In partnership with The U.S. Embassy in Canada, Startup Canada is celebrating and spotlighting women’s entrepreneurship across the border – speaking to leading founders to learn more about their journeys, and the vital role of cross-border collaboration on their entrepreneurial successes. Startup Canada was pleased to sit down with Dr. Céline Leheurteux, Canadian founder and innovator in the veterinary space, to learn more about their journey.
Celine decided to be a veterinarian at the age of 8 and has been treating pets since 1999. Unable to find a dignified alternative to the garbage bag used for the disposal of deceased animals, she developed EUTHABAG – a pet body bag – now used in 25 countries by thousands of veterinarians. She provides training and tools to veterinary teams to improve the euthanasia experience for everyone involved: the family, the animal, and veterinary professionals. She gave a TEDx in May 2021 where she explained the hidden face of veterinary medicine: the financial aspect of pet health.
SC: Tell us about you and your businesses! Who are you and why did you start your business?
I decided I wanted to be a vet when I was eight years old after watching a vet fix a poor little dog that had been hit by a car. I started practising in 1999 in southern Quebec. I was so passionate about helping animals, and people at the same time. After a couple of years I realized how impactful euthanasia was – saying goodbye to your pet is something you remember forever. That’s when I decided to dive into that topic a little more since you get absolutely no training at vet school on euthanasia. It’s just incredible – we spent so much time learning about diseases we’ll never see, but learned nothing about how to perform euthanasia which we perform every day. So I started paying more attention and being very careful around the procedure – how I talk to people, how my nonverbal body language contributed to the situation, and how I could make my clients feel less guilty about the decision.
I was getting better at it, but at the end of every procedure I still had to put beloved pets into garbage bags. When you first enter the practice the garbage bag seems strange, but then it becomes something that “everyone just does” – the status quo. For some reason, that area of vet med had never been studied or improved. Overtime I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was putting so much care into the process and had established my approach. So I decided I was going to go online and shop for very nice body bags for pets. I didn’t care if I had to ship them from overseas or pay a lot. But then the realisation came – oh wait, nothing is online and nothing exists in this category.
I had wanted to be an entrepreneur for a very long time – my parents always said it was a great thing to be a founder. So at that point I made the decision to do something about the problem. There was a worldwide market, I have the expertise as a vet, and this is going to help people. I thought “oh this is going to be simple – I’ll design it, develop it, and then everyone will buy it”. I had no training in financials, human resources, or marketing but decided to go for it anyway. That’s how EUTHABAG and Vetcettera came to be – I felt the void in my practice. As an animal lover, I am so proud of everything we do in vet med. I know that bringing your pet to the vet can be expensive, but my priority is providing the best possible care through every step of the way. My company is the honour and admiration I have for the vet profession.
SC: What’s been your greatest success so far?
Having the biggest players in the industry – the cremation industry – tell me that I’ve changed the industry, changed the standards, and made this common practice in the vet med space. Just that I did something for my profession and I contributed to change things for the best. It’s all about vet teams who are extremely compassionate people – they deserve the best.
There is also, of course, the pet itself. I do a lot of training with vet teams to ensure they know how to facilitate the best, least stressful experience for the pet. Without that training, you can definitely miss some details and that can create a lot of stress for the animal. So by prioritising all three groups – the pet, the family, and the vet team – it helps make a sad, stressful situation a bit better for everyone.
SC: What is the best part of Canada’s and America’s startup ecosystem and community?
I find it’s the relative simplicity of things. The structures are easy to navigate. For example, if you need financing and you go somewhere, at least from my experience, it’s either a yes, a no, or a “go look here instead”. If you want to create a business, you can do it in one afternoon here in Canada. While working with people from Europe, I realised they don’t have that simplicity. It’s really a headache. It’s hard for them to create a business, it’s hard to report, it’s hard to hire, it’s hard to fire. Everything is so complicated.
That’s from the administration perspective of building a business, but the client-facing side also has its advantages. We have some clients in America and they make decisions quickly, simply, and handle things with a lot of clarity. On the other hand, we work in France and buyers move very slowly – “I’m not sure about this product, let me ask my clients, my cat and my wife first.”
