In their earliest days heading up a fledgling, cash-strapped startup, the founders of dog-sitting platform Mad Paws took their first interstate trip, to the Melbourne Dog Lovers’ show.
They had the smallest stall in the place, decorated with all they could afford at the time: Instagram memes.
“It looked very bad,” co-founder and chief Alexis Soulopoulos tells StartupSmart.
“We were really the underdog with absolutely no decorations, because we had no money,” he recalls.
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However, the team came up with a simple idea, to ask event attendees their dogs’ names.
“No joke, 95% of people that passed through our stall were so happy to write their dog’s name.”
Attendees also gladly handed over their email addresses, so they could find out how popular their pooch’s name was at a later date.
As it turns out, “people want to talk about their dogs”, Soulopoulos says.
It’s building this connection with pet owners that has helped Mad Paws get to where it is today.
The team started launching competitions to find anything from the fluffiest cat in Australia to the best dog in every state.
The numbers of dog and fluffy cat photos flooding in “has just been next level”, Soulopoulos says.
The business is built around pets, for people who love them.
Founded in 2014 by Soulopoulos, along with co-founders Bjorn Behrendt, Justus Hammer, Jan Pacas and Rolf Weber, the startup came about when Soulopoulos himself was studying in Sydney, and missing his own dog back in Belgium.
When a friend went on holiday, he asked Soulopoulos to look after his labrador, Honey.
“I had such a phenomenal time,” Soulopoulos says.
“I realised, there are much more people like me who absolutely love pets, and would like to earn extra income.”
Soulopoulos built the platform, and launched in the area around the University of Sydney, with veterinary students making up the majority of the first pet-sitters, he says.
Tech meets talk
But things really started taking off when the team realised this wasn’t about technology. It was about building trust and being close to customers.
“The moment we started picking up the phone and connecting pet owners with pet sitters, not relying on the technology … that was when we started seeing high, high growth.”
Now, there are 370,000 pet owners in the database. The startup raised $5 million in March last year, and secured a partnership with Qantas. According to Soulopoulos, revenues are doubling year-on-year.
There are also about 20,000 verified pet sitters available, however, Soulopoulos stresses only about 20% of those that apply are approved.
“We take them through a very strict vetting process, which is very important to us,” he says.
Communication is still at the heart of Mad Paws, Soulopoulos says. But the technology has improved, too.
“We now have amazing search filter functionalities,” he says
Pet owners are required to disclose the size of the pet, but there are also optional filters allowing them to outline whether or not their dog likes kids, what size of garden they require, and other preferences.
These aren’t all mandatory points, but they matter to people, and so Mad Paws encourages owners to fill in as many as possible, “so that we can really connect them with the very best pet-sitters”.
Equally, the startup hasn’t completely abandoned its direct-contact approach, Soulopoulos says.
“If people have difficulties … our team will still jump on the phone and help them out.”
And for trickier bookings — which are incidentally usually higher-value bookings — customers will be given an account manager to help them find the right sitter for their pet.
Of course, a face-to-face meet-and-greet between owners, sitters and the pets themselves is also an important step in the process.
“It’s expectation setting, but also, does the dog get along with the sitter? If the sitter has dogs of their own, do they get along?”
“That’s very, very important,” Soulopoulos adds.
Part of the family
If anyone is surprised by the success of Mad Paws, it’s Soulopoulos.
First of all, he notes he was “extremely inexperienced at the time”, as a founder and in business in general.
“I didn’t think a business like this would pull off under my reign,” he says
However, he also didn’t quite anticipate the boom in demand for pet products and services.
“Four-and-a-half years later, a lot of venture capital is going into the pet-tech world, globally,” he explains.
In 2014, San Francisco pet camera startup Petcube raised $10 million from investors including Y Combinator. According to Crunchbase, doggy treat and toy subscription service Barkbox has raised a total of $81.7 million since it was founded in 2011.
Of course, Mad Paws itself has raised $6.1 million.
“Those dynamics certainly very positively evolved,” Soulopoulos says.
And startups Down Under can see the same success as their US peers. Australia has a high percentage of pet ownership per capita, but also, according to Soulopoulos, “one of the highest pet spends per capita”.
It’s a well-off nation, and growth is also being fuelled by the two major trends among pet owners: the premiumisation of pet products, and the humanisation of pets.
“People identify not as pet owners but as pet parents,” Soulopoulos explains.
“The fur baby is part of the family.”
Understand your customers
For other founders looking to cash in on the fur baby boom, Soulopoulos has some advice — but it’s not necessarily pet-specific.
“It’s always the same in startupland,” he says. “Understand your customers.”
In the pet space, this is even more pertinent.
“Empathise with them,” Soulopoulos advises.
“Really get a deep understanding of the love they have for their pets.”
Finally, he advises startups to get pet owners, and the pets themselves, involved in the conversation, as Mad Paws did in its earliest days.
“People love their dogs,” he explains.
“Get them to contribute about their dogs. They love it, we love it, our team loves it, and it’s a phenomenal brand-building exercise as well.”