How DogVacay Literally Saved my Thanksgiving

Posted on Dec 6, 2013 | 25 comments


Without DogVacay my Thanksgiving would have been ruined. That’s a fact. And I’m not an investor. I just had to tell this story. It’s a great one about entrepreneurship, friendship and the collaborative economy that is helping families in need across the world.

DogVacay

The Background

Every year my family meets in San Diego for Thanksgiving. My 3 siblings & I make the trek to spend 4-5 days with the 9 grand children, my mom, my cousin and few other very close family members. It’s the one time per year that my entire family decompresses and spends high-quality time together under one roof. We rent a house through HomeAway and all stay under one big roof.

This year the night before the journey my brother got a call from the person who had committed to watch his dogs that she wasn’t able to watch them after all. Panic ensued as we couldn’t bring the dogs to San Diego and my brother’s three kids look forward to this great trip all year. They called the local dog kennels with trepidation. Nobody wants to leave their loved ones in a cold, impersonal dog kennel not to mention the costs of doing so.

“Oh shit.” The local kennels were full as many people had pre-booked for vacations. What to do?

I had known about DogVacay since its inception. As I mention I’m not an investor, just a fan. I have a close family member who lost her job and was in need of a bit of extra cash while she looked for work. She started watching dogs in her spare time through DogVacay and was able make ends meet during a tough period.

DogVacay is part of a new global movement some people are calling “Collaborative Consumption.” I wrote about this movement in the link to the left and also published this widely read presentation on the topic.

Companies like DogVacay solve a real need in the market. People who want to travel but don’t want to burden neighbors or friends or don’t want to leave their dogs in a big, impersonal, industrialized dog kennel now have a real choice to leave their dogs in a family home run by somebody with whom DogVacay has fully vetted and ensured of insurance, etc. They can read reviews, see pictures and even talk to the family before confirming.

On the other side, animal loves in need of extra money or stay-at-home parents, the elderly, whoever – can make extra money while just carrying out their normal life routines.

Win-Win.

My Experience

When I realized 6 members of our vacation crew might be SOL and my own kids devastated that they wouldn’t see their cousins this year I sprang into action. I don’t own dogs so I wasn’t already a user.

I registered. Easy. I typed in my brothers zip code and ton of houses popped up in his area and I was able to search out on a map view. I then clicked on reviews, looked at pictures and read the owners descriptions of what they were looking for.

I had to get basic information about my brother’s dogs (size, willingness to be with other dogs, special needs, were they spayed, had shots, etc.) and upload that.

And boom. That easy.

Except … there was a waiting period to have the owner decide if they wanted you. That could take a few hours and believe it or not I didn’t have a few hours. I called 1-855-DOG-VACAY and spoke with Killina Benson from their concierge team and explained my circumstances. She sprung into action and called the house I wanted to book directly (they obviously don’t provide phone numbers for you to call directly although a Twilio integration couldn’t hurt!).

To be totally honest I also called the CEO of DogVacay whom I consider a dear friend and told him about my plight. He was relaxed and told me, “Don’t worry, Mark. Killina will take care of you. That’s what she’s there for – we love situations like this. And there are a ton of dog sitters in Sacramento so I’m sure we’ll be able to help.”

Booked it.

Then my I had to explain to my sister-in-law that she was going to be leaving her dogs at somebody’s house whom she didn’t know. I told her the story of Aaron, the company, the reviews, etc. I could tell she wasn’t totally convinced but was willing to give it a go.

She dropped off the dogs and gave me the biggest thank-you text you could imagine. She told me

“Mark. I couldn’t believe it. Our host was so comforting. He told me I could stay as long as I wanted to make the dogs feel comfortable. They seemed so experienced and reassuring. Thank you. I feel much better about leaving our dogs here than with a kennel.”

Roxy and Camilia DogVacay

She arrived late that night in San Diego. We already had received photos from the dog watcher reassuring us that the dogs were safe and sound. We proceeded to get one photo every day and it helped calm all nerves.

My History with DogVacay

It’s true that I’m not an investor in DogVacay but I am a huge fan of the CEO, Aaron Hirshhorn and of the company and concept. We met six years ago. He had been working as a strategy consultant post b-school at Monitor and worked closely with a good family friend of mine who recommended I meet him.

