You don’t have to write a novel or a 60,000 magnum opus to become an author. Successful recipe books can earn authors a healthy paycheque and build a brand in a way that’s just not possible through other forms of media.
Sean McCormack is the head vet for Tails, a pet food company that provides personalised dog food in the United Kingdom and France. He’s also the co-author of The Happy Dog Cookbook, a recipe book for dogs.
In this interview McCormack explains:
- Why he co-wrote a recipe book for a dog.
- The value of writing ideas down in a book as opposed to an interview or video.
- What it took to produce the first draft in just a few weeks.
- How he road-tested the recipes inside of The Happy Dog Cookbook.
- How a business can build its brand by publishing a book.
And lots more.
I start by asking Sean to explain what Tails do and why they decided to publish a cookbook for dogs.
Bryan Collins: If you could just start Sean, by giving me a bit of information about what Tails do and why the company has decided to use the book to get its message out into the world?
Sean McCormack: Yeah, so Tails.com is a pet food brand, a quite unique pet food brand because we’re delivering tailor-made food to dogs, and their owners, obviously. And so, we design diets around a dog’s individual needs rather than designing a one-size-fits all pet nutrition.
Sean McCormack: We’re a tech company. We’re a company founded by dog lovers who saw that the pet food industry was behind the times in terms of personalisation and using technology. Basically the way it works is dog owners come online, tell us in a two or three-minute consultation about their dog, all the detail we need to design an ideal diet for that dog. Our algorithm basically selects the ideal diet based on all the current research on dog nutrition. We deliver a tailored recipe to the dog every month.
Sean McCormack: It’s not a subscription business that ties people in. Our owners can cancel or delay, or move around the deliveries as they wish. It’s growing from strength to strength. Customers really love us. We’ve got a 9.7 out of 10 rating on Trustpilot. Our mission is to change the world of pet food for good, and with our growth and everything, we seem to be doing that. So it’s been a real success and a real privilege for me to work as the head vet with them.
Bryan Collins: How long has Tails been going for, or when was it established?
Sean McCormack: It was established in 2014, so we just had our fifth birthday. When I joined, nearly four years ago, there were about 30 people. We’re now on, I think about 185 people on the team now, and we’re feeding over one and a half percent of UK dogs after just five years of trading, which is pretty good in a fairly crowded marketplace. So yeah, five years. So we’re kind of moving out of the startup phase and consolidating and growing now.
Bryan Collins: Are Tails in France as well?
Sean McCormack: Yeah, we moved into France earlier this year. We have plans to further expand in Europe despite the B-word, Brexit, we’re still going ahead with that now. Yeah, growing our customer base all the time.
Bryan Collins: What kind of customers are Tails working with? I mean, lots of people have dogs, but I’m sure it’s a particular type of dog owner who wants custom food.
Sean McCormack: All kinds. So nearly a quarter of UK households have a dog. It is a huge number and all kinds of people. So when I first heard about Tails.com creating bespoke diets, my initial skepticism was, “It must be quite an expensive or boutique product,” or, “How are they tailoring to that level individually at scale?” But we are because we’re a tech company, no one has the kind of tech capabilities that we have to do it, but we cross all ends of the market.
Sean McCormack: We’re not just, you know, high end, expensive, grain-free and fresh meat. We provide all kinds of food. So our customers are really, really varied as well from people who buy supermarket home brand pet foods, right up to the more kind of expensive ingredients and fresh meat-based dog food.
Sean McCormack: So all corners of the market, all kinds of customers, supermarket mom to young couples, to affluent people who are spending quite a bit on their pets as luxury items and luxury purchases for their pets. But yeah, we cater to every dog owner and every dog.
Bryan Collins: One of the ways that you’re getting the message out is through The Happy Dog Cookbook. How do you think a cookbook will help Tails build the business?
Sean McCormack: Yeah, so we’re a nutrition brand first and foremost. We really believe in the power of nutrition and the fact that we can improve the lives of dogs and their owners through quality nutrition and tailored nutrition. The cookbook that I wrote was an idea brewing in my mind for quite some time. As a brand, I guess Tails were very supportive of me writing it because it kind of is a physical embodiment of our brand in some ways.
Sean McCormack: A lot of the messaging in there aligns with what we stand for in terms of pet nutrition as a brand. It’s helping people with useful information around how to treat your dog in a healthy, nutritious and responsible way. There’s a lot of health and welfare messaging and diet tips in there about keeping your dog’s weight under control, for example.
