Henrik Werdelin’s Bark fetches $1.6 billion valuation
The Prehype founder and co-founder of Bark is making dogs and shareholders happy while helping other entrepreneurs build their own ventures
Originally from Denmark and now living in the US, Henrik Werdelin has been recognized as one of the “Top 100 Most Creative People In Business” by Fast Company and named to the “Silicon Alley 100” by Business Insider. His path to entrepreneurship took him through the BBC, MTV and Joost before he ended up creating Prehype, a “halfway house” for entrepreneurs like him, who didn’t know what to do next. Not only has Prehype incubated new ventures from scratch and in collaboration with Fortune 500 companies, it’s also where he hatched his own startup, Bark.
With a mission to make dogs as happy as they make us, Bark quickly took off, expanding its BarkBox subscription service over the years to include toys, pet food, home and health product lines. In June of 2021, Bark went public via SPAC by merging with Northern Star Acquisition. The newly combined company is valued at approximately $1.6 billion, and Bark is expected to generate around $365 million in revenues and reach a gross profit of $221 million this year. But the coolest part of the job, Henrik says, is getting to make dogs happy. Listen now on Apple Podcasts, Overcast and Spotify. If you love it, please help more people find it by leaving a review!
“I get excited when people talk about building something from scratch.”
Henrik Werdelin didn’t always think of himself as an entrepreneur, but he says he’s always seen himself as someone who started things, whether it was creating a school magazine or helping to start up a radio station as a teenager in Denmark. It was his dream to be a CNN correspondent that took him to grad school in London where, after a short stint at the BBC, he landed at MTV in the late ’90s. When no one at MTV was interested in his idea for a TV show about the internet, he broke into the studio in the middle of the night to create it himself. That’s how Henrik became, as he puts it, “a very young head of product development” for MTV’s channels outside the US.
And then he quit.
He quit to start up an interactive TV company called Triple Dash, whose biggest client was, you guessed it, MTV. When that business didn’t pan out, the appeal of a steady paycheck took him back to MTV, where he stayed until, he says, “I kind of became entrepreneurial again.” Henrik talks about some of the challenges he experienced as he pushed MTV into gaming. He would face a similar kind of pushback later on when he was raising money for Bark. Dogs might be a hundred billion dollar industry, but a lot of people saw it as a cute niche business.
“You have to take swings, and sometimes you hit the ball and sometimes you don’t.”
He finally left MTV for good when he joined the founders of Skype, Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, on their next venture, Joost. Henrik had met them in London and was impressed with their vision for building a global streaming cable operator, an idea that seems obvious now but was new — and not easy to do — back then.
Although Joost didn’t end up winning the streaming wars, Henrik learned a lot from the experience. I remember being in New York at the time and hearing that this was going to be the next big thing, so I was curious to learn why it didn’t succeed. Henrik told me that it was more of an accumulation of things that, together, caused Joost to fizzle out. He also offers some insights on how Netflix changed the game by going all in on “House of Cards.”
“It’s always been the drive of trying to come up with something and then see it in the wild.”
After Joost was sold to Adconion Media Group, Henrik took a paid Entrepreneur in Residence opportunity with Index Ventures in 2010. What he really wanted to do was move to New York. “I basically wanted to create a halfway house for entrepreneurs that didn’t know what to do next, because that was me,” he says.
He made it to New York, although the tech startup scene wasn’t exactly sizzling at the time. I know because I was there, subletting office space in Dumbo. But Henrik made enough money working on his first project, Justin Shaffer’s Hot Potato software, that he was able to start Prehype, a collective of entrepreneurial people who help each other build new ventures.
“From there, it just really grew rapidly...it just resonated with people.”
One of the ventures that came out of Prehype was Henrik’s own, Bark, a Birchbox-inspired pet subscription box service he co-founded in 2012 with Matt Meeker. With a WordPress template and Square to process payments from Matt’s phone, they started testing the idea at dog parks — and getting orders. That’s when they realized they needed some operational savvy on board and lured Carly Strife away from another up-and-coming startup, Uber. And then things really took off.
Henrik explains how the business model of Prehype works and how he’s been able to juggle incubating other projects while still being part of Bark. It helps, he says, to have two co-founders who don’t have a lot of overlap in skills, which means everyone can focus on what they do best.
“We, in many ways, see ourselves as an entertainment company, like a Disney for dogs.”
Bark is focused on answering one question: “How do we make dogs and their people happy?” To do that, they have to keep coming up with products and services, which the association with Prehype makes a little easier to do. Henrik adds that it was a big move to go from buying other people’s products to producing their own, just as it was a huge bet when they doubled-down on customer service. “Hiring 100 people in Columbus, Ohio, to do your customer service was not necessarily a very normal thing to do at the time,” as he puts it. But their willingness to experiment and, crucially, their willingness to kill something if it doesn’t get traction quickly, has made these gambles pay off.
In this episode, Henrik shares some of his favorite ideas that did — and didn’t — make it, at least not yet. Just because an idea gets killed doesn’t mean it’s something customers don’t want, he says. In many cases, it comes down to prioritization and investing in the places where the business is growing fastest. But some of those previously squashed ideas could come back to life later on.
“Pretty much from day one, we had always had this idea that this company should belong to the people that we serve.”
When we spoke, Bark was in the process of going public via SPAC. The merger was completed at the end of May, and Bark began trading on the NYSE on June 2, 2021. Henrik talks a bit about that process and how and why they decided to go public. As part of the deal, Bark received around $427 million in cash proceeds, which it’s using to expand its product lines and fuel continued growth.
In addition to growing Bark and helping other entrepreneurs create their own ventures, Henrik is busy with his “perfectly spoiled” dog Molly, who gets to test a lot of fun products. He points out that building stuff can be incredibly fulfilling, so if you’ve got an idea, don’t get too caught up thinking that you have to write a 200-page business plan and raise capital. “If you have an inkling, or you have a little bit of an itch, start with a side project,” he says. He knows from his own experience that things can take off very quickly from there.
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