Rob Puma's idea of a romantic date is not making dog treats in his kitchen. Yet that's exactly what he found himself doing with his girlfriend over Valentine's Day weekend in 2004.
The unusual celebration of a lover's holiday was part of what began as a semesterlong MBA project at Butler University four years ago and became, as trite as it sounds, a labor of love for Puma, the inventor of Medi-Crunch, a snack designed to help people medicate their pets.
Puma, who figured the difficulty he'd had getting his pet to pop pills wasn't unique, pursued the project with passion.
"Rob Puma has put a lot more than a semester's work into this," said Ben Liu, associate professor of marketing at Butler. "Very few students have the persistence and insight to see a project like this through."
Completing detailed research, obtaining patents, securing finances and nailing down production, marketing and distribution are all daunting tasks for most new MBA graduates. But Puma never wavered, Liu said, adding, "I hope his story inspires other entrepreneurs."
Puma, who started the Medi-Crunch project during a marketing research course in the spring of 2001, followed the winding path to market like a bloodhound on a fresh scent. He credits an instinct for business in helping him find his way.
"This product makes a very difficult situation much more pleasant for the pet and the owner," Puma said. "Part of this company launch was based on research, but I also had a gut feeling there was a market demand."
Puma was eager to tap into the burgeoning North American pet product market, projected to be near $40 billion by next year, according to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association.
"We treat our pets much differently than we did 20, or even 10, years ago," Puma said. "They're a bigger part of our life, and the market reflects that."
Puma hatched the plan with two classroom partners to make, market and sell an organic wheat flour hard-shell treat with a soft peanut butter center. The pill is placed in the peanut butter center and is gobbled down with the all-natural treat. Medi-Crunch has a fraction of the calories of hamburger, hot dog, cheese or other common food items desperate owners and veterinarians use to get pets to take their medicine.
Puma considered a softer treat to stuff the pill in. But "what do you do when you're eating something soft and come to something hard? You spit it out, and so does the dog. Medi-Crunch gets dogs crunching, which they love to do, so when they come to the pill, they just eat it right down," he added.
It wasn't until Puma was contacted by a local veterinarian that he fully realized and California. He gains customers through cold calling, providing sample packs and word of mouth.
Puma thinks he's on the verge of a breakthrough. Medi-Crunch is in the final stages of being patented and Puma is working on distribution deals with Ari-Medi-Crunch's potential.
"They wanted the product right now," Puma said. "That showed me there was a market. It also showed me I had to get moving."
Other area vets quickly clamped onto the idea like Rover on a soup bone.
"This is a unique product and largely an untapped market," said Lorraine Corriveau, a veterinarian at Purdue University Veterinary Teaching Hospital. "This is a great idea, and we're getting a strong, positive response from our clients: dogs and their owners."
When Puma's two classmates showed no interest in taking Medi-Crunch to market, he took on the effort solo-with occasional help from family and friends.
Puma moved with cat-like quickness, pulling together $30,000 of his own money to launch Medi-Crunch. He contracted with locally based Hart Bakery to make the product and with not-for-profit workshop Noble Industries to handle packaging. He uses a Web site, www.Medi-Crunch.com, and a slew of veterinarians to sell the product.
Though the effort isn't yet profitable, Puma said his product is distributed by more than 40 vets in Indiana, New York zona-based Petsmart, Texas-based Burns Veterinary Supply Inc. and Florida-based 1-800-Pet-Meds.
"Any one of those deals alone could push sales to $800,000 annually," Puma said.
Puma's new to the business of pet products, but the 30-year-old Buffalo, N.Y., native has been in sales more than 10 years and hasn't forsaken his sales career in the metals industry. Still, he didn't hesitate when it came time to invest his own money.
"I know I can sell. I made it in manufacturing in the post-9/11 era," Puma said. "And I really believe in this product. When I thought about the risk, I thought it seems like a lot to me personally, but really, $30,000 is just a car. How many cars will I buy in my lifetime?"
Puma came to Indiana to attend Indiana State University, where he was a student intern for the basketball team.
"I wanted to be a basketball coach, and worked under [ISU Coach] Royce Waltman," Puma said. "But I had a change of heart and decided to pursue a career in business."
Puma said the persistence and drive to win in sports has helped him in business. And he isn't daunted by competition. Another entrepreneur began developing the Pill Pocket and got to market about a year before Puma released Medi-Crunch. The makers of Pill Pocket recently sold to Kansas City, Mo.-based S&M NuTec LLC, manufacturers of the internationally distributed dog treat Greenies.
"Being second to market can be a good thing," Puma said. "First, it demonstrates there's a market for this category of product, and I can learn from [S&M NuTec's] mistakes. Plus, I think I have a better product. The market will bear that out."
Puma is in the process of developing Medi-Crunch for smaller dogs and cats, which Jim Ward, a veterinarian and owner of Allisonville Animal Hospital, said could be critical to his success.
"I think the concept of Medi-Crunch has a lot of potential, but the broader the applications, the better, and there's no shortage of people who have problems giving medicine to smaller dogs and especially cats," Ward said.
Twenty Medi-Crunch snacks sell for about $6. Puma acknowledges he must bring costs down. He realizes to continue growth he'll either have to invest in an automated production facility or sell the company to a firm that can take it to the next level. He's even been studying M&M/Mars' system of making Combos, a snack food for people similar in composition to Medi-Crunch. Combos sells a 50-count bag for less than $1.50.
"It's been difficult to get much information," Puma said. "These producers are very secretive."
Though he's seeking investors, Puma isn't eager to give up control of the company.
"I'd like to see this through," he said. "Like a puppy, it needs TLC, and you don't want to wean it too soon."