For Pupsy founders Tommi Nordstrom and Rafaela Salzer, becoming pet parents to their groodle Lumi didn’t just lead them to a life of long walks, cuddles and picking up poo. It also saw them leave the corporate world behind to found the TripAdvisor, Facebook and Tinder for dogs.
After getting Lumi, now three years old and Pupsy’s head of quality, “we learnt very quickly how hard it was to find places where you can go with your dog”, Nordstrom tells StartupSmart.
When looking for dog-friendly pubs, accommodation or even beaches, the only way to really know if Lumi was allowed was to trawl through other blogs and council websites, or contact the place directly.
The co-founders started chatting to other dog owners and realised this was a real source of frustration.
Enter Pupsy, an online platform allowing dog owners to find, book and review dog-friendly accommodation or venues, and to find services and set up play dates.
The dogs themselves have their own accounts and can review their experiences, or search for other dogs of similar breed or age to find out where they like to hang out. They can also connect to dog buddies and let them know where they’re going to be and when, or check into their favourite places.
Currently, Pupsy runs on a ‘freemium’ model, with dog-friendly businesses able to create either a free or upgraded listing.
In the future, however, Nordstrom says the main revenue generator will be bookings, with dog-friendly holiday homes and hotels listing on the site, and Pupsy taking a cut.
“As a dog owner, when you go to a booking website and search for ‘pet-friendly’ you don’t know what ‘pet-friendly’ means,” he says.
Sometimes it’s not clear whether you have to pay extra for your pup, or whether they’re allowed inside or only in the garden, he explains.
The Pupsy platform “will have all these criteria set very clearly … they will know clearly what those dog policies are.”
Currently, the startup is self-funded, and the plan is to remain that way until it’s generating enough revenue to be self-sustaining. Once the model is proven on a larger scale — likely by the end of 2019, Nordstrom says — the team will go for their first funding round.
“When we implemented it, nobody used it”
Currently, the site is attracting about 15,000 visits per month, and Pupsy has more than 4,000 people on its mailing list.
However, in the early days, the startup struggled to get this kind of traction.
The original idea was to focus on Facebook- and Tinder-style features, helping owners and dogs to organise play dates and park meetups.
“When we talked about that, everybody loved it,” Nordstrom says.
“When we implemented it, nobody used it.”
The founders were putting listings of dog-friendly locations on the site, but takeup was slow.
Things started to change, however, when Nordstrom wrote a blog post listing dog-friendly pubs in Sydney.
“That created quite a lot of publicity,” he explains.
“People are looking for these things and they can’t find them.”
That initial blog post has now had more than 30,000 views, and has led to dog owners getting in touch to let the team know about additional venues to add.
Pubs and restaurants themselves have also come forward to share their pet-friendly policies.
Eventually, dog owners were getting in touch to see if the founders knew which Hunter Valley wineries were welcoming to their four-legged family members, or where they could stay in Sydney.
“That was the moment we realised we actually can’t expect people to go to our website and start browsing things,” Nordstrom says.
It was the advice aspect and TripAdvisor-style platform “that was resonating more with the dog owners”.
Now, Pupsy covers New South Wales and Victoria, but it has plans to expand to holiday destinations such as Adelaide, Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast. Eventually, Nordstrom is looking to go global.
“We do believe that we can take this way beyond Australia,” he says.
The demand for this kind of thing also exists in the US and many parts of Europe, he explains. But, Pupsy isn’t getting ahead of itself.
“We don’t want to go there too fast,” the co-founder says.
“Although the concept can be quite easily global, you always have to have a local mindset,” he adds.
“We don’t want to go and explode too fast and not be able to do the areas properly.”
No looking back
For other founders looking to build a new platform in the pet industry, Nordstrom advises focusing on what exactly the dog owners, and dogs themselves, want.
“Go out there, find your target audience, and go and talk to them,” he says.
“Don’t start developing websites before you have done that.”
Nordstrom and Lumi still go to dog parks once or twice a day, to ask people what they need, or what kind of information would help them.
And, even if you explain your idea and get positive feedback from your target audience, Nordstrom advises challenging that feedback.
“Everybody will tell you face-to-face that it’s a great idea … it’s not nice to say ‘that’s just shit’,” he explains.
“Find a way to challenge your audience in a positive way, get some honest feedback, see what they think and if they have other ideas.”
Having left corporate life for startupland, Nordstrom admits there have been ups and downs.
“Once a month there is that feeling, when you used to get a paycheck and now you don’t,” he says.
But, even small wins make up for all the challenging moments. His background is in massive international companies, he explains.
“In the corporate world, you have wins … but it gets very easily blurred,” he explains.
“You’re a very small fish in a massive ocean.”
Now, every win, big or small, belongs to Nordstrom and Salzer alone. And they’re owning them.
“Those moments are the ones that drive you forward,” Nordstrom says.
“I’m not looking back.”