The Airbnb That’s Gone to the Dogs
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because dogs are people too.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
As I walk into a sunny startup in Santa Monica, California, a lanky fellow at the receptionist desk greets me with a whip of his shaggy hair. In the corner, Juliette, the office diva, howls about today’s crappy canned lunch. And on the other side of the office is Maggie, a top performer who’s revving up the app team during a midday slump with some new tricks up her sleeve.
She can hump on cue, I’m told.
Luckily, CEO Aaron Hirschhorn is adept at managing these rowdy office personalities. After all, he’s the “top dog” around here. His workplace is part open office, part doggie den — with nearly half as many furry friends as two-legged employees milling around, making it one of the world’s most pet-friendly places to work. The company, DogVacay, connects around 25,000 local sitters with dog owners in need of couches for their canines to crash on, much as Airbnb does for travelers. And just as the sharing economy has reshaped the hotel scene, Hirschhorn wants DogVacay to overhaul the “broken” pet industry. It’s a fledgling startup so, of course, everyone is working their tails off to make it a leading pet-care company. As the plaque near the front door reads, “Dogs Welcome, People Tolerated.”
So far, investors have thrown in more than $47 million in seed funding toward fixing what Hirschhorn describes as the lack of options for dog boarding. On one hand, he says, are cheap, cramped kennels that coop up your dogs for days on end. On the other, posh pet resorts equipped with premium house kibble and special boutiques. The industry is focused on all the wrong things, he says: “A big suite with a flat-screen TV is not something that a dog wants.”
But what do dogs really want? For a bevy of entrepreneurs looking to take a big, juicy bite out of the fast-growing pet-products market, it’s a $60 billion question. At times it seems there are as many answers as there are breeds: subscription gift boxes (BarkBox), pet-tracking apps (Whistle), wearables (FitBark), matchmaking (TinDog) — all sorts of goods and services we never knew the country’s 80 million dogs needed so desperately. Or do they? “It’s largely for the humans,” says Megan Casey, who organized one of San Francisco’s first dog-tech conferences last year. Her own company, Pack, is a kind of Facebook for dogs … er, their owners.
Hirschhorn admits that many people laughed at his idea at first. But it turns out that boarding costs are no small sum for most pet owners: They each spend an average of $333 on kennel boarding every year, according to the American Pet Products Association, and, in total, $5.4 billion on boarding and grooming. And for owners, the prospect of leaving a beloved canine in the care of a for-profit business can be daunting. Dogs are “like family members, and you want to leave them with someone you trust,” says 30-year-old Jillian Fisher of Brooklyn; her own basset hound has separation-anxiety issues.
Indeed, Hirschhorn’s foray into the business began with an unsatisfactory boarding experience for his own beloved dogs. After putting Rocky and Rambo in a local kennel, Hirschhorn returned home from his trip with a $1,400 bill and a petrified Rocky cowered under a desk and trapped in a cage. So he and his wife started an overnight dog-sitting business — on Craigslist — “creatively” called “Aaron’s Dog Boarding Service,” Hirschhorn says. Soon enough, they found themselves serving 100 clients who shared similar frustrations with dog boarding. Proof of concept!
By then, Hirschhorn had years of experience in venture capital, private equity and finance to back him up. It’s helped him get a leg up in a startup world, corralling support for his off-the-cuff ideas. Although Hirschhorn claims that he’s no dog whisperer, he grew up with a canine companion and has been taking care of dogs since he was 10 years old. He devoured books upon books about dog behavior and training techniques. And before DogVacay was born, Hirschhorn hung out at different dog parks everyday, chatting up fellow dog lovers about what was missing in the pet-care scene. All of these experiences informed his vision for the future of the pet industry.
Although hosts are carefully vetted, problems can arise: Animals are living beings, and they can fall ill, get scared or become homesick. Every reservation on DogVacay comes with round-the-clock customer support, an emergency hotline and around $2,000 in complimentary vet insurance, guest pet insurance and insurance to cover the pets owned by the dog sitter. More than just a boarding site, DogVacay wants to expand into veterinary care, doggy daycare, pet training, pet insurance and dog walking.
Behind every successful entrepreneur is a great pet. For Hirschhorn, her name is Rocky and, like her owner, the domineering goldendoodle is known as the hall monitor of the office. She deals with the day-to-day dog politics between the golden retrievers, border collies, chocolate Labs, French bulldogs and sheepadoodles that loiter in between desks and nap on employees’ laps. At times, it’s hard to tell who rules the pack here — Hirschhorn or Rocky. But by the time midday rolls around, it’s puppy play time. And soon, it will be yappy hour too.