We also have amazing financial aid programs in Quebec and Canada in general, with things like Can Export. Everything that you need to get going and start exporting to other markets is available to you and there are people there to help you do it. So that’s quite amazing.
SC: In one sentence, what does being a woman entrepreneur mean to you?
Making your personal life, family life, and professional life work together.
SC: How has the pandemic impacted your business?
I hired my first sales rep on March 13 2020. He had three days on the road and then everything shut down for over a year. So in order to keep our small team together, we moved everything online and to virtual platforms. We have a very small, super agile creative team so our next decision was to launch a continuing education platform for veterinarians. That may not seem like a big deal, but it was a huge deal and great accomplishment for us. We needed to define that platform, create content, and finance it to bring it to life. So that took a while. Beyond those elements, we needed to get our training accredited by the continuing education authorities so vet professionals could watch these training sessions and use them as credits for their licence. So that’s what we did and it was so successful – we had a robot sales rep working day and night. We started seeing people across the world registering for classes at, you know, midnight, 2am, 6am in the morning. That was exciting. That is really at the heart of our marketing strategy – convincing people to use our product by training them and teaching them how they can perform better when it comes to euthanasia. We see after the training sessions the common sentiment of “oh this product makes so much sense”. Once we make that initial sale, we have noticed a lot of product loyalty with vet professionals. It’s almost a lifelong relationship that comes from mutual education and respect.
Next, we started offering sales reps that sell our product across the US virtual Lunch and Learns. In the pet industry, Lunch and Learns are huge – nobody is going to spend the time and listen to you without offering them a pizza or something. We couldn’t do that in-person anymore, so instead we sent them a gift card to buy themselves a lunch while they listened to us pitch. That has been very successful.
We’ve also started a donation program with some non-profits. We donate a percentage of our sales, plus an amount per order, to a nonprofit that the distributor has chosen – their favourite charity. Just that has drastically increased sales. People feel like they are doing more than just buying and selling stuff. So that’s how we adapted and, actually, we don’t want to go back. We don’t want to go back to travelling throughout the US – the jetlag and so much time away from our families. We are happy working from home. I’m proud of how we have adapted – we were able to increase sales by 50% yearly throughout the pandemic. I think that’s pretty good.
SC: What has been your biggest struggle in navigating cross-border sales and operations?
The logistics – shipping, freight forwarding, customs, commercial invoicing – is all very confusing. A step-by-step guide doesn’t exist for cross border operations, so it feels like a lot of trial and error. The importing/exporting system between Canada and the US also seems very decentralised. There is no central platform where all documents can be uploaded and accessed. There aren’t even file numbers. So that all seems strange to me, and like a relatively simple solution. We even inquired and asked our freight forwarder if they had any tips or systems for creating a seamless process, and they had nothing. Once in a while product will get stuck at customs and we still don’t really know why.
SC: On the other hand, what are the biggest benefits you see in cross-border sales and operations?
Our head office is five kilometres from the US – the biggest market on the planet – so naturally we would go there. In our community of veterinary medicine, most thought leaders we learn from are from the US, the books we read and magazines we subscribe to are in the US. It just made a lot of sense. We also all have to pass the same exam to practise in North America – it’s the same veterinary standards between Canada and the US. Our product also didn’t have to be FDA approved as it’s not a medication. There were no big barriers in entering the US market, only opportunities. All of that told us we needed to be there.
SC: Has going global given you an advantage in bouncing back better and faster amid the pandemic?
Yes, because we had choices. We were not stuck in one area where the market may be saturated. Rather, our market was the world. We have seen so much success in many different countries. Our product is currently used in 25 countries. Every vet we talk to across the world has said “yes this product makes total sense” – every culture, every clinic, every territory. We really focused on keeping the price reasonable no matter the market, whether you are in the US or in India. Going global really gave us some alternative options. Along the way if one approach wasn’t working, we would reuse whatever marketing tools we had produced on another market, and so on. It has really been the difference in keeping sales going overall.
SC: Many women founders have cited mentorship as the biggest support in growing successful businesses. Have you found value in mentorship, either as a mentor or as a mentee?
Yes, of course. It can get lonely at the top and in your own reality. You need that person you can resonate with and a way to realise you’re not different from other founders. Everybody faces failures – it’s so important to feel like you aren’t alone in that and with your problems. We all want to feel and appear normal – especially as women we want to feel ready. You want to always look smart and be at your best. The pressure is enormous.
