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How Heads Up For Tails turned pet owners into pet parents

Rashi Narang, the founder of pet care company HUFT, talks about creating the category from scratch to become a leader in the segment

Rashi Narang, Founder of Heads Up For Tails (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)
Rashi Narang, Founder of Heads Up For Tails (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

In the mid-1990s, Sooraj Barjatya gave movie-goers Salman Khan, wedding songs and Tuffy, the Indian spitz in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! Tuffy umpired cricket matches and played cupid wearing hats and bow ties. About a decade later, an engaging ad campaign by mobile service provider Hutchison Essar featured a pug following a boy through green fields, under coconut trees, trudging along slippery paths. It was a depiction of the tag line “wherever you go our network follows”. Pugs shot up the pet popularity charts.

In the years that followed, an increase in urbanisation, disposable incomes and the humanisation of pets (think Tuffy as the OG cricket umpire) spurred a boom in India’s pet-care industry.

In 2004, Rashi Narang left Delhi to pursue a master’s in human resource development at the London School of Economics. A year later, she got married and also took up a job in the corporate sector. Quite soon, though, she realised she needed more from a career. “I disconnected from the whole corporate feel. Among the many thousands of employees, I wasn’t really making a difference. In 2006, we moved back to Delhi. Then a little puppy came and transformed my life,” says Narang in a Zoom call from her home in Delhi.

It was a Labrador named Sara. Narang had grown up with dogs but her in-laws didn’t keep pets. “I had to plead—a home is not really a home without a pet. For my birthday, we brought Sara home.” As the main “decision-maker”, she searched for good pet products. “I pretty much couldn’t find anything. The pet stores carried basic collars, leashes, beds and treats. They had no toys, except maybe a ball or two, no accessories and hardly any grooming products. I went to buy her a birthday present and came home with nothing. That was the moment when I had the spark for Heads Up For Tails (Huft).”

She realised there would be others who wanted thoughtfully designed products too. This went on to define her company’s vision—“For every home to experience the joys of raising pets as family.”

In 2008, she began sketching items that combined function and design, detailed drawings of soft furnishings like beds and mats, and jackets to keep pets warm in winter. For instance, a jacket that was comfortable, looked good and did not get wet when the pet peed. She took her designs to several tailors. The refrain was the same: “We don’t stitch clothes for dogs.” Finally, one tailor agreed.

Then she ran into another hurdle: No pet shop was ready to stock her products. She approached 200 of them and they all told her the products wouldn’t sell. “The problem was, most of these pet stores were not run by pet owners. They couldn’t resonate with the core emotion of ‘pets are family’, or the design which was central to each item. In addition, most were India-first products, so they didn’t have exposure to them either. Those stores weren’t built around a customer experience and there was no way to really display our products either,” she says.

Narang, who was working at the time with Chaman, a non-governmental organisation that supports underprivileged children, decided to take matters into her own hands. She would set up stalls at Diwali and Christmas fairs.

“There the response was completely different compared to my experience with pet-shop owners. People were very excited, they asked me so many questions because they hadn’t seen these products before. That was quite encouraging.” Narang then rented a kiosk at Delhi’s Select CITYWALK mall and launched an e-commerce website. Her fledgeling venture was self-funded, with capital of 5-6 lakh.

The initial days, she says, were “very challenging”. There was no one to learn from, employees had to be trained, a category created from scratch, be it the front-end, back-end, supply chain or product. Even customers needed to be educated: For example, someone came in looking for a choke collar to control a dog while walking him leashed. A team member guided them with tips on how to walk dogs to build a relationship based on trust and love rather than fear. Looking back, Narang says: “Setting up and managing a small business with all aspects is intimidating, especially with barely any funding, experience or team! The learning curve was steep but I wouldn’t do it any other way.”

In 2009, barely a year into her business, her husband, who was working with a hedge fund, was posted to Singapore. She moved too. She struggled to manage the business—the kiosk and website— remotely. Her team comprised fewer than 10 people; she couldn’t be hands-on with training. It was tough to find ways to create awareness about her products—social media promotions had yet to take off.

She managed, though, to keep the business afloat. In 2015, the year she returned to India, Huft raised the first round of investment, of Singapore $1 million (about 5.5 crore now) to expand its retail presence and product categories. The funding came from high net-worth individuals (HNIs) Narang had met in Singapore.

