What is the biggest problem facing pet owners around the world?
Vets bills? Dirty carpets? How about simply going on holiday? In fact it is estimated that up to 25% of pet owners don't go away at all due to not being able to find someone to look after their pet.
But thenTrustedHousesitters came along.
It is a simple idea. Think of it like online dating for pet owners, mixed with Airbnb. House sitters and house owners pay an annual fee to sign up and meet suitable house matches. Both get a holiday and save a ton of money while doing it.
The business has travelled a long way since being founded in 2011. Having consistently posted 80% year-on-year growth, the platform now has over half a million members across 130 countries, recently posted a £5m turnover and now counts easyJet and SkyScanner among its commercial partners.
It's been quite a journey, but one that very nearly didn’t happen. MT met co-founder, pet lover and travel junkie Andy Peck to hear his story and why its been so successful.
What is your background? You're quite lucky to be here aren't you?
I worked for Redbull helping drive UK growth in the late nineties and had a publishing business in the mid-2000s, but I sold that and travelled quite extensively.
I was in Bolivia and got severe altitude sickness at the top of the Andes and got kind of abandoned half-way across a trek from Bolivia to Chile. I managed to get help and six people carried me to hospital. Apparently I was within an hour of dying and was in hospital for a couple of weeks. It took me a long time to recover.
A couple of years later I was in Thailand and I got something called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which is like a temporary paralysis. I was flat lining while on a boat across the Gulf of Thailand whilst trying to get to an emergency centre. Things were sort of shutting down and they had to fly me via an emergency aircraft to Bangkok, where I was put in intensive care.
It was quite a traumatic experience but it made me evaluate a couple of things in terms of what is important.
So how did this lead to setting up a pet care business?
During my recovery I had been bought a screenwriting course and quite enjoyed writing - I wrote a couple of feature films - but I wanted to find somewhere aesthetically pleasing to write from. I'd heard of pet sitting, thought it sounded interesting and found a place in Galicia in Spain.
It was a beautiful home and I was looking after the owner's pets including a dog called Dave, who I got very close to.
The place was owned by a couple who have business interests around the world and they said that pet care was a very common issue.
I'd always been looking for a scalable business idea that solves a common problem. But also, I wanted something that was rewarding. I didn't just want to go and set up the next Wonga, I wanted something that genuinely helps people and this felt like a real win-win.
How has the business grown?
I felt that there was a need to get a lot of insight into the market and feel very strongly that is important for the business to understand the psychology and nuances of pet owners' and travellers' needs.
So I sold my car and travelled around the world with my co-founder Rachel (whom I married last year) pet sitting and getting first hand experience. We were talking to people, asking them about what they look for.
That gave us a really solid foundation to be able to build a much more robust value proposition than anything else that was being offered.
We were based from home until five years ago. We got our first employee in 2013, then we moved into our first office a year after that. We're now moving into our fifth premises in the same number of years. We've grown substantially and have a team of about 50 people.
The business has been pretty much self-funded. We did a very small sort of ‘friends and family round’, but this was just for £180,000. Referrals are really how we have managed to scale the business.
The secret sauce is the fact that because no money changes hands between parties it creates a more friendship-based arrangement (between sitter and host) rather than a sort of hired help contractual relationship.
Therefore that creates more trust and because there is better trust that creates better reputation, and because there is better reputation that creates better referrals.
Does this actually work? Why would people not just use Airbnb for example?
It's different to the classic, Airbnb, Uberesque model of pay for each time that you get a sitter and taking 15% off the top.
It's not just about the money, it is what works best for pet owners and sitters. Because our members are saving hundreds of pounds on pet care we don't really see ourselves as working in competition with accommodation providers.
We are making travel a lot more seamless because it is taking away the friction of going away. For a lot of people, they'll browse the internet and look at where they want to go away, but then they'll remember, 'oh yeah what are we going to do with the dog?', so it restricts the amount of travel. But this makes it a much more accessible thing.
People that come to us grasp the 'why' quite a bit more. It generally attracts an older audience but it is not exclusive to them. It often comes down to values.
I kind of liken the interest that people have in pets to football. Two people can support the same team and they can be from very different walks of life, but they can find a common ground and mutual interest. It cuts down those preconceptions of other people so it's a shared value.
It's quite a risky business model, based on strangers going into strangers' homes. Have you ever had any problems with that?
We do have a three part verification process with an industry leading company called Onfido. It's the usual sort of background checks that you'd expect. It just gives added piece of mind to members.
But no we don't get big problems because the dynamic is so that it self regulates. Because people are paying to be on the site and they're sitting for free it negates the kind of issues that might occur in a transactional scenario.
What does the future hold?
There's a lot of potential and when you consider that we're self-funded there's a lot of things we can do to attract a large global audience, because people have the same concerns and values about when they go away and animal welfare.
Pet services is a multi-billion dollar industry and so is the travel market, which quite neatly puts the two together. Broadly speaking, half of the western world own a pet, and we know that 50% of those people struggle to travel as much as they would like to. So there's a big opportunity for people to find pet care.
It's becoming more commonplace I think to have people stay at your home. Certainly pets are happier with that. People have the same needs no matter where they are.
What about Brexit? Are you worried this will impact you?
We're not matching people, so there's not really the kind of cross-border restrictions that might be affected by Brexit or whatever.
I think it's exactly the same as travel really, where some people either want to go abroad or have a staycation. The main reason a lot of people want to sit is because they want to care for animals. If you're a retired couple you don't need to go and find swaying palm trees in Vanuatu or St Kitts - it might be that you just want to go look after a nice dog in Dorset.
We all know that the most expensive bit of a trip is accommodation, but you know you can have a nice break and look after a cute dog - so it works very well from that kind of perspective.
Image credits: TrustedHousesitters