Sean McCormack: So it’s a treat cookbook, but it has responsible messaging about how to treat well, and that we believe that treats are an important part of the bonding experience between pets and their owners. We want you to give people a way to do it that is beneficial and fun.
Sean McCormack: So it’s massively aligned with what we stand for as a brand, and it’s a good way of getting a kind of physical embodiment of our brand into people’s kitchens in a fun way. It’s for a good cause as well. It’s for a charity called StreetVet. All the profits are going to them. They provide free veterinary care to pets of homeless people.
Bryan Collins: I know the book is just out at the time of recording, but have you had much feedback from dog owners or readers?
Sean McCormack: Yeah, absolutely. So the response has been overwhelmingly positive, quite surprising really, and a bit overwhelmed with the amount of feedback and praise and love for it. People are buying it and receiving it in the post as we speak. I think you’ve got a copy yourself Bryan, do you?
Bryan Collins: I do indeed. Yeah, I have it here on my desk.
Sean McCormack: Good, good. So yeah, no it’s been overwhelmingly positive. A lot of people getting behind it. A lot of people really loving the kind of fun aspect of it, but also a lot of veterinary feedback that it’s great, that it contains kind of responsible messaging around dog health and feeding and weight control, and things like that as well. Yeah, a huge response on social media about it. We’ve got quite a bit of media coverage as well, radio and print and lots of things going on. So it’s been a very busy time since launch.
Bryan Collins: So do you think a book is a good way for a company to build a brand or establish itself as a thought leader within a particular area?
Sean McCormack: Absolutely. Yeah. I was talking to a friend of mine who writes books on other pet topics. He said something like, “Until it’s in black and white until something’s written down, it can often be seen as kind of opinion or hearsay, and that we’re bombarded with information all the time now, verbal information.”
Sean McCormack: But a book is a really, really good way of kind of laying out your cards as a brand or as a business and saying, “Look, we are thought leaders. We have authority on this subject and we’re a brand to be trusted.” So I think it’s a really, really good way of the business pinning their sail to the mast, as it were, and putting themselves out there with what they believe in and what they stand for.
Bryan Collins: How did you go about creating the recipes?
Sean McCormack: Well, I’m a big foodie. I love to cook and I love eating, and I love trying out new things in the kitchen. So a lot of the recipes were kind of like tweaked along the way or things I’d already made myself. I just thought like, “How do we make this safe or nutritious for dogs?” So all of the recipes in the book can be eaten by humans, some of them might be a little lacking in our kind of taste buds, but no butter or sugar or any of those things that make a lot of our baking quite good, but quite unhealthy for us. It’s all really good stuff for dogs.
Sean McCormack: So I had a few of them written down over the years. I researched a variety of recipes that would be different formats, so there are biscuits in there, there are burgers, there’s meatloaf, there are egg bakes, there are muffins, there are all kinds of things. I just devised them basically on adapting recipes I already knew or had, to make them dog-friendly.
Bryan Collins: I understand you co-wrote the book. So how did you find the co-writing process?
Sean McCormack: Yeah, so I’m the author and it’s featuring a well-known author, Annabel Karmel, who’s a family feeding expert. She’s written a lot of child and toddler recipe books, and she’s also a dog lover. She got in touch with us to collaborate because she loves the Tails.com brand, and that’s when I said, “Okay. Well, actually this is a good opportunity to write the recipe book for dogs that I’ve been thinking of for a long time.”
Sean McCormack: It was great. It was really good to learn from Annabel because she has 45 cookbooks under her belt, so seeing her recipes and ideas come in and how she wrote them and what she called them and things, was very good for me to learn how to make a recipe cookbook fun and interesting for the reader.
Sean McCormack: We worked kind of independently but collaboratively as well. So I talked to her about dog nutrition and foods to avoid, and what we could and couldn’t use in the recipes, so more of a technical nutrition angle, and she talked to me about a span of recipes, which we could include and how to write a good cookbook as well. It’s my first one, it’s her 46th one. So really good collaboration. A bit of feedback back and forth between us about tweaking things and kind of making them dog safe, but a really good collaborative process. I really enjoyed it.
Bryan Collins: Did the process take long?
