Our subscription-first teardowns are written in collaboration with our Subbly Experts, a community of entrepreneurs that have become masters at both using our platform and understanding the subscription-first principles. In this edition, Jonny Sadler, co-founder of The Squeeze, dives deep into the strategies used by pet wellness experts Itch.
Itch is a monthly flea and worming subscription for pets. The business is a partnership between an experienced D2C founder/investor and two brothers who had a previous pet care business. There’s a lot of reasons why Itch is a great example of a company that follows the subscription-first principles, of which the main ones are their exceptionally distinctive brand, enjoyable customer experience and well thought-out marketing.
Perhaps the most important indicator that a business is subscription-first is the extent to which they make it clear that selling subscriptions is the primary focus of their business model. Itch is particularly interesting in this regard as while it’s subscription-first, it often appears subscription-only. This is partly due to the founders’ deep experience in the business model and the nature of their initial product.
From the basic website, it’s clear that their intent is to push subscription sales harder than transactional sales, with a big ‘First Month Free’ banner at the top, as well as front and center as a CTA. The benefits of the subscription model are also highlighted on the home page, such as tailored treatment, and access to a 24/7 ‘Video Vet’ service for members. On the product pages, the focus is yet again on the subscription option, which is automatically selected and features eye-catching colors, as opposed to the slightly greyer one-time purchase option below.
Being primarily subscription-first allows them to bid higher in marketing than traditional business while maintaining profitability. Itch knows that a subscriber they acquire today will actually be worth more in the future. That’s because while they might buy worm treatment for a 1kg cat for £7 today, they’ll be billed at that amount every cycle until they cancel. That allows Itchpet to bid higher for clicks and impressions than a transactional business, while still maintaining profitability. That’s the power of subscription-first in action!
While promoting your subscription offering as the core of your business model is important, you’ve got to balance it with a product selection that can satisfy a long-term customer need or desire. In this context, it makes perfect sense to offer consumable needs-based products with long-term usage schedules — namely, flea and worming treatments. And as a subscription, rather than one-off sales, the business can offer better pricing and experience, and remain confident they’ll generate profit over many months and years.
Being direct-to-consumer, the business is also able to cut out the middlemen – vets and other traditional outlets that typically charge a fee because of the perceived price of access and trust.
Since launching and gaining trust with a large customer base with their initial product, Itch has been able to expand product selection to cover even more replenishables for pets. Food, treats, supplements and more mean Itch becomes the one brand pet owners rely on to deliver everything they need for a healthy pet. Who knows what they’re going to launch next?
There’s a lot of products and services you can buy for your pet, but few are as important as those which keep your furry friends healthy. As pet health insurance and vet visits can be quite expensive and time consuming, a flea and worming treatments for pets subscription solves two specific problems for customers. First, remembering to treat your pet and, second, easily acquiring the treatment at minimal cost. Vets have traditionally been very analogue – without easy digital reminders – and difficult to access, often requiring appointments to get products.
Additionally, because Itch offers need-based products (rather than wants/desires) they can easily appear as a helpful service, taking care of problems for customers who in turn are happy to pay.
Having gained trust early, Itch are now positioning themselves as ‘The Pet Wellness Experts’ aligning with the general wellness trend and desire for pet owners to do everything they can for their pets, while being able to offer any product that falls within pet wellness.
The flea and worm treatment is well aligned to a subscription model – being a product that doesn’t vary with factors such as taste, and the subscription acts as a reminder service itself for pet owners. Once the business builds that relationship with customers, they are able to upsell with other subscriptions and one-off (or “transactional”) purchases, such as treats and toothpaste.
They evidently knew how to prioritize — transactional sales simply didn’t make as much sense within the model during the launch and growth phases, and were added once they had product-market fit and as they began to scale-up and broaden the product range to a wider market.
This is the only area where things weren’t as focused as they perhaps could be. The core of this principle is being subscription-first by default throughout the tech, product and operations stack – Itch is exactly that and is a model the founder/investor has built out several times. Itch uses a single ecommerce platform to manage their subscription and one-off orders and fulfills in the same way for a fully integrated customer experience. Similarly, all data is pooled centrally to fully understand what customers are buying and how to improve efficiencies as well optimizing their LTV:CAC across the customer base.
The website is clear with its title ‘Monthly flea treatment, delivered to your door’ – flea treatment is the core hook and trust builder, and upselling additional products comes later. All buttons and key product links direct to the same experience – a funnel that captures information to personalize the experience and set up the perfect subscription for each user.
As time goes on, customers can adjust their choices to suit their pet at the time – changing food as the pet grows and adding treats or other complimentary products — a quality which also nods to their operational focus (more on this later).
The flow of the customer journey is smooth at Itch, too. They make it easy for customers, with letter-box friendly packaging and the reliability of the ongoing subscription a benefit to the type of product. The business is also able to leverage data throughout the acquisition journey and ongoing customer relationship to improve the experience and optimize both conversion and logistics by better understanding customer needs.
Rating details: for each of the principles above, ✅ earns 1 point, ⚠️ earns 0.5 points, and ⛔️ earns 0 points
Itch is an exceptional example of a subscription-first business that follows all of the core principles and has been able to grow and expand quickly. They align deeply with my concept of Companion Brands – their relationship with customers develops over time via the subscription, products and information available, exemplified with the recent addition of a free 24/7 video vet service. They’ve followed a well-thought-out playbook, deeply centered around their unique customer needs, to tackle each of the launch, grow and scale-up phases of the business. However, there’s always room for improvement…
It’s difficult to see where a business that appears highly successful from the outside can improve, without diving into their data. However, looking at their Trustpilot reviews we can see two areas for improvement – one to do with integrated customer journey, and one to do with operational focus:
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