We had a shared history. Not only two Jewish boys from Philly, but Aaron was born on the exact same day as me (April 30th) in the same town (Philly) exactly 10 years to the day after my birth. I’ll leave the year out ;-)

We got along and shared stories about the startup market. He wanted to work in venture capital and I was new to the industry and in no position to hire anybody. But we continued to meet over the years and swap experiences. Monitor had a little internal VC group so he got some experience there.

A few years later I was in the position to hire but Aaron was way more senior than our entry-level positions. So I asked him if he’d consider coming in an an intern of sorts. More like a temporary VC just to get some experience and of course we’d pay him. I saw it as win-win. We got a bit of extra help on company analyses and he got to see a VC from the inside.

We worked together just shy of a year and during that period of constantly seeing startups Aaron made the decision that he actually wanted to be an entrepreneur more than a VC. He and his wife hatched the idea for DogVacay and decided to go for it.

I absolutely loved the idea from day one and told Aaron so. I said, “This category is going to be huge. I’m sure of the value. Like most markets online it will likely be a ‘winner take most’ category so if you’re going to go for it … you better be prepared to win.”

He didn’t have a product or a tech team at the time so it wasn’t really at a stage where I could fund it. He turned to Mike Jones at Science who was newly set up as an accelerator of sorts or a venture studio. Their business model was to help young companies accelerate their launch by helping assemble a team, do initial marketing, provide seed capital and help them raise financing.

Science played that role well and after Aaron hired the key team members and got the product out the door, the business model nailed down and initial users / sitters signed-up, Aaron partnered with the uber-connected Peter Pham of Science who helped him with the VC ropes raising seed capital from First Round Capital and many local LA seed investors and then an A-round from Bill Gurley at Benchmark.

They have raised now a total of $22 million.

I watched all of this from the sidelines with pride. I turned down free “advisory stock” in the early days and told Aaron that I’d much rather just be his independent friend and mentor for anything he needed and that I really just wanted to see him build a successful business for himself and for LA. And I have no regrets – watching a friend succeed is the best form of payment.

And by helping save my Thanksgiving this year. He has paid me in spades. Congratulations, Aaron. And thank you.

Final Notes

The photo in this blog (like many of mine) came from 500px. In this case somebody named Todd Adamson. I paid $2.99 for the rights to use it for non-commerical purposes. I don’t know Todd but he takes beautiful photos and he agrees to sell them on 500px to anybody who wants to buy them. I suppose he probably has both a day job and a passion for photography. And if he can make a few extra bob on the side, why wouldn’t he?

In a flat world, a collaborative world, that’s what people do. Supply and demand. Like oDesk. Visual.lyFiverr. And a host of other places people are turning to make money virtually in this new collaborative economy. I am a big fan of marketplaces that really do help change people’s lives from Uber, Deliv, AirBNB and of course … DogVacay.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    Huge pet lover here and this service is new to me. Thanks.

    Of course for Sam (my cat) I have to have people stay at my apartment. More complex as people need to be in my home.

    Anybody trying to solve the feline opportunity?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Well. I’m allergic to cats, so I definitely wouldn’t know ;-)

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    Funny–I blog about wine on the side for fun and have a loose association of wine bloggers with cats around the globe that I Skype with now and again. We all know each other.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan

    Very important service. I wish them well!

  • suyogmody

    dogvacay and rover.com are both great. we’ve used them once each and have had great experiences.

    lots of opportunity for both in the mobile space with photo sharing and other content-focused features. i hope the investment takes them in that direction.

  • http://www.startupmanagement.org/ William Mougayar

    Them and Rover.com are the Hailo and Uber pair for that segment. Big bucks and great backers & team on both.

  • Marco Tolman

    DogVacay has plenty of hosts that will do just that! Either they will stay in your home or they come by once a day to take care of your cats and spend some time with them. I’ve successfully used DogVacay to find a cat sitter a couple of times.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    Thanks…

    Finding trusted cat sitters for Sam is tough so all help is good.

  • Armen Martin

    Great post Mark! It inspired me to ask my wife if we can join as hosts to see what owning a dog would be like with our young kids. Can we handle a dog and the kids? I say yes but my wife is a skeptic. This may be the perfect solution!

  • http://www.justanentrepreneur.com Philip Sugar

    This dog is a dead ringer for my beloved dog Gretel. She was bigger but had the same smile. Beautiful American Bull.