Sean McCormack: Overall, it probably took four to five months from deciding we were going to do it, to launch, which was quite tight actually. We decided we were going to do it and wanted it on the market before Christmas gifting season because it does make a great Christmas gift for dog lovers.
Sean McCormack: Then working back on our timelines we realised we actually needed to write this pretty sharpish. So I only had a few weeks really to write the first draft. It was quite an intense initial period of writing. But actually I think my style is that I need that pressure on to do it, I’m a little bit of a procrastinator when it comes to writing.
Bryan Collins: Just looking at the Tails site, apart from the book, Tails relies on a lot of content marketing to build up their brand. For example, there’s a series of posts here. I think one is, five small dog breeds with a big personality.
Sean McCormack: Yeah.
Bryan Collins: Do you work closely with the team who writes the posts or how does it come about?
Sean McCormack: I do, yeah. So that’s part of my role is content generation. As head vet for Tails, part of my role is to be the voice of the dog expert. And so, the way it works with content writing is we have a copywriting team for the website, and I would sit down with them every two to three weeks and they would give me some briefs on topics they want to cover, and verbally I will just talk to them about what key points we need to put across, what the kind of technical aspects are.
Sean McCormack: You know if it’s health and nutrition especially, I would almost write the article and they would take notes and then they’d go off and work their copywriting magic on it and come back to me for approval that it’s all accurate and correct.
Sean McCormack: Some of the ones, like you just mentioned, five dog breeds, we’re absolutely a dog loving company, everyone in the business is dog mad because we have a lot of dog experts on the team. So those kinds of ones, they don’t need a lot of input from me, because we have a lot of dog experts that can write them themselves. So the copywriting team write them, but anything kind of technical, health, welfare, nutrition-related, would go through myself or our lead nutritionist, Dr. Samantha Ware, if it’s a very technical nutrition topic.
Bryan Collins: So I think Tails stands out because of the way it approaches content marketing and even to go to the steps of writing a book. Do you think that content marketing is important if a company wants to set itself apart from competitors, particularly a new company because the dog industry strikes me as one where there are many established companies out there?
Sean McCormack: Yeah, there are lots of established companies. There are also lots of up and comers. There are lots of brands trying to do something different or new. I think content marketing is really important for us. We have a premise and a proposition that is different and unique. So there’s an element of we’re having to build trust and kind of prove that we know what we’re talking about when it comes to dogs and dog’s health and dog nutrition.
Sean McCormack: So content marketing is a really, really good way of establishing that, in the same way as the book is. We know what we’re talking about. You can trust us, you know, we’ve got your dog’s diet covered. So it’s a really important part of how we market and how we get new customers, and how we keep the ones that we’ve already got.
Bryan Collins: Just to go back to the recipes, did you go about testing the recipes with dog owners or other dogs first?
Sean McCormack: Yeah. Yeah. So all the recipes I’ve made myself, we got a few members, close members of my team at Tails to do the testing as well. We got a professional recipe tester to make sure they were all exactly correct and there wasn’t any not working or needing kind of tweaking of quantities and stuff.
Sean McCormack: So there was a fairly rigorous testing process. We didn’t want to put out anything that wasn’t going to work or didn’t taste quite right. Then taste testing. We all in the office human, taste-tested, but we have lots of dogs in the office as well, and they all gave it a good tail-wag on all the recipes. Our doggy taste testing panel approved.
Bryan Collins: Yeah, I like that. How are you promoting the book at the moment?
Sean McCormack: We’ve done a lot on social media, so our social media team is promoting it from different angles, you know, talking about the book, talking about the recipes. We posted a couple of the recipes on our blog and myself, or us at Tails, and Annabel Karmel’s social team have a series of posts about it. But we’ve also got quite a bit of attention from the media. So I’ve done I think, 14 radio interviews so far about it.
Sean McCormack: We have a bit of interest from a couple of TV shows later this month and early next month potentially happening. Then word of mouth. I mean, a lot of people are posting about it on social media themselves now that they’re getting it and starting to cook recipes from it.
Sean McCormack: So yeah, social media has been really vital for us at Tails. We use it a lot. That’s one of our main kinds of customer acquisition channels, and the dog owners love to talk about their dogs and they love the feel-good aspect of doing something good for their dog and doing something good for charity by buying the book. So a lot of it is kind of just user-generated content and social posts.
Bryan Collins: Just to play devil’s advocate, is it a good use of time to cook food for a dog or am I just better-getting dog food in the shop?
