Lion's Lair: A Hamilton solution to messy pet cages

Hamilton's Dunlea Farms created Tidy Feeder for small pets and is a finalist in this year's Lion's Lair business pitch competition.
Michael Trauttmansdorff, founder of Tidy Feeder, stands proudly on his family's hay farm in Jerseyville, Ont. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

Michael Trauttmansdorff has always been around hay. There are rolling hills of it on the 250 acres of farmland he grew up on.

Now 30, Trauttmansdorff still lives on the Jerseyville, Ontario property his Austrian immigrant parents bought in 1980. He speaks passionately about the crops his parents have spent over three decades growing.

"Out here on the farm we're always very connected to nature and to where our food comes from and we really get a lot of joy out of that and seeing our crops mature," Trauttmansdorff said, with those rolling green hills behind him.

Trauttmansdorff helps run Dunlea Farms, which now grows primarily pet hay, and developed the Tiny Feeder, a paper box full of densely packed hay that can be attached to a small pet's cage. Trauttmansdorff and his Tidy Feeder are one of the Lion's Lair's 10 finalists.

The man

Trauttmansdorff said he'd never take back his upbringing on a farm. Agriculture goes back as far as he can remember on his father's, Fritz's, side.

He went off to the University of Toronto to study aerospace engineering, and enjoyed the urban setting.

"I'm a bit of a chameleon that way," he said.

Trauttmansdorff seems to be a bit of a chameleon on the professional side, too. He said his true passion is in design and went off to do a graduate degree in product design in the Netherlands.

When he returned, he somehow managed to marry his engineering skills, design sense and family farming background into one. The end product is the Tidy Feeder.

The product

The idea for the Tidy Feeder was once on a napkin.

"All good ideas are on a napkin at one point," Trauttmansdorff said.

He knew he wanted to sell a product in a paper box after conducting some customer research. Trauttmansdorff found that small pet owners were most concerned about the messiness of hay around the house and inside the cage.

It was a problem Trauttmansdorff thought could be solved by "just changing the packaging."

After literally gluing and folding cardboard into various box options, the decision to stick with the final design came after a focus group with potential customers.

"The a-ha moment was in the eyes of the customers," he said, remembering the unanimous 'yes' he got when showed them what would become the Tidy Feeder. He even invented the process in which the boxes are stuffed. "We realized that no one was densely packing hay into a box," he said, and later designed a man-operated machine to do that.

The Tidy Feeder boxes are manufactured off-site, but packed on Dunlea Farms property by his five employees. The product has been on the market since spring 2010. Trauttmansdorff first launched Tidy Feeder in Global Pet Foods and independent stores in Southern Ontario.

Dunlea Farms offers the Tidy Feeder in two sizes and three different variety of hays. Alfalfa hay, for babies, is high in protein for bone development and low in fibre so it doesn't disrupt the digestive system. A mix of Alfalfa and Timothy hay, a variety higher in fibre, is meant for middle-aged pets.  Pure Timothy hay is meant for older pets to promote healthy digestion.

Trauttmansdorff said the product got distribution in Pet Valu stores nationwide in 2011, and also got overseas distribution in Asia and the United Kingdom. On Wednesday, he showed off a shipment heading to Taiwan.

"There is potential everywhere in the world," he said of the Tidy Feeder.

Where Trauttmansdorff believes his company needs to do better is marketing the product, and he thinks the training from the Lion's Lair competition could help.

"Consumers don't yet know this solution exists," said Trauttmansdorff.

The Lion's Lair pitch: why Tidy feeder should win

It was Trauttmansdorff's wife, Hanh, who saw an advertisement for Lion's Lair and brought it to his attention. "She thought it would be a good opportunity to help expand," he said. Trauttmansdorff agreed. He made his pitch and ended up in the top 10. 

He said he currently has a deal with an American distributer in the works and the $100,000 prize would go specifically to expanding to accommodate this possible demand. Trauttmansdorff said his product should win because he employs people locally and has ambition to expand to create another Hamilton success story.

"I had a really great time developing the Tidy Feeder," he said. " My goal is to grow the business so I can have a larger team around me and make it run really well and continue to invent new, good products."

Trauttmansdorff said he's got a few ideas "in the pipeline, but it'll be a year or more before they get to market." Trauttmansdorff is most proud to offer a quality Canadian product to local pet owners.

"We want to be a Southern Ontario supplier to feed Southern Ontario pets," he said.