  • http://ohheyworld.com/ Drew Meyers

    Wow…hadn’t thought of this specific angle. But definitely an interesting oppty there. Look forward to chatting more next week.

  • jamesoliverjr

    Hey Mark,

    I loved learning about DogVacay and am surprised to see there are even people in my area-Neenah, WI-that could watch my dog, Sugar, in a pinch. I’ll tell all my local friends with dogs about the company.

    Here’s a funny video of me playing the “barky game” with Sugar a few years ago, in which I get her to howl like a coyote.

    I love how you spotlight unique companies in your posts that are making a difference in people’s lives.

    When I first started WeMontage, I knew what I was doing had nothing to do with collages or our software. I knew it was really about a special feeling people had associated with their loved ones and meaningful moments in their lives and showing those in a unique, custom, high-impact manner.

    Somehow, I got away from that intuitive knowledge after launching the business and took more of a utilitarian approach. But now we are moving back to focusing on the WeMontage ethos in 2014 with the help of an awesome agency. Our first step is a new brand position statement, and tagline, “Live beyond the frame.”

    And we’re gonna work hard to connect emotionally with new channels we’ve identified, as well as craft stories that will make news and build our brand.

    Oh, and we’re gonna fix the lack of software functionality that I believe, based on constant user feedback, is killing our conversions.

    Anywho, thanks for another insightful and inspiring post.

    Cheers!

  • laude05

    Thanks Mark. I just checked their website and there are bunch of places close enough to me to get me to try them out next time I travel.

  • http://www.bluecoastrecords.com/ Cookie Marenco

    Thanks, Mark! Love these posts where you’re sharing your enthusiasm for products/services you believe in.

  • http://cynthiaschames.tumblr.com/ Cynthia Schames

    That is awesome. Just all around awesome.

    For once, I’m warm to the idea of the collaborative economy (and THANK YOU for not calling it the “sharing” economy, because it’s not sharing when money is exchanged.)

  • John Hoskins

    Good story and like that you weave other ideas in like Twilio. That alone gave me a breakthrough idea for my business, thanks Mark.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com/ Donna Brewington White

    Me too. We have one (long story) but it’s tricky. Thought I was a cat hater but Olivia changed that.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com/ Donna Brewington White

    What a wonderful surprise to see DogVacay featured here. Of course you and Aaron would be friends. I am getting to know Aaron and this company from a different angle and am so impressed with both –and this grows with each contact.

    When I first engaged with DogVacay I didn’t have a dog but the business concept was so brilliant that I fell in love with it and was thrilled to have a clear winner like this in the LA startup scene.

    We now have a dog, our beloved Murphy, and I really “get” it! We almost needed to use DogVacay last minute over the Thanksgiving weekend but had a change of plans. Knowing we had this option was a huge relief and using them would have been a no-brainer.

    BTW this post will be added to my marketing materials for introducing the company!

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com/ Donna Brewington White

    Good point Cynthia about the sharing economy. I like “collaborative economy” a lot but wish there was a different term for “collaborative consumption” purely for aesthetic reasons. I know it’s better to make a suggestion rather than just complain but it’s too early on a Saturday morning and pre-caffeine.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com/ Donna Brewington White
  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com/ Donna Brewington White

    Don’t you mean “pawesome”? (DV speak)

  • http://www.EyeOnJewels.com/ Darius Vasefi

    We adopted our first puppy this year and I have been looking at DogVacay in OC. Impressed with the ease of finding options and the tools they have, will definitely give them a try when the time comes.

  • http://www.futuristvc.com/ Brian Borton

    Hi Mark, what are your thoughts on customer attrition rates of localized online marketplaces (DogVacay, TakeLessons) vs. geographically dispersed online marketplaces (Etsy, Dealstruck)? I’ve found that localized services have a higher risk of market participants taking subsequent transactions offline – once the two parties have met, transacted, and built up trust, what is the incentive for the supplier (dog sitter) to continue to give up a commission to the marketplace for future transactions??

    Certainly, the supplier benefits from the marketplace in terms of customer acquisition, but on the demand side (pet owner), wouldn’t they prefer to save the ~10% commission?

  • GetMyBoat

    DogVacay is exactly what the sharing economy is about. Collaborative consumption is so important and makes life a lot easier. It opens up access to every facet of life while bringing a community together. Good work guys! :D

  • AlohaDogLady

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