Sean McCormack: Well, we believe that a tailored quality dog food designed for the individual dog’s needs is the foundation of a dog’s diet. This book is about treating, it’s not about home cooking your entire dog’s diet, because it’s actually very, very difficult to produce a home-cooked, balanced diet for every dog. So actually we’re firm believers, I’m a firm believer that good quality dog food is the basis of the diet.
Sean McCormack: Then yeah, I think it’s a great use of time to cook occasional indulgent and delicious treats for your dog that also carry a health benefit. So I’ve included recipes in there for example, for dogs with stiff joints. We’ve included kind of salmon for Omega 3 for dogs with stiff joints. We’ve included recipes for dogs with sensitive digestion, with itchy skin, things like that.
Sean McCormack: It is absolutely a good use of time, but I would say that the fundamental thing is to feed a good quality commercial dog food that’s designed with animal nutritionists because it is difficult to do it yourself at home.
Bryan Collins: You mentioned that there are dogs in the Tails workplace.
Sean McCormack: Yes.
Bryan Collins: Don’t dogs get in the way of getting work done?
Sean McCormack: Quite the contrary actually. There’s a lot of studies coming out of the U.S., some of the big corporations over there that have had an office dog policy for many years, and studies showing that having dogs in the workplace actually on a regular basis if it’s well-managed, increase productivity in the workplace. Have benefits on team cohesion and generally elevate the mood in the workplace.
Sean McCormack: We’ve found that definitely with Tails that having dogs there puts them at the heart of everything we do. People who haven’t owned dogs on the team really get to experience dog ownership and what joyful creatures they are to have around.
Sean McCormack: Obviously, there needs to be some kind of rules and guidelines in place, we can’t have 30 dogs off lead running around all day in the office. It would be kind of a bit chaotic, but it’s really well managed and actually it just makes it a really pleasant place to work. Yeah, I think it definitely boosts mood and boosts productivity.
Bryan Collins: So I mean, I get that why Tails would be agreeable to that approach to having dogs in the workplace but are other companies allowing dogs in the workplace?
Sean McCormack: Yeah. We’re seeing it more and more. So every year for Bring Your Dog To Work Day, which happens in June, it’s a national day to bring your dog to work, more and more companies are actually getting in touch with us. I’ve been to a few of them on that day to kind of help out and to speak about dogs in the workplace and things. Yeah, we’re seeing it more and more that people are becoming open to it.
Sean McCormack: You need to be careful if you’re thinking about it, that you don’t have members of the team who are afraid of dogs, or are allergic to dogs and things like that. But if it’s well managed and you have a good office dog policy, and everyone’s clear on expectations, I think it’s an absolute no-brainer for most businesses. It makes for a very happy work environment, normally.
Bryan Collins: Finally, do you have an ideal early morning routine at the moment?
Sean McCormack: I don’t really. My days vary quite a bit. So today I’m working from home. I try and just treat it as a normal workday. Get up, shower, have coffee, have breakfast, and get down to it pretty quickly. In the office, I normally spend half an hour, an hour, checking emails first, but try every day to kind of say, “Right, what are my top three priorities that I need to focus on today?” Keep those in mind and dedicate time in the diary to them.
Sean McCormack: I think that’s a good way that I maintain productivity, otherwise I tend to drift off and try and do seven things at once and get nothing done. So that’s my top tip is just, prioritise the top three and dedicate some time to them.
Sean McCormack: But yeah, my role varies, so sometimes I’m out of the office traveling, or I might be speaking at a conference or I’m going to a conference, or I might be working from home. So it’s fairly variable, but I think, yeah, keeping the top three things in mind each day is my big tip.
Bryan Collins: Where can people find out more information about The Happy Dog Cookbook?
Sean McCormack: So we’ve got information on Tails.com about it. So you can go to our website. It’s available online to buy at the moment on Amazon, Foyles, and Waterstones. You can have a look on our social media as well, on Facebook and start with posts on there about it. But as I say, yeah, it’s a great gift for dog lovers. I’m hoping people will buy it, and all the proceeds are going to StreetVet, which is a really amazing charity that I’m so happy to support.
Bryan Collins: Oh well, it was great to talk to you today. Thanks, Sean.
Sean McCormack: Thanks very much.
Join over 15,000 writers today
You'll get a free book of practical writing prompts.