BarkBox, now profitable, mulls IPO or sale

Key Points
  • BarkBox's owner will be ready to go public in as soon as six months.
  • It would also consider a sale.
  • Bark expects to generate $250 million in revenue next year.
Source: Bark Box

Bark, the parent company of BarkBox, the subscription service for dogs, is prepared to go public in as soon as six months, co-founder and CEO Matt Meeker told CNBC. It would also consider a potential sale.

The company has met with banks in recent weeks to discuss both options, sources familiar with the situation said. Bark confirmed the meetings, saying they are typical for a company at its stage to build relationships and gauge the market and opportunities, far in advance of any process.

If it does go public — a move that will be market dependent — Bark will welcome labeling itself in conversations with investors as a subscription box company. That identification would come despite the recent industry aversion to the label.

Ask a handful of businesses whether their service that allows the option of subscribing to boxes of goods is a "subscription box service," several will likely explain why they are not. Stitch Fix eschewed the label when marketing its public offering to investors, sources have told CNBC. (Stitch Fix offers customers the chance to buy without a subscription or change the frequency of their subscription.) Amazon similarly contends its Amazon prime wardrobe service is not a subscription box service.

Blue Apron's spectacular fall from grace has left investors skittish of such companies' ability to balance marketing costs and sales. Meanwhile, other companies like Techstyle, the owner of Kate Hudson's Fabletics brand, and Birchbox have tried to sell themselves, only to be met with similar concerns.

Birchbox declined to comment on acquisition rumors, but said it achieved profitability earlier this year.

But Bark believes, if built upon slowly and profitably, the business model helps a company anticipate sales and creates a direct line to its consumers.

"There are consumer subscription companies that have different dynamics," said Meeker.

"Costco is the gold standard of that. … Let's be upfront about it: Here is our annual retention rate, here is our cash. Because they are good, so let's just tell everybody it."

Bark expects to top $150 million revenue by the end of this year and reach $250 million in revenue by the end of next year. It has 500,000 subscribers and a 95 percent retention rate, which it attributes in part to extensive dog pampering. It became profitable the first quarter of this year.

It raised $60 million last May, in a round led by August Capital, bringing total funding to a relatively modest $77 million.

As to the inevitable Amazon question, Meeker says Bark views the retail juggernaut as "both a threat and potential partner." He said pet food — rather than Bark's treats and toys — is a more natural opportunity for Amazon, given its strengths and the larger size of that market.

"IPO investors will be interested in a company that has that growth and is profitable," said Kathleen Smith, a principal at Renaissance Capital, which manages IPO-focused exchange-traded funds.

"They will be pushing on issues that others have had though: logistics, the need to spend more to get new customers and new competition."

Should Bark take the M&A route, it would do so into an industry that — like all in retail — is going through rapid disruption. The $69 billion pet industry is supported by passionate "pet parents" who, it seems, will always spend on their dogs. As marriage rates among millennials decline, pet ownership is increasing.

These pet parents, though, are more willing to do their shopping online than industry stalwarts had expected.

Many traditional pet food or pet product companies are looking for ways to reach their shoppers beyond their stores, as they hope to fend off the ever-looming Amazon threat.

PetSmart's roughly $3 billion acquisition of earlier this year announced the industry's potential embrace of e-commerce. Though as a private company, Petsmart had more leeway to make such a gamble than many of its publicly traded peers.

Chewrassic Bark

Bark, launched in 2012, has three business lines: traditional e-commerce, sale of Bark products to its retail partners and its subscription business, which accounts for roughly 80 percent of its sales.

It was founded by Meeker, Henrik Werdelin, and Carly Strife. Meeker also founded, the networking company that sold itself to WeWork last month.

For $20 a month, dog owners get a box of predominantly Bark-branded toys, treats and chews. Boxes are arranged around a theme, which run through the choice of treats, toys and package inserts. This month's holiday-themed box had Howliday Spectacular Dancer tug toys and Holly, Jolly, and Gabe squeakers. The boxes have cartoons to entertain pet parents, as well as an insert with a number they can text to buy their favorite items.

Bark Box

Joe Cline, a 41-year-old computer consultant in Mineral, Virginia, discovered BarkBox last year through an ad. His 2-year-old German shepherd, Riya, tore through the toys she received in her first few boxes, sometimes in less than 15 minutes.

"It is a reasonable price for the service, but there are some months where you wonder if it's worth getting every month because the toys get destroyed. Then some months you're left with a pile of toys that you're wondering what do with them."

Cline and his wife have considered opting to receive a box every other month or canceling their subscription altogether. They stick with it for the value and the convenience — a drive to the pet store can take around 30 minutes.

Going forward, Bark faces the same challenge confronting many subscription companies: Once word of mouth and social media run their course — how can it continue to grow without spending unreasonable amounts on marketing.

Bark will consider broadening the products it sells and moving more into services. In doing so, Bark would follow a trend of companies teaming up to create thematic networks of goods and services (MAC cosmetics/Bumble & Bumble, Ikea/Task Rabbit).

Its partnership with Target, announced this August, has raised its visibility by hosting its branded products in Target stores and websites. Bark would consider similar partnerships with other retailers. It has 1.4 million Instagram followers, a number no doubt boosted by its viral-friendly canine content. It recently launched its first TV ad.

Bark is also looking beyond its metropolitan base to reach a new subset of pet lovers, and might partner with local agencies to better understand that demographic.

"We need to get to know them. [Right now] we are 150 people in a New York office," Meeker said.

—CNBC's Angelica LaVito contributed to this report.