flanked by CEO Anna Podolsky and Head of Product Dr Matthew Muir. As Lyka is given the go-ahead, the trio watch to see which half of the bowl gets devoured first. In the hours following the feast, they’ll watch for digestibility issues and track physiological changes. They’ll then compare Lyka’s reaction with videos of other pups before giving the new recipe the greenlight.
We got to know Anna Podolsky, the founder and CEO of Lyka, over the course of a two month diligence process. We couldn't be more excited to back her vision to clean up dog food. Anna is as passionate as she is strategic, and she has loved animals since she was born. In this interview, we hear all about Anna’s intrepid journey as an entrepreneur, what makes her tick, and what keeps her grounded through the weird, wild and wonderful moments in the life of a founder.
How did you get the idea for your business?
The inspiration for the business came from my dog, Lyka. When she was about 5 years old, she was experiencing some health issues – she was itchy, constantly scratching, and had really bad teeth, so much so that the vet suggested removing some of them. I was feeding her premium kibble, so this came as quite a surprise. But, upon further research, I was shocked at the ingredients in her food – they couldn’t have been more different to the whole foods I was eating. My partner, GG, and I were living overseas in Chile at the time, and I was Google translating the ingredients from Spanish to English, yet I still couldn’t understand the ingredients even when they were written in plain English.
This is when we started home cooking Lyka’s meals, and her health transformation was incredible. Within weeks, her fur was softer, she’d stopped itching and she had so much more energy – she was like a playful puppy again. Even her teeth improved. Given that 80% of pets eat a processed diet, I found that there was a clear gap in the market for whole, minimally processed pet food and I just knew I had to take the plunge! Lyka - the dog that is - is now 12 years old and she’s as happy and healthy as ever. People that meet her can never quite believe her age, and it all comes down to living a healthy, active lifestyle and eating real food. Dogs are part of the family and I truly believe that they should eat like it, too.
Talk us through your journey… How did Lyka evolve from an idea to a living, breathing company?
As much as I knew there was a huge gap in the market for real dog food, I wanted to de-risk the journey as much as possible, so I started off validating the business model and developing the initial concept in the evenings and weekends, whilst still working full time. This included experimenting with recipes in my dad’s kitchen and getting Lyka to do taste tests – even my dad put his hand up for taste testing! Once I was happy with how everything stacked up, I launched an MVP concept and ran this for almost a year whilst again, still working full time. Only once I had the validation of initial traction and market demand, did I jump into running the business full time, which was about 1.5 years after I had the initial idea.
What was the biggest barrier to getting your business off the ground? How did you overcome it?
One of the biggest barriers was the breadth of knowledge that was required. As a founder, particularly a boot-strapped founder, I needed to know a little bit of everything - from product development to engineering, marketing and customer service. I overcame this by reaching out to my network and connecting with experts in their respective fields. Through this process, I quickly learnt what I needed to ramp up and do myself, versus what I needed to either hire for or outsource. For example, vet nutrition was something that I had very little knowledge in but was a core part of the business. This is why I co-founded Lyka with Dr. Matthew Muir, an Integrative Vet who had over a decade of experience in natural feeding with his clients, and felt just as passionate about dog nutrition as I did.
What inspired you to make your ‘after work’ your ‘life’s work’?
I am incredibly passionate about health and wellness and have always loved the concept of building something from scratch – the process of turning an idea into a thriving business that positively impacts the people around me. I’m also a huge animal lover, and after seeing Lyka’s health transformation, I knew that this was my “A-ha!” moment and that I had to spread the word about the benefits of fresh food and natural feeding. Experiencing firsthand the positive changes that came from Lyka eating a real foods diet gave me that extra push and burst of motivation that I needed to work after work and bring this passion project to life and help to improve the wellbeing of dogs around Australia. Even with the long hours, I felt incredibly grateful to be able to work on something I truly cared about. It was an incredibly busy time, but it really highlighted my passion for natural feeding and dog nutrition, and I knew I was on the right track.
