In the film The Secret Life of Pets, the opening scenes show pet owners across New York City heading off to work and leaving their pets behind. Max, a terrier, tells his friend and admirer, Gidget, a white Pomeranian, he plans to spend the day waiting by the door for his owner Katy to return.
For several years now, paid pet sitting services have capitalised on this market for people to take care of pets while their owners are at work, keeping them company and allowing them to socialise. In the US, the main players in the market have been Wag and Rover. Wag became something of a cautionary tale for the sector, after raising an astonishing $300m from SoftBank in 2017, only to become embroiled in a series of problems including dogs going missing and even dying in the pet sitters' care.
Nevertheless, the sector has continued to grow, with Rover, known as a “dog BnB”, recently expanding into Europe, thanks to the acquisition of London/Stockholm-based DogBuddy, which was already active in seven European countries with more than 500 000 owners signing up.
Europe has its home-grown equivalents, including Gudog, which has become a leading player following its merger with UK-based site HouseMyDog. Before they merged in 2019, Gudog was a market leader in Spain and was growing rapidly in France and Germany, while HouseMyDog had offices in Ireland, Germany and the UK.
Gudog has raised some €360,000 according to Dealroom
“Our initial funding came from family and friends and then a successful Crowdcube campaign,” which raised £485 000, says one of the HouseMyDog founders, James McElroy. Gudog now features more than 25,000 approved dog sitters and walkers and takes a 15 % transaction fee from each booking.
The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly posed a huge challenge for pet care services, however, with the economic downturn leaving people with less money to spend, and working from home meaning pet owners have less need for pet sitters. The recent report by Global Industry Analysts expected a -2.5% slump for the pet care sector globally.
At the same time, the transactional pet-sitting business is being challenged by a subscription-based pet sharing model.
UK and Ireland-based BorrowMyDoggy was established in 2012 by Danish founder, Rikke Rosenlund. She asked herself why people would want to spend money on dog walkers or kennels when there are people who would like to take care of a dog for free, who perhaps are unable to have a dog themselves due to time commitments or cost. This proved to be the seed of a startup idea which she pitched to Lean Start-up Machine — her idea received the most votes of the 60 plus attendees.
Rosenlund built a basic landing page and put up posters around London — within three days, 85 people had signed up across the UK. Initially, Rosenlund says, she manually matched dog owners with dog sitters — given their geographical reach she had to search around to find appropriate matches much like a paid matchmaker, without the help of an algorithm. She then secured funding via angel investors, (one of whom she met on a chairlift) before going on to raise £1.5m at a crowdfunding summit in 2015 and went on to set up an app and build a community of more than 750 000 members, helped by social media.
BorrowMyDoggy has raised €2.8m according to Dealroom
One of the main challenges for BorrowMyDoggy has been raising capital partially, says Rosenlund “because what we are doing is very different from the existing solutions.” On the app, dog sitters pay £12.99 per year to have access to the dog sharing opportunities and owners pay £44.99. Users are verified with a system similar to the one Paypal uses, says Rosenlund and this is included in the monthly cost along with insurance and access to a 24 hour vet line, to address issues surrounding safety.
It’s a very different proposition to Gudog and Rover. “We have built the community and it’s based on people getting to know each other well. You see a lot of people becoming close friends. It’s based on a very different dynamic and mutual gain,” says Rosenlund.
Pet sharing, too, has been affected by the pandemic. Rosenlund is guarded about her subscription numbers and she is candid that the start of the pandemic was a very challenging time. Now however, growth has resumed and the company is on track to its best financial year to date. For now, they have no immediate plans to expand to other markets as Gudog has, but — with her Danish background — Rosenlund hopes to gradually build outside the UK.
More like a good cause rather than something we are making money on.
Many owners of the other smaller companies using the shared pet services model, such as UK-based Share Your Pet, admit their business is “more like a good cause rather than something we are making money on.” Like BorrowMyDoggy they are focused on promoting animal welfare, and responsible choices around getting a new dog — essentially enabling prospective owners to try before they buy.
“Filling out the application is very detailed so people need to be responsible enough and committed. You don’t give your pet to someone straight away — you meet once, twice or three times,” says Share Your Pet cofounder Julia Spenser. The monthly fee is currently £3.50, which was waived during the lockdown, except in the instances where Urgent Care was needed. They have 1,744 daily active profiles across the major UK cities, and much of the matching is done manually to provide a more personalised service and “hold people’s hands through the process”, and ensure there are no fake profiles.
With just a small cluster of shared pet services across Europe, including others such as HostMyPet in Finland, it is still a relatively new concept but seems to build on people’s need for community following months of isolation during the pandemic.
“What we’ve seen,” says Rosenlund, “is that while BorrowMyDoggy is about taking care of other people’s dogs, these same people are also delivering food and medication to each other. There is so much kindness on our platform.”
Whether it can prove to be as lucrative a market as paid pet-sitting, however, remains to be seen.