The time was ripe for expansion. The demand for sophisticated pet products had risen in India. A 2015 Mint story reported, for instance, that pet owners were spending more than 10,000 a month on pet food, grooming and care. This was also the year the movie Dil Dhadakne Do was released. Its opening scenes are narrated by the family’s pet dog “Pluto Mehra”, voiced by Aamir Khan. For Narang, the timing of her return to India couldn’t have been better.

In 2017, she raised S$2.6 million, again through HNIs. The money was needed to fund growth and take the competition head on. Huft had started as a pet accessories brand. In the seven years (2009-15) she was away, home-grown brands had launched dog beds, jackets and tees. Imported accessories, often made in China and cheaper, had come in. Huft had to step up its game.

Most of the innovation has been driven by customer engagement—and customisation requests. They built orthopaedic beds at the request of the owner of a senior dog. A cocker spaniel’s owner said the droopy ears of her pooch would dip into the feeding bowl; this prompted the invention of a cocker bowl with a wide bottom and narrow opening—designed to fit the mouth while keeping the ears out. Learning from her own experience as a pet parent, she launched hormone-free, antibiotic-free and preservative-free treats. “As Sara grew older, I found that treat packets contained many ingredients whose names couldn’t even be pronounced. There were so many chemicals and preservatives. So we work with healthy, human-grade ingredients, not only for pet food but also grooming products,” she says. Today their food range, Sara’s Treats, is one of their best-sellers.

With this round of funding, they moved into the services space, setting up spas, grooming and experience centres. In 2018, they opened a store at Delhi’s Khan Market and India’s first experience centre for pets in Bengaluru, with a treat table where pets can sample treats and a grooming section.

There is ample space to host events like pet adoption drives, offer nutrition training and wellness initiatives with therapy dogs. Their social media accounts are indicative of the intent to go beyond products and education.

But while their approach reflected the larger market shift as the pet-care industry begun to mimic the childcare industry, not all their initiatives tasted success. For instance, they introduced WAG boxes with accessories and treats based on seasonal themes, like a Diwali box with pet-friendly laddoos and ear muffs to block out the sound of crackers. But they weren’t able to scale the concept. Narang says: “It didn’t make sound business sense. There was lot of thought in curating it and building it month on month but outputs were low. Maybe the average selling point was more than what people were okay spending on for their pets on small occasions, like a festival. Or we didn’t market it well enough.”

The biggest round of HNI funding, to the tune of S$10 million, came in 2019. Huft’s plan was to move to smaller cities, beyond Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune. Just before the pandemic disrupted life, they started a rapid expansion drive in the retail space.

The lockdown, however, upended supply chains. “The stores had to shut for a couple of days. We were allowed to operate because pet food, after a couple of days, became an essential but that was literally the only thing we were selling. When the lockdown was eased, there was reduced footfall. We worked hard on accelerating the shift to e-commerce, plus staying connected via WhatsApp, helping with really quick deliveries from the stores, video calls and more. We had a joke that the summer collection, which was supposed to launch in March, actually came out in September—internally, we still called it the summer collection.” They have continued to expand since, though, opening stores in Gurugram, Noida, Lucknow and one just this week in Pune. Today, they have 41 stores around the country.

Over the past few months, they have worked on their product line too, introducing over 200 new products,including a pet-safe sanitiser and toys like snuffle mats and lick mats.

Narang says: “We realised dogs couldn’t step out as much and were bored. These toys are mats where one could place different treats at once in separate areas to boost mental stimulation.” Huft now caters to the entire spectrum of customers. They say they offer a lot of products under 1,000; pet food starts from as little as 40. Plush cat furniture, though, can set you back by nearly 20,000.

Through the pandemic, Narang has noticed an interesting shift: With more people spending a greater amount of time with their pets, pet owners have turned into pet parents. It has only helped Huft, whose revenues have been displaying health growth.

In the financial year (FY) 2018, they clocked gross revenue of 12 crore, jumping to 25 crore in FY 2019 and 48 crore in FY 2020. Narang says: “In FY 2021, we saw a growth of almost 75%, which was low compared to the earlier year due to lockdowns. This year, we are on the path to doing 150 crore in top line and opening 55 stores.”

In 2008, when Narang approached Select CITYWALK for a kiosk, she wanted to reserve it only for weekends. They didn’t permit it. Now the running joke is: “It has been 13 years and she is still here.”

Also read | How pets helped Indians get through the pandemic

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