Was there a pivotal moment where you were struck with a certain clarity? Or did you systematically work through the decision?
A bit of both! When I first had the idea, the opportunity was very clear, but seeing Lyka’s health transformation from eating a processed diet to a home-cooked diet was a real moment of clarity. The almost immediate changes that I saw in her from eating a much higher quality of food than what was, and continues to be available in market, showed me that there was a huge opportunity to improve the lives of dogs around Australia. Plus, with dogs now considered an integral part of the family, I knew that if executed in the right way, a whole food diet would be in high demand from pet owners. Before quitting my job though, I systematically worked through proof-points in order to validate the idea before leaving to work full-time on what would become, Lyka Pet Food.
Outside of your company, what are you into right now?
I love keeping active through yoga, pilates, running and hiking with Lyka. I also enjoy gardening and have an ever-growing plant collection. We also recently introduced a new family member – Billie, an Angora rabbit. Lyka and Billie are fast becoming good friends and they are so adorable together!
Who or what inspires you and keeps you focused on your north star?
Our customers. I am focused on creating the best possible nutrition for our customers - and by customers, I mean dogs - so that they can live their best, healthiest lives. Hearing feedback from our Lyka pack, including the story of a dog who has had their opioid medication dosage reduced after starting on Lyka, and another dog being able to walk down stairs again after changing to Lyka, really does keep you inspired and determined to keep going. Each of the transformations that we see and hear about are absolutely jaw-dropping and heart-warming, they really help my team and I to focus on the north star and keep on delivering a product that is truly changing lives.
Talk us through a standard day in the life at the Lyka HQ
There’s no such thing as a standard day at Lyka HQ. I am, however, constantly focused on building and nurturing our high-performance team; helping to set them and the business up for success. Another area of focus is our long-term growth strategy. It’s important to keep innovating, so my brain is always ticking over with new ideas and concepts that we can bring to market. At the moment, most of my time is spent working on problem solving and recruiting for our ever-growing team – it’s a very exciting time!
What unusual or childhood experiences prepared you for what you do today?
I have always been an animal lover. When I was a kid, my dad promised that we would get a dog when I turned 12. My birthday came around, but there was no dog! We ended up adopting a cat instead, but I wanted a dog so badly that I ended up training our cat to sit, shake hands and go for walks. She was pretty much a dog! I did eventually get Lyka, and I quickly bonded with her – we did everything together, including travelling the world. Lyka is more well-travelled than many humans I know, she has lived in 5 different countries, been a part of a dog walking group in the Andes, flown in the cabins of planes and even been to Stanford University! The experience of owning Lyka gave me invaluable insights into what dogs and dog owners want and need.
What’s it like working with your partner?
Great! My partner, GG, joined the business in 2020, right after our Seed fundraise. It was a big decision, but ultimately the right one, as we have a lot of trust between each other, which provided the company and I with a lot of leverage. When working with your partner, I think it’s important to be aligned in your business values and have clear communication to be able to work successfully alongside each other. Of course, it’s not for everyone, but I think we juggle the balance well. We are both not afraid to challenge one-another’s decisions and ideas, which ultimately creates better outcomes and a stronger business.
Switching off can be challenging, so we’ve found having ground rules in place really helpful. For example, GG and I are not allowed to talk about business within an hour of going to sleep. We work very intensively during the week, so the weekend is generally focused on relaxing and re-energising, with a few strategic discussions sprinkled in! When it comes to working alongside each other in the office, we are very open about our relationship and have been like that from the get-go, so we don’t find that people treat us differently at all.
What advice would you have for anyone looking to take the plunge?
I would suggest trying to implement some validation steps whilst still working your full-time job, in order to build up the confidence and data points that you need to take the plunge. We work the majority of our lives, so I truly believe that you need to pursue your passion, no matter how challenging it may appear. Finding the right support network is also key, as it takes grit and determination to put your dreams into action, and the support around you will hold you in good stead when facing your challenges head on.