I remember going to an entrepreneur contest and there was a keynote speaker who was world renowned for their innovations – I believe they made the best stainless steel tanks for storing maple syrup or wine. Anyways, they were telling us how the night before the biggest sales pitch of their careers, they were still welding the tanks and finishing the product. I remember thinking how many times I was in the same situation. So it’s nice seeing that even very successful entrepreneurs had moments where they were not prepared. Those stories and examples are so important.
SC: Have you ever experienced running into a problem where seeking mentorship or advisory support has helped guide or empower you to find a solution?
Yes, on so many occasions. For example, when I was negotiating with my first distributor in the US, it was such a big deal for me. I was so happy to have somebody want to take my product but I didn’t know where to start, what to look for, or how to protect myself. I went in with the advice of mentors, but I still ended up making a lot of mistakes. Mentorship, while great, is not very detailed in most cases. They give you general directions, advise you to slow down or take action, and general big picture things along the way. I feel like there is a lack of technical support and resources that could help us get beyond that general advice in order to make good deals. When you’re a new founder, everything is new and is often very expensive. If there was some way of providing new exporters with free step-by-step advice, I think that would make a big difference and save us a lot of headaches and bigger than needed price tags.
Recently a young woman approached me and asked about renewal agreements and what she needed to look out for and include. I told her a few detailed tips, and it made a huge difference for her. I just wanted her to avoid the hassle that I went through. So yes, mentorship is great but more detailed advice is needed at certain points.
SC: What does being part of this partnership mean to you? What do you hope to achieve?
I hope to be able to discover some trends surrounding common aches and pains for all founders and develop some solutions. We are a big economy, and all small businesses are so important to said economy. In Canada, we have such a talent for inventing solutions – throughout our history we’ve been outstanding in that category. We tell so many to go for it and become entrepreneurs, but then we leave so many founders alone. I only made it because I had very strong relationships with potential clients in my industry, but at the end of the day I still had no training and I was alone on the journey. I fell in so many stupid traps along the way that a simple one day training by a specialized organization would have solved. It’s really too bad that 50 per cent of founders don’t make it – but honestly it’s more surprising that 50 per cent do make it. The financial pressure is so high for founders – whatever business you are making, it’s still a large investment. So this is what I hope – that we find common ground on needs for entrepreneurs and that we can work together to develop real solutions. I think Startup Canada does an amazing job. Since being involved with you I have access to a lot more tools, and I don’t feel as alone.
SC: How can we learn more about your journey and organisation?
You can visit our website, euthabag.ca! You can also follow our social channels – Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn – at @euthabag.
SC: Do you have any recommendations for women founders who want to take the first steps towards exporting and going global?
Get the advice of another woman entrepreneur who has been there and done it. Women are willing to help, and most will lend you their time. Before meeting with them, have a plan. Build out a business plan, understand your ambitions and why you want to go global, and really think on if you’re ready for this step. Government websites are nice, but they are often so general and don’t cover a lot of the personalised elements another founder can. So have a plan, then go meet a real person who has done it before. Otherwise, this process can be painful. I find that having a person with a brain and a spirit will be better able to advise you and help you than anything else. Humans can help clarify and prioritise, unlike any computer or book.
SC: Do you have any advice for women founders who want to expand and capitalise on their networks?
Again, find someone doing what you’re doing and tap into that. Women are great at planning, sharing, having radical generosity, and showing solidarity. Trust your network – don’t be afraid to ask for help! The strength and richness of entrepreneurial networks is amazing so just go for it. You will feel better about your founder journey and be more prepared, while at the same time the woman who helped you will feel good and have their “empathy tank” filled. It’s a win-win.
SC: Thanks so much for talking with us today, Céline!
Thank you so much!
This piece is part of Startup Canada’s wider campaign in part with the U.S. Embassy in Canada to celebrate and honour incredible women entrepreneurs from both sides of the border. If you are a woman-identifying founder in Canada or the United States looking for free one-on-one advisory support from expert mentors, private sector partners, or startup support organisations, head over to startupcan.ca/explore/startup-women to learn more and get started today.