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the ladder

Jon Cooper, an entrepreneur who runs the All Good Dog Food company, is photographed in his Toronto storefront on April 23, 2016.JENNIFER ROBERTS

Jonathan Cooper, 33, is a serial entrepreneur and the "top dog" at Toronto-based All Good Dog Food Co.

I've been an entrepreneur my whole life. My family is very involved in the real estate development game. I've owned everything from a record label to a music festival. I'm still somewhat involved in artists' management and I still own a clothing company, called Polar Piece, which makes onesies for adults. Things changed when I got my dog, Dash.

This company came out of nowhere. When I got my dog 3 1/2 years ago, he was like my child, so making dog food is so personal for me. When you are a new parent, you want to do what's best for your children. He didn't want to eat anything. He was suppose to eat eight cups a day and was eating maybe 1 1/2. I tried 11 types of kibble. So I called a bunch of my friends that are vets and asked what I can do. They said "Start cooking for your dog." So that's what I did. I didn't cook for myself but I formulated a home-cooked diet for Dash.

It spun into a business. I was making the food in my spare time, which was zero, and once we hit six to seven dogs, we rented out a catering kitchen. Then we outgrew that just through word of mouth. When we got to 150 dogs, we opened up a brick-and-mortar [store]. Then we opened our own manufacturing facility, a high-end catering kitchen that only makes dog food.

Educating our customers is the hardest part. The challenges with All Good Dog Food are that we are trying to get into a market that is supersaturated, undereducated, and we have a new product that is fresh to the market. So, we send you home with free dog food and, if your dog loves it, you come back. Our retention rate with that approach has been wonderful.

People are spending less on vets and more on food. From an industry standpoint, people are more into preventative measures and doing more research into how they are feeding their dog, so we can slide right in and position ourselves in a way that hits this market. There are lots of people who home cook for their dog right now and question what's in their kibble. Those are our customers.

I was inspired by DavidsTea. At DavidsTea, they have a retail concept where they can sell you hot water for $5 a cup. The cleanliness and brightness of their stores appealed to me. Originally, we wanted to sell food and pastries for humans, too, but bylaws prevented us. When I went into other pet stores, I didn't like the retail experience. I found the staff to be not that knowledgeable, there was floor-to-ceiling clutter, and it smells. Here we sell dog food, some treats and bones, and poo bags. We are a very focused retail concept, so our overhead is very low. Nothing here sits. It's a good recurring-income business.

The best lesson I learned is to write a business plan. It's important not to get too distracted by day-to-day operations and remember the bigger picture. I always say to young entrepreneurs that while you are young, and you have no risks, and there is no downside, take a chance and if you fail, you have the rest of your life to work.

You are what you eat. I come across people who say they've fed their dog kibble from the grocery store and [despite that, the dog] lived for 15 years. It's like McDonald's. You might eat it until you are 100, but you won't be healthy. Dogs want to sleep, be petted, eat and be loved. They can't talk, but you can try to do what's best for them.

As told to Leah Eichler. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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