Dog boarding & care is a $15 Billion service market, largely made up of mom & pop workers, groomers, and pet sitters, who mostly get business by word of mouth.
Even with Yelp reviews, it can be hard to get that right match between your pup and a host. Even harder is finding a place to put up your pup without costing you an arm and a leg.
Such was the challenge Aaron Hirschhorn and his wife faced, when they took a trip to the east coast to see their parents back in 2011. They returned to find their babies Rocky & Rambo hiding under the bed for a full week upon their return, and a $1400 kennel bill, which cost more than the trip itself!
So the Hirschhorns started Aarons Dog Boarding on Yelp, and got a last-minute call to take care of a cutie named Chelsea. In came the five star review, another call, and the business took off to caring for 100 dogs in the ensuing nine months, which yielded a healthy $35,000, which Aaron used to fund the initial development of DOGVACAY.
Hirschhorn, a UCLA business school grad with experience in tech strategy and consulting and venture capital, caught the attention of Mike Jones, who then brought DogVacay into Science.
And with that came access to the right people with experiences, connections, and resources to get DogVacay off the ground.
Says Hirschhorn, “Every time we’ve brought on smart investors with good reputations, it helped facilitate growth, it’s helped facilitate networking, and credibility. And because of Science we were able to raise that million dollar Seed Round,” which included Howard Morgan of First Round, Brian Lee, and Andreessen Horowitz.
“I’m sitting here pitching a dogsitting business to venture capital and they’re like, ‘Are you serious? You know this is dogsitting.’ The more believers we got, the more people came on board, even though nothing had changed about the market opportunity.”
But something did change. As DogVacay started to grow, the whole sharing economy started to grow in concert, leading to huge gains for early investors of companies such as Uber and AirBnB.
And as more investors came on board, more opportunities opened up for DogVacay. Benchmark Capital lead their Series A, and Bill Gurley serves on the board, which has helped incredible executive and engineering talent along the way.
From the core group of 10 employees at Science a couple years back, DogVacay has grown to nearly 100 employees at their current offices along Broadway in Santa Monica.
But back to the work on hand. The Hirschhorns personally called, explained the concept to, and onboarded the first 250 handlers, via Yelp, Angie’s List, dog parks, and Google, most of which who had no site of their own but now had instant access to a service pool which would help them make more money.
DogVacay also armed each sitter with collateral (fliers, cards, coupon / referral codes, t-shirts, toys) to help these handlers spread the word in both the real world of dog parks & events, as well as in the digital / social world.
But it was paying attention to the quality of the handlers and their service which has really helped DogVacay grow: “The most important thing we did early on, and continue to do, is focus on quality, this is not a marketplace where you just fill out a profile and become a dogsitter — you are caring for someone’s family member.”
In fact, DogVacay has only accepted 21,000 sitters out of 130,000 applicants — that’s only 15%!
DogVacay has a City Manager program that focuses on recruiting quality hosts via an intensive process, which includes in-person interviews, home inspections, background screenings, reference checks, and online training in order to reinforce trust and transparency.
DogVacay even has a $2 million general liability coverage and has a sizable 24 hour custom safety / pet tech team in-house.
DogVacay recently launched Dog Daycare for owners that need more flexible pet care, whether it be walking their pup during work or checking in while the owner is out of town for the day.
And says Hirschhorn of starting DogVacay in Los Angeles, “The City has been really supportive. It’s a great dog culture, a great outdoor culture — LA is our biggest city, and we’re finding great talent on the engineering side, the marketing side, and wonderful customer care associates. We find people who love dogs and are excited about the mission, LA has been great to us.”